Bird watching gets tech-savvy
Scientific research has long been seen as the domain of academics. But as more scientists use mobile phone technology to reach out to ordinary folk for assistance in collecting data, it seems the domain is becoming less exclusive. Miran Hosny reports.
When University of Queensland researchers announced a project this month that relies on iPhone and other GPS enabled smart phone users to track the endangered and vulnerable Queensland Cassowary bird, the question beckoned: will ‘citizen journalists’ now be joined by ‘citizen scientists’?
Head researcher of the cassowary tracking project, Dr Hamish Campbell, says Australians are very keen to protect wildlife and take part in conservation efforts. The mobile phone technology used in his research makes the interaction between the public and his lab possible.
“It’s a way of getting people to collect data,” the University of Queensland senior research officer says of the project.
“What we’re really trying to promote in our labs is to integrate science with the public for the benefit of nature conservation.”
Researcher in cognitive psychology and mental health at the University of Canberra, Dr Janie Busby-Grant, says that in a field where interaction with people is essential, mobile phones are just another research tool to effectively sample behaviours in the real world.
Dr Busby-Grant collects data from the subject group of her Ambulatory Assessments research project via text messages.
“[Mobile phone technology] allows us to get information about people while they go about their everyday lives, without their coming in to a lab,” she says.
“This is a new tool and it changes the type of information we gather. There are more platforms that researchers can use.”
But how is accuracy ensured when people outside the academic field are involved in scientific research?
In Dr Campbell’s conservation project, where members of the public who sight cassowary birds upload the exact location using the GPS function on their phone as well as an image onto a specified website, methods were used to ensure the data is trustworthy.
“There are a number of steps in the data transfer process. We tried to take out all the steps and so remove errors in the data that comes through,” he says.
“We can trust this data.”
But Dr Will Rifkin, Director of the Science Communication program at the University of New South Wales says that scientists are often reluctant to use data gathered by non academics.
“There is that issue of trust in the veracity of the research- how can I, as a scientist, trust people I don’t know sending me data? How can I be accountable for that?”
Dr Will Grant from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University says scientists should exercise some caution when using public-gathered data.
“I’d be careful about calling that academic research,” he says.
“We all want to find things quickly but that’s certainly different to finding out things in a more detailed way.”
Dr Rifkin however, thinks that the suspicion is a beneficial factor.
“Scepticism about science where data is gathered by laypeople is good for science, because it attracts the attention of laypeople and gives scientists practice in communication to the public. It creates something for the two parties to talk about,” he says.
And the researchers agree. Trust issues aside, the involvement of ordinary people in scientific research is a useful phenomena that they all predict will remain, and will be helped along with the development of more technologies.
“The crowd-sourcing… I think that’s tremendously powerful,” says Dr Will Grant.
“I think we’ll see more and more involvement of the public in discovering and critiquing research. An example is Wikipedia, where there is collective gathering of information. I think we will be seeing a lot more of this in future.”