Citizen scientists

The Open University encourages a 1,000 flowers to bloom

With today’s technology, harnessing observations from a mass of volunteers to contribute to a body of knowledge has become more common.

The Open University has received plaudits for its recently ugraded ispot site which encourages users to post images to help name the flower, plant, insect or animal seen and share observations with others. When put together a broader picture of the wildlife of the country will be created. Changes over time will become apparent as data accumulates. This is linked to a new introductory course, Neighbourhood Nature, which includes iSpot as a field based activity.

Another OU based project is Creative Climate, which will present and archive a body of stories of people’s experiences and experiments with environmental change over a ten year period (from 2009).

But these projects have echoes from the University’s past. Forty years ago today an OU press release announced ‘Home-degree “army” to attack air pollution’. The University was in the process of recruiting its first students for a 1971 start and proclaimed that the 8,000 students taking its first year science course would be carrying out a ‘never-done-before “blanket” analysis – from air samples taken on their doorsteps.’ It claimed ‘the mass tests are expected to provide government and local authorities with vital data needed to overcome pollution hazards as they may exist district by district… A survey of this magnitude has not been possible before because of the heavy cost and organisational problems involved in setting up such a field task force.’

The press release announced that students would be supplied with ‘home experiment kits’ to carry out the pollution probe: ‘the country-wide data will be processed by automatic document reading and computer facilities at the University and passed on to official agencies dealing with air pollution who have welcomed the plan.’

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