MDI Biological Laboratory

Citizen Scientists Tap Anecdata to Document Climate Change and Inform Action

  • April 5, 2024

MDI Bio Lab Systems and Data Experts Chart the Platform’s Value in Maine Policy Review

Ten years ago, Cait Bailey, a systems developer in MDI Bio Lab’s Community Health Lab, was looking for a layman-friendly data collection system to track observations of eelgrass in Frenchman Bay.

Warming waters are driving eelgrass decline in the Gulf of Maine, and alongside the community lab’s leader, Jane Disney, Ph.D., Bailey was working with MDI residents and schoolchildren to document decline and experiment with restoration efforts.

“We were looking at the various online options for collecting data about species absence, “ Bailey recalls. “But the existing platforms we could find only addressed collection of species presence​ data – which wasn’t what we wanted.”

It took Bailey just a day to create the prototype software needed to handle data points related to the absence of eelgrass. But she and the team soon realized that the new resource could have broad application across a wide variety of citizen-engaged science projects – helping users to keep their data orderly and providing new tools for engaging communities and policymakers with science-based information.

“We named it Anecdata,” Bailey says. “It quickly expanded to include our water quality datasets, and then projects at other organizations in the state, and finally worldwide.”

It’s taken off over the last six years. In 2017, Anecdata had 114 users. Today there are more than 16,600, with citizens and scientists from every continent (except Antarctica) accessing the portal.

They are creating data for projects that document widely diverse phenomena: invasive flora in greater Boston, night-sky light pollution around the world, a NASA program to capture ambient noise observations as a baseline for efforts to reduce the impacts of supersonic aircrafts’ sonic booms.

“This is a platform that’s really been able to spread out organically, through local networks,” Bailey says. “It gives people and organizations a versatile way to capture a wide range of data, which is very powerful for collecting broad ranges of data about some very complex questions.”

Bailey and Laboratory data specialist Alexis Garretson are lead authors of new research published in the most recent Maine Policy Review that highlights how Mainers are using the platform to create actionable information about the effects of climate change in their backyards – and on the coast.

“This community-driven platform promotes effective, open, and democratized science, hosting numerous active projects with users who are helping to address critical coastal issues,” they write in the article.

Co-authors included Anecdata users such as Maine Sea Grant, a University of Maine partnership with the federal government that addresses issues of concern to coastal communities.

The Maine Sea Grant program turned to Anecdata to facilitate a community science project tracking seasonal changes in rockweed seaweed that grows in Maine’s intertidal zones.

“It has been wonderful for our program, because its user-friendly interface allows our volunteers to enter their observations on their own,” says Beth Bisson, Maine Sea Grant’s Associate  Director.  “Because Anecdata is open and accessible for anyone, our volunteers can… see or share the data collected by others, and our collaborating researchers can download and analyze the information, as needed, to advance their research.”

MDI Bio Lab’s Alexis Garretson adds that two other Maine-based Anecdata projects — King Tides of the Gulf of Maine and Harpswell King Tide Impacts – are becoming more robust with each damaging storm that blows through.

“With the most recent storm there was a lot of interest in documenting what was happening, and documenting how the storm was affecting local resources” she says. “But they went beyond that too, to use the data for targeting monitoring activities and management activities that were necessary after the storm.”

In the future, Garretson says, the data can inform decisions about what specific areas might need restoration, where infrastructure needs to be hardened, and how to create rational policies to address accelerating climate impacts.

“I think that as scientists, we often focus on formal academic research,” Garretson says. “But we’re not necessarily recognizing the scope of effects that data collection can have beyond just influencing the literature, but also influencing individuals and their day-to-day activities that really protect our oceans and protect our communities.”