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The aam scientist
Housewives, schoolchildren, writers, techies. An army of 'citizen scientists' is helping gather data for scientific studies that track long-term changes in the environment.
It was a still and humid night. The sea was calm and the boat full of men armed with cameras, notebooks and binoculars. For an average young man, camping overnight in a small boat 50 kilometres from the shore, all for the sake of spotting a few birds, might not quite be the ideal night out. But this is how 26-yearold software engineer Anush Shetty and his associates spend their weekends. For the past year, they have been venturing out in small ferries to spot and keep a count of pelagic (living in open oceans and seas) birds.
Unknown to most, a small army of eco-warriors is slowly building up. They can be spotted skulking behind trees, stalking small animals in jungles, wading briskly through marshes, staking out the coast, hiking up a mountain or exploring an agricultural field. Observing the world around them and scribbling furiously in a notebook, this growing tribe of citizen scientists is contributing its indispensable bit to scientific studies and surveys which map long-term trends and changes in the natural world.
Historically and internationally, the contribution of amateur naturalists has been significant and often pioneering. "Amateurs have played a very important role in laying the foundations of and building Indian natural history, " says Kumaran Sathasivam, member of the Madras Naturalists' Society and founder of the Marine Mammal Conservation Network of India. "This role has been particularly significant from the colonial period onwards. " Most of the contributions from that era, though, were by Europeans like F C Fraser who wrote The Fauna of British India: Odonata and Hugh Whistler who wrote The Popular Handbook of Indian Birds, which did much to popularise bird watching.
THE NEW DETECTIVES
In India, the role of novice enthusiasts is increasing thanks to the internet and heightened environmental awareness.
MigrantWatch (www. migrantwatch. in), a project run by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, has over 1, 300 participants, and the number continues to grow by two to five per week. The project has participants from all over the country who sight, track and keep count of the millions of birds that migrate to India in the winter. This data collected over the years will be analysed to find variances in patterns due to climate change.
"Changes in the natural world affect all of us, so we thought why not involve everyone who's interested, " says Suhel Quader, research fellow, NCBS, who, along with a few others, spearheaded the projects. "Birdwatchers are relatively well organised, both online and offline, so we decided to start with a project on birds and, in particular, on one of the most awe-inspiring phenomena: migration. The timing of bird migration is known to be changing in Europe and North America, but there is an information gap from India, " he adds.
MigrantWatch is also running another associated project on pied cuckoos, which, according to folklore, herald the onset of the monsoon every year. The campaign aims to discover more about the migration of this species by collecting data on its arrival across India and comparing this with the corresponding arrival of the monsoon in these areas.
After launching MigrantWatch, NCBS initiated another citizen volunteer network called SeasonWatch (www. seasonwatch. in), which asks contributors to observe the flowering, fruiting and leaf flush of trees around them in order to track long-term changes. N S Prashanth, a PhD candidate in public health, who is also an active participant, points out, "Any student can look for climate change or tree patterns. Scientists don't need to commission expensive studies everytime they need such data. "
SeasonWatch, run in association with Wipro's Applying Thought in Schools programme, is currently being actively promoted only in schools in Kerala, but will soon expand to the rest of the country and to any participant. Currently, over 300 trees are being monitored in Kerala, the number increasing by around 15 to 20 trees per week. All the participants contribute online, though an offline option is available too.
Quader explains the need for citizen participation. "Both these projects are motivated by the fact that the natural world is changing extremely rapidly, more rapidly than we have been tracking and understanding, " he says. "Ordinary citizens can contribute to the public good in many different ways like giving money. But by volunteering, people can contribute to an understanding of the natural world. And in doing so, volunteers also begin to be more aware of their surroundings and how they are changing. "
SCORING ON SPECIES
While birds are appealing and look pretty in photographs, bats, considered the harbinger of everything evil and dark, aren't quite as palatable. Nevertheless, Sanjay Molur received a good response to another citizen programme called Pterocount, to monitor bat roosts and population in South Asia. Anecdotal evidence of the decline in the population but no scientific proof drove Molur, executive director, Zoo Outreach, a South Asian conservation research and education organisation, to initiate the project.
"We have huge areas to cover and it is very difficult to observe population trends, so we decided to use volunteers, " says Molur. "We have had good success because even students from high school have participated. It is important that people recognise the potential of citizens as scientists. It is all in the perception. It is a form of reaching out, involving them, inculcating the interest a citizen should have. Unless you use them, they don't have a responsibility or stake in science. " Pterocount now has over 200 participants from all over South Asia including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Correspondents report from over 60 locations, and 150 bat roosts, all through word of mouth and their newsletter.
Such studies are widening in scope as well. Anush Shetty, who is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, conducted a short-term survey on jackal populations and asked people if they had seen jackals in urban areas in recent years, how many times, or if the habitat had changed. "It worked out really well, " he says. "We had 500 sighting reports from across the country. Jackals have been disappearing quietly and at a rate much scarier than tigers disappearing. " The mobilisation of volunteers was done primarily through Facebook and word of mouth.
COOKED UP DATA?
While some scientists promote the use of such previously unused resources, others don't take it seriously and maintain that the quality of data collected by amateurs could be suspect. Quader counters that. "There are two possible problems with any data collection, whether by professional scientists or amateurs, and these are dishonesty and error, " he says. "There is no reason to believe that volunteers are any more dishonest than scientists might be. I know many amateurs who are more careful and meticulous than some scientists are. " The NCBS projects are designed to minimise potential error - for instance, participants are not asked to count birds or flowers, as there can be errors in counting. Overall, Quader relies on the volume of data to give an accurate overall pattern even if there are occasional errors here and there. Gopi Sundar, research associate (India), International Crane Foundation and a Sarus Crane expert, says of Quader's projects, "Volunteers are requested to send information from the same site each year, which can help control a lot of variability between sites. " Molur, on the other hand, scrutinises data sets, and in case of doubtful data, he cross-verifies. "We do take dubious data into consideration. We know of instances where people have cooked up data. The locations were near us and so we counter-checked. Anything out of the ordinary has to be scrutinised but we can't tell all the time. You can make out when you see the data, but 90 per cent is genuine, " explains Molur, whose fundamental argument is that getting some data is better than nothing at all.
No story on citizen scientists would be complete without a special mention of Kerala, which has been much ahead of the game. Praveen J, a software engineer with Trident Microsystems, has been participating in such projects ever since he can remember. The Kerala bird survey, powered solely by the patience and dedication of citizen scientists, started in the early 1990s. "The data between 1997 and 2007 clearly shows how population has changed in 20 years for forest birds. A summary article about this was published in Current Science. We don't have enough scientists at the ground level. We can do it in India because it is proven, and people in Kerala have proved it, " asserts Praveen.
THE INFORMATION GAP
The need for such science soldiers is even more acute in India, as such information is not forthcoming from the government. Prashanth had filed an RTI with the Zoological Survey of India for a list of bird specimens in its collection along with species, the date of collection and place, to which ZSI said that the records were too tattered to provide the information. "The question is how have we, as a country, catalogued our flora and fauna? After all the work by British naturalists, post-1947 it's a bureaucratic black hole. We do not have most data useful to the public in a friendly form, " says Prashanth.
Similarly and sadly, L Shyamal, a statistician by profession, wrote to another institution for a list of the birds specimens in its collection with species, date and locations but to no avail. "Then I was working on the BirdSpot database which is open source software for collating bird species records and free for download, " he says. "It is interesting that anyone can get such data from many museums across the world or it is already online. One does not have to beg anyone for it. "
The power and role of the web in getting people, from homemakers to students and techies to writers, to pore over the finer nuances of Nature is undeniable. But while getting people the first time is the easiest, sustaining their interest over the years for long-term studies, scientists agree, is the hardest and the most crucial. But the pain and untiring evangelism is worth it as Molur says: "It may be small, it may be trivial, and not so intuitive to a lot of people. But information gathered by people tells a much better story. "
(With inputs from Shalini Umachandran)
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