The economic development of countries in southern Europe and the Balkans was somewhat delayed compared to most northern and Western European countries. Political stability and democratic institutions were undermined by varying periods of dictatorship over the course of the twentieth century, and they have all faced some kind of financial crisis at the beginning of the twenty-first.
An exploratory desktop survey conducted for the needs of this report allows us to make some preliminary remarks on the rapidly growing trends of citizen science in southern Europe. One of them reveals a greater emphasis of most projects on public participation through sensing and monitoring projects, mainly with a focus on biodiversity topics. Citizens are asked to participate through making observations and collecting data with the use of different apps. While most of the projects are active mainly on a local or national scale, a great number of them are part of wider European EC-funded initiatives. The majority of the activities address the general public. A few of them target more specialised groups, such as school communities (teachers and students) or particular audiences (e.g. hunters, divers, etc.). Citizen science projects are organised and coordinated either by university organisations and research centres or by other types of organisations, such as foundations, associations, and NGOs.
Spain is one noticeable southern European country where citizen science has been flourishing in the last decade. Spain can compete on equal terms with some of the leading northern and Western European countries in the field. The trend is towards a growing development of citizen science in a decentralised manner, with multiple educational, social, and economic impacts. Spain stands out as one of the countries with numerous diverse citizen science initiatives, many of them with an international perspective (e.g. Box 3.3). A significant endeavour has begun recently under Fundación Ibercivis to create a Citizen Science Observatory (Ciencia Ciudadana en España) and to map all related activities in an online repository. It comprises almost 200 Spanish citizen science projects and actors distributed throughout the country and covering a range of topics and scientific fields. A total of 23.8% of all initiatives are centred on biodiversity and environmental issues, 18.5% on ICT challenges, 16.9% on health and biotechnology topics, and 11.5% on the social sciences and the humanities (Serrano et al. 2017). Almost half of the registered activities are linked to international and European projects, while one-fourth of them are national, and far fewer have a local scope. More than 25% of the reported activities are research based.
Box 3.3: Natusfera and the European Open Science Cloud
One example of the current citizen science activity in Spain is Natusfera, a citizen science platform created by the Ecological and Forestry Applications Research Centre (CREAF) and coordinated by the Spanish branch of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) under the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). It consists of a web portal and an app for mobile devices, allowing any citizen who is interested in creating and sharing nature-based observations, meeting other naturalists, or learning about biodiversity species to sign up, download the app, and start creating their own projects or virtual field notebooks. Natusfera is the first platform supported by ECSA to become available to any European group wanting to run and engage in biodiversity projects for and with citizens. To this end, it will be translated into as many European languages as possible. So far, more than 12,000 users have engaged with the platform, and more than 234,000 observations have been recorded on almost 12,000 species, mainly throughout Spain but also in other European countries. Natusfera is also among the European Biodiversity Citizen Science Observatories that participate in COS4CLOUD – an EC-funded project, involving 14 European partners (and 1 South American) to design services that address open science challenges and integrate citizen science data in the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). The project’s aim is to make European citizen science practices related to biodiversity and environmental quality monitoring more user oriented; to engage a wider range of stakeholders in society, government, industry, academia, agencies, and research; and to develop new citizen science projects and approaches by engaging new audiences, especially youths and school students, in research procedures.
In contrast to Spain, Greece is a southern European country where citizen science is in its infancy and hard to define. The first groups of citizens and Greek-based NGOs who were involved in citizen science projects date back to 2008. However, the outbreak of economic crisis in Greece the same year was decisive in shaping future trends in the field. The financial recession and the accompanying austerity measures triggered a host of dire changes in Greek society, including a considerable decrease in GDP and a high rate of unemployment, especially among young people. Public participation in the civil society and formal volunteering actions in the post-dictatorial period have been rather weak, due to the dominant role of the state. The onset of the Greek crisis brought about a significant shift in responsibility and action, mainly directed towards social welfare and assistance to the most vulnerable social groups. Public participation and citizens volunteering for other causes (e.g. for fulfilling personal learning interests) would not come first in a row of more pressing priorities. However, even in this ambiguous context, citizen science found fertile soil to grow in Greece.
Out of the 21 Greek citizen science projects that have been tracked, 7 form part of larger European projects (the Scent project, LIFE Euroturtles, Marine LitterWatch, GROW Observatory, the PLUGGY project, iNaturalist, and Project Noah), while the rest have been initiated on a national or local scale. Almost half of the projects are run by Greek-based NGOs with a longstanding tradition in the organisation of science-focused and/or culture-oriented activities, while the rest have been established and operate under national research institutions and scientific associations. There is only one case of an international citizen science project supported and coordinated by a large private company (the Sea Hero Quest project by Cosmote). More than half of the projects and initiatives are linked to biodiversity topics (i.e. marine biodiversity, alien species, fauna, and ornithology).
The Balkans form a distinct European region with a strategic geopolitical position. Extending from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean Sea and from the Marmara to the Black Sea, they stand at a crossroads through Europe and from Europe to Asia. Balkan countries share historical–political roots and cultural features, long-lasting ethnic conflicts, and some more recent severe outbreaks of war. None of them participated directly in the big sociopolitical and economic transformations that took place in Western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For most Balkan countries, state identities and democratic functioning have been greatly affected by long-time communist regimes. Only a few of them are official members of the EU.
Although there are some national projects, almost one third of the identified projects are linked to larger European or global projects. These include Co-PLAN (Box 3.4) and BioNNA in Albania, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) and BirdLife International in Bulgaria, Association BIOM in Croatia, EwA and iNaturalist in Romania, and LIFE ARTEMIS in Slovenia. Participation in these projects targets the general public or students and is mainly for ‘monitoring’: citizens contribute with observations and the collection of data through the use of apps. Environmental topics, issues, and causes are the most frequent foci of interest, especially those having to do with biodiversity conservation, alien species reporting, and air pollution.
Box 3.4: Building Citizen Science Monitoring Infrastructure and Methodology in Albania
Co-PLAN is an Albanian (non-profit) organisation based in Tirana, which aims to promote ‘tangible social transformation’ through community participation and policymaking related to sustainable development, environmental quality, and good urban and regional governance. It works with people and institutions on both national and western Balkan regional levels but also builds collaboration in a European context. Co-PLAN focuses on exploring ways to advance citizen engagement in local governance. Through participation in the EC-funded project ‘Green Lungs for our cities’, it seeks to create a bottom-up monitoring platform for air quality, noise pollution, and urban greenery at the local level, in the cities of Tirana, Durrës, Elbasan, and Shkodër.