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What is “Citizen Science”?


What do trees, AEDs, galaxies, birds, bees, and whales all have in common?  Science, of course.  We often associate big scientific breakthroughs with one or two key people.  Think Benjamin Franklin, the kite and the lightning.  However scientific research more often involves teams of people that collaborate across many locations and even internationally.  Over the past few years, these networks of scientific collaboration have grown in revolutionary new ways by including the rest of us in the process of discovery.

The term “Citizen Science” would make Ben Franklin proud.  It refers to the integration of regular folks – you and me – into the scientific research process.   This can take a few different forms, of which the most common are 1) computation projects; 2) classification projects; and 3) data collection projects.

A signature example of computation projects was the SETI@home effort which, beginning in 1999, sought to increase the speed of the search for extraterrestrial life by turning the unused processing cycles of 100,000’s of home computers into a massive supercomputer.  It didn’t find aliens, but it did demonstrate the concept, and this has since been followed up with efforts like FoldIt, which enables you to solve puzzles in a game-like environment to help researchers better understand the three-dimensional structure of proteins and other problems.

One of the best known classification projects is Galaxy Zoo, now part of the larger Zooniverse effort led by the Citizen Science Alliance.  The astronomers behind Galaxy Zoo were beset with too much of a good thing.  The Sloan Digital Sky Survey generated an enormous volume of images of galaxies and other stellar phenomena but not enough capacity to examine images.  The first version of the Galaxy Zoo software presented each image to several people who had gone through an online training course and let them classify the images.  In the initial year, more than 150,000 people participated, classifying more than 50 million images.  Subsequent versions of the project involved even more people.  Today, Zooniverse has multiple projects related to astronomy, climate, biology, and history and more than 800,000 from around the world lend a hand.

The third significant type of citizen science project is actual data collection.  These projects rely on the public to help gather observations about the world around them, submitting their samples to a central database.  There are many examples of this, including The Great Sunflower Project for counting bees, the eBird project, and Project BudBurst which tracks the timing of leaves appearing in the spring.  Azavea has developed applications to support this type of crowd-sourcing of data including the MyHeartMap Challenge in winter 2012 and our OpenTreeMap software.  All of these data collection projects are making meaningful contributions to scientific research by enabling the assembly of geographically diverse samples at relatively low cost.

With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Azavea is currently working with SciStarter, a small Philadelphia company that operates a directory of citizen science projects, to evaluate the technology behind a number of citizen science projects and suggest some areas in which new tools would make the process easier for both researchers and participants.  We expect to release a couple of white papers later this spring.  In the meantime, if you are interested in getting involved in a citizen science project, check out one of these directories: