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Tracking the beginnings of citizen science

FIRST STEPS: CITIZEN SCIENCE IN ECOLOGY IN INDIA

Authors: Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil

Publisher: DST-Centre for Policy Research, IIT Delhi and Authors

Pages: 150

Price: Rs 230

Few terms are more paradoxically promising to a scientist than ‘open data’. ‘Funding approved’ is better, but that’s not the subject of this review. Open data promises ‘data’, the cornerstone of a scientist’s life. And this data is information that is available freely – not behind paywalls or red tape, not at the end of years, months, or weeks of repetitive, but rewarding, toil. It’s also a wolf in sheep’s clothing, filled with selection biases, unwieldy, occasionally factually incorrect, and unverifiable, from a large number of unknown sources. However, this information keeps coming, which is perhaps the greatest reward a researcher can ask for.

This vast dataset would be impossible to collect by oneself, but it can be accessed easily and analysed statistically. It also leads to the breaking down of walls between the professionally scientific and the personally curious. The dataset in discussion is pooled from public participation in research and is called citizen science.

What is citizen science data in ecology? A sparrow you spotted, the flower you photographed, a small moth you saw in a corner of your room and the weed that’s eating up your garden: they all are part of an increasing dataset which has been a boon to ecologists.

This takes us to First Steps: Citizen Science in Ecology in India by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil. In a slim book of 150 pages, the authors have compiled and documented the burgeoning field and force of citizen science and ecology in India. Given the subject, it is essential to document this emerging phenomenon in information gathering. It’s a shot in the arm that this documentation comes from a veteran source and authority, which gives no room for misinformation or incomplete information.

Sekhsaria and Thayyil have written with warmth and a keen eye on how citizen science is a resource that has been, can be and will be useful for scientists in India. The format of the book is interesting – half of it is descriptive with succinct paragraphs written in a clear and lucid style, and the other half is tabulated and contains details about 17 different citizen science projects in India. Unusual for a book, but perhaps Sekhsaria and Thayyil know from experience that this is information best appreciated and grasped in a tabulated format.

When asked about this unusual format, the authors agreed that it was so. “Elsewhere we have referred to this book as ‘a mini-book’ because the narrative part is rather short. The book has also received some criticism on this account. As we mention in our preface, the book is a slightly modified version of a research report we did for the DST-Centre for Policy Research,” said Sekhsaria in an email interview. He added that the tables were an integral part of the report and said, “We thought it would be an important part of the book as well because it provides both background and context. We have taken some liberty here but thought it relevant considering this is a new theme and a new area of research.”

The book is an interesting demonstration of how to present information when frankly, the information available is limited and scattered. It’s an example of how the documentation of a nascent but growing field can be well-begun, which, as we all know, is the job already half done.

If you begin the book backwards, starting from the last chapter first, you still miss out on nothing, as the authors have arranged their subject neatly and beautifully throughout (if you’re doing a last-minute school/college assignment on citizen science, read the last chapter and you’ll get full marks).

That being said, it should also make for a fantastic resource for college students of both ecology and journalism, if they need concise bullet points on the origins, trends, challenges, volume and pathways of citizen science projects.

(Review by Renuka Kulkarni. Courtesy: Mongabay India)

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