WSB: Personal benefits help attract citizen scientists

By Dana Kobilinsky

A male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) eats a berry. Researchers recently found citizen scientists successfully identified plant species in Michigan using an app, but they were more likely to use it if they saw some personal benefit. ©Dluogs

Researchers in Michigan found that citizen scientists were more likely to use a recently launched citizen science phone app when they saw personal benefits from doing so.

In a study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researchers with help from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources launched and used an app called MI-MAST to collect information on hard and soft mast production that many species, such as bears ,rely on.

“The Michigan DNR recognized that many wildlife species respond to hard and soft mast production,” said TWS member Gary Roloff, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University, who coauthored the study led by his graduate student Alex Killion. “Mast production can vary across large spatial and short time scales, and the DNR had no way to collect consistent information statewide.”

The team launched a pilot of the MI-MAST program in 2015, allowing citizen scientists to input data on hard and soft mass in Michigan, then fully launched it in 2015.

“We hit a lot of speed bumps along the way in developing the program,” Roloff said, including successfully marketing the program to get citizens involved. They found that people were less likely to help out if they were simply told their data would improve science and help the DNR.

“Participants wanted to see some personal benefits out of their involvement,” Roloff said. “Pitching it that way, they started to get interested in participating.” These benefits included information to help hunters decide where to hunt and help birdwatchers find birds responding to mast production.

Roloff and his colleagues particularly targeted hunters who already mentally tracked the production of things like acorns or berries in order to decide where to hunt. About 61 percent of registered app users listed hunting as their primary outdoor interest. Roloff and his colleagues also targeted birdwatchers that key in on soft mast at certain times of the year.

The team was concerned about whether the data was accurate enough for the DNR to trust, but after looking at a subset of information submitted by citizens, Roloff and his colleagues verified the data.

“We found really good performance by citizens in submitting accurate data,” he said.

Researchers found that 100 percent of the plant species they looked at were correctly identified and 97 percent of the records describing mast amounts were accurate.

So far, MI-MAST has about 500 registered users. About 20 percent are very active. Roloff said he hopes to see the state DNR continue the project and keep upgrading the app’s technology.

“We have got to stay current or we’re doomed to failure,” he said.

TWS members can log in to Your Membership to read this paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. Go to Publications and then Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

Read more of Dana's articles here.


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