The National Geographic Society (NGS) was founded in 1888 to promote the “diffusion of geographic knowledge”. Nearly 125 years later, NGS is using modern technology to continue to pursue that goal through a form of citizen science termed “community geography”. Community geography connects members of the public to the places they care about by encouraging them to conduct fieldwork, share observations and stories, explore maps and geographic data to generate and answer questions, and participate in social and scientific networks to understand and improve local areas.
To support community geography, we are developing a platform called National Geographic FieldScope, a web-based geographic information system (GIS) that allows members of an online community to upload georeferenced data and media objects and to use GIS tools to visualize and analyze the community's data. FieldScope builds on 1990s-era research and development looking at the application of geotechnologies to support learning (Edelson et al. 1999), which culminated in the creation of My World GIS, a general-purpose GIS designed for use in schools and universities (Edelson and Russell 2006; Edelson et al. 2008). Initially developed as a way to bring My World's tools for archival data analysis to a broader audience via the internet, FieldScope rapidly evolved into a platform to support citizen science. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, NGS is transforming FieldScope to support large (and large numbers of) communities.
Although many citizen-science tools exist or are under development (Newman et al. 2011), FieldScope is distinguished by three factors. First, FieldScope's primary goal is education – it is designed to support learning through the pursuit of scientific inquiry. Second, FieldScope seeks to enable organizations with limited funds and technical expertise to deploy a community geography project with full visualization and analysis functionality. Finally, FieldScope supports a broad variety of investigations across a range of disciplines, albeit restricted to georeferenced data.
There are two challenges in the development of FieldScope in relation to achieving its primary goal: (1) providing tools that allow citizen scientists – who have historically been limited to data collection activities – to analyze data and share findings (Bonney et al. 2009) and (2) providing students and the general public with access to visualization and analysis functions used by scientists. The FieldScope platform enables organizers of community geography projects to create a website where community members can upload data using project-specific protocols; view and interpret the collected data using interactive maps, tables, and graphs; analyze the data using functions selected by scientists; and even use the data to run computational models.
Currently, FieldScope is being used by water-quality monitoring projects in the Chesapeake Bay and Elwha River watersheds; by Project BudBurst, a national plant phenology program associated with the National Ecological Observatory Network (Figure 2); and Frog-Watch USA, a national amphibian monitoring program led by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It has also been applied in conducting biodiversity inventories in three national parks, as part of the US National Park Service's BioBlitz program (Figure 1).
During the next 3 years, FieldScope will expand to provide social networking tools that will allow users to collaborate and discuss their work and “project builder” tools that permit non-programmers to create and administer new FieldScope projects, as well as to evaluate outcomes for participants in FieldScope-supported projects and organizers of FieldScope communities.
Ultimately, FieldScope will become a “place” where citizen scientists gather to share data and make mutually beneficial connections to places and people. In addition, we hope to understand how citizen scientists learn science and geography through their involvement with community geography and the use of FieldScope, thereby contributing to the growing field of citizen science.