BLOG | Putting the Citizen in ‘Citizen Science’: digital technologies in biodiversity conservation

In our latest blog, BIOSEC Doctoral Researcher Laure Joanny examines the impact of technology-mediated ‘citizen science’.

Laure Joanny is a Doctoral Researcher on the BIOSEC project.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Paris Sciences et Lettres University, France and her Masters  at SOAS, University of London. She was awarded a European Research Council PhD Studentship at the University of Sheffield in February 2017 to conduct research on green surveillance technologies. This mini-blog is based on Laure’s MSc dissertation topic which examined the use of digital technologies in biodiversity conservation. 

We are currently witnessing biodiversity losses at an alarming rate, with between 12% and 55% of vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups currently threatened with extinction. Some are even more exposed; for example, 60% of primates species risk dying out. At the same time, it is difficult to accurately estimate the rate of species extinction because there is no stable baseline against which losses can be calculated; new species are constantly emerging and being discovered. Nevertheless, there is consensus that species are being threatened by human activity – notably habitat clearing, climate change and the illegal trade in wildlife – to the point that the planet is facing what some are calling a sixth extinction crisis.

There is expectation that digital technologies will provide the solution to this crisis, simultaneously leading to a deeper knowledge and better protection of the natural world. The last five years have seen the mushrooming of mobile applications and web platforms, which allow a non-specialist public –  so called ‘citizen scientists’ – to contribute to conservation science, environmental monitoring and law enforcement against the illegal wildlife trade, either by sorting images or taking pictures and recording geolocation of certain animals or plant species as they encounter them.

In the UK, the iSpot website allows people to capture their observations, share them and contribute to ecological surveys while the Zooniverse website and InstantWild phone app rely on volunteers to identify animals on camera trap images taken in distant protected areas. Outside the UK, similar projects around the world encourage tourists and local communities to record their sightings of charismatic species or of illegal wildlife products.

The concept of having non-specialists collect scientific data is not new. Indeed, in the United States volunteers have been invited to take part in a nationwide Christmas Bird Count every year since 1900. However, with the introduction of digital platforms comes unprecedented opportunity in terms of data collection, with some asserting that citizen science is becoming the primary source on the distribution of species, a pillar in conservation science.

Digital tools enable collection of much more data, more evenly distributed in time and space. They also make it cheaper and faster to collect and aggregate results. Researchers have also enthusiastically adopted these platforms because they offer the possibility of including step-by-step identification guides or double checking processes – such as descriptive questions to orient the labelling or ensuring the same image is seen several times by different participants – thereby reducing the risk of error.

Last but not least, as shown by reports from United-Nations Environment Programme and the European Commission, many assume that technology-mediated ‘citizen science’ will be an awareness raising tool and a means of empowerment.

But ‘citizen science’ is an umbrella term encompassing very different practices. In some cases, also grouped under the label ‘crowdsourcing’, participants are just sensors asked to take pictures and fill in pre-defined forms. At the other end of the scale, there is the aspiration that stakeholders can choose what data will be collected, have ownership of it, its analysis, and the decisions resulting from it. This is the aim of projects such the University of London’s Extreme Citizen Science, a project that alongside the Mbenjele community, monitors poaching in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Projects like this are promising examples of how community-led data collection has the potential to be be both inclusive and empowering to communities and data collectors; but not all citizen science projects are likely to fulfil this aspiration of wider engagement and participation in decision making.

Whilst the scientific potential of digitally supported citizen science is relatively straightforward, its social value – namely, its success and impact of its outcomes – is ultimately determined by its method of introduction, the context in which it is used and the governance structures within which it operates. The same can be said for other technologies, namely drones and virtual reality, which again are considered to represent a breakthrough in biodiversity conservation and anti-poaching techniques. This is an area which is under-researched, so we need to proceed with caution. There is need for further empirical studies into how these technologies are deployed in specific countries and contexts. Through my PhD, I will examine the use of digital and surveillance technologies which have been adapted for biodiversity conservation; I aim to open up a new theoretical and policy debate on the wider social implications of their use.

If you wish to contact Laure about her research, please email her on