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Crowdsourcing to Determine Climate Change Effects

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As nations debate and collaborate on how to address the impact of climate change, communities that directly feel the impact have a more pressing concern. Indeed, an extended drought or dramatic temperature change could impact a village’s very survival unless those villagers take some immediate action. But what if the human response to climate change, while addressing the urgent issue of survival, actually created a long-term negative impact on biodiversity? How would we know, and how might that impact our response to climate change? Some organizations are asking, and they’re turning to the communities themselves for answers.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has created Climate Crowd, an interactive mapping platform that uses crowdsourced data to demonstrate human responses to climate change. Participants collect and upload data through interviews, photographs, and observations. WWF staff review the data before posting it to the online map. To date, WWF has posted more than 200 reports of people responding to climate change, and how those responses impact biodiversity. The overwhelming majority of participants are reporting from Uganda and Tanzania where rural communities have suffered from extreme drought.

Initiatives like this are useful to determine whether our efforts to address climate change at a micro level are doing more harm than good. For example, in an article for George Washington University’s online Master of Public Health program, WWF reports communities in Uganda may suffer poor crop yield due to drought or high temperatures. To compensate, those communities clear nearby forest to create more farmable land. Since wildlife relies on the forest for food and habitat, the human response to climate change may create a chain reaction that more negatively impacts the community. Carefully tracking the impact of climate change, and the impact of human action in response, can provide valuable insights. But government and nonprofit organizations often lack the resources to send staff to gather data—which is why global crowdsourcing efforts are filling a vital need.

The term “crowdsourcing” grew from technology roots during a 2005 discussion between two editors at Wired magazine. In observing how the internet was helping businesses replace paid professionals with amateurs who may have expertise in a particular field, one editor noted these companies were “outsourcing to the crowd.” Six months later, Wired published “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Over the next several years, businesses and organizations relied on crowdsourcing to tackle challenges within any number of disciplines from astrology to zoology. As internet accessibility broadened globally, so too did the power to crowdsource data for more complex issues like global health, economics, and climate change.

But crowdsourced data on climate change and human response can present challenges as well. The true potential of crowdsourcing is only realized through consistent, credible reporting. Poor, rural communities impacted by climate change may not have the time or resources to provide consistent reporting that may create data gaps. Standardization can also be a challenge. Different communities may capture data using different methods, making it more difficult to compare two regions.

Still, leveraging a global community can help organizations quickly collect large amounts of data. The United States Global Change Research Program uses a team of citizen scientists to gather information about bird migration and plant flowering to track the impact of climate change. Other organizations, including The World Bank and MIT Climate CoLab, are looking beyond basic data gathering and turning to their communities for specific climate change solutions. While these complex challenges will require complex thinking, sometimes the answers may come from the community level.

Photo Credit: James Cridland via Flickr

Julie Potyraj's picture

Thank Julie for the Post!

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