It has now been a month since my colleagues Colin Robertson, Haydn Lawrence and I launched the RinkWatch project, which has exceeded our wildest hopes and expectations. As I now write there are about 875 rinks from across Canada and the US registered in the RinkWatch database, and we just got our first Norwegian rink registered. Our Facebook page gets visitors from all over, even one from Barbados. The project has gotten great media attention across Canada and into the US (including the Huffington Post). Our team is now beavering away at improving the user experience and creating outputs and products that will be interesting for users, so that we can get them back next year.
The enthusiasm for RinkWatch has confirmed in my mind something I've long suspected. It's that there is a latent and unfulfilled desire in many people to participate in environmental citizen science. Lots of people like science and nature. Kids love it. Just look at all the specialty TV channels like Discovery Channel and the enduing popularity of National Geographic. Enrolment in environmental studies programs at Canadian universities climbs each year. But not all people can go to university - most kids won't. And yet, that curiosity of nature is still inside them, as they age and have kids of their own, waiting for an opportunity to be unleashed and expressed.
There have long been citizen scientists, and organizations that serve them, birdwatchers being a long-standing and well-organized example. But, not everyone is into birds, and not everyone wants to be a member of a formal organization (I must confess, I'm a bit that way myself). I've always felt that there must be some other way to get people involved in citizen science that will appeal to a broad range of people from all walks of life. That if only there was a way to combine environmental science with everyday activities people already enjoy doing, they would throw themselves into it.
The lead character in W.P. Kinsella's novel "Shoeless Joe" builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield after hearing a voice tell him, "If you build it, they will come".* He knows what "it" is, he's just not sure who "they" are until the end. I haven't been hearing voices, and do not have a cornfield, but have always felt that if "it" were built, "they" (would-be citizen scientists) would indeed come. I just didn't know what the "it" was. I now think I do. The "it" is public outreach by scholars through projects like RinkWatch - fun, simple projects that have a scientific purpose, an education and learning value, and that leverage the fact that so many people have a smartphone in their pockets, purses and bacckpacks. They also have to be interactive, so that users can build a social community around the project and express their passions for the subject at hand.
I'm still working it out in my mind how this all might come together in the big picture, but at least for my own future as a scholar, citizen science is the direction where I intend to place more of my own energy. If you're interested, Haydn, Colin and I published in Friday's Globe and Mail what we informally call our "RinkWatch Manifesto" - our call for greater citizen science engagement in Canada.
*The book was later made into a movie called "Field of Dreams"