Conservation Ecology: Citizen Science Project [Public Outreach]

This entry discusses the public outreach and user experience aspects of citizen science through ebird.org.

First, I want to talk about my experience using the mobile all. To sum it up: the user interface on the eBird app is pretty cool. I like how specific I can be with my location, time of day, duration, and other details (custom notes) that I can include about my outings bird watching. I also like that when there is something unusual reported that the app forces you to include a note or verify the species count, etc. instead of just taking the data at face value. For instance, on one of my outings, I observed an unusually high number of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), but before my checklist was accepted, the app forced me to “explain” what I saw because the count was “flagged” internally somehow. Anyone who might review my data in the future would be interested to know if what I saw was an accidental over-reporting or if I really did see as many as I was claiming to. In general, using the mobile app is pretty easy, you just move through the checklist of what you would probably find in your area and then select the number of birds observed.

My only negative critique of the app is that it was somewhat cumbersome to use on the trail–it wasn’t a very quick process to mark which species I was seeing–and thus, I was spending a lot of time staring into my phone when I really wanted to be looking around and working to make positive ID’s. (Over time, I gave up trying to update the checklist as I saw species and opted to just tally up what I saw and used the shorthand 4-letter bird codes while I was hiking. When we completed the hike, I transferred the information into the checklist.)

In terms of public outreach, this project could make some improvements on how it reaches out to potential users and participants. I found the project via the Audubon website; but it was only mentioned in an article about a woman who had completed A BUNCH of checklists recently, and her experiences as a citizen scientist. While eBird does partner with conservation groups all over the world, it would be really cool to turn on the radio or TV and hear about citizen science in the local community. I’ve seen signs in Christiansburg that read “bird sanctuary.”

In general, I think this project has a positive impact on conservation because of the sheer quantity of data that is generated daily from users. At the end of each day, there is fresh data about species abundance and distributions that can help to immediately inform researchers and curious citizen scientists. eBird gives away prizes (i.e. binoculars), study/educational materials (i.e. how to ID birds by sound), and other goodies to users. This is really cool; you could be the one in 25,000+ who receives a perk for participating. Granted, the odds are slim of winning, but that you could win is really neat. It indicates a certain level of appreciation and engagement that I find extremely attractive about this citizen science project–users have an opportunity to win a prize or be featured in a story on their website if their checklists are chosen. This is really cool. Could it be improved? Certainly; but I think they’re off to a good start. If they were going to improve their outreach and engagement, they might do more prizes/features, picking the winners from flyways, for instance, or from regions or states.

I think ultimately, their goal is to create a rich body of information for scientific research. At the same time, their user-centric focus leads me to believe that they are interested in the people who are participating as the human-element is almost as interesting as the bird-part to me. Reading some of the feature stories about the project’s users tells stories of normal folks with a passion for birding–this makes the whole project more relate-able because I see myself in the stories told by these featured users–and that’s cool!

If I were in charge of eBird, I would probably hire more people to help with the communication of the data generated by the users. It would be interesting to see more info-graphics and interactive maps. These could be social-media-friendly, where people could share them to their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc in formats that are easy to read on tablets and mobile devices. In this way, they could expand the outreach and education aspects of the citizen science mission and would likely create more interest and participation because more people would be hearing about the project on these familiar digital platforms. I, for instance, LOVE birding and have been bird watching without checklists for years now. If I had known that eBird was a thing, I would probably already be a seasoned participant instead of the fresh newbie that I currently am.

In short, eBird is a really cool project that is gaining some serious traction in the citizen science domain. It’s easy, fun, and allows users to be a part of a global conservation effort. This is no small feat! Even after the semester is over, I will still be using this app. I think it is so cool that I can couple my favorite hobby with some real purpose. Instead of the birding being a personal activity for me, I can report what I see and contribute to science–and that’s awesome!

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