Using Citizen Science to Advance Environmental Research and Monitoring in Alberta


Using Citizen Science to Advance Environmental Research and Monitoring in Alberta

Tracy Lee, Rachelle Haddock, Danah Duke - 2016

Organization: Environmental Monitoring and Science Division, Alberta Environment and Parks

Location: Alberta, Canada


On June 30, 2016, the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division (EMSD) was created within the Department of Environment and Parks (the Department).  EMSD is led by the Chief Scientist, whose role and delegated responsibility for delivering Alberta’s environmental science program is established under s. 15 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA). One of the core business priorities for EMSD is planning, coordinating and conducting environmental monitoring, which includes the establishment of citizen science and community based monitoring programs. 

This report establishes a foundation for the Chief Scientist and EMSD to understand the state of citizen science in Alberta and beyond, and to demonstrate the value of citizen science in supporting and advancing the development and implementation of an environmental science program.

Citizen science is research and monitoring where volunteers engage with a scientist to answer real questions.  From collecting grizzly bear scat, to listening to amphibian calls, to reporting on groundwater levels, many Albertans are already participating in citizen science. The role of volunteers can be diverse, from citizens contributing field observations, to sorting or classifying images from their home computers, to identifying relevant research questions to address a local issue of concern. In addition, citizen science projects can range in scale from a local conservation challenge (e.g., pollution in a local water body) to global in scope (e.g., tracking monarch butterflies across North America).  

Recently, the White House endorsed US federal agencies to support citizen science and provided three guiding principles:

1.            Citizen science must be held to the same standards as western science. Scientific research projects should follow standard scientific practices in design, implementation, data quality assurance, data management, and evaluation.

2.            Data worth collecting and using are also worth preserving and sharing.  An open source policy means project data, applications, and technologies should strive to be transparent, open, and available to the public.

3.            “Of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Projects should engage the public in ways that maximize both the value volunteers provide to the project and the value volunteers derive from participating.

Citizen science has strong potential to contribute to monitoring the condition of Alberta’s environment while also meaningfully engaging communities in knowledge generation and sharing. McKinley and associates (2015) identified two reasons environmental management agencies invest in citizen science: 1) to enable research and monitoring that might not otherwise be possible because of scale or other practical issues; and 2) to engage volunteers in new knowledge production, scientific learnings, and decision-making relating to the science.  These pathways are not mutually exclusive, but reinforce each other as volunteers participate in a project.  

Citizen science can help generate datasets over large geographic and temporal scales - a limitation for most scientists for practical reasons. Citizen science can help speed up field detection due to large numbers of individuals participating, and it can help with the classification of large datasets. These benefits are exemplified through the discovery of significant scientific results associated with citizen science projects including documenting species range shifts, assessing vulnerable species, anticipating effects on water resources, species management, and disaster and conflict resiliency. 

In addition, the value proposition of citizen science includes the ability of programming to advance societal outcomes including environmental stewardship, community capacity, and environmental justice, and the co-production of knowledge. 

There are limitations to citizen science that need to be considered and understood to ensure volunteers are involved appropriately and programs are designed effectively. Some of the concerns associated with citizen science projects include: the ability of volunteers to collect high quality information, the potential to engage volunteers in the subject matter, the potential for volunteer bias, the program sustainability, and data access and interoperability. Many of these concerns can be addressed through appropriate program design. However, some research and monitoring projects require specialized knowledge, equipment, training, and time commitments that make citizen science unsuitable. Other agencies, such as the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, have developed frameworks to help staff determine when citizen science is an appropriate approach to consider.

here is a strong trend among government agencies and other organizations to incorporate citizen science as a tool to realize science, monitoring, and citizen engagement objectives. Interviews with citizen science practitioners from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Tribal Health Alaska Project LEO provided lessons learned and outlined the role these agencies have played in supporting citizen science programming. Both the EPA and USGS support citizen science programing through small grant opportunities, development of standard protocols, supporting training sessions, auditing programs, calibrating and loaning technical equipment, and development of sharable tools and resources to support programming.  Alaska Tribal Health developed and implemented Project LEO which documents strange phenomena, such as algae blooms, parasites in fish, and strange weather occurrences likely associated with climate change, and encourages the link between local traditional knowledge and traditional science through dialogue exchange and development of shared research questions.  

Monitoring agencies reported that citizen-supported research and monitoring projects have strong, multifaceted societal impacts. The programs increase science literacy, encourage life-long learning, and connect people with the outdoors. Projects realize these impacts while completing high quality research and organizing data for use, and reuse, by future generations. Additional lessons shared by monitoring agencies include the importance of clearly outlining the role of citizen science within the agency mandate, addressing legal/ownership issues at the outset of program development, careful consideration of program goals and desired outcomes in program design, and investment in citizen science through providing support, resources and training to staff and partner organizations. 

In Alberta there were 87 citizen science programs documented through the creation of a citizen science inventory. Sixty-nine of these projects were biodiversity related.  They ranged in scale from local (e.g., Glenbow Ranch citizen science species checklist) to global (e.g., eBird). Fewer than half the documented citizen science programs are national or international in scale, and it was difficult to discern how well utilized many of these programs were in Alberta, or how easy it would be for a provincial monitoring agency to acquire the data. 

A workshop highlighted many of the opportunities and concerns from an environmental monitoring and science staff perspective relating to citizen science. The workshop was attended by 20 participants, including Alberta Environment and Parks staff from a variety of disciplines such as air and water monitoring, community based monitoring, science and modelling, and data management. In addition, representatives from the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute and Nature Alberta were in attendance. 

For citizen science to add value to environmental monitoring efforts in Alberta, a series of recommendations and actions were developed.  The following broad recommendations were derived from a literature review, case study assessment, and staff feedback at the workshop: 

1.            Develop clear agency policy, procedures, and guidance to provide clarity to agency staff and partners.

2.            Invest in citizen science through proper resourcing of staff and building of internal capacity.

3.            Explore coordination within and between provincial government agencies on citizen science programming, and identify opportunities for citizen science to support each other’s mandates and interests.

4.            Develop a citizen science hub to share resources and widely promote citizen science in Alberta.


Document Type: pre-mitigation monitoring guidelines post-mitigation monitoring guidelines
Project Type: public awareness campaigns
Infrastructure Asset:
Fauna: small mammals medium mammals large mammals reptiles amphibians fish/aquatic organisms