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University of Washington Helps NOAA Examine Potential for Citizen Science During Oil Spills

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Group of people with clipboards on a beach.

One area where volunteers could contribute to NOAA’s scientific efforts related to oil spills is in collecting baseline data before an oil spill happens. (Credit: Heal the Bay/Ana Luisa Ahern, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño.

During an oil spill, how can NOAA maximize the benefits of citizen science while maintaining a high level of scientific integrity?

This was the central question that our team of University of Washington graduate students has been trying to answer for the past six months. Citizen science is characterized by volunteers helping participate in scientific research, usually either by gathering or analyzing huge amounts of data scientists would be unable to do on their own.

Dramatic improvements in technology—particularly the spread of smartphones—have made answering this question more real and more urgent. This, in turn, has led to huge growth in public interest in oil spill response, along with increased desire and potential ability to help, as demonstrated during the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill responses.

As the scientific experts in oil spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has a unique opportunity to engage citizens during spills and enable them to contribute to the scientific process.

What’s in it for me?

Our research team found that the potential benefits of citizen science during oil spills extend to three groups of people outside of responders.

  • First, professional researchers can benefit from the help of having so many more people involved in research. Having more citizen scientists available to help gather data can strengthen the accuracy of observations by drawing from a potentially greater geographic area and by bringing in more fine-grain data. In some cases, citizen scientists also are able to provide local knowledge of a related topic that professional researchers may not possess.
  • The second group that benefits is composed of the citizen scientists themselves. Citizen science programs provide a constructive way for the average person to help solve problems they care about, and, as part of a collective effort, their contributions become more likely to make a real impact. Through this process, the public also gets to learn about their world and connect with others who share this interest.
  • The final group that derives value from citizen science programs is society at large. When thoughtfully designed and managed, citizen science can be an important stakeholder engagement tool for advancing scientific literacy and reducing risk perception. Citizen science programs can provide opportunities to correct risk misconceptions, address stakeholder concerns, share technical information, and establish constructive relationships and dialogue about the science that informs oil spills and response options.

How Should This Work?

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

A volunteer samples mussels off of Everett, Washington, as part of the citizen science-fueled NOAA Mussel Watch Program. (Credit: Lincoln Loehr, Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee)

Recognizing these benefits, we identified three core requirements that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration should consider when designing a citizen science program for oil spills.

  1. Develop a program that provides meaningful work for the public and beneficial scientific information for NOAA.
  2. Create a strong communication loop or network that can be maintained between participating citizens and NOAA.
  3. Develop the program in a collaborative way.

Building on these core requirements, we identified a list of activities NOAA could consider for citizen science efforts both before and during oil spill responses.

Before a response, NOAA could establish data collection protocols for citizen scientists, partner with volunteer organizations that could help coordinate them, and manage baseline studies with the affiliated volunteers. For example, NOAA would benefit from knowing the actual numbers of shorebirds found at different times per year in areas at high risk of oil spills. This information would help NOAA better distinguish impacts to those populations in the event of an oil spill in those areas.

During a response, NOAA could benefit from citizen science volunteers’ observations and field surveys (whether open-ended type or structured-questionnaire type), and volunteers could help process data collected during the response. In addition, NOAA could manage volunteer registration and coordination during a spill response.

How Could This Work?

Evaluating different options for implementing these activities, we found clear trade-offs depending on NOAA’s priorities, such as resource intensity, data value, liability, and participation value. As a result, we created a decision framework, or “decision tool,” for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to use when thinking about how to create a citizen science program. From there, we came up with the following recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge the potential benefits of citizen science. The first step is to recognize that citizen science has benefits for both NOAA and the public.
  2. Define goals clearly and recognize trade-offs. Having clear goals and intended uses for citizen scientist contributions will help NOAA prioritize and frame the program.
  3. Use the decision tool to move from concept to operation. The decision tool we designed will help identify potential paths best suited to various situations.
  4. Build a program that meets the baseline requirements. For any type of citizen science program, NOAA should ensure it is mutually beneficial, maintains two-way communication, and takes a collaborative approach.
  5. Start now: Early actions pays off. Before the next big spill happens, NOAA can prepare for potentially working with citizen scientists by building relationships with volunteer organizations, designing and refining data collection methods, and integrating citizen science into response plans.

While there is not one path to incorporating citizen science into oil spill responses, we found that there is great potential via many different avenues. Citizen science is a growing trend and, if done well, could greatly benefit NOAA during future oil spills.

You can read our final report in full at https://citizensciencemanagement.wordpress.com.

Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño are graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. The Citizen Science Management Project is being facilitated through the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. It is the most recent project in an ongoing relationship between NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

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