UndercoverEisAgenten Demonstrates the Power of Citizen Science

Citizen science is a unifying concept that has assisted in countless research projects where data needs far outstripped capabilities and resources. One way for citizen scientists to contribute to research is through crowdsourcing data.

Currently, crowdsourced data and the related community serve as an important tool for emergency response to natural disasters, work to chart healthcare accessibility, and help improve mental well-being by connecting people to their local green spaces. Simultaneously, involving citizen scientists allows the public to influence and help develop research through unique perspectives and on-the-ground knowledge, an exchange that facilitates real-world application for scientific research.

Citizen scientists can provide researchers with up-to-date, granular data essential to tasks like training machine learning models. They may also participate in the design of the research project itself and contribute their own scientific questions. Through these endeavors, non-researcher participants learn about the scientific process and gain awareness about issues such as climate change, city planning and accessibility problems.

However, the current mapping community constitutes only a small portion of the potential contributors worldwide whose skills and local knowledge could expand the reach and representation of data on currently-utilized platforms and beyond. By including citizens and their individual knowledge, researchers gain insights and perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked and could prove instrumental in moving geography and other disciplines toward the innovation frontier.

visuals of permafrost Photos displaying visuals of permafrost captured by drone footage from the UndercoverEisAgenten project. Copyright: Marlin Müller, Christian Thiel, UndercoverEisAgenten Team.

One project tapping into such a resource is UndercoverEisAgenten, a team of researchers equipping school students internationally with the tools to guide climate change research. The project is a cooperation between the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), HeiGIT (Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

The UndercoverEisAgenten team focuses on permafrost, frozen ground currently thawing due to rising global temperatures. These temperatures are increasing about twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere on Earth, causing the release of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane. This release exacerbates temperature rises, leading to a devastating cycle of gas release, heating, and thawing. Permafrost loss also contributes to ground sinkage, with perilous implications for infrastructure.

Understanding the extent and rate of permafrost thaw requires data, which can be gleaned from aerial imagery documenting the change in permafrost-rich areas. However, tagging these images for the amount of visible permafrost poses a significant burden to researcher time and funding. With platforms like Mechanical Turk facing concerns for the veracity of their results and the treatment of participants, an alternative method is needed to generate this vital data.

For the UndercoverEisAgenten project, that alternative method relies on student volunteers. In a small Arctic community in Canada, students are using drones to capture high-resolution aerial images of the land surface in the region around Aklavik with the help of the research team and education materials. To encourage scientific excitement, these young citizen scientists are supported in developing their own research questions about permafrost. They participate in the selection of study areas and help determine the focus of the ensuing analyses. The project has expanded into Germany, with students in Germany mapping these findings.

Aklavik, a small Arctic community in Canada Photos of Aklavik, a small Arctic community in Canada where students learn about the scientific process and contribute to climate change research by using drones to capture high-resolution aerial images of the land surface in the region to document changes in permafrost thaw. Copyright: Marlin Müller, Christian Thiel, UndercoverEisAgenten Team.

Incentivizing young people to continuously participate in the progress of scientific work is key to ensuring the success of the project and the consistency of data availability and quality. To that end, the team developed the UndercoverEisAgenten web app, now available online for public use. A tutorial enables any user to quickly understand the topic, its importance, and how to contribute through examples of special features to identify in aerial photos. The contributions are used to create a unique reference dataset for research which can be employed to automatically detect and predict permafrost thaw in the future via machine learning methods.

With plenty of plans for future development, the team is constantly innovating and improving their offering to recruit and encourage contributions. Suggestions and feedback on the app would be appreciated using this form, while teaching materials and other resources for educators are currently in the pipeline. With the web app available to the public, UndercoverEisAgenten can move beyond students and into the general population for support in this monumental effort to monitor permafrost.

As shown by the UndercoverEisAgenten project and other efforts like World Wildlife UK and the British Antarctic Survey’s “Walrus from Space” initiative and the traveling interactive exhibit MS Wissenschaft, research and data contributors often do not require advanced technical knowledge or field experience to join the community of citizen scientists enabling health, environment, and development projects. Students are only one of many potential contributing populations not yet mobilized through web applications and online resources to help create much-needed datasets from existing visual information.

The project works to address Thematic Area 1 (“Innovation and partnerships for better and more inclusive data”) and 4 (“Emerging trends and partnerships to develop the data ecosystem”) of the United Nations World Data Forum. In the wake of the recent meeting of the UN World Data Forum in Hangzhou at the end of April, several sessions also speak to the goals of UndercoverEisAgenten, including “The Five ‘Ws’ of citizen science or citizen generated data” (LEARN3.12), “Unlocking data ecosystems for more effective and inclusive climate action [SDG 13]” (TA4.03), and “Together we can do more: citizen-generated data for inclusive data ecosystems” (TA4.37).

Through case studies like UndercoverEisAgenten and conversations like those fostered at the UN World Data Forum, we can grow the list of projects empowering citizen scientists to join this valuable effort and bridge the growing gap between the non-researcher public and scientists.