An unanticipated downside of Citizen Science – it can make you hate nature (a little bit)

So this is my third year as a volunteer recorder for the most excellent and worthy TrackaTree phenology project, which uses volunteers to collect data to be analysed by scientists.  It seems to operate at just the right level of data collection demand to suit me – rigorous enough to be meaningful without being overbearing in what you have to record and submit.

But everything has a downside somewhere, and these are not always obvious at the start. Among other things the project requires you to count the number of some specified species of flowers within a set radius of the trunks of your selected trees.  Everything is explained and illustrated, so you might reasonably think ‘how hard can counting flowers be’?  I certainly did.

Which is fine until theory and principle comes up against the practicalities of ‘nature’.  Because tucked away in all of the above is the implicit presumption that a flower is, well, a flower e.g. this thing over here is a flower, and this other thing, over there, is not.  The difference between the two is treated as being both binary and clear.  There is no room in the process for a ‘semi-flower’.

Which becomes a bit of a complication if ‘nature’ decides that it is not going to play by these rules.  In fact, it transpires, for some species of flower nature is very keen indeed on semi-flowers.  An example is flowers where the flowerhead takes the form of a spike. And inconveniently ones of these is the Bluebell (another one is Early purple orchid, but luckily TrackaTree isn’t interested in these).  In practice Bluebell flowers emerge over time, with the flower head gradually becoming bluer and more ‘out’ (technical botanical term, there) in a smooth transition.

When they are all fully out, counting them is straightforward. But at the moment, while they are emerging, it’s a frustrating nightmare.  How many Bluebells do you think is in each of these photos?

Bluebells 1 Bluebells 3

No so easy now, eh?

Of course, the obvious response is to decide that there is no ‘correct’ definition of what constitutes a flower and what is still emerging, so the key thing is to be consistent.  Then the data trends will still be valid.  But, needless to say, in practice I can’t precisely remember between visits what I decided to use as ‘out’ last time.  So that cunning plan goes west as well. Which, dear reader, is why I find myself hating our beautiful Bluebells.  But just a bit.

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