Science Outreach Specialist National Ecological Observatory Network Boulder, Colorado, United States
The integration of large-scale, open environmental data, such as provided by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), into community projects and programs provides an exciting opportunity for ecological science to contribute to society. Open data networks have the potential to increase access to high quality data for communities, allowing communities to use these datasets to address their priorities. While access to large-scale data has recently increased dramatically through the development of environmental data collection networks, several barriers such as time, training, expertise, and funding impose limits on the integration of large-scale environmental data into community programs. Particularly, the scope and complexity of these datasets can be a substantial hurdle for community members. Support from science professionals can help communities overcome these barriers. In 2021, NEON launched two outreach programs aimed at building partnerships between NEON and local communities. These programs support NEON Field Ecologists with connecting communities with scientists, data, and resources to solve local environmental challenges. This talk showcases the development, coordination, and outcomes of these programs. Additionally, it outlines best practices for developing collaborative community projects with large-scale open data networks, and highlights challenges and future directions.
Since the development of two new outreach programs aimed at connecting local communities to scientists, data, and resources, NEON saw over a 50% increase in number of outreach activities conducted across the country compared to the previous year. Additionally, NEON saw an overall increase in new partnerships and projects with local community partners, including six long-term projects that use NEON data and resources to advance local priorities. The outcomes of some of these projects include providing training resources and data for ecological restoration volunteer programs, data on well water quality in Puerto Rican villages, and data on berry foraging resources in Alaska. Building these partnerships came with some challenges, including scheduling conflicts, limited staff bandwidth, low response rate, and relating NEON resources to community priorities. Best practices for overcoming these challenges included capitalizing on pre-existing connections, consistent communication, being flexible and creative, finding commonalties, and being humble and embracing discomfort. Moving forward, NEON will continue to support ongoing projects, as well as refine its outreach programs to best meet community needs and support solutions-based, community science.