Volunteering From Home

24 November 2020

It wasn’t until recently that studies illustrated that cockatoos are typically left-footed.

Digivol, an online volunteer platform, explains this success by pointing to researchers not out in the fields, peering up into gumtrees, but ‘citizen scientists’ working from home. Volunteers analysed site photos to assist the digitisation of archives, and in the process identified which foot these Australian birds were using. Thus, the surprising discovery!

Thousands of everyday Australians toil away at volunteer online projects like this each week.

While someone in Victoria records a frog call for scientific identification, a snorkeler on the Queensland coast uploads photos of the reef bed. The citizen science project, Australasian Fishes, has tracked the arrival of new fish species into Sydney Harbour, while others are observing the recovery of Kangaroo Island and its wildlife following the horrific fires this summer.

The ability to assist research projects from the confines of home opens a world of discovery, particularly while we are isolated and distanced from each other.

During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, you may have paid a virtual visit to museums in Paris or Prague. But the steps to digitising these museum records began closer to home.

What started as volunteers transcribing specimen labels in cicada exhibits became a website that enables institutions around the world to upload their collections for transcription.

Paul Flemons, the creator of volunteer crowdsourcing platform Digivol, has been working for over 20 years at the Australian Museum and for ten years in citizen science. The work of “pyjama volunteers”, Flemons laughs, has not only contributed to the collections of the Australian Museum, but to institutions such as the Smithsonian, Harvard University, and the Natural History Museum in London.

“Now, institutions from around nine countries and around seventy institutions are involved,” Flemons explains.

Digivol now has up to 6000 volunteers, who have collectively achieved two million tasks. In non-pandemic conditions, up to 70 volunteers are on-site at the museum while the rest work from home.

These citizen science opportunities have become an important daily activity for volunteers as a more accessible and flexible way to contribute to the community and have even led to paid work opportunities.

“In some ways they’re becoming experts in parts of our collections, particularly around field notes,” Flemons says of volunteers transcribing notes from collectors as far back as the 1800s.

Volunteers might spend up to 20 minutes transcribing field notes, or a swift 45 seconds processing camera trap data, but any contribution can make a difference.


Dr Lynette Plenderleith is the founder and president of Frogs Victoria and is the project coordinator for the Victorian Government’s The Frogs are Calling You endeavour. The Department of Land, Water and Planning initiative aims to monitor the impact of environmental water on vegetation, frogs, fish and birds.

The public can record audio from their froggy neighbours and send it in for identification. They are mapped and used to analyse what is working and plan future protection of vulnerable species.

The herpetologist gets goosebumps thinking of all the letters she receives from volunteers, ordinary citizens, about the amphibians that live in their backyards.

“They just say they’ve had this encounter with a frog and they feel honoured to be in its presence, they want to know what they can do to help it and that’s just marvellous.”

Plenderleith continues, “Frogs aren’t graced with the characteristics that make people automatically love them, but most people don’t know how important they are.”

Frogs, she explains, are a bioindicator. Their presence can reflect the health of an environment—whether there is pollution, or ecosystem imbalance.

The project isn’t just looking for elusive species either. The Frogs are Calling You receive many recordings of the spotted marsh frog for example, but this common grey-green or brown frog can tell us just as much as its rarer cousins. As the spotted amphibian, with irregular patches across the back, is widely found along Australia’s east coast, any absence indicates some environmental problem.

“You don’t need to know anything about frogs, you don’t need to know anything about science, you don’t need to know anything about wetlands.”


Further north, scuba diving or snorkelling groups of volunteers take photos of the underwater world of Australia’s reefs.

The Virtual Reef Diver project run by the Queensland University of Technology collects these images per square metre,  looking directly down at the seabed.

“I’m sure anyone who knows an underwater photographer knows that you can get really intense with your camera gear,” says Tanya Dodgen, the project’s Engagement Manager.

She swiftly adds, “But you can also slide your phone into a pouch on a sunny day at a shallow reef and be just as useful.”

The Virtual Reef Diver team curates what gets sent their way and gives specific feedback. “We’d rather extra stuff that we have to reject and give feedback on than not get anything,” says Dodgen.

Once photos are taken, citizen scientists can help identify the organisms they captured.

These virtual reef surveys will help produce seasonal reports on the state of coral and contribute to projects such as observing hard coral cover and bleaching, and the impacts of heatwaves and global warming.

Any amount of work is useful, even if you just look through a few images the first time.

Citizen science is for everyone, and platforms like Digivol or projects like The Virtual Reef Diver and The Frogs Are Calling You, give an opportunity to access volunteer work even when the world feels shut off. You never know, you might even uncover some more cockatoo secrets.

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