Citizen science is the collection of data by members of the public. It has a long history in the ACT, with some programs and initiatives running for more than 20 years. Our volunteer citizen scientists collect huge amounts of environmental data every year, covering subjects from water quality to orchids to gang-gang cockatoos.
Citizen science in the ACT ranges from government-facilitated community programs such as Waterwatch, to specialist voluntary organisations such the Canberra Ornithologists Group, to the volunteer-run online species identification and recording platform that is Canberra Nature Map. In addition to the organisations with an explicit focus on citizen science, many other environment groups, such as Landcare and ParkCare groups, conduct surveys or record significant species as part of their work. We estimate there are well over 3000 citizen science volunteers active in the ACT.
Strong partnerships are key to successful citizen science initiatives, since information collected by citizen scientists can be invaluable for use in scientific research, policy development, and decisions about management of species and ecosystems. Many of the challenges faced by scientists and decision-makers relate to not having enough data about the natural environment, and the potential for citizen scientists to contribute to filling this information gap is only just beginning to be appreciated.
Upper Murrumbidgee Waterwatch
Upper Murrumbidgee Waterwatch is a very successful citizen science program that has been running for over 20 years. Its 200+ volunteers collect water quality data from 220 sites at waterways across the ACT region.
Volunteers are provided with a mini chemistry set to take out into the field, to check the water for levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, salts, pH and turbidity (cloudiness).
This information can tell us a lot about the health of a waterway and is complemented by other data collected through the program, such as surveying the vegetation around the site and the aquatic invertebrates living in the water. Data collected by Waterwatch volunteers has been found by researchers at the University of Canberra to be comparable to that collected by professional field technicians.
The Waterwatch program also runs two seasonal citizen science projects, Platypus Month and a Carp monitoring program to collect data about when and where these invasive feral fish breed. Platypus month surveys attract around 300 volunteers each year and have added greatly to our understanding of how many of these charismatic creatures live in the waters around the ACT.
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Waterwatch is facilitated by the ACT Government, with a staff member working in the ACT Natural Resource Management team. Three program coordinators, also funded by ACT Government, are based in the ACT catchment groups, with a fourth in Cooma. The role of these coordinators’ is to support the volunteers and make sure that they have the skills and equipment they need to carry out their water testing each month.
Each year, Waterwatch publishes its Catchment Health Indicator Program report (or CHIP), which reviews and summarises all the data collected through its surveys throughout the year. This information is used to give each section of a waterway a score to indicate its health. The fact that Waterwatch has been running for such a long time, and has such a broad reach, gives an incredible picture of water quality in the ACT region across time and space. This is invaluable to water scientists and policy-makers in understanding more about how our waterways function, and how this reflects changes in the landscape and climate.
The Frogwatch program is an ACT-wide initiative which gives volunteers the skills to identify frog species by their calls, allowing them to monitor frog populations in the Territory.
It was established in 2002 to build understanding of frogs in the ACT, engage and educate people about them, and help protect these amazing amphibians.
The program is run by Ginninderra Catchment Group, with funding from the ACT Government among others.
Volunteers can provide information about their froggy observations throughout the year through the FrogWatch portal on Canberra Nature Map. The highlight of the Frogwatch year however, is the annual census where almost 200 sites are surveyed for frogs by over 200 volunteers within a month. These provide an annual snapshot of frog populations in the ACT, allowing scientists to track changes over time. Data from Frogwatch surveys is also being used to measure the effects of climate change, and to determine whether wetlands constructed in urban areas provide good habitats for wildlife.
As well as its citizen science focus, Frogwatch also has a strong educational element. Schools can raise their own tadpoles using one of the Frogwatch tadpole kits, or have an expert come to the classroom to talk to them about frogs..
Frogwatch has also spawned other citizen science initiatives aimed at finding out more about the creatures that live in Canberra’s waterways – check out our report on turtle surveys.
Canberra Ornithologists Group
Canberra Ornithologists Group (COG) is a community-based organisation dedicated to the study and conservation of birds. It has been in operation for more than 50 years, has over 450 members, and is run entirely by volunteers.
COG volunteers are responsible for a wealth of materials and activities to engage and build knowledge about Canberra’s birds. These include guided walks led by an expert volunteer, published books and pamphlets, and an exhaustive database of bird species and observations on their website.
COG volunteers also collect and manage records of bird species in the ACT, both through ad hoc recordings on their website and through specially targeted surveys. The knowledge held by this group is often used by ACT Government to inform their strategies and actions for threatened ecological communities and birds.