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How can citizen science inform better environmental planning?

Sinead Liu* and Mick Hethorn*


Catchments, Planning Practicum, School of Environment, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

(Received 24 March 2016; accepted 13 May 2016)

Worldwide, decision-makers and non-governmental organisations are increasing their use of citizen volunteers to
increase their ability to monitor and manage natural resources, track species at risk, and conserve protected areas. If
new research focuses on these gaps, and on the differences of opinions that exist, we will have a much better
understanding of the social, economic, and ecological benefits of citizen science. Literature was undertaken with a role
on citizen science, its role in environmental planning, and the growing interest in the benefits of citizen science to
inform environmental management decisions. Issues relating to citizen projects are also discussed. A definition of best
practice is established in later sections, in which two Australian case studies, supported by SEQ Catchments, are
presented as examples.
Key words: citizen science, environmental planning, SEQ Catchments, environmental decision-making, public
involvement, community engagement
We first encountered citizen science (CS) through our placement
in South East Queensland Catchments (SEQC), a communitybased, not-for-profit organisation that works to protect and restore
the natural resources of the South East Queensland region (SEQ
Website, n.d.). SEQC relies on both community involvement and
government funding to be able to maintain and uphold the
principles and values of the organisation for the benefit of the SEQ
region. SEQC has an evidence-based approach to environmental
planning issues, part of which is community involvement through
citizen science. This data is supported by expert and scientific
literature and applied to models and maps, which can then inform
environmental decision-making. CS enlists the public in
collecting large quantities of data across an array of habitats and
locations over long spans of time (Bonney, Cooper, Dickinson,
Phillips, Rosenberg & Shirk, 2009, p. 977). CS can, therefore, be
considered an important public engagement tool in contemporary
society. Its evolving methods are utilised by SEQC with dual
benefits, most notably are community engagement which supports
a sense of identity and self-motivated environmental education as
well as the collection of large quantities of data. These will be
discussed in more detail in later sections.
During our time at SEQ Catchments (SEQC), an
international conference on citizen science (CS) held at the
Queensland Museum sparked a curiosity about the type of projects
and efficacy of CS use around the globe. The keynote speakers
from Germany, America and England, Western Australia,
Canberra and South East Queensland spoke on a range of CS
topics including specific case studies, contextual benefits and
issues, and the future of CS to inform better environmental
The following article will argue for the continued
support of citizen science (CS) as an effective method of public
engagement in achieving environmental resilience and
sustainability. This paper will demonstrate how consistent citizen
observations can be used to identify hotspots of good and poor
environmental health across a region (Billington, Breen, Krgeloh,
Jarvis, 2015, p. 21). The identification of environmental health
from CS should be used to inform environmental planning
discourse which recognises the spatial and temporal boundaries
that signify where environmental health has improved or degraded.
It will also be established that information gained through CS is

difficult to obtain by other means (Billington et al., 2015, p. 21)

and is therefore critical to the role that CS plays in environmental
To support our argument a literature review was
undertaken with a focus on citizen science (CS), its role in
environmental planning and the growing interest in the benefits of
CS to inform environmental management decisions. Following
sections will discuss the associated benefits and implications for
effective environmental planning of rapidly urbanising regions.
Issues related to CS projects participating in environmental
planning and management processes through the integration and
implication of data collected are also discussed. A definition of
best practice is established in later sections. Two Australian case
studies, supported by SEQC, are presented as examples. The case
studies assist in determining current benefits and challenges in CS
projects. CS use as a method in addition to government mandated
environmental monitoring for the purpose of creating well
informed and environmental reports which serve to advise natural
resource management policy.
What is citizen science?
Citizen science (CS) enlists the public in collecting large
quantities of data across an array of habitats and locations over
long spans of time Bonney, Cooper, Dickinson, Kelling, Phillips,
Rosenberg & Shirk, 2009, p. 997). Voluntary observations from
the public using CS have been extremely successful in the
advancement of scientific knowledge, as well as inform academic
and environmental research (Joseph, Martin, Possingham, Szabo
& Tulloch, 2013, p. 128). This data has been used globally to
provide important information about environmental health. In turn
can CS contributions can be used by planners and decision-makers
to create mitigation and adaptation strategies which account for
contextual environmental issues (Bonney et al. 2009; Acton,
Hannah, Johnson, Karanth, Popovici & Weinthal, 2014). The most
commonly used models of CS use are in environmental
monitoring programs which incorporates coastal and landscape
values (Jalbert & Kinchy, 2015).
Extensive research has also shown that there are many
benefits to the usage of citizen science (CS), for example,
increasing environmental democracy, scientific literacy, social
capital, citizen inclusion in local issues, benefits to government
and benefits to the ecosystems being monitored (Carolan &

Hilchey, 2011, p. 5). Furthermore, the collection and visualisation

of data enables the decision-maker to be clearly informed on the
impacts and implications of not taking sustainability actions. For
this reason, CS plays a significant role in environmental
monitoring for the SEQ region to highlight the impacts of rapid
population growth and fragmented development, in areas of high
biodiversity, at a rate which has been labelled unsustainable.
While this article argues for the continued support for
citizen science (CS) as an effective method for public engagement
in achieving environmental resilience and sustainability, it must be
recognised that CS incorporates an assumption that openness to
diverse understandings and knowledge is an assumed public
characteristic of the mainstream society (Irwin, 1995, p. 168). In
reality, however, significant resources are required for and used in
the construction of communities which evolve into an open and
diverse understanding of the environment.
Benefits of citizen science
Critical literature reviews on the subject of planning theories and
practice have questioned the representation of citizen science (CS)
and its contribution to better public engagement, environmental
planning, and decision-making (Acton et al., 2014; Australian
Museum of Natural History (AMNH), 2011; Besley & Haywood,
2014). In this section we demonstrate how CS goals and
objectives can address sustainability concerns by benefiting social,
environmental and economic issues through rigorously designed
CS projects which incorporate continuing public involvement in
environmental observations, education and monitoring.
SEQ Catchments (SEQC) recognises that citizen science
(CS) provides an important function to communities by increasing
social capital through activities including volunteer involvement,
problem-solving, and identification of resources (Atkinson, Craig,
Vaughan & Whitelaw, 2003, p. 412) as well as active participation
in scientific projects. This enables community members to not
only increase their scientific knowledge, but also to build
important relationships within the scientific community and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). The increased public interest
in CS corresponds to growing levels of concern for environmental
issues and awareness of human impacts on ecosystems (Bonney
et al., 2009, p. 997). An added social benefit is that CS
communities tend to be more involved in local issues, contribute
more to community development, and have more influence on
policy makers (Atkinson et al., 2003; Pollock & Whitelaw, 2005;
Evans, Jong, Kusumanto, Lynam, & Sheil, 2007, cited in Carolan
& Hilchey, 2011).
Citizen science (CS) has direct relevance to
environmental planning and may assist state and regional
objectives in achieving sustainability goals and community
resilience (Department of Infrastructure and Planning, 2011). An
international example that supports this statement is that CS data
is commonly used in the United Kingdom for local environmental
plans particularly concerned with biodiversity issues (Lawrence &
Turnhout, 2005). The implementation of CS projects into formal
monitoring programs enables greater amounts of existing data to
be collected over larger spatial and temporal areas than would be
possible through mandated governmental monitoring projects
(Global Community Monitor, 2006). In this way CS continues to
be acknowledged by experts as a feasible environmental
monitoring method which has the dual outcome of community
development through targeted stakeholder engagement. As a result
communities can formulate a clear link between spatial planning

processes and effective environmental management for

sustainability outcomes including quality of life and economic
productivity (Pollock & Whitelaw, 2005).
Citizen science standards
It is generally accepted that citizen science (CS) has the potential
to make environmental knowledge and policy more robust and
democratic (Ottinger, 2010, p. 244). However, factors including
standards and standardised practices in the field influence the
effectiveness and legitimacy of CS among experts. In their work
over the last decade, SEQ Catchments (SEQC) has advised partner
organisations on the relevance of accurate data collection through
CS. The goal to integrate mandated monitoring statistics with CS
monitoring data faces challenges in the reliability of data overlays
when visualised in maps. For example, past mapping outcomes of
CS data have illustrated to community proponents that methods of
accurate location recording are vital to inform future decisions
made at a state level. Challenges and issues of CS have generally
been placed in two main groups: (1) CS organisational issues, and
(2) data collection, data set and technological issues (Pollock &
Whitelaw, 2005).
Organisational issues
Citizen science (CS) faces issues at an organisational level. Most
notably is a shortage of funding for the sheer scale of
implementation and analysis of CS projects which would enable
the results to feed into conventional monitoring methods and
analytical results. Training, awareness and environmental
education of participants and volunteers also contributes to the list
of organisational challenges (Conrad and Daoust 2008; Bennett,
Milne, Rosolen & Whitelaw, 2006; Atkinson et al. 2003).
Data collection, data set and technological issues
Many citizen science (CS) issues are due to insufficient or
inconsistent data collection, data fragmentation and participation
indifference in recording specific observations which assist in
accurate data analysis (Atkinson et al. 2003). For example,
previous CS projects may lack well researched experimental
design and may not fully address issues such as standard sample
sizes, location times, dates and co-ordinates as well as the
suitability of images to include contextual themes such as water
depth and images which clearly depict tree species. This therefore
increases the uncertainty by both the scientific and government
communities toward the reliability and accuracy of citizen science
data (Bonney et al., 2009; Sbrocchi, n.d; Ballard, Bonney, MillerRushing, Phillips, Shirk, Phillips & Wiggins, 2014).
Citizen science in environmental planning
Citizen engagement has long been recognised in environmental
planning practice, environmental science and policy literature as a
tool for collecting data, advocating for social change and
environmental justice, making science more inclusive, and
enhancing social-ecological connections (Popovici & Weinthal,
2014, p. 236). SEQ Catchments (SEQC) has provided support for
citizen science (CS) projects in order to engage the public in
participatory scientific learning and environmental activism whilst
meeting monitoring standards to ensure quality data collection and
analysis (Campbell & Cornwell, 2012; Ellis & Waterton, 2004;

Ballard et al., 2012, cited in Acton et al., 2014, p. 236). Equally

important, SEQC and partners have used CS to understand local
environmental change. For example, MangroveWatch, based in
Elanora, Gold Coast, draw upon CS mangrove monitoring and
observation to document climate change effects of mangrove
health which indicate increasing environmental impacts to the
Queensland (QLD) coast. Outcomes of CS projects implemented
by MangroveWatch and further discussed in the case study section
of this article demonstrate the importance of locally based
monitoring (Acton, et al., 2014, p. 236) for environmental
planning in vulnerable and highly valued habitats. Alternatively, a
strong organisational focus of constructing meaningful Citizen
Science (CS) projects can contribute to better public engagement,
environmental planning, and decision-making. The following
section will inquire and reflect on the standards and standardising
factors used by SEQ Catchments (SEQC) in designing and
implementing citizen science (CS) projects that facilitate the
potential of CS to influence scientists and decision-makers for
sustainable environmental planning.
SEQCs involvement in CS projects
As part of SEQ Catchments involvement in citizen science
projects, it is recognised that standards must coordinate the
technical practice of scientists and citizens involved in monitoring
programs. These standards provide the baseline requirements to
determine relevant and reliable data gathered using ethical and
expert judgements for political, social, and economic
considerations (Majone, 1984; Abraham & Reed, 2002, cited in
Ottinger, 2010).
The standards advised by SEQ Catchments (SEQC) in
citizen science (CS) project design and implementation are
researched to include rigorous scientific information as well as
local nuances and knowledge so that CS methods are relevant and
state-of-the-art. For example, the now successful annual national
koala count project incorporates into its method and
implementation a series of testing situations in the months leading
up to the survey date. These include testing the technology used,
recording methods and accurate location recording. This degree of
testing and preparation indicate that SEQC has high standards
regarding the complete process of CS project from data
monitoring and input through to the compilation and analysis of
data. This can be used to inform decision-makers on policies
regarding conservation and sustainable development, particularly
for the SEQ region. One major publication of SEQC is the SEQ
NRM plan, which is used as a benchmark for sustainability goals
and environmental planning issues for the region. Therefore, there
is a great importance that SEQC has standardised and reliable data
which can have the effect of increased confidence in effective
action for a prosperous SEQ through a well-researched natural
resource management plan.
On a global scale, citizen science (CS) is gaining
worldwide recognition as we saw in the recent conference held at
the Queensland Museum. For instance, Berlin will host the first
international conference for the European Citizen Science
Association (ECSA) from the 19th of May 2016, which aims to
discuss innovation in open science, society and policy.
Alternatively, at a strategic regional scale, citizen science (CS) is
an important part of the SEQ Catchments (SEQC) organisation,
because it values the region not only for its resources but also for
its growing population whom inhabit the area. While communities
add to the unique qualities of SEQ, they are also the drivers of

environmental degradation therefore raising the question of how to

manage the behaviour of such a rapidly growing population.
Monitoring programs such as CS provide the data which help to
inform the following natural resource management plan actions
and objectives: regional indicators, future predicted extent or
condition of natural assets, regional actions, strategic regional
actions, and monitoring and evaluation (Majone, 1984).
CS Case studies
Case studies for citizen science (CS) projects have become readily
available in recent years with growing awareness of environmental
degradation through urbanisation, thus building on the realisation
that there is an imminent need for alternative environmental
management plans and conservation actions. Two case studies
were chosen which SEQ Catchments (SEQC) were directly
involved in. Subsequent community engagement initiatives
working towards natural resource management has been the major
goal of the CS projects being implemented. The intention of the
case study analysis is to consider the contextual, spatial and
temporal benefits and challenges of CS in differing social,
environmental and economic regions.
CS Case study one: Quandmooka looking after Moreton Bay
Moreton Bay is acknowledged as a major riparian and biodiversity
corridor, which assist in resilience to extreme weather events
(SEQ Regional Plan (SEQRP), 2009). There are significant
agricultural and landscape values which include social, heritage
and economic values as well as scenic amenity (SEQRP, 2009).
To demonstrate these values, the mangroves of the Moreton Bay
Islands provide a fundamental function to the health of the bay,
providing storm protection, wastewater filtration and is recognised
as an important habitat for indigenous culture and sea life.
In the context of the SEQ region, the Moreton Bay
Islands are particularly valued, which hold complex environmental,
social and economic characteristics. Due to the conflicting
landscape values of the Moreton Bay Islands, SEQ Catchment
(SEQC) endeavoured to collaborate with the Quandmooka people
of North Stradbroke Island from 2013 to 2014 on a wide range of
intiatives, including monitoring the health of North Stradbroke
Islands mangroves. Multiple Non-Government Organisations
(NGOs) including MangroveWatch, James Cook University, and
ReefCheck were also involved in monitoring actions and
information analyses of data collected by volunteers.
The Quandmooka people and associated community
organisations continue to gain recognition for their innovative
work which assists in collaborative and sustainable environmental
management policies. The Quandmooka looking after Moreton
Bay citizen science (CS) project won two awards in consecutive
years. In 2013, they received the Indigenous Land Management
award through the Queensland Land Care Awards and in 2014
they accepted the Indigenous Award from Healthy Waterways
(SEQ Catchments Annual Report, 2014).
Case study two: koala count 2015
SEQ is one of Australias biodiversity hotspots and is renowned
for the quality and diversity of its natural environment. Included in
this is the largest urban koala population in Australia (SEQRP,
2009, p. 47). The Koala Count 2015 was a national citizen science
(CS) project which employed a survey method for the collection

of koala statistics. The survey was developed by wildlife

specialists at SEQC through rigorous consultations with
conservation enthusiasts around Australia to construct a wideranging representation of koala populations and preferred habitat
locations. A major benefit of this type of national CS monitoring
for areas of significant biodiversity values and ecological
importance is that they provide potential for strategic
environmental planning across regions which are experiencing
negative impacts of rapid urbanisation.

engagement with a strong focus on community awareness and

diverse landscape values were a major component of successful
project implementation (Blunt & Lloyd, 2002; Roy, 2008, cited in
Hethorn, 2015, p. 18). The importance of public engagement
activities such as CS not only increase awareness of the capacity
of communities to implement positive change in their environment
but also to empower the role of stakeholder engagement into
legislative planning processes of the state to achieve realistic
regional goals such as sustainability.
Implementation of citizen science (CS) to fill the
information gap in environmental monitoring to meet
conservation and biodiversity objectives have proven successful
for long term results in both case studies mentioned in this article.
Importantly, SEQC adheres to strict quality standards in the design,
implementation, collection and analysis of data through the use of
CS projects and in conjunction with government mandated
monitoring projects. This form of management has worked well
for SEQC as the same standards are required of partner groups to
achieve a collective outcome. This type of integrated and
collaborative management incorporates the best use of knowledge
to strategically address environmental issues throughout a region.
The complexity of designing and coordinating citizen
science (CS) projects, which provide scientific value, is an
important consideration. The following section will discuss three
main challenges of CS.

Map 1. Location of koala habitats data recorded in the Coffs

Harbour region in the 2015 Koala Count.
Map 1 illustrates the extent of koala habitats recorded the Coffs
Harbour region in 2015 through the Koala Count CS project. This
project was very successful and proves that CS surveys can
provide crucial information on koalas that could not be otherwise
collected systematically, rapidly and economically. However,
there are significant logistical issues with organising this
magnitude of survey type. These include coordination of data
capture and data quality which directly impact the analysis of data
for accurate results.
The implementation of citizen projects (CS) projects to inform
environmental management and policy, supported by SEQ
Catchments (SEQC), Healthy Waterways, ReefCheck, Mangrove
Watch, James Cook University, Great Barrier Reef Citizen
Science Alliance, and Queensland Land Care among others, have
proven to be successful both in highlighting the opportunities of
public involvement for environmental issues and for its ability to
provide accurate data on mass for the design and implementation
of effective environmental planning policies. Both the
Quandmooka looking after Moreton Bay and the Koala Count
2015 projects used collaborative and innovative management
methods to be able to access the best local knowledge of how to
address contextual environmental issues. Importantly, stakeholder

This article argues that information gained through citizen

science (CS) is difficult to obtain by other means (Billington et al.,
2015, p. 21) and is critical to its role in environmental planning.
This statement is supported by our analysis of the benefits and
challenges of CS as mentioned in previous sections. Support of
current and future CS projects will rely on continued critical
analysis of CS methods as well as the construction of new
theoretical frameworks that build on the capacity of CS projects to
be incorporated into dominant forms of scientific environmental
monitoring. In relation to citizen science organisational issues,
there are many recommendations that experts have come up with.
Lack of volunteer interest could be resolved through positive
encouragement and feedback from community events. Regular
community engagement activities using social media and clever
marketing techniques can inform community members on how
their actions positively impact conservation efforts and endeavour
to modify destructive behavioural patterns which add to
environmental issues. Additionally, networking events can enable
other community organisations to become part of the process and
participate in the provision of the resources and environmental
education (Bennett et al. 2003; Legg & Nagy 2006).
Figure 1 shows a nonspecific organisational structure of
SEQ Catchments (SEQC) as stated in their annual report in 2014.
This internal and external structural organisation tasked to achieve
state and regional goals of sustainability can serve as an example
of best practice, which is a term defined as the successful
integration of actions to achieve a common goal (Victoria
Stormwater Committee, 1999, p. 1). The achievements of SEQC
in attaining sustainability and environmental goals and targets in
response to issues include innovative citizen science (CS)
projects, successful integration of environmental monitoring
actions, land use planning, community education and awareness of
environmental issues, environmental management to protect
environmental quality and coordination of other agencies to

achieve mutual sustainability goals (Victoria Stormwater

Committee, 1999, p. 21).

exist for innovative action to achieve sustainability goals as

endorsed by the state in the SEQ Natural Resource Management
Plan. Integrated and communicative approaches therefore can
achieve sustainability goals for a region experiencing rapid growth
such as SEQ. CS project outcomes of amassed large quantities of
environmental data also educate the public about environmental
issues for the prospect of creating a measured change to
destructive behavioural patterns.

We would like to thank SEQ Catchments (Shannon Mooney, Mik
Petter, Paul McDonald, Apanie Woods, Liz Gould, and
ReefCheck) for giving us valuable research assistance and citizen
science data, which has helped greatly in the writing of this article.
We would also like to thank Aysin Dedekorkut for the checking of
drafts and allowing us to improve this article.

Figure 1. The organisational structure of SEQC in 2014

Source: SEQC Annual Report, 2014
While SEQ Catchments (SEQ) is community-based and not-forprofit, they are also extremely well connected throughout
government institutions and highly regarded in the environmental
sector for the quality of their projects and publications regarding
environmental planning and sustainability initiatives across
Camera et al. (2004) offers comprehensive
recommendations as a way to identify and solve issues of data
reliability, data bias and data fragmentation, which include
standardising sample size (Legg and Nagy 2006), and making sure
that participants who assist in data collection methods are well
informed and educated about the importance of accurate data
recording. Finally, it is the responsibility of citizen science project
designers and implantation experts to create simple and easily
understood methods to enable participants to be a part of the
process and to create a legacy for future generations.
CS has evolved into a process which can successfully be
incorporated into mainstream monitoring to enhance and inform
the decision-making processes as well as to improve policies for
better environmental planning practice. A principle of
contemporary CS projects is that communities should be involved
in the processes which assist to inform decision-making and
ultimately impact on societal values. The local contexts described
in the case studies illustrate dual outcomes of well designed and
implemented CS projects. The research and reflections illustrated
in this article reveal the agenda of best practice CS projects.
Evidence based approaches used by SEQC provide the basis for
inclusion of alternative monitoring projects such as CS. In
addition, SEQC assumes an advisory role to integrate community
organisations and provide high quality maps in order to accurately
visualise and explain the extent of environmental degradation.
This collaboration also provides a snapshot of where opportunities

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