Using Data and Citizen Science for Gardening Success

Here are few ways to collect and use data to improve your garden, and become part of the bigger picture.

Hand in a garden holding a tablet with soil information display

Grow Observatory

When people think about big data, they may consider it in negative terms. They might worry about privacy or the ways in which data gathering can be used for political or business gains. What is often forgotten is that big data can also be a power for good. Data that is gathered and, most importantly, made available for others to use, can be great for gardeners, and for our planet as a whole.

Big data is, in many fields, driving sustainable progress. It helps hold large corporations to account, improves transparency, and gives those seeking more sustainable pathways the information they need to succeed. As gardeners, data gathering can help us move to a more cooperative paradigm. It can help us feel more connected to other growers. And it can help us learn more about the natural world and how to protect it.

Data gathering might not be the first thing you think of when trying to garden in a more sustainable way, increase yields and go greener. But it can be of great benefit to you as an individual, and also means you can play a role in helping others achieve garden success.

Data can help you personally by providing information you can use. And it also allows you to play a wider role in boosting understanding of our planet and tackling the global crises we face in a collaborative way. Consider the following examples.

Grow Observatory

This is one great example of data gathering and citizen science. Grow Observatory is a European citizen’s observatory through which people work together to take action on climate change, build better soil, grow healthier food and corroborate data from the new generation of Copernicus satellites.

Twenty-four Grow communities in 13 European countries created a network of over 6,500 ground-based soil sensors and collected a lot of soil-related data. And many insights have helped people learn about and test regenerative food growing techniques.

On their website, you can explore sensor locations, or make use of dynamic soil moisture maps. With the Grow Observatory app, you can get crop and planting advice tailored to your location, and get detailed, science-based information about regenerative growing practices. Their water planner also allows small-scale growers to learn more about how much water their plants will need in their location over the coming months if they live in one of the areas which currently have available data sets.

This is just one great example of growers giving other growers the data they need to succeed.

Cooperative Citizen Science: iNaturalist, Bioblitzes, Bird Counts, and More

Wherever you live, there are many different ways to get involved and help build data. From submitting observations on wildlife in your garden through apps like iNaturalist to taking part in local Bioblitzes, bird counts, and more – there are plenty of ways we can collect data that will help us – and others – down the road.

Collecting data through our observations, and, crucially, sharing that data with others can help us create the future we all want to see. We, as individuals, can often feel powerless. But citizen science projects help us to see the collective power we can wield when we work together. Modern technology means we can be hyper-connected, and affect wider systems, even when we are alone in our own gardens.

Greg the Houseplant App

Even if you don't have a garden, you can still get growing. And you can still use and collect data and be part of the bigger picture.

One group that knows just how important data can be to growing success is the team behind Greg – an app for houseplant parents that helps them care for their houseplants in their particular home, in their particular global location. This great app helps home growers recognize the importance of their environment, and feel more connected with the wider world.

Alex Ross, one of the co-creating team members of Greg, and who formerly led growth at Tinder, shared the following with me about his attitude to data gathering and the larger goals of their project:

“While creating tools that leveraged Tinder’s large datasets, I learned two important lessons. The first was that there is power in 'big data.' Large-scale models teach us how things work by showing the patterns that emerge when the same event occurs millions (or billions) of times. The second lesson was that data needs to be accessible to be useful."

“Our goal is to empower anybody to contribute to the most advanced AI model of how plants work. Equally important is making that model and data accessible so that all of us as a global community better understand how plants and our planet are changing, and how we should respond."

“The effort against climate change needs to be creative and massively collaborative. And data can help us get there.”

Not only does the app help people become better houseplant gardeners, but it also allows them to become part of this cooperative paradigm and help the AI platform to improve and grow over time – creating new data that won't just help keep plants alive, but which will also add to and improve existing climate models. Core to the company’s long-term plan is funding the launch of a nonprofit research plant lab that can study the rapidly growing dataset from the app community and ultimately partner with other mission-aligned organizations.

This project plumbs into what growing your own is really all about – not just matching plants to your décor, or buying plants because they look "cool" – but truly cherishing plant life and forging a greater connection with the natural world – and with each other. 

This ties into planet care and a cooperative paradigm and is a great example of the wonderful things we can achieve when we grow, and when we work together.