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Interview with Nolan Doesken, CSA Board Member & CoCoRaHS Director

The recent White House Citizen Science Forum, “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People showcased the work of many amazing people whose work we consider part of the citizen science spectrum. We wanted to get to know some of these individuals better so we asked a few of them to tell us a little more about themselves and how they engage others in public participation in scientific research. We hope you may learn from their experiences and find new connections to the work you do.
Here we spoke with Nolan Doesken, Founder and Director of the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) and Colorado’s State Climatologist. Nolan is also a member of the inaugural Citizen Science Association Board of Directors.
CSA: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
Nolan: Persistence. I was fascinated with weather and climate from a young age. I just stuck with it and took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. Also, the more I openly shared my excitement with both the subtle and dramatic aspects of weather and climate with those around me, the more curious and excited others became.
CSA: Describe your citizen science/public participation in scientific research project for us.
Nolan: Our project is called CoCoRaHS and it stands for “Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network”  It is really low tech – a bunch of people with rain gauges and rulers, but together we are able to measure and map the amazing and ever-changing precipitation patterns that affect so many parts of our lives and our world. Furthermore we can provide that information as a service to our country and our communities each and every day.
CSA: What inspired you to start/work on CoCoRaHS?
Nolan: CoCoRaHS was a product of crisis and disaster. A localized flash flood here (Fort Collins, Colorado) back in 1997 clearly demonstrated the need for more, accurate, and timely reports of rainfall to help predict and warn people about storms. Working with three creative local high school students and the power of the early internet, we were able to find and harness weather interests and enthusiasm. We never planned or imagined a nationwide and international volunteer precipitation project, but it just sort of snowballed on us.
CSA: What was one of your biggest challenges to get CoCoRAHS to where it is today? How did you overcome that challenge?
Nolan: Many things just sort of fell into place for us. There are so many weather enthusiasts and the internet has made it so easy to display and share information. But I think the challenge for me is trying to hold a team of some 35,000 individuals together. They come with strongly held and often opposing views (such as climate change) and all have my e-mail address and aren’t afraid to ask questions and share stories. I feel that we are all family, but there just are not enough hours in the day to maintain the kind of personal relationships with our volunteers that I’d like. I can’t say that we’ve overcome this, but we’ve been fortunate to have a small staff plus a whole team of volunteer leaders across the country to share this with.
CSA: Tell me about some of the people you’ve met through your project. How have they influenced your work?
Nolan: When we started this endeavor, we thought that schools and students would be our focus. But soon we encountered the energy, focus and dedication of older adults — many of whom are retired and many dealing with various limitations and disabilities. I can’t name just one. There are so many who each day overcome pain, loss, loneliness and other frustrations of aging to take their rainfall measurement and share it with the world. Seeing the satisfaction this brings when they know their efforts are appreciated — that’s enough to keep me fired up for a long time.
CSA: What do you do when you aren’t working or volunteering your time for citizen science?
Nolan: I’m either doing my day job as “State Climatologist” for Colorado where I get to use and apply the data our volunteers are collecting to closely monitor the climate of our state, or I’m using duct tape and baling wire (and I’m not kidding when I say that) to try to hold the fences, barn and outbuildings together on our old farm.
CSA: What is your most difficult challenge for CoCoRaHS? What’s your greatest need right now?
Nolan: We’ve had the luxury of a few full time staff for over a decade now to help our project grow and thrive. But it’s an ongoing challenge to find the financial resources to maintain this. Our greatest need right now is connections. We know (or would like to think) there are people and organizations out there who would love to partner with us financially, but we need help finding each other.
CSA: Why are you excited about citizen science?
Nolan: I’ve always been thrilled by weather and climate. To have the chance to share that and see the same excitement grow in thousands of others is just the best feeling.
CSA: Thanks for taking a moment to share your story with us Nolan. And thank you for giving your time to build the Citizen Science Association through your work with the board.
Follow CoCoRaHS on Twitter @CoCoRaHS

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