Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recover Historic Research with the Smithsonian

Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian
This blog was started to highlight the many citizen science projects available and show people how easy it is to contribute.  I've come a long way since then and have begun focusing on larger citizen science themes as well.  But I still like to showcase new projects every now and then.  Especially one so close to my heart.

The Smithsonian Digital Volunteers program needs your help going through their vast collection of historic scientific archives and transcribing the data for future analysis.  With a collection as large as the Smithsonian's a huge number of pieces are donated or created by institution scientists, but their data can easily be overlooked or lost among the overwhelming volume.  By digitizing and transcribing, all the information can be cataloged, stored centrally and then reviewed by anyone interested in the topic. It also allows researchers to use modern data management and analysis tools to find previously hidden connections from within the various sources.

This type of data has many different uses.  In some cases, historical weather data, and even counts of plants and animals, can be used to track climate change and global warming.  Even the impact of that change of local species can be tracked with that data.  It also allows information on now-extinct species that were alive back when the record was created, and allows scientists fill in the holes in the historic record to see how our wold overall is changing.

Transcription may sound easy but things can get complicated.  And not just because of handwriting that is worse then mine.  For example, take the snippet below from a mid-1800s electrical conduction experiment performed by former Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
There is a word here (highlighted in yellow) which seems to be six letters long and is some sort of synonym for "travel".  Also, based on a review of other letters on this page, it is most likely an "H" since the one other word starting with an "H" looks nearly identical to it.  But the word eludes me and has eluded the six other people who have worked on it so far.  You may have better luck, but it's this type of roadblock that can suddenly eat up your transcription time, and which the Smithsonian can not afford to have their own staff doing.  A further analysis of electrical terms beginning with an "H" may help provide the answer, but so far it's still being worked on.  This is where you come in.

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Register for a new account by visiting the New User Account page and supplying a username and email address.  Once entered, check your email and click the verification link to confirm your intent to create the account and set up a password.  No other personal information is required.
  2. Visit the main Transcription Center web site to learn more about the project and discover the source transcription materials that most interest you.
  3. Review the Instructions for transcribing.  In a nutshell, include every word as it appears in the document (misspellings included) and accurately describe any images on the page.  Don't worry about bold or italicized text but do note any underlines or strikeouts. 
  4. Go back to the main page and pick the source material you wish to work from.  Click on it, and then see all of the pages in that document. For starters, pick one that has not been begun.
  5. Transcribe the page as directed in the instructions.  Once you are fully done, click to Submit for Review.
  6. If you wish to review someone's transcription, click a page marked "Needs Review" and proofread the entire page.  If there is not a single error, click "Mark as Complete". This sends it to Smithsonian staff for finalizing.  If there is a problem, make the change and then click "Complete and Mark for Review" to have another independent person review this updated, corrected version.
  7. If you are unsure of a word, just enter a set of double brackets [[]] and add your best guess.  This will help the next person while not making it an official note.
That's all there is to it!

It really is simple to lend a hand.  Just select from the source materials currently available; right now they are categorized into themes of "Biodiverse Planet", "Mysteries of the Universe", "Field Book Registry",  "American Experience", "Civil War", and "World Cultures".  These aren't just pulled from the scientific artifacts but the entire Smithsonian collection.  So not only can you learn about science, but U.S. history and art as well.

This is a great project for new citizen scientists, people living in the Washington, DC area, environmentalists studying climate change, and anyone interested in the history of science.  So what are you waiting for?  Let's start transcribing!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Can we Talk About the 2015 Citizen Science Association Conference?

Next February 11-12, 2015, the Citizen Science Association will host it's first conference in San Jose, California.  Will you be there?

Two years ago citizen science practitioners and participants gathered in Portland, Oregon to discuss the present and future state of Public Participation in Scientific Research. Yours truly was there as were many of the most active players in our field.  Everyone learned a lot, shared their experiences, and started planning how to move the field forward.  Out of that an association was formed and now a conference is being planned.  So jump on board and join us in planning the next steps in our evolution.  It just get's bigger and better.

I plan to write MUCH more about this conference over the next few months to help set the stage.  But first a few logistics for you:

  • Get on the Citizen Science Association mailing list and help us grow by joining up today.  Membership is free (for now) and let's your voice be added to all the planning.  You'll also be the first to know once final registration details are announced
  • Register for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting that this is technically a part of.  Attend the whole AAAS conference or opt for a $23 reduced fee registration of just the Citizen Science Conference.
  • Make preliminary travel plans to San Jose that week and reserve a hotel room before they sell out.  Don't contact the hotels directly but instead work through the AAAS meeting coordinators.
  • Check back with the Citizen Science Association before November 10 when the Early Bird Registration Discount ends.

One more thing.  Have you thought about what you want to say?  The Citizen Science Association has placed a Call for Proposals (workshops, short talks, panel discussions, poster sessions) due by September 15, 2014.  Personally I am contemplating a few different ideas and am trying to narrow them down.  Some material will come from things I've discussed in this blog, while others may be from other experiences and new research I've been working on.  But if you have some interest in these topics or might like to join forces, just let me know at OpenScientist (at)  I think some of you are working on similar ideas and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  • For Love and Money: Business models for creating a citizen science industry infrastructure that supports, and benefits from, the work of citizen scientists.
  • Federal Government's Role in Supporting Citizen Science: A history and future opportunities
  • Transparency in Government-Funded Research: Pros and Cons from a Citizen Science standpoint
  • Citizen Science vs. Citizen Pseudo-Science: Separating amateur researchers from public crackpots
  • Re-Examining Citizen Science Throughout History: How pervasive were amateur researchers in the history of science versus "Establishment" or "Professional" researchers.  How can we apply those modern terms to yesterday's society?  Can we use historical lessons to increase public participation and respect in the field?

See you in San Jose!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Five Best Cities for a Citizen Scientist to Live

Last month I wrote a post on where the best places are for a citizen scientist to live.  In case any of you out there are planning to move, these are things to look for indicating many opportunities to participate in citizen science.  After hearing your feedback and doing some research on my own, I narrowed them to five general indicators:
  1. Access to Universities and Community Colleges
  2. Proximity to Museums and Science Centers
  3. Access to National, State, and Local Parks
  4. Dark Skies
  5. Environmental Consciousness
After hearing your comments and looking more closely a sixth criterion has revealed itself. This has also been added as an update to the previous post.

  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.

With these key traits in place we can start identifying the best U.S. cities for citizen science.  Admittedly one could argue over the relative merits of each city and their ranking.  But this is the sense I have from my years watching the field and it should move this interesting conversation forward.

5) Portland, OR
Portland has long enjoyed an independent streak among it's citizens, as well as a strong environmental awareness.  This has created a town with a larger-than-normal size of existing nature and animal tracking citizen science projects, and these are expected to just increase.  So it's the perfect place for new and experience citizen scientists to join existing projects or find people for new ones. It was even the site of the first Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference back in 2012; just another way it supports the citizen science community.

4) Phoenix, AZ
Picking just one city in the U.S. Southwest as best for citizen scientists was a difficult job.  All are in desert areas with the abundant life (if you know where to look), and many need scientific help to preserve the fragile environment.  The desert also holds many important archaeological finds as dinosaur bones and remains of ancient cultures lie just below the surface.  Just a few miles outside many of these cities find low populations and crystal clear skies at night...perfect for star-gazing.  But ultimately Phoenix rises above it's other desert counterparts.  It's high concentration of world-class research universities and concentration of PhD scientists make it a great spot for public participation in science.

3) San Francisco, CA
The San Francisco Bay area is known as the heart of Silicon Valley and the innovative technical culture that thrives there.  The University of California Schools, along with local Stanford University, provide a wealth of highly educated researchers ready to be involved in citizen science or guide the public in their citizen science endeavors.  Currently it is a great place to find new citizen science tools being made, from a thriving DIYBio community to programmers creating many of the citizen science apps we use today.  Even the old Xerox PARC center laid a building block for the 1970's amateur computer clubs that Apple eventually sprouted from.  Again citizen science and entrepreneurship show their close link and make San Francisco a worthy choice at number three.

2) Washington, DC
Free access to a treasure trove of information and activities are at the heart of DC's citizen science appeal. Start with the Smithsonian Institution Museums...the Air and Space and Natural History museums are free to the public and host world class treasures -- from the Hope Diamond to the Space Shuttle Discovery and everything in between.  The city also attracts leading experts to speak at free or low-cost events, either at the museums or at the many scientific associations around town (such as a American Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society) hoping to lend a scientific voice to our politics.  Even the headquarters of major Federal agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) offer access to cutting-edge discoveries to the public.  Of course, you can learn all about happenings in the DC area at our sister site ScienceinDC.

1) Honolulu, HI
What doesn't Hawaii top the charts in?  Ifthe beautiful beaches and tropical climate aren't enough to lure you over the Pacific, hopefully the scientific opportunities will!  The Hawaiian islands in general are a nature-lovers paradise with bountiful tropical forests to hike through, as well as an ocean filled with coral reefs and abundant sea life. There are active volcanoes for understanding the Earth's interior, and for experiencing completely different ecosystems at high elevation.  Finally there's Honolulu, with its high tech industry and world class university.  What more does a citizen scientist want?

So what do you think of this list?  Did I miss your favorite city?  Do you think Boston (MA), Ithaca (NY), or Oak Ridge (TN) were wrongly overlooked?  Let me know in the comments below and keep the conversation going.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Where Are the Best Places for a Citizen Scientist to Live? - Key Traits

Much of this blog has been about large, national and international scope citizen science projects.  But that only scratches the surface of what's available.  In fact the large number of citizen science projects happen at the local state parks, community colleges, and local high schools.  So we can't ignore all those great opportunities.  But what happens if you don't live somewhere with a lot of citizen science projects?  Are there places you can move to and  get more involved?  Let's find out.

There are many places we can go to find information bout each US city and which will rank them by the criteria we want.  Sites like Find Your Spot come to mind where you fill out a number of personality questions and receive a list of likely places.  But what criteria should we use?  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Access to Universities and Community Colleges: There is nothing like a nearby institution of higher learning to cultivate to inspire a passion for research.  Many universities are built around research and have a world of resources available for everyday people if you ask nicely enough.  But even if their tools are locked up tight, the opportunity to learn about advanced topics through seminars and open campus days often available, and many professors plain love to talk to local residents about their labs.  It's their favorite subject! And those professors are often the same ones who indulge their science passions further as citizen scientists in fields outside their day-to-day interests.  But most importantly, these research professors are the ones designing and managing citizen science projects for people in the community to join. 
  • Proximity to Museums and Science Centers: There is no better place to inspire everyday people to science like a local science museum.  They explain complicated topics in ways that everyday people can understand, and help relate it to their lives.  They also run programs that involve the local community, many of which are citizen science projects.  So finding a good science museum is another ticket to finding well-run projects. 
  • Access to National, State, and Local Parks: What better place is there to see hundreds of unique plants and animals than in the national parks set up to protect them?  Not only that, many of these parks are in places with significant geologic figures, or even scientific bounty (such as Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah).   And, as we've seen at universities and museums, there are many great local citizen science programs eager for volunteers.   
  • Dark Skies: For astronomy lovers nothing beats a deep, dark sky field for excellent star-gazing.  Whether it is a meteor shower, approaching comet, or bright planet everything is crisper on a clear night.  Experts typically recommend getting out at least an hour for major metropolitan areas to get the best views so rural areas typically get the best views.  But you'll know you're in a good spot once the Milky Way's dusty veil is clear even with a moon in the sky. 
  • Environmental Consciousness: Many of the most active citizen science projects are performed by people protecting natural resources.    In fact much of the field actually grew up from this community, where local citizen would test local waterways for contaminants or count the wildlife due to pollution concerns.  So an area with a high "green" contingent where the public is highly sensitive to environmental concerns will also be a great place to find interesting citizen science projects.
  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.
But these are just a few thoughts to get things rolling.  Are there other factors you can think when identifying areas supportive of citizen science?  Let me know in the comments below and I'll be happy to include them.

But where in the US are these places?  Tune in to next weeks post for a few answers.

(Updated 8/10/2014 to add Entrepreneurship as a sixth trait).

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Feeding My Baby: A Case-Study of Citizen Science in Everyday Life

Who knew my citizen science skills would come in handy so soon after childbirth?

Becoming a new father has been challenge for me as it is for everyone.  There is so much to learn about caring for a child, caring for the new mother, and helping your child not just live, but thrive. Add to that all the personal baggage, as well as societal and psychological expectations, that are brought into parenting, and it can be overwhelming. Fortunately our pediatrician's office has been a great source of information.  The doctor's and nurses pull from the latest medical research and their own experience to guide us on our way.  But as much as science knows about child development, it becomes quickly clear how much is not known.  Even for one of the babies most basic

Every one of the 4 million families with newborns must deal with is how to handle bottle feeding (either breast milk or formula).  Both are very valuable commodities that you don't want to waste, so the simple question arises of how long a bottle lasts either with or without refrigeration.  With nearly every one of the using bottles of some sort you'd think there would be simple answers. But there aren't.  So that's where my citizen science background comes in.

In a perfect world my doctors, the American Academy of Pediatrics bible "Your Baby's First Year", or any other authoritative source would have answered this question.  But they don't.  So we turn to one of the most trusted yet often least reliable sources...the Internet.  Which is where I found some of the best information from a blogger who is also a true citizen scientist, whether she knows it or not.

In her post ""The 2 Hour Rule: Is a Bottle Safe When it's been Left Out too Long?" this question is addressed head on. 

First she checks with the most authoritative source she can find, the Infant Formula Council.  They should have the most expertise on the subject and access to a wide variety of research.  The main problem is the potential for bias as a manufacturer's trade group.  So she balances that recommendation with one from the non-biased American Academy of Pediatrics.  Not only will they give a new perspective, but they represent the collective wisdom and expertise of doctors.  Also, between these two, she has looked to the "Experts" for advice and is willing to accept it at face value.  However, while both discuss the topic in generalities neither provides a concrete answer.  So she must continue looking.

The next step is to review the literature.  This is tough to do as an amateur but not impossible.  It just takes some persistence with Google or other search engine and then hoping the articles are publicly available (much more on this in a future blog post).  But it is not a blind is informed by the dangers described by the "Experts" above.  She is not dismissing their concerns, but trusting them and using them as a source for further exploration.

Finally, when all is said and done, she finds a related study on the impacts of time on formula feeding.  It's not completely on topic and does not directly answer her question.  And it was paid for by a bottle manufacturer.  All issues which she notes in the article.  But she does present it to inform her final decision.

Which is...

Sorry, I'm not going to reveal that.  You can find the answer yourself here.  The point is not whether formula can be used after two hours, or the relative merits versus breast milk.  It's to demonstrate some key points I've been trying to make ever since starting this blog.

  1. Just because you are not a Ph.D. scientist, don't be afraid to ask questions and wade into the debate.  It is possible for everyday people to understand, and be part of, the conversation of science.
  2. Trust but verify the advice of experts.  Relying on the knowledge of people studying a specific scientific issue is a vital starting point.  You can't just throw away everything science has learned and start on your own.  But also don't be afraid to question the experts.  They aren't infallible, and haven't always looked at things from every angle.  This does not question their authority or integrity, it is the standard due diligence allowed, and required, from every good scientist.
  3. Be prepared to be wrong.  In this case there was no evidence that her approach was harmful to her child.  But in reading the article there is every sense she was willing to make a change if the evidence was compelling.  That intellectual honesty is crucial for scientists and citizen scientists alike.

In other words, perform your research with a humble confidence. Don't worry that you don't have a degree in child development or have not spent years in medical school.   You can still investigate questions for yourself and help us all out.  Just make sure to put it on the web so others can take advantage too!