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Crowdsourcing project aims to stop habitat destruction ‘in its tracks’

Emily Anderson reports on how digital volunteers are helping to fill the gaps in Australia’s biodiversity data.

A community of digital volunteers are helping to identify unlawful land clearing across Australia's native forests. Photo: Matt Palmer on Unsplash

The Australian Conservation Foundation has completed its first crowdsourced project with digital volunteers joining forces to scan over 3.6 million hectares of at-risk habitat in just under four weeks.

Using their own devices, more than 2100 volunteers compared recent satellite images to identify land clearing and uncover potential cases of habitat destruction.

The ACF Investigates: Habitat Destruction project was designed to play an “auditing and compliance role,” says Kim Garratt, Environmental Investigator at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the project’s lead.

“Some jurisdictions publish quite good data on land clearing, but it's usually two and a half years out of date by the time you get it,” she says.

“At that point, you're unlikely to be able to stop an event in progress.”

“Australia is just so big, and the kind of change detection models that the government uses…they're increasing, they're good, but they're not as good as a human eye.”

The federal government's State of the Environment Report revealed that Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent and has one of the worst rates of species decline among the world’s richest countries.

The government report released in 2022 acknowledges the growing need for citizen scientists to contribute to the monitoring of threatened species.

Monitoring Australian biodiversity “cannot be achieved by professionals and institutions alone,” the report says.

Ms Garratt says the work done by volunteers is helping the ACF to narrow its investigative efforts and stop habitat destruction “in its tracks.”

“We’ll be doing a full investigation one by one to find out…Is it unlawful? Is it ongoing? Can we do something to stop it?”

Jamie Arizzo, a student at the University of Adelaide, first found out about the project through a promotional video on Tiktok and immediately signed up.

“I’ve always had a deep love for nature and wildlife,” they said.

“Hearing about a conservation project that I could work on right away from my own home, and without any special equipment, it was perfect really.”

Jamie completed more than 1000 tasks over the project’s duration.

“I loved how easy it was, how simple the premise was – just swipe the slider left to right and tap squares showing clearing,” they said.

Volunteers used a specially designed online tool to compare satellite imagery. Photo:

Ms Garratt says she wanted to make participation easy and accessible, particularly for young people who find in-person events to be too daunting.

“I'm personally a bit of an antisocial type, and it would be scary for me to go and join a group of new people who I haven't met before.”

“But if you give me a really simple task that I can just power through and feel like I'm a part of a collective activity without actually having to interact socially, that's really ideal.”

Debbie Gonzalez Canada is a PHD Candidate at the University of Melbourne researching digital citizen science.

She says there is some concern in the citizen science community that volunteers are being burdened with the work that should be done by paid scientists.

“We have to remember that this is free labour, but the fact that it’s free doesn't mean that it doesn't have any cost.”

“Organisations should really think about how they can give back to the volunteers.”

However, Ms Gonzalez says that she is not a cynic, and believes community participation is important for democratising science and knowledge production.

“It can create a sense of a collective that is working towards the same thing,” she says.

“And for some people, doing this for free also makes them feel really good about themselves.”


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