Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Many Citizen Scientists are There?

Photo Courtesy: EU Social
Hello all you citizen scientists out there! I'm still working on my big project and am nearing the finish line. Though you haven't seen me much over the last two weeks I don't want you to feel alone. In fact, citizen science is a fast-growing field and there are certainly large numbers of you to keep from getting lonely. But how many citizen scientists are there? That's a question I've recently been asking myself.

This is much more than just a rhetorical question. On the practical side, the more people we can show are active as citizen scientists the more projects will be created to fill this need, and the more funding will be made available to support it. There's also the academic interest that can use this number to interpret results from volunteer observations and establish the potential population size. And we can't forget the philanthropic side; if we can show large numbers of citizen scientists we can use that number to promote the larger charitable activities supported through citizen science. So I think it's an important question.

I'm hoping you all can help me with this question over the next few weeks. I've made some headway with my own research but I bet you all have many ideas yourselves. So here are a few tidbits to give everyone an idea of where we can look for information. But I'd really love to see what you come up with...we can then join them all together and come up with a good estimate (or at least a good approach to develop an estimate).

For starters I looked at published statistics of two of the more popular computer-based citizen science projects that are currently active. First, the Zooniverse family of projects (including the MoonZoo and GalaxyZoo projects) claims nearly 500,000 members in their citizen science community, as posted on their web page. I also looked at the number of users registered with BOINC, a large distributed computing network and home to SETI@Home. According to their published stats there are over 2 million people engaged in these types of Distributed Computing citizen science projects. So this shows a high level of interest, especially for the Zooniverse which is a relative newcomer to the field.

I also looked at people's involvement with environmental/ecological groups since these fields are a major area of research utilizing citizen science. They are also particularly suited to data collected from large numbers of individuals and participants can see the impact of their research locally in land-use and pollution control decisions. Demographics for these fields are not easily derived, however, the Audubon Society lists 400,000 members in their most recent annual report and the Sierra Club boasts over 1.3 million members in their promotional materials. Of particular interest is the Audubon Society and it's long-standing support of the Christmas Bird Count (coming soon!) and the Great Backyard Bird Count. Historically they have been important players in the citizen science world and may provide us with some unique insights.

There are many other places we can look and we can certainly talk with the researchers themselves on their own project statistics.  But let's walk though this one methodically.  What are your thoughts?  Do you have any unique insights or know of existing studies providing this very information?  Share it with everyone in the comments below and I'll be sure to return to this topic again soon.


  1. We have at least 60,000 volunteers but numbers are growing in Latin & South America as we ramp up for the 112th Christmas Bird Count. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count Reigns as Model for Crowd Science

  2. Thanks for the update on the Christmas Bird Count's stats (especially timely as I'm drafting one of next week's posts about it). With such a long history and continued scientific success it's a great barometer for the field in general.

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