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30 citizen science projects looking for volunteers to help protect our environment

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Dmitry Naumov // Shutterstock

30 citizen science projects looking for volunteers to help protect our environment

Science can sometimes feel like it’s meant just for people with tons of education, fancy degrees, and a super-specialized set of skills. However, being a scientist doesn’t only mean working for a university or research institute. More and more, it’s becoming clear that anyone can be a scientist. This idea of laypeople doing science is known as citizen science.

A citizen scientist can be any person who is interested and wants to participate in some way. They might collect soil samples, take nature photos, measure water levels, track storms, count birds, or participate in a number of other activities. These citizen scientists contribute to the scientific process by offering researchers data that they might not otherwise have access to.

It’s not always easy to define exactly what citizen science is. According to an article in Nature, citizen science originated at least a few thousand years ago when, in ancient China, local residents helped track migratory locusts that were destroying harvests. The phrase itself was coined by the sociologist Alan Irwin in the mid-1990s. But citizen science can also be more quotidian activities like farming or gardening.

There are now thousands of citizen science projects taking place around the world, many looking for new volunteers. Stacker, using the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog, has curated a list of 30 such projects for those interested in becoming volunteer scientists themselves.

Read on to learn of 30 national citizen science projects that are actively recruiting volunteers and open to the general public.

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JOHNNY RAY // Shutterstock

ATSDR Environmental Odors website

- Scientific fields: Education, Health and medicine, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: Center for Disease Control
- Participation tasks: learning, observation, problem solving
- Project URL: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/odors/index.html

Residents of communities impacted by environmental odors can get involved in citizen science through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), sponsored by the Center for Disease Control. Through the ATSDR Environmental Odors website, residents can join forces to form citizen groups, advocate to local government, and even meet with the leaders from the facilities emitting the odors in order to try to reduce the presence of these smells in the community. They also gather information using air pollution diaries to track the kinds of odors present, how often they occur, and how severe they are.

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Oatties // Shutterstock

Biosecurity for birds Calendars

- Scientific fields: Biology, Ecology, and environment
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Participation tasks: photography, Other
- Project URL: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian-influenza-disease/birdbiosecurity

There are a number of citizen science projects for bird enthusiasts, one of which is taking photos for the Biosecurity for birds calendar. Each year, the Biosecurity for birds outreach campaign, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, produces an educational calendar to raise awareness of their Defend the Flock program, which focuses on preventing the spread of bird-borne illnesses, such as avian flu. The photography for the calendar comes from volunteers, who can submit their photos to a website. From these submitted photos, some will be chosen to appear in the calendar.

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Pictureguy // Shutterstock

Citizen Science Grid

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Birds, Climate and weather, Education, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- Participation tasks: annotation, classification tagging, data analysis, download sw, identification, observation
- Project URL: http://csgrid.org

The Citizen Science Grid, which is run out of the University of North Dakota’s Computational Research Center and Information Technology Systems and Services, supports a number of citizen science projects. One of these is Wildlife@Home, which asks people at home to analyze wildlife videos collected from various cameras. Currently, the project is looking at videos of sharp-tailed grouse, interior least terns, and piping plovers. Other projects ask volunteers to download the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) in order for their computers to run algorithms and filter videos.

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CyanoScope - EPA collaborative partnership on monitoring harmful algal blooms

- Scientific fields: Ecology and environment, Ocean/water and marine
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- Participation tasks: Classification or Tagging, Data Entry, Identification, Observation, Photography, Sample Analysis, Specimen/Sample Collection
- Project URL: https://cyanos.org/

If you’ve ever seen a moss-like green or blue layer covering the surface of a pond, you’ve encountered a bloom of cyanobacteria. These microscopic organisms, also called blue-green algae, can grow in all types of water; when water has been polluted, cyanobacteria multiply quickly into a bloom, taking sunlight and water away from other plants and animals in the area and, in some cases, giving off harmful toxins. The CyanoScope program helps concerned citizens monitor cyanobacteria in their area—anyone can request a sampling kit and start contributing to this national data-gathering project.

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DEW Picture Post

- Scientific fields: Archeology and cultural, Biology, Climate and weather, Computers and technology, Ecology and environment, Education, Geography, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Park Service (NPS)
- Participation tasks: annotation, diy hacking making, data analysis, learning, measurement, observation, photography, site selection description
- Project URL: http://picturepost.unh.edu

Photographers can participate in citizen science with the Picture Post program from the Digital Earth Watch (DEW) network. The Picture Post sites can be found in forests, parks, and schools, and each post guides visitors to photograph a single location in nine orientations. This empowers citizens to observe how their natural spaces are changing and to share these observations with others. These photographs, which can be taken with smartphones or digital cameras, are then shared with an online community. This project is sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Park Service (NPS).

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Dan Schreiber // Shutterstock

Did You See It? - Report a Landslide

- Scientific fields: Geology and earth science, Nature and outdoors, Disaster response
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- Participation tasks: observation, site selection description, classification tagging, data entry, geolocation, identification, photography
- Project URL: http://landslides.usgs.gov/dysi

Residents of areas that experience landslides can participate in Did You See It? - Report a Landslide, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). This program is a website that asks anyone anywhere in the country who sees a landslide to report their observations. There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about landslides, so scientists hope that this project will help them build a larger picture of where and how landslides impact the U.S.

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KieferPix // Shutterstock

Field Photo App

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather, Ecology and environment, Geography
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: classification tagging, data entry, geolocation, observation, photography, site selection description
- Project URL: http://www.eomf.ou.edu/photos/#new_sept_event

The Field Photo App, created by the University of Oklahoma with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), helps citizen scientists take geotagged photos and upload them to a shared community. Users can shoot photos on their phones with location references, and then other users can use the app to find photos from different places and download them. In terms of research, it assists in the studies of land use, extreme weather events and wildlife studies, just to name a few.

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FluSight: Seasonal Influenza Forecasting

- Scientific fields: Health and medicine
- Agency sponsoring: Center for Disease Control
- Participation tasks: data analysis, data entry, learning, measurement, observation, problem solving, sample analysis
- Project URL: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/flusight/index.html

Around 8% of the U.S. population gets sick with the flu each year. And while most of these people will just feel really poorly for a week or two, some of them will die due to complications with the virus. 2018 was an especially bad one for example, and 80,000 Americans died of the illness. One way to lower the rates and severity of infection, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is to have robust and accurate forecasting in place. To aid in this, the CDC has developed FluSight: Seasonal Influenza Forecasting. This project works with external researchers and has a website that allows visitors to view flu forecasts. Those interested in participating can email flucontest@cdc.gov for more information.

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Sarah Weldon // Shutterstock

GoViral

- Scientific fields: Biology, Climate and weather, Computers and technology, Health and medicine
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: specimen sample collection
- Project URL: https://www.citizenscience.gov/catalog/373/#

Another flu surveillance system is GoViral, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and run by researchers at New York University. Along with the flu, this project looks as colds as well. Participants receive a Do-It-Yourself saliva collection kit that they can use at home when they feel sick. Samples are then sent in and analyzed at a central laboratory that will check for 20 different kinds of viral infections. The aggregate data will then show which infections are prevalent in which areas and will also be able to let researchers know when a certain strain is abnormal. Those interested in participating can email rumi.chunara@nyu.edu.

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Piet Clement // Wikimedia Commons

Jungle Rhythms

- Scientific fields: Biology, Ecology and environment
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: annotation, sample analysis, transcription
- Project URL: http://www.junglerhythms.org

The Jungle Rhythms project looks at how drought affects African rainforests. This involves looking at long-term and historical data, often collected by naturalists and enthusiasts over decades. One data set that this project is focused on was taken at the Yangambi research station in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1937 and 1958. These observations and drawings were jotted down in notebooks and now the project wants to transcribe the data. However, because much of the notation was done as fine pencil drawings, they are hard to automate and need the human eye to parse out the details, which is where citizen scientists come in. At the end, all the information will be combined into a timeline of each tree’s life, which can then be matched with weather data from the time.

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Map of Life

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Birds, Ecology and environment, Education, Geography, Nature and outdoors, Ocean/water and marine, Pollinators/insects, Science policy
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: classification tagging, geolocation, identification, learning, observation
- Project URL: https://mol.org/mobile

Map of Life is an app sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). It allows citizen scientists to discover and share biodiversity throughout the world. A user of the app can enter what they’ve seen using a geo-location tag, and then another user can go into the app and search for either a particular species or a particular area to see what is there. The app also allows users to look at patterns and trends given the available data.

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Stacey Green // Shutterstock

Measuring Broadband America’s FCC Speed Test App for Android and iOS: Crowdsourcing Mobile Broadband Performance

- Scientific fields: Computers and technology, Science policy, Social science, Disaster response
- Agency sponsoring: Federal Communications Commission
- Participation tasks: data entry, geolocation, measurement, site selection description, download sw
- Project URL: https://www.fcc.gov/general/measuring-broadband-america

Sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Measuring Broadband America (MBA) program uses citizen-collected data to evaluate the performance of broadband internet in the U.S. and shares these results with the public. MBA volunteers install the FCC Speed Test app on their phones, which continuously runs in the background and makes periodic measurements based on four metrics of broadband performance: download speed, upload speed, latency, and packet loss. The app also records signal strength of connection and the manufacturer and model of the device.

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Famartin // Wikimedia Commons

National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Program

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather
- Agency sponsoring: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Participation tasks:
- Project URL: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/coop/become.htm

The Cooperative Observer Program from the U.S. National Weather Service has been in existence since 1890. Today, the program has nearly 10,000 volunteers who share daily weather measurements from all over the country. This volunteer data helps the weather service make daily meteorological observations of minimum and maximum precipitation, snowfall, and temperature. Those interested in becoming a cooperative observer can contact the NWS representative in their area.

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GreenCam1 // Shutterstock

Nature's Notebook

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Climate and weather, Ecology and environment, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Park Service (NPS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Participation tasks: site selection, geolocation, observation, sample analysis, data entry, classification tagging, finding entities, measurement, learning
- Project URL: https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook

From iNaturalist to eBird, citizen science platforms are helping nature enthusiasts turn their observations into scientific data. Nature’s Notebook takes this concept to the next level by helping naturalists observe how individual plants and animals change over time—collecting what biologists call phenology data. Observations such as the changing colors of a maple tree or the number of frogs you hear calling from the pond near your house can be valuable for scientists and are easily logged on Nature’s Notebook’s database.

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glebchik // Shutterstock

Neighborhood Nestwatch

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Birds, Climate and weather, Ecology and environment, Education, Nature and outdoors, Social science
- Agency sponsoring: Smithsonian Institution (SI), National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: data analysis, data entry, finding entities, geolocation, identification, learning, measurement, observation, problem solving
- Project URL: https://neighborhoodnestwatch.weebly.com/

Another one for the bird lovers: Neighborhood Nestwatch is a citizen science program that asks residents to collect and submit data on local birds. The program is run by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Citizen scientists monitor nests and track local birds and then submit that data through the Neighborhood Nestwatch website. The kind of information collected can be the number of nestlings, number of fledglings, number of eggs, and the survival rate of newborn chicks.

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Menno van der Haven // Shutterstock

NOAA NWS SKYWARN Storm Spotter Program

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather
- Agency sponsoring: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Participation tasks: audio video recording, identification, learning, measurement, observation, photography
- Project URL: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/skywarn/

The SKYWARN Weather Spotter Program is another project from the National Weather Service (NWS). It is a volunteer program with over 350,000 participants who are trained to keep their local communities safe from weather events such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, and lightning. The volunteers provide timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the NWS. Anyone can become a volunteer by taking a free two-hour class, which teaches the basics of thunderstorm development, how to report severe weather, and severe weather safety.

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USFWS // Flickr

Nonindigenous Aquatic Species (NAS) Program

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Ecology and environment, Nature and outdoors, Ocean/water and marine
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Science Foundation (NSF), National Park Service (NPS)
- Participation tasks: geolocation, observation, photography, specimen sample collection, identification, site selection description
- Project URL: http://nas.er.usgs.gov/

A nonindigenous species, also called an introduced species, has been brought into a region outside of where it normally lives and now poses dangers to local wildlife. The Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program compiles data on such species living in salt and freshwater environments in and around America, such as the inland silversides, which displaced native fish in Clear Lake, Calif., and the red-eared slider, a common turtle in the pet trade which has been introduced across the country. Anyone can report a nonindigenous species sighting through a form on the NAS site.

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Bwk055 // Wikimedia Commons

North American Bird Phenology Program

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Birds, Ecology and environment, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Park Service (NPS)
- Participation tasks:
- Project URL: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/index.cfm

Citizen Scientists can help rescue a dataset of 6 million observations of over 800 bird species, looking at nearly a century between the 1880s and 1970s. The North American Bird Phenology Program asks volunteer scientists to help transcribe these records, which are then stored in a database that is shared with scientists, managers, educators, and the general program. The program was revived in 2009, and in the last 10 years, nearly 1 million records have been input. Those interested in volunteering can contact sdroege@usgs.gov.

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Samib123 // Shutterstock

National Phytoplankton Monitoring Network

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Chemistry, Climate and weather, Ecology and environment, Nature and outdoors, Ocean/water and marine
- Agency sponsoring: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Participation tasks:
- Project URL: https://coastalscience.noaa.gov/project/national-phytoplankton-monitoring-network/

70% of the atmosphere’s oxygen is produced by marine plants, and much of that production is from phytoplankton, tiny plants that drift freely in ocean currents. Yet in many coastal regions of the U.S., algal blooms threaten this oxygen production, impacting the coastal economy at an average of $82 million per year. The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network combines the expertise of the NOAA and agencies in 22 states and territories with the energy of students and other volunteers to sample and analyze algae, keeping track of potential threats to the coastline. Volunteers can get trained to recognize phytoplankton and collect samples through workshops and online webinars.

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Dmitry Naumov // Shutterstock

Project Budburst

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather, Ecology and environment, Geography, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: data entry, geolocation, identification, observation
- Project URL: http://www.budburst.org

Project Budburst asks citizen scientists—who may be gardeners or just plant enthusiasts—to share stories of the plants and animals who are affected by human activities on the environment. This project, through the Chicago Botanic Garden, asks volunteer scientists to observe plants in their area and then post these observations through the Budburst website. The current project is looking specifically at nativars, which are cultivated versions of native plants that differ from their parent species, and whether it is OK to use nativars in pollinator gardens. Volunteer observations on these nativars will help scientists better answer this question.

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avtk // Shutterstock

Rockd

- Scientific fields: Geography, Geology and earth science, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: classification tagging, data entry, finding entities, geolocation, identification, observation, photography, site selection description
- Project URL: https://rockd.org

Rockd is a mobile app that allows volunteer scientists to document the geology where they live. Citizen scientists can take photos, tag stratigraphic names, and use the phone’s compass to record strike and dip, even when offline. The app also allows users to explore the kinds of geologic formations and structures anywhere in the world, using the interactive map feature. Because the information is geotagged, users can access geologic data wherever they are standing to see what is beneath their feet. The app is available for iPhones and Androids.

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Tim Gra // Shutterstock

Smoke Sense

- Scientific fields: Ecology and environment, Health and medicine
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Participation tasks: data_entry, learning, observation
- Project URL: https://www.epa.gov/air-research/smoke-sense-study-citizen-science-project-using-mobile-app

Wildfires ravage homes and destroy valuable forests, but they also create a public health problem: The smoke from large fires exposes people to pollutants such as particulate matter, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The Smoke Sense mobile app aims to track these potential health effects by surveying residents of wildfire-prone areas on whether they smell smoke or notice respiratory or cardiovascular symptoms. You can download the app or contact SmokeSense@epa.gov to participate.

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Mr.B-king // Shutterstock

Students' Cloud observations On-Line

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather
- Agency sponsoring: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- Participation tasks: classification tagging, data analysis, data entry, identification, learning, measurement, observation, photography
- Project URL: http://scool.larc.nasa.gov

This NASA-sponsored project is one for the students. The Students’ Cloud observations on-line—also known as NASA S’COOL—asks student scientists to record their cloud observations and send them to NASA. This information helps NASA learn more about the Earth as a system. Students interested in participating can download the GLOBE Observer app on their Apple or Android devices and submit their observations. Anyone from around the world can participate.

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Dan Ross // Shutterstock

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather, Nature and outdoors
- Agency sponsoring: Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: problem solving
- Project URL: http://www.cocorahs.org

This project was created by the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in response to a 1997 flood that killed five people and caused over $200 million in damages. The project, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), allows volunteers to collect and submit daily precipitation data, which goes on a website that is easily accessible to the public. Although the project began in Colorado, it now has over 20,000 volunteers in all 50 states as well as Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Canada. This data helps scientists and policymakers better plan for extreme weather and engages volunteer scientists in the weather of their region.

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Kwangmoozaa // Shutterstock

Invasive Mosquito Project

- Scientific fields: Biology, Education, Health and medicine, Pollinators/insects
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Participation tasks: identification, learning, specimen_sample_collection
- Project URL: http://www.citizenscience.us/imp/

Similar to the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program, the Invasive Mosquito Project enables citizen scientist members to observe and report foreign species in their communities. But this program, as you can likely guess from its name, hones in on mosquitoes—carriers of dangerous pathogens including West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis, and dengue. The project’s website includes resources on identifying and collecting mosquito eggs and a form in which participants can report their findings.

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USGS

The National Map Corps

- Scientific fields: Computers and technology, Disaster response, Geology and earth science, Geography
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- Participation tasks: annotation, classification tagging, data entry, finding entities, geolocation, identification
- Project URL: http://nationalmap.gov/TheNationalMapCorps/

Volunteer scientists can use The National Map to input local structures into the USGS National Structures Database, the National Map, and U.S. Topo Maps. Users add structures such as schools, hospitals, post offices, police stations, cemeteries, and other important public buildings. In order to volunteer, you only need access to the internet and an email address. Participants can reside anywhere in the U.S., including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Volunteers also earn virtual badges for their participation and are recognized for their contributions on social media. 

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Leonid Ikan // Shutterstock

Cattail Volunteer Monitoring Project

- Scientific fields: Biology, Ecology and environment
- Agency sponsoring: U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Park Service (NPS)
- Participation tasks: classification tagging, data analysis, data entry, finding entities, geolocation, identification, learning, measurement, observation, photography, problem solving, site selection description, specimen sample collection, transcription
- Project URL: http://nwrcwebapps.cr.usgs.gov/cattail/

Due to the hybridization of a couple of species, cattail populations in the U.S. are changing. In order to monitor and track these changes, the Volunteer Cattail Monitoring Project uses citizen science data. Volunteers document the kinds of cattails they find in different locations based on plant morphology. Researchers will then use this data, in combination with their own, to better understand the changes occurring within the cattail population.

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Chase Dekker // Shutterstock

Whale Alert West Coast

- Scientific fields: Animals, Biology, Ecology and environment, Nature and outdoors, Ocean/water and marine
- Agency sponsoring: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Participation tasks: data entry, finding entities, geolocation, identification, observation
- Project URL: http://www.whalealert.org/

This project, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has the goal of reducing the number of ship collisions with whales. To this end, the Whale Alert app was created and allows members of the public to find whale “safety zones” in order to avoid whale collisions. It also allows users to report any live, dead, or distressed whales to the appropriate response agency.

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surasaki // Shutterstock

What's your water level?

- Scientific fields: Climate and weather, Disaster response, Ocean/water and marine
- Agency sponsoring: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Participation tasks: data entry, geolocation, photography
- Project URL: http://noaa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=8e4a278576964f47b4fc050e51f344ca

What’s your water level?, a project from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), allows citizen scientists to submit their local water levels to the NOAA. These observations will then be used to map regional levels and be used by local, state, and national managers and scientists. Data can be submitted through the project’s website, which asks for photos, date, time, and location, along with information such as what kinds of infrastructure are impacted and observed water depth in inches. Users can also view a summary map of all data on the website.

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Casezy idea // Shutterstock

WiEye

- Scientific fields: Computers and technology
- Agency sponsoring: National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Participation tasks: download sw, geolocation, measurement
- Project URL: http://wieye.lyle.smu.edu/Home.html

The WiEye app, available for Androids, allows users to measure their WiFi speed wherever they are. The app currently has over 10,000 users and has collected over 250 million measurements. It can be used for wireless site surveys, WiFi scanning, and wireless discovery, and it reports the name, BSSID, signal strength, channel, and frequency for all access points within range. It then graphs this data, which is shared with the Smithsonian Institute to help understand the relationship of geography with connectivity.

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