A new model for citizen science
“Do you think we could launch a project in three weeks?” This was the question we asked ourselves in December of 2013 when an unprecedented and historic invasion of snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) spread into the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the eastern United States. The answer, in a word, was “depends.”
Scientific research, like nearly every other human endeavor, depends on having the right people for the job. My background before joining Cellular Tracking Technologies revolved around bird research, going as far back as high school when I got involved with a collaborative project on Northern Saw-whet Owls (Aegolius acadicus). This work introduced me to Scott Weidensaul, a freelance natural history writer and ornithologist, and Dave Brinker, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Scott & Dave” were also two of the leaders of Project Owlnet, the formalized working group of owl biologists, founded in 1994. By standardizing their methodologies and sharing information about techniques for assessing age and sex, and other banding (ringing) protocols, Project Owlnet was able to leverage the emerging technology of mass email communication to foster cooperation and innovation among a rapidly growing network of hundreds of owl migration researchers in North America and abroad.
Fast forward several years, and I was able to work with these two again, first as an intern in 2007 at the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art, which organizes the volunteer-powered saw-whet owl research in central Pennsylvania, and again immediately prior to joining Cellular Tracking Technologies, when I assisted Dave Brinker in 2012 with a tracking project employing an array of automated VHF radio telemetry base-stations, akin to the Motus wildlife tracking system, to track saw-whet owls (of course). When I joined CTT, both Scott & Dave asked when CTT would finally have telemetry devices small enough for the tiny northern saw-whet owls. (“Not soon enough” was my answer.)
As the great snowy owl invasion of 2013 unfolded in early December, Mike Lanzone and I were awestruck by the extent and scale of the invasion, as well as the potential opportunity to learn so much about these mysterious Arctic predators. We desperately hoped that the phone would ring and somebody (anybody!) would want to use CTT devices to study snowy owls. But we quickly realized the problem. Nobody had predicted this invasion and nobody was prepared to conduct a large-scale study. The amount of effort and lead time required to secure research funding via grants–that ship had sailed months ago. So I picked up the phone and made a call.
As for the money, Mike Lanzone and I suggested another new idea. How about trying this new phenomenon of “crowdsource” funding? Snowy owls could not be a more charismatic species, arguably among the most popular birds in the world not just for birders and photographers, but also for their unique place in pop culture, vis a vis the Harry Potter series.
Scott Weidensaul and Dave Brinker were the right people for the job. Besides being an all-around great raptor biologist, Scott’s writing & communication skills are world-class. Dave’s technical know-how, people skills and their combined “Rolodex” allowed them to recruit a “dream team” of diversely-skilled and fully engaged people, including Drew Weber, a talented web designer (and founder of the NemesisBird blog) and software engineer and project manager (formerly of BirdsEye, LLC and now with the Merlin project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). They recruited David La Puma, a bird migration ecologist, who was moonlighting at the time as an energetic marketing guru for Leica Sport Optics. (He later went on to become director of the Cape May Bird Observatory.) Scott & Dave marshaled several experts in their network of owl biologists and veterinarians, in various locations across the snowy owl invasion zone, including Steve Huy in Maryland, Norm Smith in Massachusetts and Tom McDonald in upstate New York.
The crowdsource funding pitch was simple. We had the right people for the job, we had new technologies to leverage for new insights into the species’ winter ecology, and with public support, we could launch a project in just three weeks to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity. Collectively, we thought of all the people we knew through statewide and regional birding organizations and the thousands of additional people who belonged to birding-related groups on social media platforms. Just like the Snowy Owls had unpredictably arrived en mass, the funding similarly appeared as if by magic. (But the moral of this story is that it’s not really magic, just as the “magical” movements of snowy owls can be revealed by telemetry technologies.)
Cellular Tracking Technologies contributed to this project not just by providing new telemetry devices, recording and transmitting more GPS data than had ever been possible, but also by developing new ergonomic housings for the “backpack” devices. Furthermore, we supported this project in-kind by providing the transmitters at cost.
And the rest is an unfolding history and you can read all about Project Snowstorm at ProjectSNOWstorm.org.