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Submission: Citizen science projects can reveal current state of ecosystem

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Nov. 17, 2016 8:49 p.m.

The impact of the national election on nature looks grim. Environmental protections will be among the first regulations to be rolled back by the new administration. Forests will be cut down, public lands will be slashed open to speed fossil fuel extraction and endangered species will be stranded. The Environmental Protection Agency itself could be gutted, further exposing disadvantaged communities located near industry to negative health effects. Even as climate change bounds faster than many worse case scenarios have predicted, agreements to stem it will be withdrawn.

But our fate as students and educators is not merely to be helpless onlookers while nature tanks. The productive response for us now involves the very thing that bamboozled many this week: data and storytelling. Biodiversity data, including observations collected by ordinary people using smartphones, is concrete and verifiable. When it is collected with the right tools, biodiversity occurrence data is not susceptible to wishful or biased interpretations. What you see is what you get.

With biodiversity data, we can create pictures of where nature is doing well and where it needs help. Local efforts in collecting data are critical to understanding regional and even global situations. And today, technology provides us with the capacity to scale local observation to global significance by way of the smartphone.

One example is a citizen science project of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. ButterflySCAN invites participants to photograph butterflies in local parks and backyards – anywhere you happen to see a butterfly. If hundreds, or even thousands, of people do this, a picture starts to emerge of where butterflies are tarrying and when, in the entire Los Angeles metropolis. This is important information, since it helps pinpoint where we can enrich local landscapes with more native plants, which attracts more native butterflies. In general, if you build it, they will come. But there’s even more. Data uploaded to ButterflySCAN is vetted and passed on to a continental database of butterfly occurrences, eButterfly. The map of how butterflies are doing in Los Angeles now becomes part of a bigger map of how they are doing in the entire United States and beyond.

Citizen science projects like ButterflySCAN and eButterfly are much more than their charming monikers imply. Butterflies and moths are not just pretty flutterers. They are critical pollinators and help support the plant life at the base of the food chain, which we all depend on. They are also an important food source for birds, which by migrating over vast distances and participating in the food web themselves, help knit together global ecological health. As John Muir famously opined, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Citizen science is a major focus of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation, and the UCLA community is welcome and encouraged to get involved. Among the projects underway, citizens and researchers are documenting backyard reptiles to determine which species are persisting best in urban spaces. Regular folks are helping discern a cryptic disease relationship between terrestrial and aquatic animals – you can help by simply making wildlife sightings. And a simple vial of sea water collected by you can actually help researchers using eDNA analysis figure out exactly what species are tarrying beneath the waves in protected coastal areas.

Even as citizen science projects proliferate, we need to do more than collect data to save nature. We need to use the data to discern patterns not just for scientists, but for local communities to help see what is really going on with the nature they are immersed in. UCLA’s new Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies is an experimental base for new kinds of storytelling that integrate real world data. Check it out. With smartphone technology and by way of local projects with global connection, we can co-create stories that reveal rather than distort the truth. And we’ll have the data to prove it.

Mary Ellen Hannibal is a UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation featured speaker and the author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.

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