An Eye on Citizen Science

An Eye on Citizen Science
Tamera Alhusseini
Co-National Coordinator, Arab Youth Climate Movement – Bahrain Chapter

Eye on Earth Summit
St. Regis Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE
October 6-8, 2015

The recent Eye on Earth Summit convened on October 6th to 9th, 2015 at the St. Regis Hotel Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. The summit addresses the importance of environmental and societal information and networking. It aims to convene thought and action leaders of the worldwide community, converge consensus on the key areas of mutual importance, and finally collaborate towards strengthening existing initiatives and filling the gaps into the future. The event was held by the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) and the Abu Dhabi Environmental Agency (EAD) in partnership with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

With hundreds of speakers, the topics of discussion were various and vast – everything from data acquisition and accessibility to analysis, visualisation and decision-making. During the plenary sessions, champions of the field such as Professor Jacqueline McGlade (UNEP Chief Scientist), Tim Hirsch (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) and Pierre-Yves Cousteau (founder of Cousteau Divers) took to the main stage and shared their stories and insight in a fashion reminiscent of a TED talk. Meanwhile, in the smaller breakout rooms there were more opportunities for focused discussions and note sharing between the delegates. In one such room, late on the second day of the event, UNEP held a side event entitled ‘Citizen scientists and their role in monitoring local to global environmental change’. It was at this event that, in my capacity as AYCM Bahrain’s Co-National Coordinator, I was given the opportunity to speak about the citizen science movement at the local level.

In the modern age citizen science has become a more valuable source of data than ever before. With smartphones in hand, citizens all of over the world are building vast networks of data– to quote a fellow delegate, we are witnessing an “explosion of citizen science”. iNaturalist, eBird, Biocaching and Project Hermes were just a few of the big name citizen science programs being dropped throughout the summit.

In the Gulf, citizen science is a largely unheard-of concept, but for nearly three years, AYCM Bahrain has been running a modest citizen science program. In its current iteration, the program involves regularly-held open-sessions at the Bahrain Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, during which members of the public are given a brief introduction to citizen science. Subsequently, they are given the opportunity to demo an app called iNaturalist while being led on a guided tour around the agricultural lands surrounding the fort. Participants simply spot a species – plant, animal, bird, anything – snap a picture and upload it to the iNaturalist network. In doing this we hope to enlighten citizens to their surroundings and help them reconnect with nature.

Joining me on the panel was Dr. Rima Jabado, founder of the Gulf Elasmo Project, which works on elasmobranchs (that’s scientific jargon for sharks and rays) research and conservation. The project monitors elasmos in the region using citizen science to help: recreational divers around the region can report sightings and submit photos of elasmos from around the region.

During our allotted time, Rima and I were given the opportunity to elaborate on our respective projects, the role they play in the citizen science movement, how can citizen science can be advanced in the region and what tools can enable this. During the discussions, Rima expressed concerns about keeping contributors involved and motivated while I elaborated on my desire to see science promoted at the educational level (citizen science programs are also great tools to incorporate into a science syllabus). On a separate point, strengthening the flow of information between civil society, scientists, government and policy-makers is crucial for effective application of social and environmental data.

Although the audience was small, it was obvious that quality took precedence over quantity. Both programs received numerous commendations from the audience as well as ideas on how to enhance them. One UCL professor recommended a ‘bioblitz’, an event during which participants heavily survey a designated area for an intense period of time. Tim Hirsch from GBIF pointed out that one way to keep citizens motivated is by demonstrating the fruits of their efforts- indeed Tim was even able to share statistics showing the amount of biodiversity data coming out of Bahrain, including data collected through iNaturalist. With that piece of good news, I left the summit energized and looking forward to exciting times ahead for AYCM Bahrain.

Special thanks to Melanie Hutchinson from UNEP-ROWA for inviting AYCM Bahrain to the summit and for persisting in her efforts to get us there!

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