I’m going to make an assumption to begin with. When you think about social media as a resource for research and data, your thinking will be very social science-based.
You might think of the ways sociologists would be interested in how social media shapes the way people interact. Perhaps research into the psychology behind cyberbullying? Maybe, if you’re worried about your right to privacy, the ways in which your data can be analysed to influence what products or parties you support? Likelier than not though, you won’t consider how social media use offers huge potential for the study of environmental sciences. You really should.
Citizen science is defined by National Geographic as ‘the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge’. This form of science isn’t new (it traces back to at least the turn of the twentieth century) but the age of social media has expanded its use and possibilities. In fact, in 2014, citizen science even made its entry into the Oxford English Dictionary.
There’s always a ceiling to the scope of lab-based or purely scientific experts’ study. That’s where citizen science comes in. Public engagement on social media can create far more extensive research data, including the GPS coordinates of the recording of something. That’s the main benefit of a citizen science approach to a study, but another significant bonus is educating the public by engagement, whether about a specific issue, such as the effects of climate change, or demystifying science as inaccessible in general.
One of the most significant examples of a citizen science social media project is iSeeChange. Founded in 2013, its premise is beautifully simple: people are encouraged to post images to Instagram of anything unusual which could be related to climate change under the hashtag #iSeeChange. It might be the first bluebell of the year, or the first swallow of the summer. Scientists can then check the photo and via Instagram’s supply of the date and location, map out environmental changes over time. Piloted in Western Colorado, the project has expanded to now hold a global reach and led to the involvement of NASA scientists studying atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Sometimes citizen science via social media may use pre-existing platforms, such as Twitter and Flickr. Image-based platforms, like Flickr, appear to be particularly valued by environmental researchers as they can help provide visual verification of sightings. However, other times, entirely new social media networks may be formed to help coordinate information gathering. In the UK, two projects have taken this approach, while still engaging on traditional social media. The somewhat garishly-titled Project SPLATTER, which is run by Cardiff University, enables people to report roadkill sightings across the UK. This highlights areas where roads are conflicting with wildlife and, at least in the case of badgers, actually provides vital information about the population spread of a species. Meanwhile, the Open University-led iSpot has created a community network for the reporting and identification of all manner of flora and fauna species with users uploading photos of sightings.
There are challenges in the relationship between social media and science. Research suggests social media has played a part in dramatically reduced average human attention spans although this is disputed, while it also enables the spread of fake news – for example, the NHS has identified anti-vaccination stories as leading to a rise in the number of measles cases. Yet the growing role social media can play in facilitating citizen science, which in turn can increase awareness of issues and the data which scientists can analyse, merits greater appreciation.