Turning to Citizen Science for Ways to Improve Voluntourism

https://i1.wp.com/www.birds.cornell.edu/bbimages/clo/images/logo_lab.gifIn the latest issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we took at look at Citizen Science in the context of voluntourism. It was a first attempt to get the voluntourism community to think about citizen science which went through its own “oft-criticized” phase in the 2000’s from researchers and academics questioning its validity – after all, can you really count on a group of volunteers to provide valid research data?

Well, it turns out that you can.

As critical as the commentary was for citizen science, the bulk of it was constructive and served to continue moving citizen science forward. A lot of this has been shaped by the work of the Cornell Ornithology Lab (COL) which has steadfastly worked to improve citizen science, publish articles on the subject, and generate new and engaging ways for volunteers to be involved in the collection of data on birds. The COL runs numerous citizen science projects each year and collaborates with partners and thousands upon thousands of volunteers around the world to bring the results of these efforts to life in maps and other audio-visual formats to help spread the word about the significance of the research and the contributions of engaged citizens.

What should make citizen science so appealing to the voluntourism community?

There are a variety of potential responses to this question. First, it is important to recognize that citizen science and voluntourism have been intertwined since the inception of Earthwatch Institute back in 1971. Although the NGO was probably not thinking at the time that it was setting a precedent for meaningful interaction between scientists, travelers, the environment, and destinations, it has certainly become a centralized figure in quite a bit of the citizen science research which has been published to date, and the published reviews of that research by a growing cadre of academics. Unfortunately, much of this literature does not find its way into the published volunteer tourism literature, and this, on some level, is probably contributing to the lack of advancement in better practices where voluntourism is concerned.

Second, the academic literature on citizen science really invites researchers to stay connected to a project for a long time. Right now, in the academic literature on volunteer tourism, you will rarely, and I mean rarely, find a longitudinal study on voluntourism. One of the cross-over articles that is worth a read was published by Brightsmith, Stronza, and Holle (2008) – “Ecotourism, conservation biology, and volunteer tourism: A mutually beneficial triumvirate.” Besides working with a roughly seven-year timeline that delivered the results from which this article was framed (longitudinal, indeed), the authors give us a glimpse of the pros and cons of working with Earthwatch, for example, and several ideas on how to formalize partnerships and collaborations at the localized level to make such a project possible in the first place.

Finally, citizen science has some valuable outcomes from it, and these outcomes are well-documented; whereas, much of the outcomes related to voluntourism are anecdotal at best. There is real science being applied to reviewing the value of citizen science. This is not to suggest that the academics developing theories and conducting case studies are not providing value to voluntourism and in their own right using the scientific process, but rarely do we see significant, quantitative analysis on voluntourism.

What can be done about this?

Step one requires a look at the cross-over opportunities – combined research on citizen science and voluntourism. The organizations out there who are conducting voluntourism with a research-oriented focus should be talking with academics and researchers to discuss ways to collaboratively fund research projects on their efforts. Moving beyond Earthwatch-centric research would be a big step in generating some substantive reliance on how voluntourism/citizen science can work hand-in-hand.

Step two requires a similar approach to research on voluntourism that is not citizen science-based. Although there are numerous programs worthy of study, most of the research that has been conducted to date has been on small-scale, grassroots organizations, unrecognizable by those unfamiliar with such operations. Of course, one of the underlying problems is lack of funding. Researchers are selecting these projects because they have limited or no fees associated with the “cost” of volunteering with the organization. This gives us a skewed view of the voluntourism marketplace and leaves us wondering about the impacts of entities which send thousands of voluntourists abroad each year and may make millions of dollars as a result – what impacts are they having on communities? And how much of those monies are staying in-destination?

Step three is focused on a longitudinal approach and that is actively engaging voluntourists to become citizen scientists with the focus of their research being voluntourism programs the world over – a group of citizen science voluntourists whose sole responsibility is to conduct research on voluntourism operators, projects, and partners across the globe. Given the proper tools & technology, as well as the proper research protocols, we could literally see a major shift in voluntourism research if we can simply engage voluntourists in gathering data on existing voluntourism products and services. Providing these voluntourists with the proper questions, making certain that they have the proper sign-offs from institutions of higher learning, etc, to conduct research, and giving them a platform to which they can upload data in a simple manner can really help us begin to get a better sense of what voluntourism is, instead of much of the guesswork that exists today.

Final Thoughts…

Citizen science can open many doors for voluntourism. It isn’t just the practice itself from which the voluntourism community can learn; we can also use the citizen science approach to learn more about the impacts of voluntourism. It will take some effort, of course, but the connection already exists, there is a precedent and a foundation. Hopefully, that will make the process a bit easier and a bit more enticing.

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