Citizen Science

Dan FitzgeraldBlog Archives

person taking photo of river on their phone
It is easier than ever for ordinary citizens to contribute to the scientific process on a grand scale.

You Don’t Have to be an Expert

Are you a fisherman or woman who has noticed changes in the size of fishes you catch in your local river? Do you live near a creek and find that it floods more frequently than before? Have the wild flowers along your favorite greenway started to bloom earlier or later than they used to?

The foundation of all science is careful observation. The only difference between a casual observation such as these and a scientific study is the level of organization.

Biologists and natural resource specialists record these exact types of observations in standardized ways to understand how our environment is changing, and with modern technology it is easier than ever for ordinary citizens to contribute to the scientific process on a grand scale.

Yes, with common tools, or no tools at all, even you can make a difference.


The State of the Rivers

In the same way that doctors use blood pressure readings to track a patient’s health, monitoring the health of Nashville’s rivers requires a certain amount of data about their past and current conditions. Getting some of that data requires access to specialized equipment for measuring dissolved oxygen levels or nutrient concentrations in a stream. But obtaining other important types of data require little more than your senses and maybe a smartphone app to simplify data submission.

For example, prioritizing sites for stream bank restoration requires detailed maps of erosion problems, and knowing where excessive algae growth occurs can help experts understand how nutrient pollution is impacting our rivers. Data as simple as the location and time an issue is observed can go a long way towards directing conservation efforts.

Become a Water Reporter

With a smartphone you can become part of a national effort to map the issues impacting our waterways by recording observations right here in Nashville using the Water Reporter app.

Water Reporter allows you to upload geo-referenced photos of erosion, pollution, flooding, or any other issue to a collective database using only your phone. Think of it as a neighborhood watch for our rivers.

In addition to keeping a general eye out around Nashville, you can join Harpeth Conservancy in a campaign to monitor nuisance algae growth in the Harpeth River.

Algae are a critical part of stream ecosystems, but too much algae, often caused by fertilizer runoff from nearby farms, can degrade stream habitat for wildlife and cause potential health risks for people and pets who use the river for recreation.

This citizen science data will directly support current efforts by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and stakeholders throughout the watershed to develop a strategy for restoring the Harpeth River to meet state water quality standards.

How to become a Water Reporter in 5 simple steps

  1. Download the Water Reporter app to your smartphone.
  2. Launch the app and sign up for a free account.
  3. Join Harpeth Conservancy so we see your posts!
  4. Start reporting!
  5. Download Harpeth Conservancy's quick start guide and learn much more.

Power in Numbers

The true power of citizen science comes from its ability to crowd-source information. While building accurate maps of erosion or nuisance algae hotspots would be time consuming for any one person or organization, if we each pitch in we can dramatically expand the data available for monitoring our rivers.

What if we all pitched in?

Think about it. Nearly 500,000 people visit the Harpeth River State Park annually. What if each person contributed just one observation per year? Add to that the number of people who drive over creeks or walk along Nashville’s greenways every day and you can easily envision the power of this approach. By working together, we can dramatically increase the data available for managing our watersheds and create living maps of the threats facing them, ultimately leading to better informed decisions that will protect our rivers for the benefit of all.

For ways you can directly contribute to the protection of Nashville's waterways, be sure to take the One Degree Pledge, visit

About the author

Dan serves as Director of the Watershed Science and Restoration Program for Harpeth Conservancy, where his work focuses on understanding how environmental change impacts rivers and aquatic diversity. When not at work, you might spot him exploring Tennessee’s many trails and waterways.

Harpeth Conservancy website