Where are the citizen historians?
03 November 2014 – Harry Klinkhamer
A while ago I received an e-mail from SciStarter. I had signed up on its Web site to look for research opportunities where I live. No, I wasn’t searching for a chance to do a report on the history of science but rather to see what science research projects needed help in my area. Let me step back a bit and explain.
My employer–the Forest Preserve District of Will County–is a land conservation, recreation, and environmental education government entity. We tend to do some history as well, which is where I fit in. Through my work, I frequently encounter notices and requests from my organization and sister organizations in neighboring counties for “citizen scientists.” These and similar organizations are looking for volunteers to help with scientific research projects. My first reaction was, “How cool.” My second reaction was, “How professional is that?”
It turns out that it is quite professional. Volunteers aren’t necessarily working in labs and handling expensive equipment. Professionally trained scientists lead projects and handle the complex aspects of work. The many volunteers, or citizen scientists, do what they can do rather well: collect and track data.
Technology has helped to aid in this process. As previously mentioned, websites such as SciStarter can connect interested members of the public with research projects that meet their interests or location. With more and more people having smartphones, scientists are including apps in their projects for the public to download. This is turning phones into scientific equipment. It is an easy way to collect not only data but the metadata as well. Scientists can see when and where that data was collected and other information.
To give one example of how these apps are being used, I’ve been using mPing (which stands for Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground) to track precipitation for the National Weather Service (NWS). Using a rain gauge we have at the museum or the one at my home, I can measure how much precipitation has fallen, observe the type–such as rain, sleet, or snow–and record it on the mPing app, and then the information is sent to the NWS. Next, all the information is collected and added to a GIS map where one can see patterns of accumulation. Using this app allows the NWS to harness the information from dozens of citizen scientists in a location to get more accurate “on the ground” readings. According to the app, since 2012, there have been almost a half-million reports added to their database.
But citizen science engages the public with research through more than just the use of gadgetry. Frog monitoring workshops still train people to identify different frog calls by ear. Restoration Workdays have volunteers removing invasive plants and collecting seeds from native plants to measure the health of a prairie. A “bioblitz” day brings together scientists and volunteers for 24 hours of data and/or species collecting at a site. This process allows scientists to get a large snapshot of a region over a period of time. Citizen scientists spread out over a select area to identify and log the different flora and fauna they find. Results from the blitz help to identify the biodiversity of an area. This in turn leads to better understanding of habitat use or loss, the impacts of climate change, and patterns of migration, to name a few. This is information which is useful beyond pure research and study, with results which can impact land use, management policy, and much more. These are just some examples of how scientists and citizen scientists can work together.
So it raised a question for me: “Where are the citizen historians?” Or for that matter, ”Do we need any?” Maybe there are other questions to answer first.
For example, are the kinds of data gathered by both professional and volunteer scientists comparable to the kinds of materials that historians go in search of? How might this approach relate to the activities of the countless avocational historians–the reenactors, genealogists, collectors, and others whom Benjamin Filene has termed “’outsider’ history-makers”–who used to be part of our circle, and who are already busy collecting and using their own data?  Are they comparable to birders, frog monitors, seed collectors, restoration volunteers, and other citizen scientists? In other words, is the citizen scientist model one that historians can adopt and adapt for their purposes?
I’m posing this question as a provocation and an invitation. As someone with my feet in both worlds, I’d like to hear your thoughts below.
~ Harry Klinkhamer is an Interpretive Specialist at the Forest Preserve District of Will County in Illinois.
 Benjamin Filene, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” The Public Historian Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2012): 11-33.