Engaging citizens through social media is a must now for a number of causes, be it user-generated content in news media, using Facebook groups to organize and facilitate political protests, or to raise money for creative projects through sites like Kickstarter. A volunteer organization based out of the Oakland, California area is looking to expand into the realm of citizen-engaged and crowdsourced science.

In September of last year, fire blazed across the Bay Area’s Mount Diablo. Over 3,000 acres went up in flames as the wildfire spread across the mountain.

While images of the fire are alarming for observers and locals in the area are forced to await possible evacuation orders, the fires are actually a natural part of the mountain’s ecology, and many of the plants actually require fire to reproduce, according to Nerds For Nature.

Realizing the potential to study how the landscape changes and grows in the year following a large blaze such as the Morgan Fire, the group behind Nerds For Nature decided to photograph the scenery from four fixed locations over the course of a year.

But how to fund that research? The hours of labour and equipment and travel to the photo spots would no doubt cost a pretty penny.

This is where the ingenuity of this group came from – in an age of social media and camera phones, why not crowdsource it? Well, that’s just what they did.

Mount Diablo Crowdsourced Science

A photo, by Twitter user @DanKalb, taken from photo spot #2 on Mount Diablo.

Four locations, hundreds of photos

Four locations were chosen and signs were dug in. Each one incorporates a small metal stand for hikers and tourists to put their phones in and to snap a picture. From there, participants are asked to upload the unedited – no filters! – photo to Twitter, Instagram or Flickr, and use a hashtag specific to that location (for example, #morganfire03 for the third sign location). Once all of the pictures are compiled, a timelapse video will be made to share the ecosystem’s regrowth over the year following the fire.

So far, the uptake has been big. Nerds For Nature have slideshows up for each of the locations, and already you can see some signs of growth even just from the first photos in the early parts of winter through to today.

Impressively, the slideshows only include Instagram photos – when the Twitter and Flickr photos are added in, the sample size should expand greatly.

The advantages to this project far exceed the data that will come out of it. It also serves as a catalyst for getting citizens engaged and participating in the science, which should bring more attention to ecological issues on the whole.

The only drawback so far is that the innovative idea has caused a number of curious tourists to snap pictures of the signs themselves, while forgetting to snap photos of the actual landscape.

If that’s the only learning curve to come out of this inventive experiment in crowdsourced science, it’s a small price to pay.

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