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Cal Academy's Dr. Rebecca Johnson Talks Bay Area Citizen Science

Can taking a picture of a starfish help save the planet?

Dr. Rebecca Johnson would argue it can. She and Alison Young are the co-coordinators of California Academy of Sciences’ Citizen Science program, and they're mobilizing ordinary citizens in and outside San Francisco to help document biodiversity. The data they collect helps scientists answer important questions about the natural world and lends data to issues like climate change and conservation.

Since Cal Academy's program began in its current form in 2012, over a thousand laypeople have collaborated with Academy scientists. Joining them is as easy as downloading a smartphone app and snapping a photo of a plant or animal.

These photos help create a picture of biodiversity wherever they're taken and can also contribute to specific projects.

If you frequent Golden Gate Park, you can help document the Birds of Golden Gate Park. Haight dweller? You can help out the Buena Vista Park Biodiversity project. And anyone in the city can add their observations to the San Francisco Biodiversity project.

In the years that Cal Academy's program has been growing, technology-assisted citizen science has also been on the rise globally. Biodiversity scientists use it to track changes related to climate change. A radiochemist used it to detect radioactive contamination from the Fukushima accident. Conservationists use it to devise strategies to save species like tigersbats, and redwoods

Johnson was invited to give a talk at Inner Sunset neighborhood group SHARP's headquarters in October, shortly after the White House hosted a forum on citizen science. A native Californian, Johnson has her Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and started working at the Academy as an undergraduate intern studying nudibranches, a brightly colored sea slug. After graduating, she wanted to unite her research background with her field work and experience teaching tide pool biology. Her goal: “To help connect people to nature more and get the data we need to save and conserve species in California.”

The fundamental question biodiversity scientists need our help answering is, “Where are the species?”

“It seems like a kind of easy question, right?,” Johnson told us. “We should know where things are, but we really don’t. We don’t have a really solid understanding of the distribution of all plants and animals.”

That’s where citizen scientists come in. Through an app called iNaturalist, anyone with a smartphone can photograph plants and animals while they’re hiking, on their way to school or work, or in their backyard, and upload them to the app. The photos are sent to a global database where scientists can access them and use them to answer research questions and better respond to changes in the natural world.

The Academy also co-sponsors “bioblitzes,” one-day meetups where citizens join Academy scientists to document as many plants and animals as they can in a designated area, using the iNaturalist app.

Photo: Rebecca Johnson

As old as science itself

Although modern technology is enabling a new crop of amateurs to contribute to science, citizen science is as old as science itself.

“For as long as science has existed, amateurs have contributed to science,” Johnson said. “In fact, most original scientists weren’t paid to do science. The Academy was founded in 1853 in San Francisco by people who weren’t paid to be scientists. They were citizen scientists. They were medical doctors and businessmen— the founders were all men— and what they had was an interest in natural history and the natural world in California and in sharing that information.”

Since then, the practice of science has shifted. “I think over time, probably in the last 160 years in the U.S. at least, there was a definite movement to professionalize science. Then people that study science became more and more specialized.”

One of the motivations for citizen science, in addition to collecting useful data, Johnson explained, is to engage the public more in the scientific process. “I think now there’s a big push within the scientific community to communicate our science better to the public. One of the ways to do that is to involve the public in science.”

Photo: Alison Young (Courtesy of Rebecca Johnson)

Those efforts have reaped tangible benefits. In 2011, gamers solved a puzzle in three weeks that had been stumping scientists for a decade. Using an online game called Foldit, they figured out the structure of an enzyme that was key to reproducing the AIDS virus, which allowed researchers to develop targeted drugs to neutralize it.

Galaxy Zoo is a well-known crowd-sourced astronomy project that spawned the Zooniverse, a large citizen science platform spanning numerous scientific fields. Since 2007, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have helped classify a million galaxies, forming the basis of dozens of publications, and some have even discovered new astronomical objects. An object named “Hanny’s Voorwerp,” (object) was discovered in 2007 by Dutch schoolteacher Hanny Van Arkel.

The sheer number of eyes is key, but Johnson said novices can also bring valuable perspectives. For example, they might be more willing to break rules or think slightly differently than experts. "Sometimes people get jaded or they’re looking for a certain thing, so they might not notice something else, but someone who has new eyes might ask really good or different questions that lead to new discoveries.”

Social media posts have also led— sometimes inadvertently— to scientific discoveries. “I’ve heard about people discovering a new species of plant via pictures on Facebook or Twitter,” said Johnson. “Someone just posted it, and scientists said, ‘Wait a second. Where did you find this? This is new.’ We try to say, ‘Hey, you can also post that on iNaturalist, and it’s saved forever.’”

Citizen science as community

The Academy uses iNaturalist to log all their citizen scientist observations and crowd-source species identifications. The app was created in 2008 as a Master’s project by three students at UC Berkeley’s School of Information: Nate Agrin, Jessica Kline, and Ken-ichi Ueda. In 2014 Cal Academy acquired the app, and Ueda continues to work as its co-director along with Dr. Scott Loarie. To date over 140,000 people have signed up and logged over 2 million observations.

Users can download the app for free, then upload photos of plants and animals from their smartphones. Metadata about each photo's location and date gets automatically transferred to the database. The community helps identify the species, and once enough members agree, the observation is marked research grade and transferred to a global biodiversity database from which scientists can access it.

Participants can also join specific projects, like “Birds of Golden Gate Park,” and help answer specific research questions. iNaturalist's website lets users view plant and animal distribution maps, learn more about individual species via embedded Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Life pages, help make identifications, and follow other community members.


The Academy also fosters an in-person community through their bioblitzes. Started by a group of tech-savvy environmentalists called Nerds for Nature, bioblitzes give amateur scientists the opportunity to work side by side with professionals and one another to conduct intensive surveys of specific areas.

The events sometimes unite people who might not otherwise cross paths. At one bioblitz in McLaren Park, Nerds for Nature partnered with a group of park advocates called Save McLaren Park, many of whom had lived near the park for 30 years. "You build this really interesting community of folks that are multi-generational with different sets of expertise, and you learn from each other,” said Johnson. "In our city where it’s easy to interact with people like yourself, this is a really nice way to come together."

Bay Area projects

Cal Academy currently runs several ongoing citizen science projects in the Bay Area that are helping develop a better picture of the region’s diverse natural population.

Through the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed Biodiversity Survey, volunteers are helping document every plant and animal species in the Marin Municipal Water Disctrict’s 18,000-plus acres and gather specimens for the museum’s herbarium. Scientists can use this collection at any point for research, and the physical specimens provide additional uses, like the ability to sequence plant DNA.

The data gathered also provides MMWD land managers with a baseline from which to track changes in species, protect endangered plants and animals, and remove invasive species. “Because they have all these volunteers and this engaged group of people, they can learn more about a wide area than they could with their awesome but small staff,” Johnson said.

Photo: Rebecca Johnson

At Pillar Point reef on the San Mateo coast, volunteers are helping to establish a baseline of species that scientists can compare with the adjacent Montara State Marine Reserve. The intertidal area was intentionally excluded from the reserve as a control site, but prior to Cal Academy’s project, few monitoring programs existed.

One of the questions scientists are interested in using this data to answer is how marine populations are moving north with climate change. They've already begun seeing new species that were previously uncommon to the area. "We, with our volunteers, started noticing one species of nudibranches,” the bright sea slug, “that’s usually kind of rare in Northern California. All of a sudden last winter it started to become really common , and it’s still really common, so it’s sustained," Johnson said. "We’re some of the first people to start documenting that— mostly our volunteers.”

In San Francisco, over 1,400 people have made over 28,000 observations on iNaturalist, documenting more than 2,000 species as part of the San Francisco Biodiversity project.

Early next year the Academy is taking these observations a step further. With a grant from the Seed Fund, they’ll meet with other biodiversity scientists and the city's land managers— SF Rec and Park, the Department of the Environment, and the Public Utilities Commission—  to think up three or four questions that San Franciscans can help answer. “We have all these folks we can get to use iNaturalist and make observations. What really important questions can we answer for the folks who are responsible for managing the land and for science?"

On a broader scale, the Academy is formulating a few statewide initiatives to document California's biodiversity. One effort will mobilize people to make more observations along the state’s beaches. “We’ve seen these big die-off of sea lions and some sea birds, so if we had more data, we might be able to predict things a little better and have a better response."

Photo: Liam O'Brien (Courtesy of Rebecca Johnson)

Can it help save the planet?

As climate change continues and more die-offs occur, the work of biodiversity scientists and their citizen collaborators becomes both more pressing and more daunting.

Discussing the challenges of her work, Johnson said that with climate change already here, and grim scenarios flooding the news, it can sometimes be hard to feel like anything you do makes a difference.

One of the things she likes about her work, however, is that it empowers people to take action. "It’s actually something you can do that really can make a difference."

“Sometimes it’s hard to make the connection, like how does this picture of a starfish really save the world? So that can be a challenge. Even though it really does.”

For more information about Cal Academy’s Citizen Science program, visit their website or email citizenscience [at] calacademy [dot] org. If you’d like to start documenting your own observations, you can download the iNaturalist app through Google Play or the Apple app store.  

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