Collecting of scientific data: Citizen Science

Special Report by Janet du Plooy – NCC Environmental Services

Cape Batis – Photo: Janet Du Plooy

Citizen science is the collection of scientific data from observations made by the general public and a method of collecting important environmental information.


Citizen science has a long history which includes the tracking of migratory locust outbreaks by residents in China for some 2 000 years, to modern projects involving bird counts in the early twentieth century and other outdoor campaigns to record animal sightings (Irwin 2018). Since the use of computers and mobile phones have become ever more accessible since the late 1990’s participation in citizen science projects have become easier, faster and more accurate as apps allow for data, inclusive of photos, coordinates and other information to be collected and submitted with the push of a few buttons.

The various atlas projects available in Southern Africa allow for large teams of fieldworkers in the form of citizen scientists to collect scientific data simultaneously across the region and are a very effective strategy for data collection. By participating in biodiversity monitoring programmes citizen scientists are empowered to contribute to national work on the threats to biodiversity due to climate and land-use change, invasive alien species (AIS) and pollution that adds valuable information for use in biodiversity conservation. As information is not static but changes over time under the stresses of human developments and climate change, the collection of repeated and repeatable data over a long time period is needed. These changes over time and place, collected by citizen scientists, help build pictures of the state of biodiversity which can be used for recommendations to government about conservation policy and actions (Barnard and de Villiers 2012).

Southern African Atlassing Projects

Various citizen science initiatives such as iNaturalist, virtual museum projects and the Second South African Bird Atlas Project exist for South Africa. The iNaturalist citizen science portal was launched in June 2012 and allows citizens to capture images and share identifications, encompassing all fauna and flora, into a national database of biodiversity distribution records, while users can also access forums, distribution maps, taxonomy, keys, surveys, and link to the Encyclopaedia of Life or the South African Red List for any species (SANBI 2020).

Several projects are currently available and run through iNaturalist (SANBI 2020). These include:

  • Alien Early Detection & Rapid Response
  • CREW Site Sheet (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers)
  • Dying Fynbos
  • Illegal Harvesting
  • Karoo BioGaps (for fauna and flora in the Greater Karoo region)
  • Reared from larval stage
  • Redlist
  • Roadkill
  • SeaKeys which include the Sea Coral, Echinoderm, Sea Slug, Seaweed, Sea Shell and Sea Fish Atlas projects
  • WLT Monitoring (Western Leopard Toad)

Frogmap is another platform that forms part of the suite of demography maps run through the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology Virtual Museum that any person may contribute to. The partnerships between institutions such as the Animal Demography Unit with SANBI allows these atlas projects to contribute essential biodiversity information to help SANBI monitor and report on the state of biodiversity in the country, and may be used to inform national and regional planning, policy-making, decision making and research (Harrison, Underhill and Barnard 2008).

For the birds

In Southern Africa there are a few platforms that allow for the logging of bird sightings. Birdlasser can be used on your phone and is an easy and fun way to contribute sightings, take part in causes and link to SABAP2 .

Birdlasser developed a special challenge for the stage 5 lockdown period where 1215 people isolating at home have logged species seen in their yards or immediate vicinity since 27 March 2020. As of 30 April the five most logged species include Hadeda ibis (2692), Laughing Dove (2541), Red-eyed Dove (2398), Dark-capped Bulbul (2018) and Cape White-eye (1951)(Birdlasser 2020).

Lockdown challenge on

SABAP1 took place from 1987 to 1991 while the current SABAP2 started in 2007. The aims of the project are to map the distribution and relative abundance of birds in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, eSwatini, Zimbabwe and Zambia (Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2_2020).

As of July 2019 more than 17 million records across all protocols have been submitted to SABAP2 by volunteers. This dataset is used to determine the conservation status of bird species, assign red-list status, establish Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and inform environmental impact assessments. Ideally, each pentad (a 5 minute x 5 minute area (9 km north-south by 7 km east-west)) should have a baseline of at least four full protocol cards while the most valuable and useful data covers several years and seasons so that atlas coverage can be as thorough as possible (SABAP2 2020). Full protocol cards are the most valuable and require 2 hours of birding in a pentad, trying to visit most habitat types within that pentad.  Ad-hoc cards (less than 2 hours or less than 95% birds identified) and incidental records can also be submitted and still provide important information.

The Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP) database is used in various ways for a variety of purposes with environmental consultants, conservationists, research scientists and birders being the main users of the information provided by the database. The Important Bird Areas of Southern Africa and the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland have both been informed heavily by the information in the SABAP database (Harrison et al 2008).

A bird count that involves global participation is the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) which runs over a four day period in February every year.  For the 2020 event a total number of 6 984 species (up from 6 699 in 2019) were logged in 251 277 submitted checklists (up from 204 921 in 2019) by about 268 674 participants (up from 224 781 in 2019) with participants having to spend as little as 15 minutes in their yard logging bird species. In South Africa 64 people participated and logged 515 species across the country (Cornell University 2014). All of this data provides an incredible amount of information that may be used to ascertain bird populations and distribution trends.

How we take part

Within the work environment of NCC the information derived from atlas projects filter through to EIA reports and EMPrs of construction projects. Besides doing site visits and bird counts during the EIA phase, avifaunal specialists also draw on the data available within the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2) to inform their reports and recommendations.

The fact that NCC staff has access to private areas such as farms that would not normally be accessible to members of the public would allow for valuable data to be collected and submitted to various atlas projects. This is especially true for construction site based NCC staff who are usually at the front line of animal removals and relocations which sometimes deliver interesting and exciting species. This data could inform future specialist studies, affect distribution maps and inform population trends.

NCC Consultant Janet Du Plooy started submitting protocol cards to SABAP2 in 2019. She is currently based between Clarens and Bethlehem and while conducting up and downstream in-situ water quality monitoring as part of her work she partakes in birdatlassing. A male long-crested eagle is a regular visitor to Janet’s work area and a memorable incidental record took place when she spotted a fly over of a black stork in October 2019. Other specials include African black duck, Southern bald ibis, Blue and Grey-crowned crane, secretarybird, African rail and black crake and a family of spotted thick-knee. To date Janet has submitted 6 full protocol cards and several incidental records which added about a dozen species not previously listed for the pentad.  


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