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Citizen science and lessons for behavioural change

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One of the more rewarding aspects of crowdsourcing has been its application to the world of science.  For instance, last December a project launched to enroll citizens in the production of new and better antibiotics.  Another site, known as the Plankton Portal, allowed people to explore the deep oceans, mapping it as they go.

One of the more recent attempts at citizen science is that of YardMap.org.  Yard Map is a site developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that will allow users to add data about any habitat to a Google Maps like interface.  This data can then be connected up with data of bird counts on the eBird.org website.

What’s more, users can add contextual data to an area, including information such as any buildings nearby, the type of grass, location of bird feeders and even the presence of rain barrels.  Despite it still being early days for the site, there have already been over 6,000 sites added to the facility.

The site also comes complete with various social features that allow users to adopt various conservation behaviours.  For instance they could pledge not to use pesticides or adopt measures to ensure cats are kept out of the area.  These behaviours then are added to the users profile in the form of a badge that others can see.  The profile comes with a Facebook style newsfeed where people can post comments and photos around their work.

The intention of the site is to help improve the understanding of habitat features and how human behaviour impacts upon birds.  What’s more, it hopes to educate users on how to produce bird friendly environments whilst also giving conservationists a platform to engage with like minded people from around the world.

“One of the biggest questions in the study of environmental behavior is how to shift social norms. Recognizing that reputation is important, we are increasingly designing the project to provide opportunities to allow people to display their actions and see what others are doing,” the founders said. “That visibility is one thing we think could lead to social contagion, which can nudge environmental norms in more positive directions.”

The heart of the website is a study undertaken by the founders of the site that explored the design of social networks and how that influences behaviours that was published last September.  It aimed to improve understanding about the mechanisms that can lead us to change our behaviours.

In it, they concluded: “To be successful, projects will need to provide opportunities for people to develop a social identity and group affiliation, assess their own relative status and the reputations of others, and visualize the collective’s impact on the future.”

This finding then formed the basis of the Yard Map website.  Suffice to say however, the paper also has potential implications for other areas of citizen science, and indeed any other initiative that aims to alter how people behave.

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