In brief: Kiwis become citizen scientists

Social media hasn't got the crowd- sourcing phenomenon all to itself. Science has long been a user of information gathered from a large number of widespread people.

Even Darwin corresponded with amateur experts around the world, collecting evidence from their local fieldwork to support his theories.

The advantage is that amateur scientists can be in thousands of places at one time, collecting a much larger pool of data than the official scientists can collect by themselves.

In the digital and social media age, the means for asking for, coordinating and collecting information has never been easier.

Throughout the June storms, NIWA mobilised its own teams in the South and North islands over a period of three days to gather much-needed information about snowfall at low and mid-range elevations. This generally covers anything below 200 metres above sea level to under 900 metres (sub alpine).

Immediately before the June storms, NIWA went out to the public to increase the scope of measurements. The public were invited to measure backyard snowfall via the website and Facebook page.

NIWA website: How deep is the snow at your place?

NIWA Facebook page 

Hydrologist Dr Christian Zammit calls it snow mobilisation. He's using it to collect snow information at the same location over a long period of time.

"We have very little New Zealand- specific information about snowfall at repeated locations, so gathering information from this storm is important. In the future, this information could help prevent building collapses and stock loss, and indicate areas where power lines are vulnerable to ice, snow and wind."

Dr Zammit says the information is important for the Building and Housing Group at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to inform building standards and codes. The Group needs accurate information about how ground snow is translated into load on the roof. Electricity providers, like national grid owner and operator Transpower, use the information to inform the design of the lines providing electricity to consumers and to study the combined effect of snow, ice and wind on overhead conductors under New Zealand conditions.

"Citizen-collected information is helping adapt our snowfall prediction model."

Clearly, citizen scientists will continue to play an important part in helping science. The potential benefit goes even further than collecting vast amounts of data quickly. Citizen science can help develop a more scientifically literate society. It can build the capacity for people to see their lives in terms of science, to collect and assess information they receive in their everyday lives and make choices based on what they learn.