Crowdsourcing Phenology: the Citizen Scientist

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

This summer, about a month into my research of rising land prices in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, I experienced a moment of profound clarity.  It came in the form of an answer to a question I had asked a million times: what changes have you observed in Vilcabamba in the past 5-10 years?  The answer hardly varied (more foreigners, more cars, rising prices, etc) and the question soon became simply a routine to get the conversation started, so much so, that when I heard a dramatically different response, it took me a minute to fully comprehend it.  Before she answered my question, this elderly Ecuadorian woman looked at me for a long time, until she finally said: “The sun is hotter…and the winds are stronger.”

Fast forward to this morning, when in reaction to my complaining that I have nothing to blog about, Trish sends me the following Washington Post (new window) article about the 30-year project started by the USA National Phenology Network (new window) which involves citizen observers tracking changes in nature.  The goal of the project is to see how climate change is affecting the world around us.  “Citizen scientists” are vital to the success of the program “to get the density of observations we need,” says Jake Weltzin, executive director of the network.  It is no coincidence that this article comes my way as I am reading Thoreau’s Walden and The Secret Teachings of Plants, both picked up at the book exchange in Vilcabamba in December.  I think it’s a call of sorts, to all of us.

There are many interpretations for what the woman was trying to convey with her answer.  It’s possible that she was just too “simple” to understand these other trends (of land prices, etc).  Or that she was simply relaying what was most immediately important to her: that in a rural, agriculture based community, natural trends are as, if not more, important as issues of demographics and land prices.  But I think her intention was entirely different. I think she was saying the exact opposite: it is not ONLY in rural areas that natural trends are important, and that there are things worth paying attention besides the latest trend.

I often wonder how I would answer the question “What has changed in DC in the past 3 years?”  The administration.  The indoor smoking laws.  The extention of the Yellow Line.  What I would like to be able to say, in addition to these things, is that in Rock Creek Park, all woody species have been affected by deer except American beech and spicewood.  And I would like to be able to say this not because I just googled and read a document called “Impacts of White-Tailed Deer Overabundance in Forest Ecosystems: An Overview” but because I spend enough time in Rock Creek Park to at least know the difference between a beech and a spicewood.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it’s cool that because of someone following technology trends, we now have a word for what the Phenology Network is doing: crowdsourcing.  And clearly this project would not be possible without the technology involved in uploading the observations and tracking them for 30 years.  But more and more I feel a need to step away from my computer and reading aricles about global warming in my heated apartment and go see the changes for myself.  Rock Creek Park is just three metro stops away.