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Zen in the Art of Citizen Science: Apps for Collective Discovery and the 1 Percent Rule of the Web

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When it comes to online participation in collective endeavors, 99% of us typically take a free ride.

From Wikipedia and YouTube to simple forum discussions, there is a persistent pattern known as the 90-9-1 principle. This means, for example, that of Wikipedia users, 90% only view content, 9% edit existing content, and 1% actually create new content. Inequity in effort, of vastly more people accessing collective information than contributing to it, is a persistent feature of online engagement.

High school birders. Photo by Tim Lenz.

High school birders. Photo by Tim Lenz.

Large-scale citizen-science projects, such as where ordinary people assist in genuine scientific research, when facilitated by the Internet, may not be exempt from the 1% rule of thumb. Despite the promise of app and web development to assist citizen scientists in data submission, the “build it and they will come” approaches fail because not enough people contribute to make such projects useful. Are there examples of online citizen-science projects that succeed on a big scale despite unequal participation? If so, how?

For answers, let’s take a look at eBird, a free, online citizen-science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. eBird began in 2002 and quickly became a global network within which bird watchers contribute their bird observations to a central database. Over 2.5 million people have engaged with eBird. Of those, 150,000 have submitted data (6%) and 25,000 (1%) have submitted 99% of data. The 1% includes the world’s best birders as well as less skilled but highly dedicated backyard bird watchers. For everyone else, eBird is free information, and there is lots of it.

Is eBird successful?

eBird is successful scientifically. Since 2006, eBird has grown 40% ever year, which makes it one of the fastest growing biodiversity datasets in existence. It has amassed over 140 million bird observations, with observations from every country on the planet. Researchers have written over 90 peer-reviewed publications using eBird.

eBird is successful for conservation. The last two State of the Birds reports, which relied on eBird data to examine species occurrence, habitat types, and land ownership at a level of detail never achieved before, inform decisions of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service. The Nature Conservancy uses eBird data to identify which rice farmers in the Central Valley of California they should ask to flood their fields at the particular right time for migrating waterfowl.

eBird is successfully engaging bird watchers. eBird doesn’t ignore the 99% who don’t submit data. The most frequent use of the eBird database is by handheld apps that people use to figure out where to go birdwatching.

Recently I was scheduled to give an opening provocation for a workshop on technology for citizen science at the British Ecological Society meeting in London. A “provocation” is intended to provoke thoughts, emotions, and epiphanies in order to instigate deep discussion, in this case about how to use technology to make citizen science successful. Are more apps for submitting data really the answer? Should we try to break the 1% rule or engage the 99% in other ways? To prepare, I went to Steve Kelling, the head honcho of eBird. In Jack Nicolson style, he can deliver a one-liner that blankets a room in thought, which is then invariably followed by a succession of light-bulb moments of understanding. When I asked Kelling to explain the success of eBird, he sagely said, “When eBird stopped doing citizen science, it got successful.” (score!).

How could eBird succeed at citizen science by not doing citizen science?

Kelling’s counter-intuitive riddle reveals the Zen in the art of citizen science.

The BirdLog app automatically figures out where you are, shows nearby Birding Hotspots (red) and places where you’ve already submitted observations (blue). Then it presents a list of birds most likely to be where you are that day. It also makes data entry a breeze -- over 20% of eBird data come in through BirdLog

The BirdLog app automatically figures out where you are, shows nearby Birding Hotspots (red) and places where you’ve already submitted observations (blue). Then it presents a list of birds most likely to be where you are that day. It also makes data entry a breeze -- over 20% of eBird data come in through BirdLog

In Zen in the Art of Archery, the author, Eugen Herrigel wonders, “Do ‘I’ hit the goal, or does the goal hit me?” In other words, he learned to not think about aiming to hit the target, but to let the target find his arrow. Similarly, eBird doesn’t shoot a citizen science app at birders and tell them to do it in the name of science; eBird builds tools that show birders what’s possible with their collective observations and they find citizen science.

I needed to look at the eBird history and growth to understand. In the early years, 2002-2005, with the slogan “Birding For A Purpose,” the project failed to engage sufficient birders. In 2006, they changed their strategy, and more recently adopted the tagline “Birding in the 21st Century.” These slogans represent philosophies that can make or break a project. eBird moved from appealing to a birder’s sense of duty, and succeeded by helping birders embrace the excitement of maturing their hobby to impact the future.

The eBird team’s strategy involves the steady development of state-of-the-art tools that allow anybody to use eBird data, often with such ease that they don’t realize they are using it. Don’t imagine downloading megabytes of raw data files, but a map of recent observations that loads within a second. Providing useful data means the eBird team does the hard computational work in order to serve the data on a platter to meet a variety of appetites. Data utility means, for example, visualizations in the form of maps, tables, and intuitive graphics and apps that point you where to go to, say, find birds you personally have never seen before.

Simultaneously, the eBird team of top-notch birders have changed the norm of what of it means to be a birder. The project leaders show other birders how using eBird makes them better birders. And better birders make better science. For example, better birders submit complete checklists. Initially, 75% of submissions to eBird were incomplete checklists; now over 80% are complete.

An important lesson here for the field of citizen science is that the current heavy focus on app development for data entry may be misguided if it occurs without simultaneous development of tools for data access and use. After all, we already know that people love to collect natural-history observations. We know people love to share these observations. Acquiring data from the public is often a low hurdle. The harder challenge is ensuring that the 1% who take the time to contribute do indeed build databases useful to the communities of interest. The 1% disparity is not a call to Occupy citizen science so that everyone contributes data. It’s a call to Wiki-fy citizen science so that the 99% find it valuable.

Caren Cooper About the Author: Caren Cooper, PhD, is a Assistant Director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She studies bird behavior, reproduction and ecology with citizen science networks. In addition, Cooper works with social scientists to study why people get involved in citizen science and nature-based recreation. She has analyzed how citizen-science has been used to aid urban planning, e-governance and policy initiatives. She is writing a nonfiction book about citizen science, is a Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program, and Community Science Fellow with the Thriving Earth Exchange of the American Geophysical Union. Cooper is a blogger for SciStarter. Follow on Twitter @CoopSciScoop.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 6 Comments

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  1. 1. killoran 10:07 am 09/11/2013

    I find to be a very good website. Described as an “online community,” insect images can be contributed by anyone with a digital camera. Insects are identified by knowledgeable amateurs and experts, and the line between the two gets quite blurry at times. A huge database of N. American insects (and spiders) continues to grow. I don’t use any apps, but there are now several microscope apps that allow better pictures with your cell phone, and I’m sure more pictures will be contributed using these.

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  2. 2. hotspotbirding 10:57 am 09/11/2013

    You also need to take into consideration the apps/books and websites that are helping people be better birders by aiding them in correctly identifying birds. While this doesn’t directly add to the online database of sightings it does create more accurate sightings/data overall. It’s a question of quality vs quantity.

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  3. 3. pkzOregon 11:09 am 09/13/2013

    RareBirder is available for the Windows Phone and uses the eBird database to help you find rare birds. Check it out at:

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  4. 4. rcrain 5:09 pm 09/13/2013

    Such an important topic to have out in the open. I really appreciate this retelling of a familiar story. The piece that is left out, and probably deserves some analysis so that others aren’t inspired but left wondering how to get from a good idea to implementation is a review of the resources that go into eBird. How many project leaders where there in 2002? How many in 2007? How many application developers and other technological specialists work on this application to deliver not only the data entry platform but also the data outs that make it such an appealing project? Was the shift in 2006 just a shift in slogan? Or was there a change in institutional support? Where does the budget to pay all these people come from? Is it monetarily self-sustaining? What year did it become self-sustaining (if it is)? And, the API – talking about the importance of investing in this bit of technology, which is, after all, the source of so much opportunity for the community of birders to extend the usefulness of eBird. It is key to understanding its mega-success in this citizen science project.

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:17 am 09/17/2013

    Well, it would be very poor if eBird was used only be people who contribute data – that means uninteresting to anybody else!

    I would ask rather: how reliable is citizen science? Are the data systematically skewed? For example, beginners go birding more in parks and city outskirts. Does it create an impression that forest edge birds are getting more common and birds of closed forest get scarcer? Big data is still useless if it is systematically skewed.

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  6. 6. amdurso 1:19 pm 09/18/2013

    Great article. I agree that I predominantly use eBird because of the ‘carrots’ they offer for birders, although I also get an enormous sense of satisfaction out of contributing data to a greater cause. BugGuide, Butterflies & Moths of North America, and MushroomObserver are other great sites that are built along this model. One day I hope to see a herp database that is similar.

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