citizen scientist
How-To's,  Volunteering

How to Be a Citizen Scientist with 5 Simple Smartphone Apps and Websites

With smartphones, it’s become easier for everyday people to record observations, contribute to research, and be a citizen scientist. Whether you’re in elementary school, retired, or working full time, you can be an ornithologist, a phenologist, or maybe even a marine biologist. Essentially, you can be any -ologist you want to be.

We all know we spend exorbitant amounts of time on our phones. One minute, we’re browsing Instagram, and, the next minute, we’re FaceTiming our friends. Frankly, our phones draw a lot of our attention. So, next time your phone buzzes, channel that attention towards something scientific, productive—bigger than yourself.

To do that, grab your smartphone, and get outside! It’s time to help scientists, all while becoming one yourself.

Below are 5 of the best free smartphone apps and websites for citizen science.

citizen scientist
Make observations | Photo by Loverna Journey

1. Channel your inner citizen scientist with iNaturalist.

Make observing the natural world a habit with iNaturalist. Using iNaturalist, you can create a handy record of your wildlife findings, collaborate with others to figure out IDs, and contribute to research projects. Having used this app for my first blog, I admire its high performance, accessibility, and community presence. If you’re new to citizen science, iNaturalist is a great way to start.

Now that you know how iNaturalist works, browse through some of their projects. To give you a taste of what projects are available, here’s a small sample:

  • Project Porchlight (project investigating nocturnal insects, like the insects swarming your porchlight)
  • Found Feathers (project examining the feathers people come across)
  • Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Homes (project exploring what species we coexist with in our homes, like spiders)

When you’re ready to embark on your citizen scientist journey, iNaturalist is available via web browser and app. To download the app, visit the App Store or Google Play.

*Pro-Tip: If you’re looking for a more casual and kid-friendly alternative to iNaturalist, try out Seek by iNaturalist. I’ve used Seek on hikes before, and it can be tremendously useful for IDs.

When was the last time you stumbled upon a cool plant or animal, but didn’t know what it was? To help with all those wildlife questions, simply take a photo with the Seek Camera. Then, let Seek do the heavy lifting and find your ID instantly in the iNaturalist database.

citizen scientist
Record plant species with iNaturalist | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

2. Be a birding citizen scientist with eBird.

Regardless of where you live, there are likely birds flying above you, sitting in that tree near you, or ruining that brand new car wash you got. Because birds are such a universal part of our lives, they can be great research subjects and candidates for citizen science.

Run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is a home for birders and citizen scientists all over the world. If you’re new to birding, birding is simply the art of observing birds. With eBird, birders can record their sightings and share what birds they’ve encountered with educators and scientists.

As a birder myself, I think birding can be one of the best ways to get outside, be active, and stay engaged with nature. So, if you’re looking for a tranquil afternoon filled with binoculars and Sibley field guides, try out birding. And, because birds are basically everywhere, you can use birding as an excuse to go to the beach (just be mindful of all the gulls who want to steal your food.)

Now that birding is on your radar, explore it a bit with eBird. Perhaps, eBird will be your path to being a citizen scientist.

Ready to get bird watching? Download the eBird app on the App Store or Google Play. Additionally, you can access eBird via a web browser.

*Pro-Tip: Since birding may be brand new for you, consider grabbing a field guide! I’d highly suggest purchasing a Sibley field guide. For instance, I use The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America: Second Edition by David Allen Sibley.

citizen scientist
Get yourself a field guide | Photo by Diane Helentjaris

3. Make citizen science part of your beach trip with Whale Alert.

For all my marine biologist friends out there, you may be wondering how you can help the ocean. In that case, consider using Whale Alert.

Whales are particularly susceptible to collisions with ships because of overlap in ship routes and whale feeding, breeding, and migratory areas. Because of these overlaps, whales are at risk of serious injury or death from ship-strikes.

To help protect whales, download the Whale Alert app from the App Store or Google Play. With this app, citizens can submit whale sightings and report any injured or dead whales. In this way, everyday people can be the eyes and ears for scientists and response agencies.

All this data is vital to the survival of whales in your area. For example, reporting injured whales will help response agencies get them the assistance they need. Furthermore, any and all whale sightings will help biologists evaluate whale movement patterns. This information can be immensely powerful when government agencies assess which areas to protect.

If you’re passionate about the ocean and marine mammals, Whale Alert is a powerful way to participate in citizen science.

citizen scientist
Protect whales from ship-strikes | Photo by Marie Dehayes

4. Observe the seasons and contribute to citizen science with Nature’s Notebook.

Ever noticed how plants and animals change over the course of the seasons? If you have, you are recognizing what scientists call phenology.

As climate change alters our ecosystems over time, it is vital to track what changes are occurring in these environments. That’s where Nature’s Notebook comes in.

Even in your backyard, you can do citizen science. To help you do this, Nature’s Notebook encourages everyday people to record phenological changes. For example, you may notice the leaves in your backyard turning orange. In this instance, Nature’s Notebook will help you track that seasonal change. Once you do, scientists can use your data across projects and better understand topics, like climate change and invasive species.

When I worked at the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, we used Nature’s Notebook all the time. Keeping a watchful eye on the world around you can help you feel more in tune with nature. To top it off, your observations will help researchers comprehensively report changes in nature.

*Pro-Tip: If you’d like to conserve paper and not print out your datasheets, then try using the Nature’s Notebook app on the App Store and Google Play.

citizen scientist
Observe how wildlife changes seasonally | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

5. Be a citizen scientist and protect your local sea life with NOAA Fisheries’s stranding network.

Next time you’re walking along the beach, advocate for your local sea life through citizen science. Marine animals face a variety of stressors, including plastic pollution, climate change, and beach crowding.

To combat the stress your local sea life endure, report instances of illness, injury entanglement, stranding, or death to NOAA Fisheries’s stranding network database. By calling your local stranding network, you will help ensure scientists maintain an accurate record for the area. Furthermore, responders will be able to provide these marine animals with proper assistance.

In my experience, I’ve come across sick shorebirds, seals, and sea lions. By calling my local stranding network, I helped these marine animals get the help they needed. Keeping this method of citizen science in mind can help protect the health of your local beach.

Lastly, you can report stranded marine mammals using the Dolphin and Whale 911 app. This app is available on the App Store.

citizen scientist
Protect the marine animals in your area | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

Ready to be a citizen scientist for your community?

Now, when you’re hiking, taking a stroll on the beach, or riding in a boat, you can be a citizen scientist anytime and anywhere. Keep a watchful, scientific eye on the world around you, and it will surely reward you. At the end of the day, enjoying nature does wonders for your mental and physical health.

Therefore, get outside! It’s good for you, and it’s good for the world around you. All that citizen science you’re doing will help protect the planet for generations to come.

Because community is the backbone of all these citizen science projects, comment below on what projects interest you. Maybe you’re already part of a project? In that case, let us know!

If you’d like to branch out into more research, check out this article to try some at-home marine biology experiments. Perhaps, you’re in college and want to work in a lab, read this article to learn more about undergraduate research.

Hi, I’m a San Diego-based blogger who's passionate about marine biology, finance, and science communication. Having recently graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor's in marine biology, I am now working on a certificate in science communication. Over the years, I’ve worked in laboratory research and science outreach at aquariums, zoos, and environmental research centers. When I’m not writing, you can find me home brewing, tide pooling, skydiving, playing DnD, or hanging out with my two adopted guinea pigs. Reach out to me anytime, and follow Sand Dollar Wallet!


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