You could be the citizen scientist the world needs right now

From bird counts to COVID-19 testing, you can help researchers collect critical data from home.

Four birders on a beach looking toward Puget Sound on a sunny day.

Birders scan with binoculars for coastal bird species at Carkeek Park Beach on Jan. 26, 2020. (Hannah Weinberger/Crosscut) 

Katie Sauter Messick is standing at the back window of her Wallingford-area house, where she’s been working as a GIS specialist remotely since the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

“I spend my breaks looking into my backyard, listening to and watching the birds,” she says over the phone. She’s been keeping a list of her backyard birds since 2008. In the past few weeks, she’s been excited to see a Wilson’s Warbler in her yard, which is speckled with as many native plants and trees as she can fit. 

In a pandemic, her hobby carries special weight. She’s been participating in a coronavirus-spurred bird count study attempting to evaluate changing patterns in bird behavior during social distancing. 

“It's easy to do, it’s something that I enjoy, and I'm happy that I'm able to contribute,” she says of her daily 10-minute bird-count sessions. “It just gives [my day] structure.”

Ever since the coronavirus upended normalcy, scientists have looked for ways to capture the change and adapt research to it. Community involvement is often the linchpin that holds projects like these together. Sheltering locals stuck at home searching for ways to be helpful can serve as both study subjects for projects evaluating the human impacts of the disease and as citizen scientists who can aid researchers hampered by an inability to get into the field. 

“With the world turned upside down, community science has never been more important,” writes Olivia Sanderfoot, a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, who launched a project in response to the coronavirus. “These projects provide a sense of purpose and community, help us connect with nature and give us something to be hopeful about. And with countless field seasons and monitoring surveys suspended this spring, the data [that] citizen scientists … collect will provide critical information.” 

Here are a few local studies reacting to the coronavirus that have depended on citizen input ⁠— some of which still need active involvement. 

One for the birds

Before the pandemic hit, UW’s Sanderfoot had been planning to complete final field research for her thesis project investigating the impacts of wildfire smoke events on bird behavior. It’s novel research that, in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, would have required multiple visits to Forest Service land to monitor smoke exposure and bird activity during springtime prescribed burns, using acoustic recorders while capturing mammalian activity with camera traps. But under existing social distancing regulations, her work is limited to whatever she can do remotely. 

“Losing an entire spring could mean that we don't have enough data to actually get at whether or not bird activity is changing during smoke events,” she says by phone. “We're hoping to go out again this fall, but that's completely up in the air right now.”

In the meantime, she developed a study in response to the coronavirus: how social distancing ⁠— and the changing emissions, noise pollution and human presence in urban environments that come with it ⁠— impact the birds that live closest to us. 

Unable to visit much of the Pacific Northwest herself while hunkering down, Sanderfoot and her team are asking citizen scientists like Sauter Messick to pitch in by logging the birds they see and hear in their own backyards for 10 minutes one or more days each week. Through Cornell University’s eBird app, the helpers’ work began April 1 and runs through June 30, repeating in 2021. Monitoring this way allows researchers to evaluate when and where birds are showing up. They’re also asking people to submit general observations about local birds via this form

“In this moment with social distancing ⁠— where we have fewer vehicles on the road and we might be using electricity differently ⁠— emissions might be changing that could result in shifts in local concentrations of air pollutants, such as PM 2.5,” Sanderfoot says, referring to particulates in the urban environment measuring 2.5 microns or smaller. “So if we observe changes in bird observations now, that could tell us something about the types of observations we'd expect to observe when birds are exposed to the same pollutant in a different setting, such as during a wildfire event.” 

Sauter Messick says she might be seeing more species than usual. She has witnessed about eight to 10 species in her yard per counting session, including two species she’s never seen there before. Part of it could be that she’s spending more time home and watching, she says. But “this year's [species] list has already stretched to just about as long as any list I've had.” 

As of May 14, the project had attracted 860 participants, Sanderfoot says, including 28 birding “mentors” supporting 33 families or individuals new to bird data collection. 

A woodpecker in a tree. (Courtesy of Beam Research)
A woodpecker in a tree. (Beam Research) 

 

Mental and emotional impacts of social distancing

The UW’s Dr. Nicole Errett and collaborator Dr. Tania Busch Isaksen have been researching the public health impacts of disaster and public health planning, especially through the UW Collaborative on Extreme Emergency Resilience. 

Errett’s research into previous health interventions during infectious disease crises ⁠— including travel bans implemented around Ebola ⁠— has made her very aware that restrictive measures meant to promote public health (like shelter-in-place orders and social distancing) each come with tremendous social and societal consequences. But with no real modern precedent for anticipating how people respond to them, public health officers can't know for sure what the aftermath of using these tools might look like, or exactly how people can maintain well-being in a crisis like this.

“This really prompted me to think, how can we capture what is happening to people [as a result of health orders],” Errett says. “[We want] to bring a voice to the impact of these policies on people, and … understand how do people bounce back, what are the ways or conditions that allow them to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity?” 

Better understanding people’s reactions and coping mechanisms to health measures can inform public health officers planning for this pandemic’s second wave ⁠and future ones. 

“When public health officers are making recommendations, they can say, ‘Hey, look at these great [coping] examples that our community has identified. Can we suggest these things that can also help people to become more resilient now or in the future?’ That was kind of our long-range goal,” Errett says. “Are there alternatives that we just haven't thought about? Or just ways that we can really do out-of-the-box solutions to promoting well-being in the context of this really unique circumstance?”

To capture data, Errett and Busch Isaksen ⁠— who both lecture within the UW’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences ⁠— started the King County COVID-19 Community Study, a qualitative survey that relies on user-submitted, open-ended essay responses. 

“We're trying to capture those nuances that we wouldn’t if we just asked, ‘Are you doing OK, yes or no,’” Errett says. “We really want to know how and why, and what are the conditions that allow you to be more resilient or that promote us being more resilient?” 

Participants have been sharing as little as a few sentences up to many paragraphs to describe their experiences. As of May 13, the project has been closed to submissions, and has received at least 29 Spanish language submissions and 851 English ones. 

They’re also in the process of linking up with researchers doing similar surveys in states including New York, Illinois and Delaware, and countries including Colombia and Japan, to better put King County’s situation into national and global context. 

Looking for carnivores in King County 

While people across the world have been sharing news of increased animal presence in urban environments, data actually quantifying the differences in how animals are using cities has been scarce. But Seattle might be able to get a better idea of eight key carnivore species’ activity during the pandemic thanks to Carnivore Spotter. It’s a part of the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project collaboration between Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University. The project has been collecting user-submitted carnivore sightings through a web form since August 2019. The eight species include cougars, raccoons, opossums, river otters, red foxes, bobcats, black bears and coyotes, with the option to label “other” species.

“I think it would be really interesting to get people involved with that project now because we're getting so many anecdotal reports of people seeing more wildlife in different places,” says Seattle University’s Dr. Mark Jordan, a co-lead of the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project, “[especially] now that they're home in quarantine and maybe have more time.” 

People might send more data points not because there are truly more carnivores present, but simply because they’re noticing them more while sheltering in place. To better evaluate the Carnivore Spotter submissions, the researchers are comparing them against more limited camera trap data. Together, these data can help researchers better understand how carnivores exist alongside and interact with Washingtonians in a rapidly developing area ⁠— looking at everything from habitat use, to how they spend time, to how populations fluctuate. The researchers want to get a better handle on whether these animals’ behaviors correspond with interactions with each other or with people. 

Ecologists monitor which species are present, how they interact with their prey and ⁠— since many need big home ranges ⁠— how connected their habitat is. “They're good sentinels of how well we're treating the landscape around us,” Jordan says. “They can tell you a lot about how healthy the ecosystem is.” 

Researchers and a small group of citizen volunteers have been unable to access camera trap data during the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, but depending on activity around them, the traps at 30 sites could continue capturing images for six months. “The last time we checked any of our cameras was the beginning of March. We're kind of itching to get back out there and check them and see how they're doing,” Jordan says. 

Prevalence of the coronavirus in King County 

Because not all people with COVID-19 are symptomatic, and coronavirus testing has been slow to roll out, it’s difficult to gauge the true extent of infections in King County. However, the Greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN), a partnership between Seattle Flu Study and Public Health ⁠— Seattle & King County, has tested more than 12,400 people since March 23 with at-home nasal swab tests for the coronavirus. As a surveillance program rather than a clinical one, the tests don’t replace medical care ⁠(but SCAN notified participants who tested positive for the coronavirus). 

The program is currently on pause, as the Food and Drug Administration is requiring it to get a second emergency use authorization. 

Listen for orcas

With fewer boats in the water during the pandemic, marine scientists are eager to collect data on how the decreased noise pollution impacts ocean species. Citizen scientists can play a part now, too. 

The long-running OrcaSound project, coordinated by Dr. Scott Veirs, has allowed citizens the world over to help track Puget Sound orca whales through dedicated underwater sound sensors called hydrophones. By listening to the hydrophones’ live feeds and clicking a button when you think you hear a whale call, you can add to a dataset of possible orca “sightings” (also assisted by an algorithm) and help monitor where and when whales show up. 

“The pandemic accelerated the public launch of a more interactive version of the listening app ⁠— now at live.orcasound.net. With more people, especially students, stuck at home or in front of a computer, we thought they might like to ‘listen for whales,’ including pressing a button to indicate when they hear something interesting,” Veirs says over email. “We're lucky as scientists that our hydrophones are cabled (unlimited power and real-time data flow) and are still working. Going out to fix them as we normally do with volunteer teams would be problematic with the current guidance in Washington.”

A new type of coronavirus test

Testing is a crucial component of many leading strategies to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. And there’s been growing interest in a second type of testing ⁠— serology ⁠— which looks for antibodies that could determine whether people have already had the virus and recovered. But local companies Adaptive Biotechnologies and Microsoft have partnered to develop a third type of test called a “T-Cell” test, which they believe could yield clues to how severely a body’s immune system may react to the virus and identify whether people have had the virus even if they failed to produce antibodies. 

Via a project called ImmuneRACE, they’re asking for blood samples from people in 24 metropolitan areas around the country, including Seattle, who have had confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses or significant exposure to the virus. 

Interested participants fill out an online questionnaire, and if selected, are visited by mobile phlebotomists at their homes for a nasal swab and blood draw. 

“We are hopeful that this data will be used to help contain the spread of COVID-19, ensure the care matches people’s needs and ultimately help to reopen society,” Adaptive Biotechnologies says on its website, noting shared data would be de-identified in accordance with health privacy laws when made available to the global research community. The company also calls attention to the project’s possible value in vaccine development. “While many people are feeling powerless during this uncertain time, those who have been affected by COVID-19 have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others,” it says.

Update: This article was updated at 9:48 a.m. on May 15, 2020 to reflect that Olivia Sanderfoot is a Ph.D. student but not yet a Ph.D. candidate. 

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