Unify citizen science approaches to collect more meaningful data, say tree health experts

Information collected by volunteers can be of huge value to government in developing policies to control the growing number of pests and diseases affecting the UK’s trees. But to ensure that this data can be put to good use, there is a clear need for ‘citizen science’ projects to adopt consistent approaches to data collection.

This was a key priority that emerged from the ‘Future of Tree Health Citizen Science’ workshop held last month in York. Experts from academia, government, the conservation sector and citizen science organisations, including OPAL, gathered to discuss the issues and opportunities around engaging the public with tree health citizen science.

A number of tree health citizen science projects across the UK encourage people to report sightings of tree pests and diseases in their local area. One such example is the OPAL Tree Health survey, designed in collaboration with the UK government, which invites participants to monitor trees for telltale signs of key threats such as Chalara ash dieback, Asian longhorn beetle or Emerald Ash-borer.

Applying standardised approaches to such surveys would both promote high quality data and facilitate data sharing so that the information gathered can be used and trusted by  government policymakers.  It was also noted however that standardisation should not stifle innovation or come at the expense of participants’ enjoyment of the activity.

“The public can play an invaluable role as additional ‘eyes and ears’ in looking for plant and tree health pests and diseases and so further strengthen government surveillance of the nation’s trees,” said Charles Lane, Plant Health Consultant at Fera Science Ltd (Capita & Defra joint venture). “Making sure it is gathered and reported using common approaches would help with uptake of this surveillance data and comparison across different citizen science initiatives.”

Working together

Implementing this type of standardisation across the sector requires closer collaboration between the various organisations involved, which was another priority action identified.  Many bodies are already working together as part of the UK Tree Health Citizen Science Network, which started originally in 2012 as the OPAL tree health survey advisory group and has since continued on an ad hoc basis to share best practice and identify opportunities for collaboration across the sector.

“A more active network could help people gain more from taking part in citizen science, developing the skills and learning to build on their interests and feeling empowered to protect their local environment and feed into official plant surveillance efforts”,  said Dr Nidhi Gupta, a Research Associate based in the OPAL team at Imperial College London who is currently reviewing the tree health citizen science landscape in the UK.

Workshop participants also noted the importance of the public volunteers, without which none of the achievements would be possible. 

“The really exciting thing is that lessons learnt on tree health can be applied across all areas of environmental quality”, said Dr David Slawson, Director of OPAL.  He continued, “Properly understood, supported and truly valued, volunteers have the potential to become that standing army to help monitor and care for their own patch”.

“The workshop was a huge success in bringing together all the key stakeholders involved in tree health research, management, policy and citizen science practitioners and prioritizing actions for future delivery of citizen science in tree health,” added Dr Gupta.

Find out more

Take part in the OPAL Tree Health Survey