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FedEx Blog

Citizen Scientists Use Apps for a Cleaner Earth

June 29, 2016

See. Snap. Click.

That’s the basis behind a revolutionary new concept that is helping scientists all over the world with their research.

Often the most time consuming and expensive part of a scientific study is the day-to-day collection of data. Observations on a massive scale are critical to understanding ecosystem and climate patterns, but collecting that information can also be prohibitively expensive.

Most scientists don’t have the resources to travel the world collecting information, so a new generation of technology-enabled ‘citizen scientists’ are contributing in a mighty way. A citizen scientist can be anyone with a smartphone; it’s a crowd-sourcing way for amateurs to help with research.

Two apps that are leading the charge in the citizen scientist movement are iNaturalist and Marine Debris Tracker.

Recently we caught up with a group of FedEx Cares volunteers who demonstrated the citizen science apps during work at Virginia Key Barrier Island in Miami. The focus of their work was to plant native foliage and clean trash accumulated along the shoreline.

Marine Debris Tracker

The FedEx volunteers collected hundreds of pieces of trash along the Virginia Key shoreline, which were then entered into an app called the Marine Debris Tracker.

Almost a million items have been removed from global waterways and logged on the Marine Debris Tracker since its launch in 2010.

Chelle King works at the Frost Science Museum in Miami, and serves in one of her roles as the volunteer coordinator. Volunteer programs are vital to our environment. Organizations like the Frost Museum of Science in Miami set up volunteer work with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is partially fueled by grants and volunteers from companies like FedEx.

Volunteers at Virginia Key contribute to the data in Marine Debris Tracker, and they have collected about 2,000 pieces of trash each month over the past year or more.

King told us, “We count every single piece that is collected, and this helps us work on projects to study where trash is coming from, how to reduce the flow of trash in our oceans, and clean up the affected shorelines.”

“You don’t have to have a science degree to be a citizen scientist. You just need to ask questions and have a little curiosity.”


Native plants are important because they support native animals and increase species diversity. Everything from insects and sea turtles – all the way to the American crocodile depend on native plants and ecosystems to survive. When non-native species are planted they can often overtake other plants that are food or shelter sources for animals.

While replenishing the Virginia Key dunes with sea oats, dune sunflower, and other plants, the volunteers kept an eye out for interesting insects or other animal signs. They took photos and submitted them to iNaturalist, which dates and geocodes each entry, logging it for a scientist to reference in a future or already existing study. The information in the app helps researchers track animal migrations and activity.

It allows everyday people to help collect information and then put it out into the research world.

iNaturalist is also a great way to have an expert help you identify a species. So far, more than 3 million observations have been submitted to the app.

It’s never been cheaper to become a scientist. Anyone can download iNaturalist or Marine Debris Tracker for free, and become a regular contributor to scientific research.



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