MDI Biological Laboratory

Next Generation Citizen Science Using

  • December 19, 2017

This guest post on citizen science by Jane Disney, Duncan Bailey, Anna Farrell and Ashley Taylor is excerpted from an article that originally appeared in the Maine Policy Review. Read the full article.

Understanding, predicting, and managing the effects of climate change and other human impacts on the environment are critical challenges at local, state, regional, national, and global scales. To meet these challenges, researchers as well as municipal, state, and federal governments, nongovernmental orgizations (NGOs), community groups, and individuals responsible for conserving and managing natural resources need access to large amounts of high-quality environmental data to inform decision making. There is a long history of citizens participating in the collection of environmental data that has informed researchers and policymakers at all levels (Miller-Rushing, Primack, and Bonney 2012). Through an examination of 134 case studies from three project sources, Newman et al. (2017) demonstrated that citizen science projects leveraging the power of place lead to more decision-making outcomes than those that do not. In projects designed to inform decisions, citizen science can help expand the data-gathering scientific workforce, while improving public understanding of and engagement with science (Bonney et al. 2016).

Anecdata is one of a number of online tools available to citizens interested in creating and managing their own environmental research projects or contributing to existing projects created by scientists or other citizens. Anecdata was born of a crowdsourcing need at the Community Lab, a citizen science– research and –education program of the MDI Biological Laboratory. The Community Lab is a research space where citizens can bring questions or contribute to ongoing investigations about the world around them. It is also a concept of citizen engagement in science and how it can be leveraged to effect change in communities. Most of our research and activities have a local focus on environmental health, especially as it relates to surface water and drinking water quality in Hancock County, Maine, and surrounding areas. In addition, the Community Lab provides outreach and education to schools and community groups, helping spread the word about the relationship between the environment and human health. Anecdata has become an integral tool in all the outreach and education programs at the Community Lab. Its unique feature set makes it ideal for use by project managers and citizen scientists interested in leveraging the power of place to inform decision making as described by Newman et al. (2017).


One research focus of the Community Lab has been on the restoration ecology of eelgrass, a subtidal marine plant that serves as a nursery for juvenile fish and invertebrates, improves water quality by absorbing excess nutrients from the water column, and acts as a carbon sink in temperate areas around the world. We have accomplished most of our restoration work over the last decade by recruiting, training, and working with citizen scientists of many ages and from many different backgrounds.

Despite early success with restoration, eelgrass loss continued in some areas. In 2013, there was a complete collapse of eelgrass throughout upper Frenchman Bay. Only rhizomes were left behind in the barren mud. We recognized that we needed to understand this event on a broader scale and decided to crowdsource information from citizens in all areas of Maine. We wanted to know if eelgrass was lost everywhere or just in our study area in upper Frenchman Bay.

We explored a variety of citizen science websites freely available on the internet and capable of managing environmental data, but each had limitations. In particular, there were no websites at the time that could capture presence/absence data. To have a data portal with this feature, we created a website with a single project called Eelgrass in Maine (Bailey et al. 2013). To recruit citizen scientists, collect these types of data, and better understand the loss of eelgrass in Maine, the site was made publicly available on the internet in the summer of 2013. We learned from the incoming data that eelgrass loss appeared to be restricted to upper bay areas. Both Casco Bay and Frenchman Bay suffered similar losses. This led us to develop a regional consortium of eelgrass researchers who meet every other year to discuss the status of eelgrass in the region and the actions and approaches we are taking to protect and restore eelgrass habitat.

From this experience, we recognized that it would be valuable to expand the site to include other ongoing citizen science projects at the Community Lab. These include community-based environmental stewardship projects such as swim beach monitoring, coastal watershed surveys, phytoplankton monitoring, clam flat surveys, and cruise ship monitoring. Since many of our projects were initiated based on informal observations (a probable outbreak of swimming illness on a local beach, poor clam harvests, possible discharge from a cruise ship), we decided to call the expanded citizen science website

We are currently transitioning all project datasets from our Access database to Anecdata, which will become the repository of all of our project data. This will enable new and existing stakeholders to have immediate access to historic and emerging information. Interested people will be able to download and use our data to inform policy or effect change in their communities. Teachers and students can use data to practice analysis skills and provide an impetus and model for development of similar projects. Data users may decide to become data contributors to our existing projects or establish new projects to achieve their own community goals.

A natural extension of our effort to crowdsource information and make it publicly available was to open up the project site to the world. We recognized a need for an easy-to-operate site like that anyone could use for any type of citizen science project. We promoted the use of the site to project partners and others at local, state, and national meetings. The site has grown to include many different types of citizen science projects from different regions of the country and beyond. Anecdata’s feature set continues to fill gaps in the current ecosystem of citizen science websites.

In this article, we provide an overview of the applications of Anecdata, describe its feature sets, and share some examples of groups that are successfully using the site to accomplish environmental goals in their communities. We also describe how is closing the citizen science data loop by helping users of the site to progress from data input to data visualization and data sharing. This progression is yielding tremendous gains in some communities where knowledge is leading to community action and community action is resulting in positive change and measurable improvements in local environments.

Read more from this article on citizen science in the Maine Policy Review.