They study galaxies, help predict landslides: Meet India’s citizen scientists
Average people — school students, engineers, retired bankers — are helping gather data across the country, in fields as varied as astronomy and archaeology.
They don’t have PhDs or wear lab coats. They range in age from 10 to 75. But citizen scientists are helping actual scientists answer questions about the weather, wildlife, plant life, what’s really going on the in the oceans, and even what lies beyond the stars.
They typically have day jobs — as graphic designers and lifeguards, business consultants, architects and bankers. Many have to take time off to head out into the nowhere lands where they collect leopard scat, report on roadkill, count birds, survey households living around wildlife reserves, set up camera traps or measure beached dolphin carcasses.
A lucky few are able to pursue their passions at home, or just outside it. Rudolf Nonglait, 10, for instance, does his bit for science on his way home from school, every Friday.
He lives in the West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, and is helping SeasonWatch by reporting weekly on the leaves, fruits and flowers of a Himalayan cherry tree in his neighbourhood, for a countrywide study on the impact of climate change on the fruiting and flowering patterns of trees.
Similarly, mechanical engineer Pradeepta Mohanty, 30, of Bina-Etawa in Madhya Pradesh, scans sections of sky on his laptop after work, using raw data from the all-sky surveys done by TIFR’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT).
He is part of the RAD@home Astronomy Collaboratory citizen science project. Mohanty’s discovery of an intriguing galaxy merger was part of a 2016 research paper on tracking galaxy evolution published in the Journal of Astrophysics and Astronomy.
Beyond the stars
The term citizen science refers to the engagement of members of the general public in scientific research mainly through data collection, occasionally also through analysis, under the guidance of professional scientists.
The term was coined in the mid-1990s and is attributed independently to an American ornithologist named Rick Bonney and a British professor named Alan Irwin. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014.
But the concept isn’t new. In the mid-18th century, much before science was turned into an area of professional study, a Norwegian bishop created a network of clergymen to contribute collections of natural objects for his research.
Other early examples on record include lighthouse keepers on the Caribbean coast collecting data on bird strikes in 1880 for the American Ornithologists’ Union; the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which was launched in North America in 1900; and the British Trust of Ornithology’s Breeding Bird Survey, which has run annually since 1994.
Over the past two decades, citizen scientists in the US have participated in projects to monitor water quality and scour the night skies for new celestial bodies. Online platforms like SciStarter and Zooniverse host projects requiring crowdsourced research across disciplines, from astronomy to ecology, the humanities, cell biology and archaeology.
“From a research perspective, in a project where it is important to understand what is happening over a vast area — an entire state, or the whole country — the most fruitful approach is to work with a large number of interested and enthusiastic citizens,” says ecologist Suhel Quader.
A former research investigator with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, he launched the citizen science (CS) initiative MigrantWatch in 2007, while still with the NCBS. The portal, which morphed into Bird Count India in 2015, tracks the arrival and departure of migratory bird species to assess changes in their migratory patterns.
In 2010, Quader also set up SeasonWatch, and he was instrumental in setting up the Indian chapter of eBird, a CS operation managed globally by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“When the programme was introduced at the school where I teach, last year, I encouraged Rudolf to join, even though he goes to another school,” says the 10-year-old’s father, Resly R Pariong, a science teacher. “Such projects teach kids to love nature at an early age and so, they are more likely to take part in protecting the environment as they grow up.”
In India, CS is still at a nascent stage. “Despite that, it’s an exciting time because of rapid growth and a growing number of participants,” says Quader.
The earliest large-scale citizen science project in India was the Asian Waterbird Census launched in 1987 and continuing till date. In recent times, smartphone access and social media have made it easier to launch CS efforts. For instance, this January, the Wildlife Trust of India and the UK-based David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation launched Road Watch, a Facebook page and smartphone app that encourages citizens to report wildlife roadkill incidents across the country.
“It’s a feasible, time- and resource-effective way to gather information,” says Radhika Bhagat, a wildlife researcher associated with the project. “Over time, the data will help us predict roadkill hotspots, identify worst-affected species and assess the efficacy of existing mitigation measures.”
Elsewhere, locals are helping the Marine Mammal Conservation Network of India (MMCNI) with its open-source online database for sightings and reports of stranded mammals on Indian shores.
Among them is Sameer Kankonkar, 35, a lifeguard in south Goa. “When humpback dolphins and turtles wash up on the shore, I take photographs, measurements, note location, time, type of animal and condition,” he says.
In Rajasthan, people are helping collect data on man-animal conflict on the edges of reserves, for a study conducted jointly by the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Bengaluru-based non-profit Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) and Duke University, USA.
Under the guidance of Krithi Karanth, associate conservation scientist with the WCS, volunteers surveyed thousands of households to learn about crop damage and mitigation measures used by locals, to understand how living around a wildlife reserve impacts livelihood.
Their findings were used in a paper published in the peer-reviewed Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation, in 2017.
“Besides basic field skills, citizen science helps the lay person shed notions of romanticism, especially when it comes to wildlife conservation, and gain a more realistic experience, learning how complex and challenging it actually is,” Karanth says.
There is scope for much more, in terms of scale and complexity. “One of the reasons citizen science remains undervalued is the rigidity of India’s formal systems of science,” says Sunita Narain, environmentalist, activist and head of the New Delhi-based thinktank Centre for Science and Environment. “Most of our scientists are so fossilised and rigid that they don’t allow non-members or innovators to survive. This must change.”
Extensive training could help, adds Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, formerly of TIFR and now a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“India needs everybody to participate in science, but for that, professional scientists need to invest in training the minds of common people,” he adds. “As Louis Pasteur put it, fortune favours the prepared mind.”
For five years, Pune-based microbiology student Mitali Inamdar, 22, and nine other citizen scientists — including bankers, engineers and business consultants — have been contributing to an inventory of landslide-prone areas in Maharashtra. They have identified 169 hotspots so far, are these are being further divided on the basis of causes — landslides due to rock fall, mudflow or debris. Their study is part of the Satark landslide-warning project by the Pune-based Centre for Citizen Science (CCS).
The catalogue, co-related with satellite imagery, is used to issue alerts in regions susceptible to landslides. “Citizen scientists are needed for this project because satellite images alone are not enough. On-ground support provides greater accuracy,” says CCS secretary Mayuresh Prabhune.
For this project, the scientists travel to far-flung villages to collect soil samples, take readings of wind velocity, and interview locals. “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” says Nitin Tamhankar, 38, a banker from Pune who uses most of his leave to work on the project. “It’s gratifying to know that our contributions could help save lives,” Inamdar adds.
Over the past three years, estimates based on their data have been used to issue alerts in the hilly Malshej Ghat and Lonavala-Khandala regions of the state. “On days of high rainfall, the team co-related the rainfall intensity in the regions and shared information with us, indicating high probability of landslides there. It helped us issue advisories to corresponding district collectors,” says Suhas Diwase, collector of Bhandara district and former director of Maharashtra’s disaster management cell.
A research paper based on their data is also in the works. “It will be a first-of-its-kind inventory in India,” says meteorologist Jeevanprakash Kulkarni, a member of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and retired scientist from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, and now vice-president of CCS.
Around the world, birds have been the first and most popular projects involving citizen scientists. Currently, long-term projects in India include a Kerala Bird Atlas (KBA) and Common Bird Monitoring Programme (CBMP) that are roping in citizen scientists to identify area-wise bird diversity and distribution. For the KBA, 1,500 enthusiastic birdwatchers – students, teachers, doctors, senior citizens – accompany expert birders to survey birds, water bodies, fruiting trees and invasive plants within selected areas.
“The data will help us analyse how land-use and habitat patterns affect bird populations,” says Praveen Jayadevan, a district coordinator for the project. The ambitious five-year project, to be completed by 2020, will be the first systematic bird atlas for an Indian state. “Based on this research, we’ll also be able to estimate the number of years that habitats take to change, which affects bird populations, and help initiate conservation efforts.”
The CBMP, launched by the Bombay Natural History Society last year, has participants walk the same 2-km grid at the same pace, thrice a year, to spot birds perched on or near an invisible transect line. “This method, when used over a long stretch of time, say seven years, will give an accurate idea of trends in common bird populations,” says Dr Raju Kasambe, project manager of the Important Bird Areas programme at BNHS.
Retired banker Madan Tillu, 64, is volunteering with his wife, Prachi, 59, a banker. “She tracks the birds, I make notes. This has improved our knowledge of birds. And it’s a great bonding exercise,” he says. The largest citizen science database of bird records in the country is eBird India, a two-year-old website and mobile app powered by Bird Count India, a collective of conservation organisations, and the UK-based Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“The documented sightings undergo a check system akin to peer review, which makes them more reliable,” says Pronoy Baidya, who used some of its findings in for his research paper on the birds of Goa, co-authored with Mandar Bhagat and published in the South Asian ornithology journal, IndianBIRDS, in January.
Authors have begun to use eBird data from India in published papers around the world, adds Aasheesh Pittie, Hyderabad-based ornithologist, bibliographer and founding editor of IndianBIRDS. “Historically, birding in India has been restricted to urban spaces. With digital technology, more data can be gathered from across the country, and this will greatly benefit conservation efforts.”
The Big Bang Theory
As a kid, to escape his parents’ arguing, Pradeepta Mohanty would go to a park near his home, lie on the grass and gaze at the night sky. “It gave me a sense of wonder, and a sense of peace,” he says.
There wasn’t much an aspiring astronomer could look forward to in his hometown in Odisha, though, so Mohanty became a mechanical engineer and now works at an oil refinery in Madhya Pradesh. But he never got over his love affair with the stars.
So when he came upon the RAD@home Astronomy Collaboratory during a random search for astronomy groups on Facebook five years ago, he signed up immediately. This is a citizen science project that trains anyone who has or is pursuing a degree in science or engineering, to scan patches of sky and make astronomical observations.
Through Facebook e-classes, Skype calls and telephone conversations with Ananda Hota, a radio astronomer at the Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences (CEBS), Mohanty, now 30, learnt how to use NASA Skyview’s virtual telescope to generate images of any part of the sky, analyse the data from the all-sky surveys done by TIFR’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), and find celestial objects catalogued online.
For three hours a day, Mohanty scans footage on his laptop and marks faint-and-fuzzy objects that could indicate unique galaxies with supermassive black holes, radio-jet interactions and star formations.
“Citizen science speeds up research. It’s possibly the only way to meet the Big Data challenge in astronomy,” says Hota. This project was launched in 2013 and is supported by the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (Pune) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR, Mumbai), among others.
It currently has 110 citizen scientists scanning footage of the sky across India.
Some of their findings, including Mohanty’s galaxy merger, were included in a 2016 research paper titled ‘Tracking galaxy evolution through low-frequency radio continuum observations using SKA and citizen-science research using multi-wavelength data’, in the Journal of Astrophysics and Astronomy published by the Indian Academy of Sciences and Springer Nature.