Establishing a Citizen Science Community of Practice within NOAA

Editor’s note: Below, please find a guest blog post by John McLaughlin and Sepp Haukebo of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Education. For more information about the NOAA Citizen Science Community of Practice, please visit their web page.

As a science mission agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a rich tradition of supporting citizen science. For instance, the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program (COOP) was created under the Organic Act in 1890. However, the program’s website further explains that “many COOP stations began operation long before that time. John Campanius Holm’s weather records, taken without the benefit of instruments in 1644-45, were the earliest known observations in the United States. Subsequently many persons, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, maintained weather records.”

This transition persists today in the form of citizen science, tentatively designed as a type of organized research in which members of the public engage in the process of scientific investigations. There are currently more than 60 active citizen science projects at NOAA, many of which began within the past few years. The focus areas of these projects reflect the diversity of science conducted across NOAA including, but not limited to: climate, weather, fisheries, changing coastlines, marine invertebrates, marine mammals, and even harmful algal blooms.

OldWeatherIn Old Weather, NOAA partners with Zooniverse to utilize online tools that allow participants to view and transcribe weather observations made on ships since the mid-19th century.

 These projects are important tools that help NOAA achieve its mission of Science, Service, and Stewardship. NOAA values the opportunities provided by working with citizen scientists and, hopefully, citizen scientists value the work they provide for NOAA. Growing up, who didn’t want to be an oceanographer or meteorologist? Increasing support for citizen science is also called out in the NOAA Education Strategic Plan, which contains a specific strategy to “Collaborate with citizen-science networks to support their participation in the scientific process.”

 New and emerging technologies help expand the possibilities of what the agency can do with citizen science and provide the basis for many of the new projects. The Old Weather-Arctic Project, a partnership with Zooniverse and a number of other organizations, utilizes online tools to allow participants to view and transcribe weather observations made on ships since the mid-19th century. The mPING project and the Marine Debris Tracker are projects that NOAA partners on that utilize phone apps which allow people to easily report observations of weather and trash in marine environments, respectively.

 While supporting such a diverse and growing set of citizen projects offers many benefits to NOAA, it does present the need for avenues of communication and collaboration among these efforts. To address this need, NOAA launched an internal Citizen Science Community of Practice in the fall of 2013. This community is facilitated by NOAA’s Office of Education and, in the spirit of the citizen science field, relies on grassroots participation from community members throughout the agency.

 The community’s creation was initially informed by a needs assessment survey distributed in the summer of 2013, which asked if such a community of practice would be beneficial to people working in citizen science within NOAA, and if so, what should be the community’s structure and focus. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the formation of the community, and three items were identified as key focal points: a) compiling and sharing best practices, b) sharing resources, and c) creating a searchable database of NOAA’s citizen science projects. Since its formation the community has grown steadily, and now boasts more than 100 active members. A Google collaborative site was selected as the primary communication platform for the community, as Google provides a suite of tools for facilitating user contributions.  This site also meshes with the Google platform in use by NOAA for email accounts and calendars. In addition to the collaborative site, the community plans to communicate via a listserv, quarterly webinars, and periodic focused conversation periods in a discussion forum. A volunteer Steering Committee has been formed to provide guidance on how the Community of Practice can best be supported as it continues to grow and evolve.

 One of the challenges faced by the community is the need to establish a formal definition for citizen science. For the time being, the community is focusing on the type of activities described by Citizen Science Central. The community has been developing an inventory of such projects that NOAA supports and is looking into how this inventory can most effectively be made available to the public in an organized, searchable format. Ideally, this can be accomplished through integration into a broad online clearinghouse of initiatives across the field.

 Many of the challenges that are, or will be, faced by the NOAA Citizen Science Community of Practice will not be solved internally. We feel solutions to such challenges will best be met through work in an open sharing environment, such as inherent in the practice of citizen science itself. Continued collaboration with other agencies and programs working in citizen science will be vital to moving our efforts forward. Therefore, we are excited to be part of the efforts undertaken by the Wilson Center.

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