In this post Claudia Santori answers some questions about her citizen science project, TurtleSAT and citizen science more broadly, as well as her research ‘Changes in participant behaviour and attitudes are associated with knowledge and skills gained by using a turtle conservation citizen science app‘ out now as part of our cross-journal Citizen Science Special Feature.
You can also read the authors’ plain language summary here: Behaviour and attitude changes after using a turtle conservation citizen science app.
Please briefly introduce your study.
TurtleSAT (www.turtlesat.org.au) is a citizen science project based on a smartphone and web-based app. Due to the current freshwater turtle crisis in Australia, this project was created to address large-scale questions related to freshwater turtle ecology and their conservation, such as the number and location of nests or mortality hotspots. Citizen scientists can participate in this project opportunistically across Australia, uploading a sighting whenever they encounter a turtle (dead or alive), or a turtle nest. The TurtleSAT website includes information about the project, about freshwater turtles in Australia and their current decline, details of the three species living in the Murray River (the priority species of the project), and instructions on how to get involved and use the app. Since its launch in 2014, the project has collected several thousand observations, and has been very successful in promoting freshwater turtle conservation, empowering local communities, and increasing peoples’ awareness of turtle issues in Australia. Our study is based on an online survey which we sent out to all participants to TurtleSAT, to ask whether they found that participating in the project lead them to learn more about turtles and their decline, learn more skills, and ultimately to change their attitudes towards turtles and promote turtle-friendly behaviours. The majority of our respondents found TurtleSAT an important source of turtle-related information, alongside outreach events, and many respondents also reported having changed their behaviour, such as helping turtles cross roads. With this survey we have learned a lot about the potential of TurtleSAT to be beneficial not only for us as scientists trying to understand turtle locations and nesting behaviour, but also for its participants – which may be equally as important.
Why did you choose to use citizen science data?
Citizen science can be a very powerful way not only to collect data over large scales and time-frames, but also to engage citizens with different conservation issues. Wildlife conservation is deeply linked to human behaviour, peoples’ awareness of species declines, as well as their attitudes towards different species that need protecting. Therefore, we were very interested in finding out if a citizen science project like TurtleSAT provides any benefits for its participants, and particularly whether those benefits extend to changes that would be valuable for the conservation of the study species.
Would you have been able to do this study without using citizen science?
Other programs such as outreach events and eco-tourism may provide similar experiences and therefore provide similar benefits that are measurable, however a citizen science project like TurtleSAT has unique traits that cannot be found in any other initiative.
In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of citizen science?
The strengths of citizen science are several, both on the side of scientific data collection and the benefits that citizen scientists gain from participating. The work of citizen scientists, both on the ground and online, can be extremely helpful, especially if a project covers a wide study area or its duration is long. Indeed, their work allows the collection of extremely large datasets covering large geographic areas. Moreover, participants improve their skills and gain knowledge of the subject matter. On the other hand, citizen science is often opportunistic and less structured than scientific surveys, and citizen scientists may have less experience in the field compared to professionals, which may increase the likelihood of mistakes in the data. Citizen science data can be harder to analyse because of these issues.
Citizen science data is often criticized for being of lesser quality or untrustworthy. Was this also a concern of yours or did you come across this in your review process?
Yes, we were aware of this as a potential problem in some of our past analyses. However, there are several ways to deal with datasets such as the TurtleSAT ones, both in the project design and statistical analyses, and we were very open about our methodology in our publication. For instance, TurtleSAT invites citizen scientists to upload photos alongside their observations, which allow us scientists on the other side to double-check the accuracy of the observations.
What do you think is needed to move the field of citizen science forward?
I think that more direct communication between scientists and citizen scientists will decrease the gap between professionals and amateurs, which will help with building long-term trust and engagement. Therefore, more outreach events and social media presence will be very useful. Also, I think that reaching people in more remote or diverse communities will be very beneficial in covering more geographical areas and accounting for different perspectives.
When and how did you first become interested in citizen science?
I had a lecture about citizen science during my MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. We discussed its potential to harness the latest technology available in many people’s pockets, as well as a way of involving passionate citizens in various scientific endeavours, whilst empowering them. I liked the concept, and as soon as I started my PhD I got involved in the TurtleSAT, and working as part of this project has been an absolutely fantastic experience.
Have you participated in citizen science projects yourself?
Yes, of course! I have participated in online/opportunistic citizen science projects, such as iNaturalist, as well as in surveying projects like the Sea Slug Census, where we surveyed for nudibranchs and other sea slugs whilst on SCUBA. I really enjoy participating in these projects for fun, as well as a way of contributing to other scientists work, particularly in environments or on wildlife I am very interested in.
What is your favourite citizen science project or what would your ideal citizen science project be?
I think I am biased, but I will have to say TurtleSAT! I think my ideal project, from a citizen scientist perspective, would be one that allows me to get out in the field and experience different local environments and discovering wildlife I was not aware of, or that it gives me the excuse to get out and look for wildlife (which I would do for fun anyway), whilst ultimately contributing to its protection and conservation.