By Namrata Sengupta
Ellie Perry has been involved with the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency (UR) Program since June 2014, as the Los Angeles area Program Consultant. She assisted with the Operation Resilient Trees project. Ellie recruited and led citizen scientists into the field as well as trained them to collect data independently, during these past years. As we are wrapping up the Operation Resilient Trees project to get ready for our new program Operation Healthy Air, we decided to catch up with Ellie and let her share some of her experiences in leading citizen science initiatives.
Q1. What has been the most exciting part of being associated with the UR program?
I think most of the excitement came with trying to build a citizen science program almost entirely from scratch in an area where the organization (leading it) didn’t have much of a local presence to start. Since there were so many directions the program could go, it was an exciting process to build it from the ground up, try out different engagement models, and figure out what ultimately would stick and resonate with people in the region.
Q2. Which aspect of the program motivated you the most?
I was mostly motivated by the citizen scientists themselves, and how committed they were to contributing and volunteering their time. During my tenure, hundreds of people dedicated hours and hours to collect data for this project, not to mention the many educators who led entire classrooms semester after semester in collecting data in the field. To freely volunteer that much time and put in that much effort when the final policy impacts from their work are still years off, takes serious dedication and foresight. Citizen science isn’t as immediately gratifying as something like volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a beach clean-up, or working at an animal shelter, and a lot of potential volunteers get turned off by the fact that it may take months or years for their efforts to result in something tangible they can immediately see. The fact that these volunteers decided to serve as citizen scientists fully understanding that is admirable.
Q3. What were some of the challenges you experienced while working with this program?
One of the current problems in citizen science as a whole is the general suspicion that volunteers will never be able to collect data as efficiently as a scientist. Even though many of these measurements are relatively easy to take, there was constant scrutiny and pressure on the effectiveness of the training, the quality of the data, the competency of the volunteers, etc. especially since there was no previous benchmark to compare with.
Q4. Can you share one or two of your favorite experiences from the program?
Reverting to the issue of citizen scientist-collected data being scrutinized harder than that collected by scientists, it was incredibly satisfying to hear the results of the recent quality control study the lab/Earthwatch performed on the data. There’s a recent blog post covering the full results, but they mostly found that the data the citizen scientists were bringing in was well within 95%+ accuracy of the data collected by themselves (which statistically is no difference at all). It gave a lot of confidence to the researchers and Earthwatch, and it was a real affirmation that the training we were providing to the citizen scientists was effective.
Q5. What message would you like to give to the larger community interested in getting involved in citizen science projects and initiatives?
I would say it’s important to be patient if you’re going to get involved with citizen science. As I mentioned previously, it’s a very slow walk from data to results to policy impacts, not a sprint. Bridging the communication gap between science and the public is an incredibly rare skill, and it’s not very common to find leaders who can speak to both sides of the table equally well. Being patient while the kinks that will ultimately arise as a result get worked out is important if you want to stay involved for the long haul.