Last year, the spectacle of 80 million people flocking to the fauxgreenery of FarmVille, a social networking game on Facebook, heldparticular irony for environmentalists who have ritually bemoaned lowlevels of public interest in biodiversity. Every traditional method andmedia has been tapped to penetrate this elephantine indifference, fromdocumentaries to dire predictions. Rarely a week goes by without reports on crashing ecosystems or mass extinction, a blizzard of bad newsinspiring little more than hand-wringing.
But in the spirit of joining rather than beating, conservationists havebegun embracing the enemy, the very force that alienated people fromnature in the first place: technology.
Social media have become the latest, hottest tools in natural historycircles as scientists confront a populace that knows laptops better than landscapes. In the quest to give communities a grasp on complexecological systems — particularly as they face decisions imposed byclimate change — social networking promises to link scientists with thepublic, empowering naturalist armies to act on their behalf: monitoringspecies, observing behavioral patterns, and reporting the presence ofinvasives and changes in climate, vegetation, and populations.
Citizen science — natural history — has been the province of amateurenthusiasts for centuries, long before a young beetle-lover foundhimself in the Galapagos, flinging marine iguanas into the sea to see if they’d swim back. The popularity of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count,launched in 1900, brought new rigor to backyard observations, revealingthe scientific potential of simultaneously gathering thousands of datapoints across wide geographical areas.
But with the explosion of cell phones equipped with digital cameras andglobal positioning systems, citizen science has migrated to the Web,emerging as a potent force-multiplier — and watchdog — for conservation. In May, Namibia’s government announced an SMS hotline for anonymous poaching tips: “Five fives for rhino.” After the Fukushima nuclear plant failure,Japanese citizens skeptical of government reassurances bought their owndosimeters to map radioactive hot spots on the Web. Likewise, during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Public Laboratory for OpenTechnology and Science transformed anxiety into “civic science,” moving residents to chart the spill with digital cameras tied to kites and balloons.
The most astonishing results from environmental social networking lie in such crowdsourcing. In March, the Smithsonian put out an emergency call on Facebook for specialists to identify 5,000 freshly collected fish specimens from Guyana for export paperwork. Within 24 hours, ichthyologists around the world supplied partial or complete answers for almost 90 percent.
But most projects, from traditional websites to social networking services and apps, are premeditated: Cornell University’s Citizen Science Central acts as a clearinghouse for over 130. Many offer training in speciesidentification and invite the public to post targeted observations: thenumber of gray vs. fox squirrels (Project Squirrel), the appearance ofbuds in spring and other seasonal plant phases (Project BudBurst), themigratory behavior of Monarch butterflies (Monarch Watch) orhummingbirds (Operation Ruby Throat). Others organize and analyze dataonline from “BioBlitzes,” intensive biological surveys conducted byvolunteers with the guidance of specialists. Offering land managers andstakeholders spatially referenced databases on the presence or absenceof protected or invasive species, these range from local exercises — a24-hour “snapshot” of every species in Wisconsin’s Beaver Creek Reserve, for example — to large-scale, long-term initiatives like the Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.
Such efforts may seem modest. But Cornell professor Harry W. Greene, anold-fashioned field biologist and self-described “snake guy,” regardsthese observations as “absolutely at the core of all biology.” Greenepoints out that “for most organisms on Earth, we know almost nothing.”In years past, he often received frustrating reports of snake sightingsfrom a public uncertain about key details — length, color, markings.Now, people send a digital image. “I write them right back,” he says,“and tell them whether the roadkill in their driveway is a Massasaugarattlesnake or a northern milk snake.” He describes the outpouring ofdata from citizens as “revolutionary,” not only for science but foramateurs: “When you make an observation,” he says, “you put yourselfinto the life of the organism. You care more.” With enough anecdotal reports and photos, meaningful statistical samples can emerge.
Greene and a former graduate student developed a prototype for “NatureWorm,” a social networking site designed to kindle interest in natural history on a wide scale. Investment lagged, but the niche has been filled by other opportunistic organisms, such as iNaturalist.org, an online community created by students at University of California,Berkeley’s School of Information where users can upload photos andhobnob about sightings. On a recent visit, “RussianNaturalistBrazil” had just posted an arresting image of Gongora meneziana, a fleshy, translucent red-spotted orchid found in Brazil’s Atlantic forest;Google maps pinpointed his location north of Salvador. Elsewhere on thesite, a debate had broken out on the identification of a type of Indianpaintbrush in California’s Wildcat Canyon.
Project Noah is a more commercial version of an environmental community, led bytelecom entrepreneur Yasser Ansari, who grew up in southern Californiaand developed a passion for poison dart frogs as a child. After studying molecular biology and bioinformatics at University of California, SanDiego, Ansari collaborated on Noah (“Networked Organisms and Habitats”)with fellow students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.Launched in February 2010, it is now available as an app, downloaded toover 100,000 smartphones. So far, participants have uploaded over 60,000 “spottings.” Recent caches feature everything from the inevitablewhite-tailed deer and common garden flowers (“rose,” “lantana”) toimages of a red-eyed tree frog, an Arctic fox, a Plains zebra rolling in dirt, a griffon vulture in flight, and mating common Indian toads.
Contributors to Noah plot sightings on a worldwide map, earn patches(reminiscent of the Boy Scouts’), and join “Missions” — the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Impact — to delvedeeper into scientific projects. The National Geographic Societyrecently provided investment for new software, reposting on FacebookNoah’s “Spotting of the Week” — including a spectacular giraffe-neckedweevil from Madagascar — for its 6.6 million fans.
For all the emphasis on documentation, Ansari’s view of his socialnetwork has evolved. He sees it primarily as a motivational tool, partof the “mass amateurization of everything.” While his original visionwas to collect data, he now suggests that Noah is “more effective atgetting people excited. We’re trying to create a powerful gateway drug.If you use Project Noah and then move on to hard-core science, that’s ahuge win. The data is secondary.”
Not necessarily. Project Squirrel, which has expanded countrywide from its origins in Chicago, is keepingwatch on both its target species and human observers. “We’re correlating what people tell us about habitat to what the squirrels are tellingus,” director Steve Sullivan says, predicting that the project maydocument the accuracy of citizen science and its role in stimulatingpassion for nature.
Project BudBurst, sponsored by NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, hasregistered nearly 12,000 volunteer observers since 2007. Participantshave uploaded tens of thousands of observations on their chosen plants’first leaf, first flower, first pollen, and other phenological phases(lilac is among the most popular), yielding datasets that have allowedscientists to extend a 50-year botanical study of Cook County, Illinois. Comparing historical data with three years of BudBurst observations has revealed that, as temperatures rise, forsythia is blooming 24 daysearlier, black locust 19 days earlier, and red maple 14.
Both Squirrel and BudBurst are popular in classrooms, but loneindividuals are also prolific — one Waco, Texas plant-watcher has beenmonitoring more than 25 species since BudBurst’s inception, includingTexas red oak, Texas bluebonnet, spiderwort, and pink ladies.
Perhaps the most intriguing capability of social media involvessomething that goes deeper than data. The University of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Game is an interactive computer simulation with the power to change minds.Beginning in 2000, it plays out over a 20-year horizon, allowing teamsto take on the roles and responsibilities of oystermen, crabbers, crop
and dairy farmers, real-estate developers, and policy-makers, everyonewith an impact on one of the world’s most endangered watersheds. Asteams make decisions based on economic and regulatory restrictions,determining how much land to cultivate or how many crabs to trap, theywatch the real-time, long-term consequences of their choices playingout. Crucially, “the game is politically neutral,” says David E. Smith,professor in U. Va.’s Department of Environmental Sciences.
On Earth Day this year, teams from seven Chesapeake Bay-areauniversities played, each representing a major basin — York River, James River, the Eastern Shore, etc. It was a sobering experience. At theend, a College of William and Mary biology professor acknowledged thatdespite players’ best efforts, “the quality of the bay went down.”
The game is impressively accurate: Its recent iteration encompasses tens of thousands of data points, and IBM has selected it for the WorldCommunity Grid program, harnessing over a million volunteers’ computersto crunch numbers. Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the oceanographer, is partnering with the university to adapt it for other ecosystems, from Australia toArizona. He foresees a day when younger students can input real data tomodel their backyards and lobby their parents — “Hey, mom and dad, let’s not use fertilizer on the lawn.”
Today’s social media may indeed spark a rebirth of natural history, butnone have yet moved climate change or biodiversity loss forward very far forward on the political agenda. There are tremors: In 2009, 350.org, agitating for action on climate change, used social media to organizemore than 5,000 events in some 180 countries, in what CNN called “themost widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” Lastyear, 350.org mobilized tens of thousands of people against offshore oil drilling, holding hands across 900 beaches. Avaaz, the Web-based social justice movement, has inspired more than a million to sign a petition to protect bee populations by banning neonicotinoidpesticides in the U.S. and EU.
Meanwhile, the environment waits for a software wunderkind to find thesocial formula that may lure a fickle public to fall in love with thereal world, not a fake one.