Spotlight: CitizenScience.Asia | Earth Day Network

Guest Post by Scott Edmunds, Executive Editor BGI HK, ExCom Open Data Hong Kong, Co-Founder, CitizenScience.Asia

With the upcoming Earth Challenge 2020 promoting itself as the world’s largest coordinated citizen science campaign, its target of aggregating and collecting more than one billion data points will require a global effort. While there are well-established Citizen Science Associations in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. to help coordinate their respective parts of the world, many gaps remain, particularly in Asia, which makes up about 60% of the world’s population and roughly one-third of global land mass.

You may not have heard as much about citizen science projects in Asia as compared to those in other parts in the world, but what Asia lacks in profile it makes up in history, with the 1,200 year- old tradition of collecting records on cherry blossom flowering probably being the world’s longest-running citizen science project. Despite its size and population, Asia has the biggest gaps in species distribution information; unlike Europe and North America, which have strong policies from research funders to share data, researchers do not experience similar pressures in much of the Asian region. Thankfully, where our professional scientists find gaps in species distribution information, citizen scientists are ready to take up the challenge.

In the country of Hong Kong, for example, research-grade biodiversity data from iNaturalist and eBird is one thousand times greater in volume than that which is published from its biggest university (HKU).

Global unevenness and gaps in the terrestrial vertebrates biodiversity records. Source: Nat Commun. 2015 doi: 10.1038/ncomms9221. CC-BY

With the EU utilizing citizens in pollution-monitoring, and many of the popular apps coming out of the Bay Area, Asian citizen science may not garner the same levels of recognition from the public and government. This can be explained by divisions of language and geopolitics, a huge Asian landmass, and the fact that Asia does not have the political and economic unions seen in Europe and North America.

This lack of attention does not mean a lack of activity. In fact, one of the world’s most impactful and influential citizen science projects has come out of Japan: Safecast. Dedicated to open citizen science for the environment, Safecast was established in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Safecast produces open hardware sensors for radiation and air-pollution mapping, and presents this data via a global open data network and maps.

With more than 100 million citizen-collected data points, Safecast can already help to meet 10% of the target of Earth Challenge 2020. Safecast was founded out of a very Asian concern — the need for reliable and unbiased sources of environmental information that the government, for political or practical reasons, may not be providing.

This desire to fill the missing data gaps was the issue that led the formation of CitizenScience.Asia. In 2016, a hackathon was organized in Hong Kong to try to address some of the information vacuum leading to mass panic about the South American Zika outbreak. As East Asia is also home to the same vector mosquitoes that carry the virus, the hackathon found that the government data available in Hong Kong was limited and of poor resolution and usability.

This discovery prompted the utilization of citizen science approaches, translating the open source Spanish Mosquito Alert App into Cantonese and promoting it on local TV and newspapers. Local schools organized collecting trips, with these data points ingested into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database, proving that even school children can contribute to the global sum of research knowledge. These links created by Mosquito Alert prompted an invitation to join the Global Mosquito Alert Consortium and participate in workshops and meetings hosted by UN Environment.

With representatives present from the European, Australian, and the U.S.-based Citizen Science Associations, it was clear that 60% of the world was being left out of the conversation for various reasons. This spurred the set-up of a putative Citizen Science Association for Asia: CitizenScience.Asia. The 3rd UN Environment Assembly in 2017 was a turning point in addressing the geographic Citizen Science gaps, with the establishment of a Global Secretariat (the Citizen Science Global Partnership) to work with the UN and promote citizen science across the globe. On top of Asian engagement, there have been related efforts to set up new African and Ibero-American networks.

The Citizen Science Global Partnership Assemble last month at the 4th UN Environment Assembly.

A lot has been learned through the integration of Asian citizen scientists into global projects and partnerships. Biodiversity projects flourish in Asia, partly because of the rich and understudied biodiversity: Last year was the first time Hong Kong participated in the City Nature Challenge, surprising many by ranking 4th in “most species” and contributing the most new ones among 68 cities in the world. This year we can expect bigger and better things from the continent, with Hong Kong, Macau, and cities from Taiwan, Japan, and Malaysia also participating.

Environmental monitoring is equally ubiquitous in Asia, where rising economies and population densities are deemed successful when judged by their rapid growth, but less so when accounting for the resulting environmental damage. Safecast demonstrated the demand for transparent and accessible pollution data that users can trust, with a resulting plethora of air, water, and marine waste projects in the region.

Citizen science is here to stay in Asia, and will help the Citizen Science Global Partnership in its aims for global reach and representation. Importantly, the participation of these citizen scientists will be crucial in addressing gaps where there is insufficient indicator data for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as in meeting the targets of Earth Challenge 2020. All the citizens of Earth must to be mobilized to meet these targets, and the billions of scientifically curious citizens in Asian are ready for the challenge.


Contact [email protected] to find out more about how Citizen Science is developing in Asia and follow CitizenScience.Asia on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and The CitizenScience.Asia Journal.


Image: WikiCommons