Sharing what you see outside could help research. Here's how to do that in 3 steps

Illustration of a person kneeling down in a city crosswalk, examining a bright red flower growing out a crack in the concrete and taking a photo with a phone to upload to a community science app.
Franziska Barczyk for NPR

If you've been forced to stay close to home and spend more time outside like millions of Americans in the past couple of years, you might have noticed a lot more of what happens – naturally – in your neighborhood. From the songs of sparrows outside your apartment window to the purple crocuses bursting into bloom in a nearby park – all that nature you're observing could actually be helpful to scientists.

Regular people like you and me can share what we see with scientists through apps and websites. That's called "citizen" or "community" science. With our observations, we can help professional scientists study everything from the migratory patterns of birds to neighborhood air quality.

Why would scientists want to crowdsource? "A single scientist can work for years trying to collect as many observations as a crowdsourced project could collect in a month," explains Maiz Connolly, the community science coordinator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

There are thousands of community science projects out there, and if you've got a smartphone or computer, you can participate in them. Here's how to get started:

1. Figure out what sparks your curiosity

"Think about what you enjoy or find interesting in nature, because there's probably going to be a community science project out there about it," says Connolly.

Ask yourself: "What gets me excited about nature?"

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You might be really into bats or trees or lizards. Do you love observing the weather? Or are you a fan of birdwatching? Do you live near a body of water? Are you a skier, obsessed with the snow line each winter? Are you concerned about the water quality where you live?

"There's going to be a project for you out there," says Connolly.

2. Gather your tools

All you need is a smartphone or a computer for most community science projects.

From there, check out CitizenScience.gov or SciStarter to learn more and find projects in their databases. If you're interested in a broader topic but you're not sure exactly what you want to study, you can choose a broader topic like "astronomy and space" and see a range of available projects.

If you have a good idea of what you're interested in, you can turn right to a specialized app. iNaturalist allows you to record your observations to share with fellow naturalists. Or eBird is a great way to turn your bird watching hobby into a service for scientists, too. There are plenty of apps and websites to suit your interests.

No matter what website or app you use, your contribution matters! "We all need each other," Connolly says, "to understand what's happening in the natural world."

3. Step outside and start documenting

You can be a citizen scientist no matter where you live.

"People often see nature, especially if you live in a city, as something that is far away or hard to get to," Connolly says. "You can study nature in the cracks of the sidewalk...There are insects everywhere. There are birds everywhere. You don't have to be out in the wilderness."

You can document air or water quality in your neighborhood, watch the squirrels and their movement patterns or turn over a rock to find ants and snails and slugs.

Maybe you're noticing more robins on a grassy patch a block away from your apartment, or the water from your tap tastes different: you can take your first venture into being a citizen scientist by sharing those observations.


The audio portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.

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