Published: January 2nd 2020



Power to the people – the role of citizen science in Africa’s scientific development

Published: January 2nd 2020

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


Here at Bobab, we really value variety of perspectives – we find inspiration in shared experiences and innovation in diversity. And it’s not just us. Research into collective intelligence shows that diversity matters and that new leaps in logic, innovation and invention are more likely to arise when people of different backgrounds and abilities work together towards a common goal. What role then for citizen science in Africa’s scientific development?

Citizen science! It sounds great doesn’t it?! There’s something powerfully democratising about it – inspiring, inclusive, exciting – and feels a million miles from the white coated academics and sterile labs full of expensive equipment that most people think of when you say the word ‘science’. But what is citizen science and how is currently being used in Africa? What’s the role for ordinary citizens in Africa’s future scientific, environmental and socio-economic development? And what are the barriers to increased public engagement in scientific projects across the continent?

First of all, it’s important to stress that citizen science has been around for a while. Volunteers have been contributing data and insights to a wide variety programmes around the world for decades. And this is a crucial point – citizen science engages non-professionals in scientific research, involving them in crowdsourcing, data collection and data analysis.

These contributions from individuals and communities increase sampling distribution, both temporally and spatially, ranging from long-standing, large-scale ecological projects to more personalised environmental research experiences. Today, the Internet and geographical information system- (GIS-) enabled web applications allow the collection of observations and connection with people at scales and in places that previously had not been possible. As a result, there is a growing appreciation for the positive role citizen science can play in many areas research, not least in Africa and other developing regions.

And there have been some great projects and initiatives across the continent, many of which have focused on ecology, biodiversity and conservation. Cape Town University and the Animal Demography Unit for example, have pioneered a variety of wildlife conservations initiatives involving thousands of volunteers gathering data on birds, frogs, reptiles and butterflies. More recently, the university has developed MammalMap, a project that asks citizen scientists to send in photographs of African mammals (taken in Africa) to help update our collective understanding of the distribution of animals across the continent.

In Kenya, in a crowdsourced approach to hydrological monitoring, researchers from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that by using a text-message based collection framework, citizen scientists were efficient, reliable and cost effective in supporting water monitoring. The project, conducted near Kericho County in the highlands west of the Rift Valley, demonstrated that it’s possible to increase the data pool in understudied regions such as this, whilst maintaining high standards of data quality. Although community engagement was still challenging, in a region increasingly characterised by erratic rains and where many rely on the tea plantations for their income, people were able to appreciate the significance of the their contributions in better understanding water security in the area.

And in Gabon, primary and secondary school students have participated in the Smithsonian’s Tree Banding Project, a global initiative that collects data on tree growth. The simplest metric for measuring a forests ecological health is to measure tree growth. And in a country like Gabon, where forest and jungle cover nearly 80% of the country’s geography, the careful management and monitoring of this resource is vital. Equally important is involving local children and young people, helping to bring conservation to classroom.

Student programmes such as this are a fantastic way to help ensure a new generation of citizen scientists are aware of challenges and engaged with their natural and built environments. And across Africa, teachers are being urged to drop the ‘chalk and talk’ approach to learning and do more to get their students outside and trigger their learner’s interest in real life science.

However, whilst the educational benefits may be obvious (including improving scientific literacy, critical thinking and informed decision-making), encouraging teachers to get their students involved in data gathering and observation is easier said than done. Many countries across the continent continue to face huge educational challenges. In Nigeria for example, as of 2018, an estimated 8.7 million children are not in primary school. In South Africa, pupils can lose up to 40% of learning time each year due to teacher absenteeism. And in Kenya, secondary school class sizes typically range from 40 – 59 students.

So until the fundamental issues underpinning statistics such as these are addressed, including increased investment in educational infrastructure, improved teacher training and pay and smart technology application, it seems that we’re still some way off from citizen science becoming a common practice in African classrooms.

And this isn’t the only challenge facing citizen science. The ubiquity of mobile phones (including a growing number of smart phones) across Africa might mean we assume that anybody anywhere can participate in citizen science effortlessly. Whilst there is of course a great deal of potential in the development of simple mobile and online data-entry systems for large national and regional initiatives, project designers still have to grabble with issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. This is particularly the case with remote, non-urban communities who may have limited or no access to the Internet and electricity.

The University College London (UCL) and the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) programme have developed a number of platforms that attempt to address issues around sensitive engagement with indigenous communities in Africa. The Sapelli and GeoKey platforms include geographical analysis and visualisation tools that can be used by non-literate people, and those with limited technical literacy, in culturally appropriate ways. The aim is to assist indigenous communities in knowledge co-production practices to address problems and issues that are important to them.

The technology has been used to help tackle illegal logging in the Congo basin, cattle invasions in Namibia and poaching in Cameroon, and for me, these represent some of the most powerful examples of good citizen science in action. They combine local, and often ancient, environmental knowledge with cutting-edge scientific analysis to improve environmental management, as well as the livelihoods of those people most at risk from a rapidly changing world.

These projects also go some way to highlighting the ethical obligations of good citizen science projects. Whether motivated by corporate interests or political gain, we should never condone simply milking ordinary people of their data and insights, with no interest or commitment to improving scientific literacy or building social capital. And, when we consider that the future of citizen science is likely to be heavily influenced by sociocultural issues related to new technologies, it’s important to that we do not lose sight of maintaining strong social prerogatives.

There is still so much to do in enhancing our knowledge of Africa’s natural and built environments, as well as in the provision of crucial public services, and scientists can’t do it alone. Citizen science provides people in Africa, and around the world, with the opportunity to meaningfully engage with scientific endeavour. And whilst there are still barriers to overcome, the ability of individuals and communities to learn and shape our understanding of our world should be given the utmost respect.

Whilst you’re here…

Are you a citizen scientist? Are you leading a citizen scientist project? Or are you looking for ways to start a citizen scientist project? Get in touch today, we’d love to hear from you.