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Human activity has an outsized impact on global environmental change. What sort of ecological and policy changes might we see if we can engage a large public in helping to manage living and working landscapes—to benefit wildlife, ecosystems, and people? 

YardMap: Citizen Science Tackles Sustainable Behavior

May 5, 2015

20150506-YardMap-600x298.jpg

Human activity has an outsized impact on global environmental change. What sort of ecological and policy changes might we see if we can engage a large public in helping to manage living and working landscapes—to benefit wildlife, ecosystems, and people?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science program has been tackling this question since 2009 with YardMap. A citizen science project at the nexus of social computing, human computation, and online education, YardMap is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Research on Learning and Directorate for Computer and Information Science for nearly $3 million, with additional funding from Smith-Lever funds, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and ACSF’s Academic Venture Fund. The Atkinson Center funding has allowed the YardMap team to conduct new research on framing environmental issues and behavior change in collaboration with Poppy McLeod and Jonathon Schuldt.

YardMap—soon to be co-branded with TNC as “Habitat Network”—is a socially networked online platform that allows people to draw detailed maps of any kind of landscape and provide data on different management practices like keeping cats inside, refraining from pesticide use, and installing solar roof panels. It is a one-stop shop for learning about and documenting conservation practices, whether in a suburban yard, park, farm, or corporate campus. Participants can show off their sustainable practices, discussing and sharing practices with each other in a very visual way. Since we launched the site in 2012, YardMap has had nearly 14,000 users and is growing exponentially.

The development team, led by extension associate Rhiannon Crain, is currently testing different versions of YardMap to assess how people learn and behave in differently constructed social environments that allow them to interact with people and with objects representing actions and behaviors. How does exposing people to social norms within YardMap influence behavior? When YardMap participants display and view solar roof panels, for example, does this inspire others to do the same? By using design-based research, also called A/B testing, we hope to learn more about how we can improve web architectures to support learning, behavior change, and cooperation.

YardMap is perhaps the riskiest of the six citizen science projects we have at the Lab of O, because we’re trying to harness the web, social networking, and citizen science methodologies to tackle the hard problem of collective action in real life. The internet and a planned smartphone application for YardMap provide unprecedented opportunities to test models of behavior change at meaningful scales. If we can learn how to generate high levels of cooperation, the techniques can be used in other contexts, including quarantine and disaster management—situations where crowd behaviors are of critical importance and top-down management systems are known to fail.

Janis Dickinson, Natural Resources, directs the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science program and YardMap, a social network hosted by the Lab of O.