Article: Social inequities and citizen science can skew our view of the natural world

Article in Anthropocene:
“Maps of St. Louis squirrels reveals how citizen-gathered data can be biased by race and poverty. A group of scientists have thoughts on how to counteract that.”

My own experience curating the data for the City of Surrey does reflect a lot of the spatial biases around data collection seen in urban areas elsewhere (i.e., mostly public greenspaces and along trails).

We don’t have the same distinct type of red-lining history for neighbourhoods here. But Surrey does have a very culturally diverse population (nearly 50% are recent immigrants, or 1st generation). And we do have disparity in things like parks and urban forest canopy identified through equity and heat mapping, which is tied to income and possibly or demographics. Definitely agree that community science needs to be viewed through a social lens as much as a conservation one.


I think there will always be some bias in citizen science data and, therefore, any scientists using those data should take it into account. There will always be more data from places in/close to cities, roads, generally places that are easily accessible to people. As the article you’ve linked states, there aren’t a lot of people taking pictures of “boring” species such as rats or pigeons. Of course, social inequities add another layer to those discrepancies. I believe it is important to educate people of all social / ethnic / racial backgrounds about the importance of biodiversity and about the impact they can have by contributing to citizen science. If we’re talking about developed countries, it’s not that some communities have no resources to participate in projects like iNaturalist - pretty much everyone has a smartphone with internet access. The problem is lack of education resulting in lack of interest.


I miss reading research by a sociologist about iNat. It is social media and the demographic side would be interesting.


I read the article, and the authors had some interesting suggestions for addressing the biases they see. One approach is to make more effort to include members of these relatively nonparticipatory communities in the planning stages of a project. It put me in mind of a meeting I attended a few years ago where an NGO had a grant to improve stream habitats in a low-income community. The meeting was to engage community members in the goals of the project. There were only two community members there; the rest of the audience was members of NGOs and their volunteers, maybe because the meeting was held at an environmental center a mile outside the target community. The meeting leaders asked what the community would like to accomplish with the grant, but then they heavily pushed for removing invasive species and re-planting with native plants. The two community members weren’t familiar with the concept of invasive species. They wanted to get grocery carts and bottles out of the streams, mow grass to make the stream banks more park-like, and clear out brush to make the area “safer,” but they didn’t feel heard. There’s a lot of work to be done on this culture gap.

I’d like to see a program that would pay high school kids for environmental leadership training and then pay them to lead BioBlitz type events in their neighborhoods.


Getting the grocery carts and bottles out of the streams would be an excellent place to begin. But there would also need to be some means of fostering the will not to replace them, if you know what I mean.


Kirstenbosch has no garbage bins. Please take your rubbish home.

Mostly visitors comply. But some, drop their litter as they go. Others tuck it out of sight in the green stuff, for the gardeners to retrieve.


honestly, academic data probably does this more strongly than iNat does. Is that mentioned in this document?


I can’t offer any insight on how to fix this problem as a whole, but something I have been thinking about is that iNat having a KaiOS app could potentially help with getting more participation from people in some countries with currently spotty data. KaiOS is an operating system designed for modern feature phone type devices, and while it’s pretty rare in North America ime, it’s very common in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, because it can run on very cheap, low-spec phones.

Also as for the part about people not taking pictures of species like rats and pigeons, I personally try to post observations for even the “boring” animals I tend to see/hear. My two most observed species are black-billed magpies and house sparrows (49 and 33 obs respectively), and I also have a relatively high amount of obs for black knot fungus (7, I try and take photos of any instance of it I see that’s actually possible for me to get decent photos of). I also primarily, near exclusively, make obs for things I see in residential areas. I wonder if there’s some way to encourage people to post more observations of more boring species? I certainly can’t think of any.


This type of anomaly occurs for a number of reasons. When I was working as an ecologist in the petroleum gas industry I once had a grumpy driller ask me “why do threatened plant species only seem to grow where we want to put wells and pipelines?” The answer of course is that these are the areas where extensive ecological surveys are conducted as part of the project assessment process. Outside of project areas, ecology surveys are mainly funded by governments and are often limited in extent and generally confined to public land such as national parks. This is how I see the value of iNaturalist which collects copious records from a wide range of localities. iNaturalist observations from private lands, (farms and backyards), I think are especially important to mapping species distribution.


Citizen science is a wonderful thing with the potential for providing numerous positive outcomes, BUT the provision of rigorous ready-for-use scientific data is not generally one of them. I’ve been involved in a couple of nationwide CS projects here in Italy and the data gathered says as much, or perhaps more, about demographic and cultural differences throughout the country as it does about the object of the research. It is quite definitely NOT a place for perfectionists. Can these results be improved on? Probably yes on a small scale, setting up the study well, with rigid protocols and recruitment of engaged volunteers (which sort of defeats the very concept of citizen science), on a large scale, probably no. Without belittling the potential contribution, I’ve come to think of it as largely a way to encourage people to interact with nature in a more informed way, I suppose a little like iNaturalist itself. Then if useful data results, all the better. How and when did I become this cynical?


Cynicism is fine and healthy, Bitterness is bad.


The article reads:

But as the St. Louis squirrels show, such data can produce results that have little to do with natural history and a lot to do with human society.

Do you know data that don’t “have little to do with natural history and a lot to do with human society”? I don’t.

Our (whoever “us” means here) view of the natural world is skewed and always has been. On the contrary, citizen science helps people to have a more balanced view of the natural world: it shows them that there are many, many species in their neighbourhood, not just in remote places like the Amazon and the wildlife parks they’ve seen on TV. That’s great and very important!

The original paper is more balanced, less “skewed”. There is an analysis of 4 biases: participation, detection, sampling and preference which can help us become better, less biased iNatters (for people who want to, because we are volunteers we do what we want and that’s fine).


They have a really nice graphic about how the biases work as filters to exclude data – worth looking at even if you don’t read the text.


Most of us who are interested in the natural sciences can think back to our childhoods to remind ourselves that young people and local populations might notice details that others tend to overlook.

My elementary school was a few miles from what was then known as the SUNY Long Island Agricultural and Technical Institute at Farmingdale. Most of the pupils in my class looked forward to the field trips that brought them there for an entire school day, where they could see cows, pigs, greenhouses, field crops and other aspects of agriculture that were not ordinarily a direct part of our lives. For everyone, it was at least a break from looking at the blackboard, interspersed with furtive glances at the clock on the wall.

In one of the greenhouses, I directed the attention of one of our college student guides to aphids on some of the plants. He excitedly told the other students in his class to look at what one of kids found. My first thought was that maybe this event would eventually get me admitted to the college. However, years later I did choose to attend a different college. By that time the college in Farmingdale had evicted its aphids, I suppose, as it transformed to the SUNY College of Technology at Farmingdale. :wink:

A takeaway from the memory of this field trip is to always engage local people, including some of the little kids, on something like a peer basis, even as we strive to bring research standards into the citizen science. We might learn something from them as they learn something from us.


(I edited the topic title to make it clear that “Social inequities and citizen science can skew our view of the natural world” is an article title)


why high school? removing invasives and clearing brush for safety don’t necessarily seem like antagonistic goals. if the money was going to be used to remove invasive species, why not train folks in the community to remove the invasives, give them some input on which areas to focus on, and pay them for their efforts?


I took a Library Science class last year that had a unit devoted to the digital divide, where people in rural communities or less privileged communities tend to have less of a relationship with tech/internet. I think digital equity is an aspect of this too, because maybe people don’t know about eBird or iNaturalist or citizen scientists.


Because threatened plant species have already been extirpated from places that have been developed and therefore have no room for wells and pipelines. That’s why they’re threatened. We’re at the point now where there are only two kinds of places:

  1. Developed places
  2. Remaining habitat for threatened species

A related phenomenon is the way funding for conservation efforts is distributed. I live in Australia, all the funding for conservation goes to cities and towns, places where the voters live. Also there is a lot more funding in affluent, well educated areas. Very little funding makes its way into the countryside, where people are poorer and there is much lower population density. Funny because that is where conservation efforts are most needed and more rewarding. Much more popular to spend all the funds rehabilitating a few hectares on the city fringe.