5.10 Public awareness and citizen science

Citizen science (CS) is the most widespread term to indicate the involvement of amateur and non-professional scientist in making observations or collecting data. Most of the CS programs are oriented to nature conservation and their number has increased worldwide in the last decades, including those concerning the marine environment.
The dual aim of these CS programs is the collection of reliable data and the increase of people’s awareness and knowledge, which are essential requirements for responsible behaviours towards environmental conservation. The advantage of this participatory approach lies in the opportunity to expand the ability to collect information and data in space and time, in the face of limited investments (e.g., advertising, training, web platforms and mobile apps). Indeed, participants are volunteers who invest their own resources, time and skills (e.g., in SCUBA diving) because they are concerned about environmental problems.

However, there is scepticism about the reliability of the data collected by volunteers because their lack of knowledge and experience could lead to frequent mistakes. Actually, the citizen scientists are potentially a great resource, but the translation of this potential in real opportunities is a great challenge, and it requires a responsible involvement of scientists. CS programs that directly involve local stakeholders have higher probability of success, especially in the long term. The keys to success lie in simple and effective protocols, specifically developed by scientists, in adequate trainings, including skills assessment, and in timely feedbacks on the progress and success of the actions, in order to keep high the involvement of the participants. Unfortunately, many programs fail in one or more of these aspects, therefore they are destined to be short-lived and not feed the participatory approach in the environment management.

Astronomy has been a field where amateurs have contributed for a long time, butterfly counts and ornithology has a long tradition of involving people to collect abundance and distribution data. Regarding the marine environment there are various e no-profit organizations that propose projects on different aspect of marine life. As an example, iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org) is a CS project and an online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists where it is possible to record and share observations of plants and animals and to add research projects (e.g. from Reef Check Mediterranean Sea, www.reefcheckmed.org/english/gorgonians-and-other-corals/). It was founded in 2008, and right now it has more than eight million open data observations.