In 1835, my ancestors Jacob and Minshall Painter lived in Pennsylvania, on a farm. Amateur phenologists, they recorded the weather every day, periodically sending the information to the Smithsonian Institute. In 1890, the National Weather Service formalized the Cooperative Observer Program, recruiting volunteers across the country for the same purpose. In 1835, the United States was smaller, and scientists were in short supply. Interested amateurs like my uncles had an important role to play in the collection and dissemination of scientific information.
But by the middle of the 20th century most scientific data was collected using expensive, technologically advanced equipment—by highly trained professionals. Amateur scientists like my uncles were relegated to meeting with other enthusiasts, or simply reading about their subject.
But wide adoption of the Internet has fueled a resurgence of citizen science. Cornell's Project Feeder Watch employs 16,000 volunteers across North America who record their sightings on a website that will automatically ask them to double-check if they report sighting a bird that normally does not range in their area. In Canada, Frogwatch has set up systems for reporting and mapping observations so that volunteers can see the results of their input immediately.
And Earthdive is working on a global scale, allowing recreational divers and snorkellers to record their experiences. Members can search and explore dives, snorkel trips, science logs, and personal experiences recorded all over the world. By including sightings of key indicator species during their dives and trips, Earthdive members are creating a daily global snapshot of the state of our planet's oceans.
Making the invisible visible is a basic WorldChanging concept. Organizing people engaged in their own everyday activities to collectively do just that is an important means of bringing us into a bright green future.
On a related topic, there is an interesting paper titled "The role of local ecological knowledge in sustainable urban planning: perspectives from Finland" (authors - V. Yli-Pelkonen and J. Kohl) on the new website Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy (http://ejournal.nbii.org/)