What’s Invasive? Find out with citizen science.

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Headed outside? Learn more about how you can help report invasive species with the What’s Invasive? smartphone app!

California Hillsides

A photo of the savanna oak woodland with invasive grass in the spring.

I first visited Southern California in the spring. The hillsides were covered in emerald green grasses and spotted with great old Valley Oak trees—a landscape that is known as savannah oak woodland. After visiting a few national parks I soon learned that all the beautiful green grass was invasive—most of it imported as seed in horse feed during the Spanish period from other regions of the world: Mexican feather grass, pampass grass, fountain grass—the list goes on and on. Grass was also used from as early as 1500 as ship ballast, for trade and as food.

The invasive grasses took over the hillsides to such an extent that they changed the landscape. This conversion to non-native annual species was so fast and all encompassing that very little is known of the original composition of the perennial species. What we do know is that natural Californian grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.

What was lost? One example is that traditional perennial grass such as purple needlegrass did not blanket the ground. They grew in clumps or patches, leaving space for wildflowers to take root. The flowers in turn attract a wide range of insects, which in turn attract many predators… and so the food chain grows.

The National Park Service along with the University California Los Angeles and two other partners have created a website and an app called What’s Invasive? (official site) where you can record any invasive species. The website is set up for just more than 90 parks and it’s growing—largely because you can add your own site. Once you have logged the park you would like to record invasive species for, you just have to wait for it to be verified. You provide the name of the park, GPS coordinates, description, website, and logo or picture for the site.


Screenshot of the app (click to enlarge).

You can select from a range of plants, plant diseases, insects, and animals that are lodged in the system. If you don’t see a species you want to add, you can request that it be entered into the system. You can also use this to create custom species descriptions for your park or site! And if you’re not a specialist, there is no reason to tackle invasive species on your own. Most of us only learn to identify two or three non-native species by site once we learn that they are invasive. You can add other people you work with as managers to edit the species list, site information, verify reports, or work with users who have made reports. So there is no real reason to fear adding a native species by mistake, since an expert will check it.

Invasive species are a threat to native plants and animals, crowding natives, consuming food sources, or acting as fire hazards. The NPS has found that having groups such as schools run short-term “campaigns” is highly effective for locating invasive species, and a lot of fun. And even if you are planning to visit a local national park as a family, download the app and get your kids involved in the fight against invasive species.

Bugs: Some people have reported issues with registration and signing in, while there are some bugs with the Android app. The iPhone app is listed as being available but Apple doesn’t have it in their app store.

Images: Ian Vorster

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.

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3 Citizen Science Projects You Can Do on Earth Day

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It’s Earth Day! Celebrate the planet we live on with these amazing environmental citizen science projects!

African Elephants

African elephants in the Zuurberg Mountains, South Africa.

The Earth Day Network records that in 1970 the average American was funneling leaded gas through massive V8 engine blocks, and industry was exhausting toxic smoke into the air and chemical slush into the water with little legal consequence or bad press.

The nation was largely oblivious to environmental concerns, but Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962 set the stage for something new, as she raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.

Earth Day was born in 1970 and it built upon a new sense of awareness, channeling the energy of a restless youth, and putting environmental concerns front and center. Now it is celebrated in some way in 192 countries across the world. As we celebrate Earth Day 2014, here is a selection of citizen science projects you can choose from, and they are perfectly suited to both the young and young at heart.

1. Mammal Map is a project that helps to update the distribution records of African mammal species. Based out of the University of Cape Town, you can add recent photos of animals photographed in Africa.

2. Based in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds in Forested Landscapes volunteers observe and record forest-dwelling birds in North America to help scientists better understand the birds’ habitat and conservation needs. As a volunteer, you will help answer the following questions: A) How much habitat do different forest-dwelling bird species require for successful breeding? B) How are habitat requirements affected by land uses, such as human development, forestry, and agriculture? C) How do the habitat requirements of a species vary across its range?

3. By 2050 we will need to feed more than 2 billion additional people on the Earth. By playing Cropland Capture, you will help improve basic information about where cropland is located on the Earth’s surface. Using this information, researchers will be better equipped at tackling problems of future food security and the effects of climate change on future food supply.

Image:  Ian Vorster

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.dragonflyec.com.

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3, 2, 1…Project MERCCURI Blasts Off to the ISS Today!!

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What happens when you combine professional cheerleaders, microbiologists, and astronauts? The answer is Project MERCCURI and the Microbial Playoffs… in SPAAACE!

SPACE FLORIDA, FL — Today, something  amazing is headed toward the ISS—microbial life from earth!This moment is the culmination of a citizen science experiment called Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the ISS), a collaboration between NASA, UC Davis, SciStarter, and Science Cheerleaders.

Watch the launch LIVE today at 4:58pm ET / 1:58 PT on NASA TV!!

There were two main goals for the project. The first involves a huge competition that will take place on the ISS between 47 different microbes that have been collected by thousands of public participants from the surfaces of various public spaces (mostly sporting venues). The microbial competitors will face off against each other to see who will grow the fastest, and the race will be monitored by astronauts on the ISS, using standard laboratory equipment. Researchers at UC Davis will host an identical race using the same kind of equipment on Earth.

The second goal involves sending 4,000 cell samples to Argonne National Lab to be sequenced by Jack Gilbert. The lab will identify which microbes are present on the surfaces of cell phones and shoes and compare them to other cell phone and shoe samples from around the country. While astronauts do not carry cell phones or wear shoes, they will be swabbing similar surfaces onboard the ISS, like foot holds that they strap their feet into while they are operating the external robotic arms and their wall-mounted communication devices.

You can get to know all of the microbial competitors, who they are, where they’re from, and why they are so cool on the official website. If you want, you can even print your own Microbial Trading Cards. Cell phone and shoe collections will continue through April!

The microbes are sailing into space today aboard Space X’s Dragon spacecraft. SciStarter’s founder, Darlene Cavalier, is on site today at the launch. She notes, “We’re here, in part, as representatives of the thousands of citizen scientists who participated in this important research project to study microbes on Earth and in space!”

Thank you to all who made this project possible. It’s pure proof that the sky is the limit for what we can do in science, together.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

For more, follow #SpaceMicrobes on Twitter.

Image: Darlene Cavalier

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WildObs: Instagram for Nature Lovers

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Collect and share pictures of memorable encounters with nature using the WildObs app.

Want more citizen science? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that.

Gopher Snake

There are nature lovers, wildlife photographers, hikers, kayakers and birdwatchers who pursue their passion every day, and most of them do so in the hope of spotting an osprey, or catching a glimpse of a mountain lion or bear. As rewarding as these sightings are, there is an equally fulfilling joy to be found in identifying a clump of apple snail eggs, butterfly or a nighthawk chick. This is what WildObs (official site), a crowdsourced program that partners with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) does—it serves as a portal geared for enthusiasts rather than naturalists or scientists—users who want to gather, share and comment on their day to day sightings.

Adam Jack the creator of the program launched it in 2008. “As a nature lover with a glorious number of encounters, and a reasonably technical iPhone user, I wanted to be able to remember wildlife I saw; what, where and when I saw the wildlife, and ideally try to build a community database to identify good places to find critters,” he said. The idea to build WildObs came in part from Goodreads; the system for books you’ve read, books you’d like to read, and book discovery. “Why not be able to record what wildlife you’ve seen, mark species as favorites, and so on. Given that knowledge the system could inform you about what has been seen recently around you, educate you with the wildlife you might not know existed, and bring you local news from other wildlife lovers.” The idea was to connect people, places and wildlife.

You can record your encounters for your own studies, or enjoyment, use the records you produce to develop a personal wildlife calendar for the year, or maintain a life list as you learn about new species. The NWF uses the program as part of their Wildlife Watch initiative, to track the occurrences of natural phenomena. In addition you can share wildlife Stories online and join the NWF Flickr group. All of this is available to both first timers and professionals.

Western Snowy Plover Family

As a wildlife community, WildObs participants help each other find the nature (for a photograph or close encounter) and users learn about the species in their neighborhoods, so the app essentially offers a collaborative wildlife experience—it helps people connect people to wildlife. When asked if the project plans to publish any findings related to the user collection, Jack says, “The database only has tens of thousands of records to date. WildObs has become more a system of ‘interesting encounters’ than every encounter. It doesn’t have bioblitz-type data, but rather more individual sightings—a Moose here, or a Bobcat there.” There are currently a few thousand users.

WildObs Android

There is always at least one exciting thing about a participatory project—something that enthuses users or that sparked the first idea for it. For Adam Jack and WildObs that would be how the app shares encounters amongst the community. “The app send its users custom notifications tailored to their interests, location and species encounter history. The ultimate goal for WildObs is to connect and engage people with the wildlife around them, and to excite them to go explore and enjoy,” says Jack. It actually sounds a bit like Instagram for nature lovers, which seems to be a pretty neat idea. Join the WildObs community via your Android or iPhone and use technology to help you connect with nature.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Images: Ian Vorster

Get the Android App

Get the iPhone App

WildObs on Flickr

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There’s an App for That! Citizen Science at Your Fingertips

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If you think science is out of reach, think again! Here are some citizen science apps you’ll always have at your fingertips!

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With this App from The Science Channel, you can spy on nature and contribute to science. Share photos and observations, contribute to research initiatives. Get started!


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Capture and share observations of sky and ground conditions near you to help researchers check the quality of satellite data. You’ll receive the satellite image captured at your location! Get started!


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What’s Invasive?

“Invasive” plants crowd out food sources for wild animals and create other headaches in nature. Use this app to help identify and locate them for removal. Get started!


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Capture wildlife encounters and use them to develop your own wildlife calendar. Partner of National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Watch working with scientific studies to extract citizen science from your recorded encounters. Get started!


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Want to run your own Citizen Science project? There’s an App for that, too! SENSR can help you create a mobile data collection tool for your project. Get started!

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found.

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

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First-ever bluebird twins highlight citizen science’s value in studying rare events

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Gerald Clark enjoys birds

Gerald Clark enjoys birds

Last September, Mr. and Ms. Winfield were reported in the news as defying odds of one in a trillion!

Did they win a lottery? Not the usual kind. They found 6 double-yolked eggs in one carton.

It turns out the newspaper’s calculations were a little exaggerated—the Winfields’ odds were actually more like one in a billion—but this was still a remarkable find.

If you eat eggs for breakfast, it is reasonable to have encountered a double-yolked egg by the time you reach your 8th carton of eggs. And that’s for domesticated poultry. What about for wild birds? Do people who monitor wild bird nests ever encounter twinning?

Last year, when Gerald Clark, a retiree who spends time enjoying birds in his backyard, was monitoring the nests of Eastern Bluebirds in Pennsylvania, he suspected a twinning event. Robyn Bailey, project leader for NestWatch, a citizen-science project administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, authored this exciting paper with Clark based on his photographs and field notes of the nesting attempts.

According to Bailey and Clark, there have only been 14 documented cases of twinning for 13 species of wild birds.

Twinning can happen a number of ways, though there are basically two ways to detect twins: dissecting an unhatched egg or finding more nestlings than eggs in a nest. Clark used the second option: by monitoring and reporting his observations to NestWatch, he collected evidence that there were four eggs in the nest, and then five nestlings. Clark even photo-documented the nest during hatching, capturing the moment when there were 4 nestlings and 1 egg in the nest.  Additional support was that one egg was oversized. Federal law prohibits participants from handling eggs, so Bailey and Clark used the images to measure the eggs digitally. The presumed egg with twins was 11% longer and 12% wider than the other eggs.

Among double-yolked eggs in other species, hatching success is reported to be low, probably because the twins are crowded. After all, one chick needs room to be able to pip the shell. Also, both embryos need to be positioned to access the air cell (the space where oxygen comes in after carbon dioxide goes out the pores of the shell). Therefore, the twins of Clark’s Eastern Bluebird in Pennsylvania appear to be an extremely rare event because not only did the egg contain twin embryos, but they were incubated, hatched without assistance, and survived for at least 11 days.

Previously I’ve said that citizen science is like the folktale of stone soup because everyone chips in a few observations so that cumulatively we get a rich mix of observations, a soup of new knowledge. But sometimes citizen science is more like a lottery because we engage many people in making observations, and when so many people pay extra attention, a lucky few, unexpectedly, make unique discoveries.

Rare phenomena, like exceedingly rare ladybugs, comets, a Gray whale in the Mediterranean Sea, and now eggs with twins, are possible to study through the large groups of citizen science volunteers. Together, volunteers contribute an untold, undoubtedly extraordinary number of hours of observations in the field. With thousands of eggs reported to NestWatch every breeding season, what’s next on the horizon? Sign up alone, or set up a group monitoring program, with NestWatch today and see what you might discover in this type of lottery!

Category: Citizen science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Into Citizen Science!

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The equinox is upon us. Budding trees and baby birds will soon greet us. As the weather gets warmer, be ready to Spring into action with these five springtime citizen science projects!

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Project BudBurst

Help scientists understand the impacts of global climate change! Report data on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants in your area. To participate, you simply need access to a plant. Get started!

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Camel Cricket Census

The Your Wild Life team needs citizen scientists to share observations and photos of camel crickets in your home! Many keen citizen observers have reported a preponderance of camel crickets, and interesting patterns in cricket distribution have emerged! Get started!

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Where’s the Elderberry Longhorn Beetle?

This beautiful beetle species lived throughout eastern North America but in recent decades it’s all but disappeared. To help solve this mystery, a Drexel University researcher wants you to be on the lookout for this beauty of a beetle now through June. Get started!

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CoCoRaHS:Rain, Hail, Snow Network

When a rain, hail, or snow storm occurs, take measurements of precipitation from your location.Your data will be used by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, and more! Get started!

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Help scientists understand how environmental change and habitat destruction affect breeding birds. Visit nests once or twice each week and monitor their progression from incubating eggs to fuzzy chicks to fully feathered adults. Get started!


This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

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Measuring Environmental Stewardship

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Environmental Behaviors Project seeks help in sorting and ranking environmental stewardship.


Many citizen science projects have been very successful in collecting high-quality scientific data through the participation of citizen scientists. However, less emphasis has been placed on documenting changes to citizen scientists themselves. In particular, many projects hope participants will increase their environmental stewardship practices, but few, if any projects, have been able to accurately measure or detect behavior change as a result of participation.

Beginning in 2010, our team of researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology set out to create a toolkit of resources for helping project leaders measure participant outcomes. This project, titled DEVISE (Developing, Validating, and Implementing Situated Evaluation Instruments), is the parent of the Environmental Behaviors Project. In fact, the EBP is one of the final elements of the toolkit to be developed. So far, the DEVISE team has created and tested valid tools to measure interest, motivation, self-efficacy, and skills related to both science and environmental action.

When completed, the Environmental Behaviors Project will result in a tool for measuring environmental stewardship behaviors in citizen science participants. We are looking for about 75 participants to sort a variety of stewardship activities into categories, and then rank those same activities by ease and importance. What makes this tool unique is that it will have input from a variety of people and be a weighted scale, informed by the degree of ease and importance that people assign to each item.

The environmental behaviors tool will be an exciting conclusion to the DEVISE project. It is very common for citizen science projects to list behavioral change and increased stewardship as main goals – but these can be very difficult to measure accurately! Hopefully, by making this, and the other DEVISE tools available to project leaders, we can go beyond anecdotal accounts of the power of citizen science and provide evidence-based outcomes of the importance of citizen science to the people who make it possible.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Image: Glacier NPS


Tina Phillips
Evaluation Program Manager
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Marion Ferguson
DEVISE Project Assistant
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Meet Your Invisible Neighbors: Microbes Citizen Science Projects

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They’re all around us–microbes, that is! Here are some projects to help you explore the microbiome on earth, in space, and inside our own bodies.

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It’s time! Microbes collected by citizen scientists are heading to the International Space Station this weekend! This project from UC Davis, SciStarter, Science Cheerleader, Space Florida and Nanoracks still needs your help collecting microbes from shoes and cellphone. Find out why, here. Get started!


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American Gut

Compare the microbes in your gut to those in the guts of thousands of other people in the US and elsewhere and help researchers learn more about the influence of microbes. American Gut is a project built on open-source, open-access principles. Get started!


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uBiome is the world’s first effort to map the human microbiome through citizen science. The microbiome are the bacteria that live on and within us. Take a look at yours! Get started!


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Think you have the flu? Join GoViral participants who report symptoms weekly using a website or mobile app and help researchers in the process. Get a Do-It-Yourself flu test kit, too. Get started!


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Help classify plant cell images by their “clumpiness” and give insights into the progression of bacterial infection in plant cells. Get started!

Calling hackers and developers! SciStarter is organizing pop-up hackathons to develop open APIs and other tools to help citizen scientists. Contact the SciStarter Team if you’d like to join us in Boston, Philly, NYC, or Washington, DC in April! Email info@scistarter.com

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

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A New Association Wants YOU! Calling all Supporters of Citizen Science!

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IMAGINE a world where all people are able to understand, value, and participate in science. This is the vision that inspires the Citizen Science Association (CSA), an emerging organization that will support organizers advancing scientific research that involves the public. It isn’t so hard to do. There are many prominent ornithological programs that engage bird watchers in research. These are not the only ones.  There have been many scientific contributions of amateur astronomers. These are not the only ones. Right now you could look at almost any scientific discipline, and if you look deeply enough and carefully enough you’re going to see some aspects of citizen science happening.

As announced at a February 16th AAAS meeting:

“The CSA is offering free inaugural membership for 2014 to grow, unite, and guide this global community of practice focused on public participation in citizen science. The CSA recognizes all forms of citizen science and focuses on building the community of practice involving those who organize volunteers. Whether organizers are scientists, educators, data managers, technology specialists, evaluators, or enthusiastic volunteers, the CSA welcomes those who want to benefit form a network based on the diverse practices of citizen science.”

The work of building the association is just beginning to take shape. While four committees have begun to coordinate planning, the Association is soliciting the involvement and leadership of future members. Membership requires no financial contribution at this point, and people receive complementary membership by completing a short survey.  According to the CSA, this survey will help the Association understand the diverse needs, interests, and expertise of the citizen science community, gauge the energy, initiative, and commitment to CSA activities, and inspire potential funders.

Documenting the characteristics of the incoming membership is crucial because Citizen Science is a remarkably diverse field in terms of disciplines, sectors, and communities engaged. Panelists at the AAAS meeting included an astronomer, a neuroscientist, an ornithologist, an unusual combination for a single panel. It sounded so much like a ‘walked-into-a-bar’ joke that these practitioners jested they should crowdsource for the best punchline.  Even though the research topics differed, the methods used and the challenges faced are similar. The panel also included professionals involved in computer science, informatics, human-computer interaction, and education. These are some of the fields enabling innovations in how citizen science is put into practice.

The CSA will foster exchange, collaboration, and professional development across the compelling diversity in order to support parallel practices in various fields. To this end, the Association will establish an open-access, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to advances in the theory and practice of citizen science. The Association will sponsor international conferences that disseminate findings and innovations and act as networking events. By building a digital community of practice, and compiling tools and resources to further best practices in the field, the CSA hopes to serve as an umbrella organization, drawing members from diverse communities including Scistarter, The Citizen Science Alliance, and the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA).

Early support for the association is generously provided by National Geographic, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Data Observation Network for Earth (DataONE), The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Schoodic Institute, and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

These organizations have common hopes for a world full of people engaged in citizen science. You may say these organizations are dreamers. If you are organizing citizen science activities, you are not the only one. With over 1,300 members already, we hope someday you’ll join us!

Image credit: Kelly Hills

This post is co-authored by Anne Bowser, a graduate Research Assistant in the Commons Lab, a PhD student at the University of Maryland’s College of Library and Information Science, and member of the Steering Committee of the Citizen Science Association.

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