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Earth observation and citizen science

October 25, 2019

From reporting landslides to photographing glaciers, citizen scientists play a crucial part in many Earth observation projects. DW went to the International Astronautical Congress to bring you some examples.

A satellite picture of New Zealand
Image: imago/StockTrek Images

Citizen science – the first that comes to mind for some when they hear this might be something like counting insects or birds during an organization's annual drive for contributions. But at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington DC, young scientists presented citizen science applications in a highly complex field: Earth observation.

At the "Next Generation Plenary" on Thursday, five up and coming researchers presented their projects that involved both satellite imaging and contributions from people like you and me on the ground.

The "Harnessing Citizen Science for the Future of Earth Observation" event was one of seven plenary discussions, 33 keynote lectures and more than 1,900 presentations by researchers and corporate representatives as part of the IAC's "technical program." 

The congress is hosted by the International Astronautical Federation, which was created in 1951 to "establish a dialogue between scientists around the world and to lay the foundation for international space cooperation." The International Astronautical Congress is a big part of encouraging dialog between scientists from a variety of different fields and across the world. This year's IAC in Washington DC is the 70th iteration of the event. 

Read more: Entomology is going extinct — could Pokemon Go save it?

Exhibitors at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC
Aerospace companies and national space programs present the results of their work at the IAC exhibitionImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan

Helping NASA to model landslides

"Citizen science is a great way to empower local communities to have a handle on what's going on around them," Caroline Juang, a PhD student at Columbia University, told DW.

At Thursday's plenary, Juang presented the "Landslide Reporter," a project she launched and managed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). People anywhere in the world can report landslides that occurred near them or that they read about in news coverage.

Using the Landslide Reporter app, citizen scientists will share where exactly the event happened, what caused it, whether it was near a road, how bad the damage is, etc. This way, they add more information than remote data, like from satellite imaging, could ever supply.

A researcher like Juang validates all data sent in by citizen scientists. These data points then get added to a global landslide map that NASA has been compiling for 12 years. The goal: to one day be able to predict landslides and save lives. And it's going well.

"Over the 13 months that this program has existed, we've received more than 100 data points that we entered into our system," the 24-year-old told the audience at the IAC plenary. "This has improved NASA's modeling efforts."

Tourist snapshots and satellite images

Elsewhere in the world, citizen scientists play a vital role in tracking the glacier shrinkage that's caused by global warming and contributes to rising sea levels. Tourists traveling to glaciers can upload photos of the frozen giants to the app IceKing. Scientists then analyze these high-res pictures and incorporate the information in their research. 

Read more: Citizen scientists and an app for Alzheimer's disease

People in kayaks approaching the Valdez glacier in Alaska
Glaciers attract millions of tourists every year - why should their snapshots go to waste?Image: imago/Westend61

"Scientists have surveys to gather information about melting glaciers," COO and co-founder of IceKing, Fabiana Milza, told listeners at the panel discussion. But going and examining glaciers in person is an expensive endeavor and satellites don't show them up close and personal. That's where the tourists come in.

"Ten million people take glacier trips every year," Milza said excitedly. Those of them that download the IceKing app can choose a world region, pick the glacier they're about to see and will then receive information about it. Once they're back in a place with a good internet connection, they can upload their own photos to the app.

In addition to merging satellite imaging and tourist snapshots, IceKing also offers advice on sustainable traveling, like what type of lodging to stay near the glaciers and how to get there – so citizen scientists can prepare for their next trip. 

"People are becoming more aware of the effect their daily choices have, also while traveling," Milza said.

'There's space for everyone'

So citizen science does not only help with Earth observation efforts. It also works the other way around – being a citizen scientist also influences those who are involved in the effort. Juang says it's a good gateway to get people interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). After that, those who caught the science bug can share their enthusiasm with others.

"STEM outreach is so important," Juang said. "Good role models is what got me into science." 

Read more: ESA's Sentinel-3b satellite marks the next step in the Copernicus earth observation program

Students in Thailand looking at mosquito larvae
Students in Thailand use the GLOBE Program's app to identify mosquito larvaeImage: GLOBE Program

Kristin Wegner was one of the moderators of Thursday's panel. She is a project manager with the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program, where she heads up a project that has citizen scientists help battle the Zika virus by collecting and identifying mosquito larvae.

"There is space for everyone to contribute" in citizen science, Wegner told DW. "It's a good opportunity to share the benefits of science." 

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker