Unlocking Africa’s potential for citizen science

Judith Mirembe (NatureUganda) and Michael Pocock (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK) share the outcomes of a recent workshop on the growth of citizen science in East Africa. Discover more details in their recent Policy Direction, free to read in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Citizen science as an approach to environmental science and monitoring is growing in prominence across the world. Citizen science itself  is the involvement of people in the scientific process, especially collecting data, and is particularly valuable in environmental and biological monitoring. The growth of citizen science over the past decade is especially noticeable through the support and advocacy of associations based in Europe, the USA and Australia. However, the visibility and impact of citizen science in the global south is often much smaller, even though it is growing and there are a range of projects running and being developed in these countries.

One of the reasons why citizen science is valuable is because of the two-fold benefits of the outputs and the process: it can enable sustainable and cost-efficient data collection over large areas and long time periods, allowing us to assess progress towards environmental goals and targets, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets. Furthermore, the process of participation in citizen science itself can increase awareness and empower people in positively contributing to environmental management and influencing policy development, acting towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

Workshop attendess - Tropical Biology Association
Participants at the conference on citizen science in East Africa. Credit: Tropical Biology Association

Two years ago (Jun 2016) we ran a conference on citizen science in East Africa (with funding from the British Ecological Society and supported by the Tropical Biology Association and the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology), providing a valuable forum for sharing of ideas and best practice.

We also ran a workshop (the results now published in Journal of Applied Ecology) and, through a collaborative prioritization process with experts in environment and conservation in East Africa, we assessed the potential of citizen science in the region. Monitoring species, habitats and water resources were identified as the top priorities, as these would provide invaluable information on the state of environment and support assessment of natural capital, management of natural resources and conservation. The benefits identified included increased awareness, engaging young people and the provision of data.

However, citizen science is faced with a number of barriers in East Africa, with those at an institution-level considered some of the most important. Such barriers include: organizational capacity, perceived value of data and awareness of opportunities from citizen science, as well as provision of scientifically-rigorous data and access to suitable technology. In order to address these barriers there is need to develop projects that are locally relevant, factoring in the needs of multiple stakeholders – especially the value to potential participants.

We hope that our assessment of citizen science is a useful contribution to the development of citizen science in the region, and beyond. We hope that it will be used to support the development of local innovation and expressions of citizen science that build on, but extend beyond, citizen science elsewhere in the world. In doing this, we look forward to realising more of the potential of citizen science in East Africa – for people, nature and the environment.

Read the full Policy Direction, Developing the global potential of citizen science: Assessing opportunities that benefit people, society and the environment in East Africa for free in Journal of Applied Ecology.


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