Project Hotspot is a Taranaki-based citizen science project and one of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) projects supported by the New Zealand Government. The Ngā Motu Marine Reserve Society, schools and scientists are working together to gather information about local coastal and marine animals in order to better protect them.

Community initiatives

Many community groups are started by small groups of people who are passionate about an issue and want to make a difference. The Ngā Motu Marine Reserve Society is an example. It was formed in 1997 by a small community group interested in the study and preservation of local coastal and marine areas. They successfully initiated the establishment of the Tapuae Marine Reserve and continue to survey and study the marine life of the Taranaki coast.

The issue

The Taranaki coast provides habitats for a number of threatened seabirds and marine mammals. Gathering valuable information about threatened species is vital to making decisions about their protection from potential threats, including loss of habitat and pollution. Over many years, locals have observed the movements of the threatened species, but the information was often not well documented. Project Hotspot has aimed to improve this with funding support from the Government’s Curious Minds initiative.

Threatened species

Project Hotspot aims to capture local knowledge on four coastal threatened species in Taranaki. The species being monitored are: orca, reef heron, blue penguin and fur seal.

The Project Hotspot website has detailed information about each of the species as well as identification tools and a portal that allows the easy upload of data about the species captured by community members and school students. The data can be shown in different ways, for example, a map showing all the different orca sightings with information including date and time as well as any identifiable markings or photos.

Student involvement

Funding support through the Government’s Curious Minds PSP initiative has enabled the collaboration of scientists and teachers, with students contributing to the project planning, data collection, data analysis, data quality control, hypothesis formulation, field surveys and communicating the findings.

Developing students as citizen scientists has been a vital goal of the project. Students were involved with developing the project from beginning to end by asking questions and engaging their own curious minds.

A fact sheet to support species identification and other resources have also been developed as part of the project.

What discoveries have resulted

The students collected data to show where the species hotspots occurred – in other words, the distribution of the population. They then investigated the main threats to the species, which involved formulating and testing hypotheses and included fieldwork. Schools then held a joint workshop with stakeholders to communicate their findings.

The project provides a two-way learning process whereby the community, local government, conservation groups and industry (end users) can learn from the students’ findings. The findings can be used to better protect threatened species and their habitats, for example, oil spill response plans.

Other actions have resulted from Project Hotspot, including a community beach clean-up, which was a highly successful joint community group event.

An amazing clean-up vibe thanks in no small part to the wonderful Waitara community and numerous other dedicated volunteers from around the Taranaki region,

Emily Roberts, Scientific Officer – Marine Ecology, Taranaki Regional Council

Citizen science

Citizen scientists are volunteers who participate in scientific projects. They work in partnership with scientists to answer interesting and relevant scientific questions. There are a wide variety of people with diverse backgrounds and knowledge working as citizen scientists.

Increasingly, as is the case with Project Hotspot, projects are driven from the observations and interests of the local community. This represents an important shift in thinking – from citizen science to participatory science. Citizen science has often been seen by scientists as a more cost-effective way to collect data, whereas participatory science is an extreme form of citizen science where the community may lead or co-lead the initiative and be actively involved in all steps of the project from start to finish, working alongside scientists.

Dr Victoria Metcalf is the national co-ordinator for the PSP projects and has been referred to as New Zealand’s ‘queen of curiosity’. This Sci21 YouTube video shows Victoria explaining the benefits of participatory science.

Joan Wiffen was a well recognised citizen scientist, with no formal scientific training. Joan learned by experience – how to spot fossils, how to extract them from very hard rock, how to identify them and how to use the fossils to put together a picture of ancient New Zealand. Her willingness to communicate her work to children and the general public made her widely known. Joan ended up having more widespread recognition than most professional scientists. She was, using current terms, a true participatory scientist. 

Nature of science

Scientific investigations involve the collection of data. When participating in citizen science projects, students can learn and practise scientific procedures. Scientists use their expertise to interpret the data – allowing both parties to benefit from the collaboration.


Project Hotspot received funding through the Taranaki pilot of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) – a programme that is part of the Curious Minds initiative and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The PSP is currently being implemented as a pilot in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.

Venture Taranaki Trust is the regional development agency for Taranaki. Its role is to boost the Taranaki economy through regional business and economic development. The Taranaki Regional Council is partnering with Venture Taranaki Trust to lead the platform pilot in Taranaki.

The Government’s National Strategic Plan for Science in Society, A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, is a Government initiative jointly led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

Young Ocean Explorers

Teenager Riley Hathaway and her dad Steve Hathaway want to change the way young people think and act towards the ocean. Their vision is: “Inspire kids to enjoy and care for the world’s oceans.” Explore New Zealand’s marine ecosystems and be inspired through short video clips and the Hathaways’ book Love Our Ocean.

Find out more about other Participatory Science Platform (PSP) projects involving student and community citizen scientists, such as in the article Healthy homes, healthy futures.

Activity idea

In the activity Introducing biodiversity, students are introduced to biodiversity. They make models of a marine ecosystem and use their models to explore the human impact on ecosystems and biodiversity.

In the activity Making a food web, students construct a food web using string to show connections between species.

    Published 19 September 2016