Charities have typically gathered data to support their campaigning work by conducting investigations or employing research consultancies. A few, however, have started using so-called "citizen science" initiatives to gather data: they invite the public to participate in gathering or analysing data on their behalf. This not only allows charities to secure larger quantities of data than if they relied on their own staff and volunteers, but also provides a useful way of engaging with people who are interested in the charity's cause and potentially enlisting them as new supporters.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth and the invertebrate conservation charity Buglife launched their Great British Bee Count app in June 2014 with a view to gathering data to support FoE's Bee Cause campaign to save Britain's declining bee population. People around the UK were encouraged to use the app – which could be downloaded for free to a smartphone – to record each bee they saw from day to day during 12 weeks last summer. The development of the app was funded by the home improvement retailer B&Q.
The charities shared the data thus gathered with the National Biodiversity Network, an alliance of organisations that is building an online biodiversity database. They believed that, over time, the data would help bee experts to solve the mystery of population decline and influence the government to take action to protect different bee species.
Paul de Zylva, senior nature campaigner at FoE, says the idea for the app originated in one of the charity's campaign planning meetings. He says he approached Buglife to collaborate on the project because it could provide useful advice on collecting evidence about bees.
After almost 24,000 people used the app to log sightings of more than 832,000 bees last year, the charity announced that it would run the bee count annually to monitor bee health trends over the long term. So in May it activated the app for a second year, this time with financial support from the supermarket chain Waitrose.
Having gathered feedback through emails and phone calls from last year's users, de Zylva says FoE focused more on the app's user experience this time, adding a photographic functionality to the app and providing more facts about different species. He says it also decided to restrict the count to a month rather than 12 weeks in order to create a sense of urgency among users.
Despite this tactic, the latest results were more modest: 6,000 people used the app to log sightings of 105,000 bees. De Zylva says this can be explained by the shorter timespan of this year's count and the fact that, unlike in 2014, the charity did not run a website version of the count this year. More than 8,000 people logged their bee sightings through the website last year.
De Zylva says the app has nevertheless served the charity well from a campaigning point of view since its inception. "The app has been useful in meetings with ministers and civil servants to show the public interest in bee decline," he says. "It allows us to show that the public is gathering data to help deal with the problem in a way that the government isn't doing at the moment. I think that's quite powerful."
De Zylva says the example set by the charities with their app might have helped to persuade the government to fund a national insect monitoring scheme, which was announced in October as part of the national pollinator strategy, the government's action plan to save bees and other pollinators.
FoE's fundraising team also benefited: last year's app featured the option to give one-off text donations to the charity. Almost 2,000 people did so and 17 per cent of them signed up as regular givers.
The app will run again next year. "We might use the app to get people to elevate their actions," says de Zylva. "They could plant flowers that attract bees and record which ones bees are spotted on."