OPAL: a citizen science gem

Citizen science is nothing new, with many projects across the world using data collected in this way. Growing interest means that even the large corporates like HSBC are getting stuck in. Engaging people in the natural world is not too difficult (it is inherently fascinating, after all), but continuing engagement and stimulating sustained interest can be more tricky, as can ensuring training and resources are adequate. However, it looks like it can be done. Over the past 5 years, the OPAL project has worked across England to engage individuals across all ages in a range of outdoor activities to collect scientific data. The release of its first report shows just how successful it has been. This is the typical school pond-dipping trip with a difference.

The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project was set up in 2007 with support funding worth £14 million from the Big Lottery Fund. Led by Imperial College London, it aims to ‘create and inspire a new generation of nature-lovers by getting people to explore, study, enjoy and protect their local environment.’ A big ask, but by setting up events for schools and local communities, as well as nationwide surveys, OPAL has been able to reach a huge number of individuals across England. OPAL’s Community Environment Report, released yesterday, highlights the level of engagement the project has achieved. Over 650,000 people have been directly involved, with many others engaged through the website. The impact on participants, especially young people, has been made clear. 90% of participants in OPAL national surveys indicated they had learnt something new during the experience, and 75% said they would try to do more surveys like OPAL’s in the future.

The success of the OPAL project may be in part due to their wealth of resources, which are produced and designed by scientists. All information required to take part in an OPAL survey is accessible on their website, and includes recording sheets and detailed identification guides. In addition, all data collected and submitted is being used by researchers to piece together a picture of the soils, air quality, biodiversity and climate across England. That’s what turns the school trip into something more than a fun day out. Participants in surveys can view their contribution on an online map – see here for one showing earthworm data – and tools are available for simple analysis of some of the data.

The level of engagement achieved by the OPAL project is a real boost for science and, in particular, ecology. Ensuring that young people are confident and comfortable with scientific methods and data at an early stage is vital for the development of their science education, and well-implemented citizen science projects like OPAL can help individuals to discover where their interests lie.

The initial outreach has been made, and needs to be maintained across all age groups. As the OPAL report states: “The challenge now is to sustain this growing interest in the environment and continue to engage and reconnect more people with nature, promote the benefits that the natural world provides and its importance to our well-being.” Achieving this would lead to a greater interest in and understanding of ecology and ultimately the evidence used in policy and key decision-making.