Citizen Science: How to Discover the Natural World and Contribute to the Knowledge Base

On a snowy morning in October, citizen scientist (and DPL Senior Librarian) Frank Wilmot went into his back yard to measure the amount of precipitation that had accumulated in a rain gauge during the past 24 hours. He then sent the data to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRAHS), a non-profit, community-based network of volunteers working together to measure and map precipitation. 

Frank describes how he got involved:

"I think it was from listening to Science Friday on NPR, and they did an episode or series called 'Observe Everything Science Club,' where they encouraged people everywhere to start taking notes on anything to start seeing patterns. I thought it would be fun and fairly easy to get a rain gauge to put in the back yard. Then I discovered this organization called CoCoRAHS, which originated right here on the Front Range in 1998, which now has citizen scientists gathering and recording rain data (and snow and hail) all over the world. I got the special rain gauge and set it up based on instructions from the CoCoRAHS website, and I get to submit my data every day using an app as I walk out the back door to come to work. It's fun to know that I'm one of 238 official recording stations in Denver (and 7,608 stations in Colorado)."

Citizen Science is defined by Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia (available with your DPL card) as "...scientific research conducted wholly or in part by nonprofessional or amateur personnel and conducted primarily on an avocational basis. Citizen science projects are usually developed and designed by professional researchers, with the citizen scientists supplying identifications, observations, and/or simple classifications that do not require advanced training to accomplish accurately." 

We caught up with Noah Newman, Education Coordinator for CoCoRAHS, to ask him about the value of citizen scientists:

Is citizen-science becoming more important today?  

It is hard to say if citizen-science is becoming more important these days, but, rather, it is definitely more popular and definitely a good way for (certain) projects to acquire lots of data in ways that were not possible in the past. When it comes to being "more important these days", it may be in the sense where funding for science has not kept pace with the demand for funding and therefore the number of projects that are actually funded is likely less than in the past. Here, citizen-science is perhaps a way to be more efficient and therefore more important as a means of getting the data that a particular scientist might need, where it would have been much more expensive in the past to acquire the same amount of data.  

How do contributions from amateurs compare to those from professionals?  

Contributions from amateurs compare very well to professionals, when properly trained. That said, it may be one thing that amateurs are "just as good," but it is an entirely different thing when it comes to professionals trusting the data that comes from amateurs. It has been a long road, but the trust is building and, more and more, the data from amateurs are being used in official research papers. CoCoRaHS happens to be lucky in this realm–the measurement is easy and simple to do. Other projects struggle with quality data, but it may be due to the project itself and the relative complexity of the task.

Who uses your data?  

We at CoCoRaHS sometimes say, "Who DOESN’T use our data?" The primary user of our data is NOAA, and under their umbrella is the National Weather Service along with many entities underneath them such as River Forecast Centers, Storm Prediction Centers, NOHRSC (NWS for snow), and others more related to drought, such as NIDIS. Beyond the corners of NOAA, there are also USDA entities using our data for agricultural products and research, climate research groups using the data for modeling, universities using the data for research in all sorts of areas including hail. I think I could go on with more, but you get the idea.

Do you have any favorite stories about people using your data?  

Over 20 years of being in operation, we have lots of interesting stories–some of which have proven that using CoCoRaHS data improves models and many cases where major events would have been missed entirely had it not been for a CoCoRaHS volunteer there to report it. I’d say that one of the more surprising things has been the human component. Twenty years ago, we didn’t realize that we’d be getting notifications from widowed spouses telling us how much CoCoRaHS meant to their recently lost loved ones. This happens at least once a month these days, and many times we get e-mails or notes from people telling us how much CoCoRaHS means to them–how it gives them something to get out of bed for–that it gives them a feeling of being part of something bigger. It is touching, to say the least.


SciStarter will help you find a project according to topic, age, and location. provides tools for the entire research process including: creating new projects, managing project members, building custom data sheets, analyzing collected data, and gathering participant feedback.

Observe Wildlife for Colorado Parks and Wildlife 

Monitor butterflies with the Butterfly Pavillion


Be a Citizen Scientist! by Michael Rajczac, answers all the questions children have about how, where, and why it's so important to engage in citizen science. 

Citizen Science by Kristin Fontichiaro, has information about how the collection and use of data plays an important role in science projects of all kinds and how to find ways to contribute.  

In Citizen Science:  How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery, Caren Cooper discusses the essential contributions of millions of ordinary people who contribute to the scientific process by volunteering in cooperation with scientists to help collect and discover information, tracing the history of citizen scientists and how they are reshaping scientific awareness.

Environmental writer Mary Ellen Hannibal wades into tide pools, follows hawks, and scours mountains to collect data on threatened species and discovers the power of a heroic cast of volunteers—and the makings of what may be our last, best hope in slowing an unprecedented mass extinction in Citizen Scientist:  Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction 

Diary of a Citizen Scientist:  Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World by Sharman Apt Russell, describes how hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are monitoring climate change, tracking bird migration, or excavating mastodons are beginning to shape how scientific research is conducted. 

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Written by Lisa on October 31, 2019