Thursday, December 8, 2011

Audubon Society Spends Christmas with the Birds

Photo: Jerry Acton, courtesy
National Audobon Society
December is here again.   Shopping malls are filled with people, houses are decorated in lights, and egg nog re-appears on the shelves.  It's also time for the 112th Annual Christmas Bird Count.  Yes, 112.  This  is the longest-running Citizen Science project and arguably one of the most successful.

The project began in 1900 when Frank Chapman, a prominent member of the Audubon Society, wanted to change a common after Christmas tradition of hunting birds in a "Side Hunt".  He proposed a much more humane hunt to just count and identify birds.  But not only did he create a new tradition, he helped introduce concepts of both "crowd sourcing" and citizen science long before anyone else.

The Christmas Bird Count is also one of the most scientifically successful citizen science projects out there.  With 111 years worth of ornithological data (much of it global) we can identify trends in bird populations over both short and long periods of time.    So we can identify shifts in the types of birds living in an area, see the effects of local development projects on individual habitats, and even observe the potential impacts of global warming and other large-scale phenomena.

The scientific rigor in how the count is performed (through established counting circles and oversight by trained experts) also makes the data highly reliable.   This has been confirmed through independent, peer-reviewed studies and allows the data to be used for many different purposes.  Take these examples provided by the Audubon Society:

In the 1980's CBC data documented the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck, after which conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on this species. More recently, in 2009, the data were instrumental in Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time. Also in 2009 CBC data were instrumental in the collaborative report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - State of the Birds 2009
 Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count web site to learn more about the project and it's impressive history.
  • Go to the Get Involved and Registration pages to find and join a counting circle near your area.  The cost is only $5 and you will be put in a team of both experienced and less-experienced birders.  So your skill level doesn't matter...the Count Compiler in your area will help in areas you aren't familiar with.
  • Once you receive an assigned date and time for the count (in or around Christmas time, between December 14 - January 5) mark it on your calendar and get your equipment ready.  Cameras and binoculars are strongly encouraged, but so are warm clothes for a cool winter's day.
  • If you are really new to birding, visit the Cornell Ornithological Lab's Birds of North America Online, check out mobile tools such as eBird or Project NOAH, or contact a local Audubon Society chapter.
  • That's all there is to it!

Hopefully you'll find this one-day project as fun as the 60,000+ others expected to partake each year.   If you enjoy the experience consider joining the many other citizen science birdwatching projects available.  I've described a number of big ones in this Birdwatching blog post,  or you can check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for their listing of available projects (both national and local).  And make sure to let us know about it in the comments below...we'd love to hear about your experience.

So let's get to it...I count 23 birds in the 12 Days of Christmas (seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, 4 colly/calling birds, three french hens, and two turtle doves).  Plus one for the partridge.  Now how many birds are in your Christmas counting circle?  Sign up with a volunteer coordinator and find out.

Photo: Deborah Phillips, courtesy National Audubon Society

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuning into the Sea with WhaleFM

They say if you put a shell next to your ear you can hear waves crashing on the beach.  Now we get the next step...put your ear next to your computer and hear the sounds of whales cruising through the seas.

WhaleFM is the latest offering in the Zooniverse line of Citizen Science projects.  Like all the others it relies on the ability of human senses to identify patterns quicker and precisely than a computer.  In other projects it is visual pattern recognition.  For WhaleFM, the project utilizes the human ability to distinguish sounds and differentiate various recorded whale songs.

To date relatively little is known about the sounds made by whales, including the Orca (Killer Whale) and Pilot Whale species being examined.  These animals can communicate in their own language but we are still searching for clues to their meaning.  In this project, researchers want to establish the basic types and numbers of calls used by these animals, figure out how similar the calls are between individual whales, and understand how whale sounds are influenced by SONAR and other man made noise pollution.  So they've tracked a number of whales and followed their behaviors while recording sounds from tiny, harmless transmitters suction-cupped to their skin.  Now we just need to analyze those sounds.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the WhaleFM web site and learn more about the project, it's scientific background, and the individual whales being studied.
  2. Log in to your Zooniverse account or create a new one from the Register screen.
  3. Return to the WhaleFM site and read the short lesson on identifying whale sounds and using the interface (just like the example shown below).  You can also follow the short tutorial that walks you through the first call you study.
  4. For each call, click on the center graph to hear the recording and see a pictograph of the sound. 
  5. Below you will then see nine different possible families of calls it might on each to hear what each sounds like.  You will also see three more similar calls in that "family" of sounds.  Listen to each and click on the check mark if you think there is a match.
  6. At top the two calls will line up next to each other.  Look and listen once again to confirm your choice, and click "Match".  Your choice will be recorded and the system will move on to the next call.  If you don't find a match just skip over to the next one. 
Photo Courtesy: WhaleFM

That's all there is to it!  So what are you waiting for?  Turn up those speakers, start listening, and have fun.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Many Citizen Scientists are There?

Photo Courtesy: EU Social
Hello all you citizen scientists out there! I'm still working on my big project and am nearing the finish line. Though you haven't seen me much over the last two weeks I don't want you to feel alone. In fact, citizen science is a fast-growing field and there are certainly large numbers of you to keep from getting lonely. But how many citizen scientists are there? That's a question I've recently been asking myself.

This is much more than just a rhetorical question. On the practical side, the more people we can show are active as citizen scientists the more projects will be created to fill this need, and the more funding will be made available to support it. There's also the academic interest that can use this number to interpret results from volunteer observations and establish the potential population size. And we can't forget the philanthropic side; if we can show large numbers of citizen scientists we can use that number to promote the larger charitable activities supported through citizen science. So I think it's an important question.

I'm hoping you all can help me with this question over the next few weeks. I've made some headway with my own research but I bet you all have many ideas yourselves. So here are a few tidbits to give everyone an idea of where we can look for information. But I'd really love to see what you come up with...we can then join them all together and come up with a good estimate (or at least a good approach to develop an estimate).

For starters I looked at published statistics of two of the more popular computer-based citizen science projects that are currently active. First, the Zooniverse family of projects (including the MoonZoo and GalaxyZoo projects) claims nearly 500,000 members in their citizen science community, as posted on their web page. I also looked at the number of users registered with BOINC, a large distributed computing network and home to SETI@Home. According to their published stats there are over 2 million people engaged in these types of Distributed Computing citizen science projects. So this shows a high level of interest, especially for the Zooniverse which is a relative newcomer to the field.

I also looked at people's involvement with environmental/ecological groups since these fields are a major area of research utilizing citizen science. They are also particularly suited to data collected from large numbers of individuals and participants can see the impact of their research locally in land-use and pollution control decisions. Demographics for these fields are not easily derived, however, the Audubon Society lists 400,000 members in their most recent annual report and the Sierra Club boasts over 1.3 million members in their promotional materials. Of particular interest is the Audubon Society and it's long-standing support of the Christmas Bird Count (coming soon!) and the Great Backyard Bird Count. Historically they have been important players in the citizen science world and may provide us with some unique insights.

There are many other places we can look and we can certainly talk with the researchers themselves on their own project statistics.  But let's walk though this one methodically.  What are your thoughts?  Do you have any unique insights or know of existing studies providing this very information?  Share it with everyone in the comments below and I'll be sure to return to this topic again soon.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Enjoy Explicit Personal Insights with Project Implicit

Earlier this week we talked about citizen science tools for understanding neurology.  They allow everyday people to record electrical signals sent through an animal's nervous system and perform scientific analyses on it.  But while this is a great tool for learning about the chemistry and physiology of animal bodies (and even animal brains), they don't look deep into what people are actually thinking.   So today I wanted to look at an important psychology project that attempts to read parts of your mind you most want to hide.

Project Implicit is a social science and psychology project different from the many other projects described before on this blog.  For starters it's a survey project where participants act as the test subjects.  It's also a project that can provide many personal insights about your own hidden feelings.  But the biggest difference is the profound impact it is having on society and how we look at the most sensitive areas of our culture: racial and gender bias.

Personal prejudice is a touchy subject that has plagued our country for decades and which we strive to overcome. While we all know the harms these biases cause, and while we are taught from an early age to rid ourselves of them, they remain a problem.  But why is this so? How come our society can seem to get past these irrational racial and gender biases?  A group of researchers based at Harvard and  think they've found an answer and have developed Project Implicit to test these theories.

Project Implicit is a web-based platform that tests people for innate mental biases.  But they aren't just asking people if they are biased..many people would lie about this answer out of personal shame or in an attempt to deny their own biases.  This test can see through all that.  Instead they ask people to perform word-association tasks at a fast rate where any internal bias will slow the person down and force them to commit more errors.  The amount of slowdown and error rate roughly approximate the amount of bias each person is trying to overcome.

A good example is a test provided on gender.  Most people (rightly or wrongly) associate money and income with males while associating warmth and personal caring to females.  By asking a series of questions that require users to associate females with income and males with personal caring, the researchers can see how difficult it is for your mind to switch gears and turn off it's innate prejudice. 

But enough of these descriptions, participate in the project yourself to understand the theory better.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Project Implicit Background site to read information on how the project's basis and scientific goals.
  2. Click on the Project Implicit home page.  If you want to just take a demonstration test without providing your answers to researchers, click on "Demonstration".  To fully participate, click on "Research" to register with the site.  You must provide an email address along with birth date, race, religion, and personal information.  But it is only used to better understand and interpret your results.
  3. Review the Informed Consent form (for both the Demonstration and Research sites) which describes the project in more detail and provides warnings about the possible harm caused by probing your biases.  It's not a physical harm but some people may be disturbed by the results of their own tests.
  4. Once you consent, click "Next" to take the test. In many cases you will be shown a word and asked to hit a keyboard letter depending on the attribute it is associated with.  It's actually pretty simple...just follow the directions on the screen.
That's all there is to it.  Go check it out and work through some of the tests.  It only takes 15-20 minutes of your time and is not that complicated.  You'll benefit from the insights it can provide, and help researchers better understand, and combat, these personal biases.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Practice and Ethics of Citizen Neuro-science...

I'm still moving forward with my personal citizen science project and everything is coming together quite nicely.  It hasn't left me with as much time for the blog, but I still want to provide the fun and exciting citizen science news you expect every week.  So my Tuesday "Tools of the Trade" continue with another interesting option a friend clued me into.

This time we focus on neuroscience, learning more about the nervous system of insects.  The Backyard Brains has developed a "Spiker Box" allowing citizen scientists to record impulses from insect legs (or other parts) connected to the machine.  Just purchase the kit for a low $100 and rescue an insect from your home bug traps for testing.  The machine will let you listen to the insect's electrical impulses through a speaker and even visualize them through a handy mobile phone app (available for Android and the iPhone).  The web site also includes a wiki featuring many different experiments the creators have designed that you can use, as well as many submitted by teachers and other citizen scientists like yourself.  So if you use pick up the Spiker box and develop and new protocol, let the team know about it!

As a side note, when looking at this project I also noticed a few other DIYBio tools designed to collect EEGs (electroencephalograms for recording brain waves) and ECGs (electrocardiogram for recording heart activity).  While the Spiker Box works with invertebrate animals that are much lower on the food chain, I wasn't as comfortable describing testing on vertebrate animals and even humans.  As a simple blogger I don't have any idea on the legality of promoting these devices or ethical constraints around them, so I've avoided discussing them here.  But it brings up a question...what do you think about those types of projects?  Are they fair game for citizen science since they are only passive recording devices, or should we start drawing ethical lines around machines that could potentially harm the humans or vertebrate animals being tested on.  I don't have any of those answers, but let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Phylo Game -- Phylling in the Genetic Blanks

Sorry for taking the last few days off.  I've been working on a citizen science-type project of my own and it's been taking up a lot of time.  But I certainly haven't forgotten about this blog, and I certainly haven't been spending the whole time playing video games.  Well, only one game.  But I swear it's on topic!

Photo Courtesy: and McGill University

This week I'm looking at Phylo, a citizen science game created by researchers at McGill University in Quebec.  Their goal is figuring out how genetically similar various species are to each other by examining similarities in their DNA.   To do this, segments of DNA that perform the same function are analyzed to determine how similar they are to each other.  Although their function is the same more differences will emerge the more distantly related they are to each other.  So a genetic segment performing the same function in both a human and monkey should be much more similar than the same segments in a human and a dog.  Computers have previously analyzed these segments but human eyes (and brains) are even better at pattern recognition.  So we should provide much better answers, and we might as well have fun doing it as a game.

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Visit the Phylo Game web page and learn more about the science behind the game.
  2. Now that you're familiar with the scientific value of the work, prepare for the Game functions on the Play screen.  Click on Login/Register to create a profile.  All that's needed is a user name and password so no need to worry about providing private information.
  3. Now you're ready to learn the interface...just click "Tutorial" from the Play screen for a quick introduction.  Basically, you will see two animals with a line of genetic code with each DNA segment represented by a colored block.  Align as many blocks as possible while minimizing empty space and mismatched blocks (see the picture below for a real example from the game).  The better the match the higher the score.  Just make sure to do be fast and finish each one before time runs out!
  4. As you get better the sequences will get tougher.  And you can add additional species to each level.  But don't give up as it gets more difficult.  That's where the best science can occur.
Photo Courtesy: and McGill University

That's all there is to this simple yet important game.  But don't just take my word for it.  Stop by the site and start playing around.   Enjoy!

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    LifeMapper...a Window into Nature's Future

    Photo Courtesy:
    Last week I took a break from Tuesday "Tools of the Trade" to talk about citizen science philanthropy and how it can be used to solve scientific AND social problems.  It's still an important topic and I encourage you to take part in the conversation.  But this week I'm back with another "Tools of the Trade" article.

    This week I want to look at "LifeMapper", a tool for mapping animal habitats and testing how those habitats may be altered due to global climate change.   Users can tap the database of geographic data for over 900,000 species and 20,000 environmental species models to graphically display where animals have recently been observed, how their habitat may change as the environment changes, and how that environment may change based on various economic development models.  Everything is shown on a large world map highlighting both the existing places each animal has been observed as well as an outline of territory with the same climate and terrain.  For example, a search for coyotes (Canis latrans) shows where they have been observed (orange dots) and areas of similar habitat (red shading).  You can also see similar habitats with different shades of red.

    Photo Courtesy: and
    You can also play with the data for species that have already been modeled.  Continuing our example, we can see the new habitat for coyotes caused by climate changes under a standard economic development model:

    Photo Courtesy: and

    Finally, we can see it with a sustainable economic development model:

    Photo Courtesy: and

    As you can see this data can be a very useful tool for citizen scientists and even high school students looking for an easy tool for understanding climate change.  But it can also be a very high-end tool for more advanced studies.  The site allows researchers to set all the parameters for their own climate change experiments and witness the impacst as shown above.  Or they can create their own unique models and run those as well; this can be done both on the site as well as by downloading the full program and data to your own computer for analysis.

    This leads into another interesting fact abouet LifeMapper; all the species observation data comes from the Geographic Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and is publicly available to anyone who wishes to use it.  GBIF is a repository for data from governments and museums representing over 50 countries that have pooled their collections data in this one central facility.  It also includes data from many museum-sponsored bio-observation projects.  In other words, the citizen science projects you've been reading about on this very website!  So now that you've worked on all these projects and diligently added your data to the collection, it's finally time to use it.

    Getting Started is Easy:
    • Visit the LifeMapper web site to learn more about the project and find any recent updates.
    • Click on the Species link to bring up the main web interface and display map.  This will look very similar to the example images shown above.
    • Directly above the map is the "Species Name" field.  Just type the first three letters (minimum) of the species name and a full list of every species with available data will appear.  Pick the species and/or subspecies you wish to analyze.  Don't know the name of an individual species?  Check out the citizen-science run Encyclopedia of Life for your answer.
    • Once selected, a world map will appear with all the observation data for your selected species.  Use the interface tools to zoom in/out, or move around the globe (I don't recommend scrolling since the system was a bit glitchy when I tried it, but the built-in interface worked perfectly).
    • Right below the map will be any existing climate models that have already been run for this particular species.  Just click the radio button (small circle to the left) for each model you are interested in and a new map will automatically pop up.
    • Keep clicking back and forth between the climate models for a good sense of the differences in each.  That's all there is to it!
    Once you've mastered the basics there is still a world of exploring you can do with the LifeMapper program.  We'll be discussing those in a future blog post but for now let's start with the basics to get the hang of it.  It's such a simple, easy way to see how we humans are impacting the Earth, as well as how we can help improve life under certain conditions.  So take heart, and start playing with the data!

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Engaging Citizen Science to Help the Unemployed

    Photo Courtesy: AMagill
    Two weeks ago I started looking at the field of Citizen Science and started wondering how we can increase it's impact in society.  Recently the field has done much for individual scientific fields, such as ecology and biochemistry, that can keep our people and our planet healthy.  But I'm also wondering about increasing the non-scientific impacts of citizen science.  My previous posting looked at this question broadly but now I'm interested in how it can be used in one specific area: unemployment.

    One thing I've tried to establish in this blog is the ability of citizen science to provide income to participants and provide advanced training to volunteers so they can more effectively participate in the programs.  Building on these trends my plan would provide money to the unemployed through innovation challenges, provide meaningful work to the poor through observational bounties, use citizen science projects as opportunities to enhance technical skills, provide an avenue for scientific entrepreneurship, and re-motivate disenchanted workers. Looking at each of these more closely:

    • Innovation Challenges: A growing number of companies are looking to the citizen science community to solve problems and rewarding them with sizable cash awards.  Some challenges require technical skills but many do not.  Instead they just require creative thought or detail-focused work.  Well-known examples exist through the Ansari XPrize Challenges (complex challenges), to challenges brokered by Innocentive (simple and complex challenges), and many others sponsored at the private and governmental level. So there is great opportunity to expend these opportunities to benefit more people, provide more solutions to companies, help laid-off workers sharpen their skills solving challenges in their selected occupations, and provide accomplishments for unemployed workers to emphasize on resumes.
    • Observational Bounties: Similar to challenges above, these bounties ask individuals to perform observational tasks or collect information on natural phenomena and reimbursing them for their rime or accomplishments.  Examples include collecting weather data in geographically dispersed places for private forecasters, collecting wildlife and plant diversity data for environmental firms, or providing detailed survey data for mapping firms.  One analogy is the creation a Civilian Conservation Corps of Science; instead of depression-era workers building roads these would be unemployed workers collecting ecological and other data useful to private firms, government agencies, and academic researchers alike.  The more valuable the data, the more compensation can be provided to participants.
    • Technical Skills Training and Maintenance: Citizen science projects are not just for people with existing science and technology training.  It is also a fantastic way for people to learn about new industries and develop their own real-world technical skills.  This model has been shown quite successful for educating students from elementary school through high school.  And it has been used to provide real-world experiences for young scientists in a college curriculum.  So it's the perfect time to extend it to the community and vocational college level and increase Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills among unemployed and incumbent workers.  As an added benefit, this type of training lends itself to distance-learning and other non-traditional methods of reaching students, an important quality when attempting to train adult-age workers.
    • Avenues for Entrepreneurship: The organizing and managing of large science and technology projects can easily spin-off into business creation as well.  Once a group has formed to work on a certain engineering or scientific challenge, not only can they sell the results but also start looking at related problems and come up with their own business ideas.  The group can continue to improve the technology and commercialize it, or look at similar problems that develop into a new company.  Apple started out as a computer hobbyist club and Google began in the founders' garage; in many ways these companies started out as citizen science projects.  It's time to develop even more.
    • Motivating Disenchanted Workers: In any recession a large problem are laid-off workers who are out of work for an extended period of time and slowly lose motivation to continue increasing their skills.  The benefit of citizen science based training is it's focus around a broader social goal and the general search for knowledge.  These can be highly motivational for the unemployed struggling to keep their spirits (and skills) up.

    While there is huge potential for adapting this approach to increasing employability and much of the basic groundwork has been laid, nobody has done much work on using it for this purpose.   So my hope is to keep following up this line of thinking with more details and a plan to bring it all together. 

    But what are your thoughts?  Before we get much further I'm curious if this seems like a good idea to the rest of you, or if it's just not plausible.  Alternatively , do you have other ideas to add to the plan?  Let me know in the comments below so we can bring everyone's perspectives together on this.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Agent Exoplanet...a Not-so-Secret Agent of Astronomy

    The search for planets outside our Solar System has expanded greatly over the last ten years as every week brings announcements of new planets that look more and more like our home planet.  The search has drawn in many astronomers and has guided the development of many telescopes, both on Earth and in orbit.  It's also a field of large interest to citizen scientists with a number of different projects available to participate in.  Today we look at a new one created just three weeks ago, Agent Exoplanet.

    Agent Exoplanet grew out of research performed at the Los Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network.  This group is set apart from other astronomy research groups by their creation of a network of telescopes at different longitudes around the Earth.  So an observation can begin from one telescope and then "handed off" to another as the object dips below the horizon.  This continuous tracking allows for uninterrupted data collection, especially valuable for transit-based planet hunting.  This measures the loss of light occuring when a planet crosses in front of a star, and can last for a few minutes to a few hours.  So having an uninterrupted data source is very important.

    This is very similar to the PlanetHunters citizen science project operated by the Zooniverse team, and it appears to have learned some lessons from that effort.  Both projects evaluate potential planets by looking at light curves of stars that diminish during a transit.  Both have highly intuitive interfaces and friendly video tutorials explaining how to participate.  And both provide an important amount of scientific background to keep people interested and demonstrate the value of participation, but not too much that it scares away potential participants.    The key difference is Agent Exoplanet is based on observations of individual stars and asks users to create the light curve by tracking the star in photographs and calibrating the data collection with calibrating stars also tracked in each photo.  Most of the work is ensuring each star is perfectly tracked within the software's cross hairs; this is used to create the light-curve and establish the planet's orbit.  Users are also tracked and receive "Award Badges" based on various accomplishments.  Conversely, the PlanetHunters site just displays graphs of light intensity already created by software with users identifying potential changes in brightness.  Both are important scientifically but I found Agent Exoplanet much more user-friendly and having higher appeal to the lay-person being based on actual night-sky photographs and not data graphs.

    Getting Started is Easy:
    • Visit the Agent Exoplanet web site and learn about the importance of transits to the search for planets outside our Solar System.
    • Click on Mission Briefing to learn about the project and watch the video tutorial on how to participate.  The interface is pretty easy to learn and involves lining the stars in cross-hairs and ensuring the light-curves for each line-up on top of each other.  I've attached a screenshot in Image 1 below in case you are interested. 
    • Once the tutorial is complete you are almost ready to begin.  All that's left is setting up an account so you can get credit for your work.  Click on to provide your name, a username, your e-mail address and a password.
    • Once registered and logged in, click on Start the Mission for the stars available in this initial phase.  I recommend starting on the "Beginner" star with Corot-4B.  Line up all the stars for each timed observation until all are complete.  Next you will analyze the light curves as discussed in the tutorial, and as shown in Image 2 below.
    • That's all there is to it!   Go ahead and click away, earn the award badges, and have fun!

    Image 1: Interface for lining up the target a calibration stars.
    Photo Courtesy: Agent Exoplaney and

    Image 2: Graph of star light during transit compared to calibration stars.
    Note the dip in intensity during transit.
    Photo Courtesy: Agent Exoplanet and

    Hopefully you enjoy this project as much as I did.  This one is just getting off the ground so I'm sure they can use all the participants and support you can give.  I suspect once this takes off there are more projects in the Los Cumbres pipeline, so watch this space for news of more citizen science opportunities in astronomy.

      Tuesday, October 11, 2011

      An Evening with SkyWarn and the Capital Weather Gang

      The Washington Post Capital Weather Gang host a SkyWarn Training session
      Photo Courtesy:

      Tonight I had the rare opportunity to meet over 250 citizen scientists and talk about our shared love of Washington DC weather and meteorology. The occasion was sponsored by the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang as a chance for their blog's "Capital Weather Watchers" to chat with the newspaper's weather team in person and meet their fellow readers too.   As an added bonus we also received Spotter training from the Federal governments Skywarn program.  This was a very interesting evening with a large audience of energized citizen scientists, so I'm publishing Thursday's post early so I can share the excitement with you too.

      I've previously written about the program in my SkyWarn blog post but never had a chance to attend a training.  Until now.  All I can say is that it is highly informative, easy to understand, and quite exciting to watch.  Knowing that I am now a person qualified to "spot" for the weather service and make the reports of hail or flooding heard on the news is a very odd experirnce.  Even odder is knowing that weather service will call ME for updates when severe weather is in the area is an odd feeling.  But I feel I now have a much better understanding of what I'm looking for.

      Chris Strong of NOAA's National Weather Service delivered the main training session.  After quickly describing the role of spotters and organizational structure at the weather service, he dove into the basics of spotting and science of meteorology.  We learned the proper way to measure hail (measure the largest hailstone you can find along the longest axis, and describe it in terms of fixed-size objects, not marbles).  He also went into great detail about how tornadoes form and the various thunderstorm phenomena spotters are asked to report on.  We also learned about the danger of lightning that kills men (like me!) three times more often than women, and the danger of downdrafts, including dramatic footage of a backyard suddenly ripped apart during a storm.  In fact there were many evocative videos included in his slides, such as a funnel cloud over Andrews Air Force Base and a growing flash flood that starts as a trickle and ends up washing away cars in a nearby parking lot.  They really are a sight to behold and if you have the time I highly recommend viewing it yourself here.

      The Capital Weather Gang also spent some time in the spotlight.  They talked about their history and continuing efforts to keep the local community of weather watchers engaged in the sight.  I can attest first-hand that it's a highly energetic and very informed community that interacts with the site, and this energy comes through in everything they write.  It's also a great place to learn about the weather...every forecast is described in great detail with all the factors leading it it, so not only can you learn about the weekend's coming snowstorm, but you also get a detailed analysis of the moisture flows and computer models that lead to the forecast.  They call themselves weather enthusiasts, but they are true citizen scientists in my book.

      Finally, what intrigued me most were the wide variety of people in the audience.  We had young and old, white and black, and just slightly more men (60%) than women.  All were quite interesting and fun to talk to.  So nothing like the stereotypes many people have about weather watchers or citizen scientists.  These are people just like you and me with an interest in the world around them and an intellectual passion to understand it further.  And they couldn't be nicer.

      Finally, on a personal note, I went in to this evening not knowing a single person of the over 250 attending.  But I sat down and quickly entered into a lovely conversation with everyone at my table.  Nobody knew each other, or at least we initially thought.  But after a brief discussion we discovered that I had sat next to a co-worker I've spoken with many times but never met in person, and also met the husband of another woman I've worked with in the past.  Such a small world!  So it turns out citizen scientists really are just the people next door.  Just in this case it was the office next door.

      UPDATE:  Check out the Capital Weather Gang's own synopsis of the event here.  I recommend clicking over to look; not only do they feature a number of different perspectives on the event, but they featured OpenScientist quite prominently!

      Tools of the Trade for Do-It-Yourself Biology

      Today's Tuesday "Tools of the Trade" for citizen scientists looks at the recent DIYBio movement and the resources available for people interesting in participating.

      For those of you who aren't already familiar with it, Do-It-Youself Biology is a growing part of citizen science where participants create their own biotechnology labs and perform biochemical experiments in their own homes.  Sometimes called "BioHackers", the field has received it's greatest notoriety for synthetic biology, where scientists manipulate an organism's genetic material (often by implanting genes from one organism into another) to create new features not previously found in nature.  But there are also many others types of DIYBilogy.  Some participants have used these techniques to find new treatments for disease, such as the famous Lorenzo's Oil example where devoted parents find a new treatment for their son's rare and deadly neurological disease.  More recently, DIYBio enthusiasts have discovered potential markers for heart disease that have led to larger government-funded studies to validate the experiments and expand the research.

      If you are interested in the DIYBio movement in general there was a great article in Discover magazine "Dawn of the Biohackers, October 2011" that I highly recommend.  It doesn't provide much on the "How" of DIYBio but does a great job of exploring the culture, highlighting scientific advances in the field, and forecasting the field's future.  For citizen scientists like me it is great seeing the success this movement has had, and this article definitely conveys the excitement flowing from this field.

      One thing I find fascinating about the DIYBio field is that it has taken an area of science that seems highly complicated and resource-dependent and makes it accessible to people on shoe-string budgets.  For amateur astronomy all one needs is a telescope and a night sky, birdwatchers just need a good set of binoculars, and ecologists just need a meadow or stream to take samples...alternatively biotechnology requires expensive machinery and lab space out of most people's reach.  But that's no longer the case as innovators have found ways to make those expensive machines affordable, local groups have sprung up to provide support (and even lab space) for interested participants, and educators have found cheap methods to perform complex analyses using household materials. 

      So let's take a look at some of these resources:
      • Twice monthly podcast exploring the challenges of DIYBio, interviewing key players in the field and explaining various aspects of the field in layman's terms. As of this posting the organization is still quite new, but they have a high level of excitement and are tackling some important issues. So I encourage you to give them a listen.
      • This web site provides links to a variety of biological lab safety resources and links to many local DIYBio organizations citizen scientists can get involved in to learn more about the field.
      • Web site of a DIYBio organization in the New York area.  The group has put a lot onto this web site, including how-tos for gene-based experiments, links to various problem-specific projects in the DIYBio community, and a variety of classes on synthetic biology and other topics.
      • DIYBio incubator in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Biocurious offers lab space, lab equipment, meeting space, classes, and a community of like-minded individuals for citizen scientists to join.  Contacting them is a must for any DIYBio enthusiast in the California area. 
      • CofactorBio: Look here for advanced biotechnology equipment made extremely affordable. Theirmain claim to fame is the Open PCR...this Polymerase Chain Reaction machine allows researchers to take a single sample of DNA and multiply it millions of times for testing. These normally cost thousands of dollars but here they sell make-it-yourself kits for under $600. The company also manufactures the Genelaser kit for isolating specific segments of DNA before amplifying it through PCR.  Samples can then be analyzed and decoded for your own analysis.  In other words, Cofactor sells everything you need to collect the DNA from a sample material, islate a specific part of the DNA you are interested in, and multiply it for analysis through gel electrophoresis or other methods.
      • Wiki-based collaboration site for sharing DIYBio resources and experience amongst citizen science researchers. If you aren't sure how to perform a scientific technique, or are looking for chemical or biological materials for your research, this is one of the best places to look.
      • Collection of biological techniques and protocols similar to OpenWetware.  The big difference is many of these are designed for use in academic or industrial laboratories, but many are easily adaptable for DIYBio use. 
      Hopefully these links will help you get started.  I plan in the future to post about some specific DIYBio projects  that you can get involved in.  But for now a brief explanation of the field and a listing of resources should feed your appetite and help you get started.  Remember, the field of synthetic biology may look difficult and expensive, but getting started really is easy. Fortunately there are many people just waiting to help.

        Friday, October 7, 2011

        Thoughts on Reducing Poverty with Citizen Science

        Photo Courtesy: AMagill
        The last few weeks have had me thinking a lot about citizen science and its place in society.  On the scientific side it's doing quite well as the research community increasingly involves itself with, and takes advantage, the passion of citizen scientists.  But I'm also interested in it's larger place in society and how it can make the world better for individual people.

        Much of this started with a Washington Post article about billionaire Bill Conway's desire to use his investment fortune to help the unemployed and create sustainable jobs for the poor.  He doesn't yet know the best way to accomplish the goal, so in true innovation-prize style he's turning to the public for their most creative ideas.  This prompted many budding ideas I've had of using citizen science to increase job skills, employ the unemployed, and spur entrepreneurship which I'll be building on in future posts. But I'm starting to get ahead of myself.

        I also received a e-mail today from the SETI@Home group requesting donations to expand the project's scope and maintain the project's ongoing operations.  These researchers have performed first-rate science for over a decade, have spent their money very wisely, and blazed a path for the modern resurgence of citizen science.  In other words they're a group I'm happy to support.  But it continued my thinking that started with Bill Conway's challenge. What is the best way to support citizen science...both to help our fellow citizens and continue the exciting science?

        So I send the question back to you.  What are your thoughts?  I've brainstormed in a number of areas myself and have been drafting some future blog posts on the topic, but want to hear your thoughts before I go too much deeper.  To get things started, here are a few key topics I'm planning to discuss:

        • Should we be supporting creation of new projects, or helping improve existing ones?
        • How can we expand the use of citizen science bounties to help the poor and unemployed?
        • How do we best use citizen science as a platform to teach technical skills to both children AND adult workers.
        • For large-scale efforts or philanthropists with deep pockets, is it best to support multiple different projects or create one larger project encompassing many different aspects of citizen science?
        • For people with smaller budgets, how do you balance investing in your own citizen science tools (such as a telescope) with donating money to a citizen science charity?
        These and other questions I'll start answering with my own thoughts next week.  But the more of your ideas I can incorporate early on the better the discussion will be for all of us.

        As a final note, I encourage everyone to take a look at the initial article about Bill Conway's challenge for maximizing his philanthropy and helping the most workers.  Send him your own ideas or any unique insights you may have to  If they involve citizen science let me know too...comment below or e-mail them to  I'd love to incorporate them into our public discussion too.

        Thursday, October 6, 2011

        Dive Deep with NASA and Practice Finding Life

        A Citizen Science trend I've recently noticed are the increasing numbers of projects asking participants to analyze scientific images.  These projects take advantage of the large numbers of citizen scientists that can perform visual-identification tasks much bettter than computers can.  Although machines can help us automate picture collection,  they aren't very good at understanding what is captured in the picture.  That's where the human eye comes's still the best at recognizing patterns.

        The Zooniverse projects are a great example.   Many of the scientific images needing analysis come from space missions and Earth-bound telescopes and these projects crowdsource analysis of those images in a wide variety of ways.  Some, such as PlanetHunters, are looking for other planets as part of NASA's grand search for life.  And that's where the MAPPER (Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research) comes in...another piece in the grand search for extra-terrestrial life but based right here near home.

        This project is testing ways to improve detection of microbialites, a type of rock created by bacterial deposits on its surface.  The theory is that these formations may be common on any planet with a bacterial history, so looking for these rocks on other planets may guide us to potential clues for life.  On Earth most microbialites are at the bottom of cold lakes.  So NASA has sent expeditions to two Canadian lakes to scan the entire lake beds and map where the microbialites form.

        The first part is nearly done...robotic subs and scuba divers have taken all the images needed from the lakes.  Now they need our help analyzing and interpreting the data.
        Getting Started is Easy:
        1. Visit the MAPPER web site and view the Slide Show Tour to learn more about the project. 
        2. Once you are ready to get started, click on "Sign Up Here" to create an account.  All you need to provide is your full name, an e-mail address, and a password.  That's it.
        3. Once logged in click on the interactive tutorial designed to teach you everything you need about the system.  In it you will learn to only tag clear photos that are not fuzzy and not blocked by the camera equipment, see examples of the various tagable items are (e.g., dark sediment, trees, trash, microbialites, rocks, algae, etc.), and practice how to use the tagging system.  As you can see below it's really quite simple.  The system will also take you through a number of test pictures where you'll see the newly-acquired photo analysis skills and will be graded on how well you identified features in each one.
        4. Once the five-minute tutorial is done you are ready to start!  Just click on "Tag Photos" and get to work.  As you complete more pictures you will get more points in the ongoing completion contest, and will receive new types of photos as you get more experience with the system.
        Photo Courtesy: and
        Currently NASA and it's partners have surveyed two different lakes for this project, Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake.  While they have many photos that need analyzing the number is not infinite.   I expect this phase of the project may end after a few months once all the data analysis is complete.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there and start tagging!

        Tuesday, October 4, 2011

        Tour the Universe with a Planetarium on your PC

        It's Tuesday again, and time for another Tuesday Citizen Science "Tools of the Trade" post.  What I like about this series is getting the chance to explore some of the fascinating resources available that aren't distinct projects, but which put everything in context and help us appreciate the science even more.  I've come across many of them over the last year and was always excited to share them with you.  I just didn't know how...and now it's my chance.

        Photo Courtesy: and

        Today I want to look at the WorldWide Telescope project: a partnership between Microsoft and NASA to make astronomy accessible to citizen scientists everywhere.  It let's you explore the night sky with a highly intuitive, easy-to-use, and pretty-to-look-at interface.  You can zoom around the stars, point the telescope at distant galaxies, "land" on Mars or the moon while panning around images from the Spirit and Phoenix landers, and you can scan the planet's surface with images taken from orbiting satellites such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  You can also program a "tour" of sites and create a presentation of interesting sites or follow one of the many pre-programmed tours available in the program.  This let's it be used as a home planetarium, just more powerful and with the ability to point it yourself.

        Much of the imagery comes directly from NASA missions that have produced a wealth of information, but that's not the only source.  Much also comes from Earth-based telescope surveys recording in a wide variety of wavelengths.  This lets citizen scientists look at far-off galaxies in infrared or the optical range, and make comparisons of what they see.  You can even add your own data with the Excel plug-in and other capabilities built-in to the system.  So not only is it a great educational tool for beginning astronomers, but it's also capable of helping with more advanced citizen science and professional projects.

        I could spend a longtime talking about all you can do with the program but I'll leave that for another time.  For now let's just dive in and start playing around.

        Getting Started is Easy:
        1. Visit the Worldwide Telescope web page and read about the many features of the program.  If you prefer, watchthere  various introductory videos to learn more about the project and get excited about the program's possibilities.
        2. Click on the "Install Windows Client" (for PC) or "Run Web Client" (for Mac or PC) button.  If you are installing, follow the prompts and download the necessary add-ons to accommodate the program.  It should only take a minute or two, then open the program.  People choosing "Run Web Client" won't need to install and will save time by jumping right into the program (though the program may be slower once you actually get into it.)
        3. If you want to tour specific pre-set planets and galaxies, use the ribbon bar at the top of the program screen to select a destination.  Clicking on it will cause your screen to "travel" to the location.
        4. If you prefer to explore yourself, just use the mouse to pan around and use the scroll buttons to zoom in and out (traveling further and further away from Earth).
        5. If you prefer to view different sky surveys or images at different wavelengths, use the "Look at Sky" feature on the bottom bar and select the appropriate data set.  You can also use the telescope missions on the top ribbon bar to select different wavelengths or data sets for viewing.
        6. That's all there is to it.  Have fun!
        Hopefully you'll have as much fun exploring with this program as I have.  It's extremely powerful and we've only scratched the surface of it's features with the instructions above.  But let's play around and see what it can do first.  In future posts I plan to describe more specific ways we can use this tool for our own citizen science projects or to even create a brand new project.  I also plan to tour some of the other resources available for making NASA imagery public.  The missions were fully paid for by us taxpayers; now we have a chance to experience them ourselves.

        Thursday, September 29, 2011

        Citizen Science Watches the Waters with the EPA

        Photo Courtesy: U.S.
        Environmental Protection Agency
        Last week I posted an opinion piece about the use of bounties in citizen science and how citizen scientists could be rewarded for performing certain data collection tasks.  For example, earning a small amount of money for analyzing pollution in a set number of streams.   Depending on how financially valuable the data is, companies such as mining companies or home developers could afford to pay for this data as part of their environmental permitting or remediation duties.  Sadly that day is not yet here despite our efforts to create it.  However, there are models for how they can be put together and today we look at an important one, the EPA's Volunteer Environmental Monitoring Programs.

        To quote the EPA's web site, "Volunteer water monitors build community awareness of pollution problems, help identify and restore problem sites, become advocates for their watersheds and increase the amount of needed water quality information available on our waters."  They receive training in pollution prevention,  provide data for waters that may otherwise be unassessed, and increase the amount of water quality information available to decision makers at all levels of government. Additionally, "Among the uses of volunteer data are delineating and characterizing watersheds, screening for water quality problems, and measuring baseline conditions and trends."  So it is the perfect opportunity for citizen scientists concerned about local water quality and the ecology of their neighborhoods.  Training and equipment are provided by many of the chapters, as well as a full organizational infrastructure to coordinate everyone's work, ensure high quality data, and keep everyone motivated to see the project through.

        If this sounds familiar it should; it is very similar to the Skywarn program run by the National Weather Service(which we'll be talking about much more next week). Like the Skywarn program, this is not just a single project but  a collection of projects across the country. Large and small, each is devoted to monitoring wetlands and bodies of water in a certain geographic area. Technical and organizational assistance is sometimes provided by the government but the passion, and work, all come from a concerned citizen scientists. Many projects are also done in close coordination with State and local government agencies though this isn't always the case. These others evolve from the concerns of public citizens, interests of local firms, and mission of local non-profit organizations.

        Getting Started is Easy:
        That's all there is to it!  I admit this one has less detail than other project descriptions, but that's only because every local project is different.  Some are concerned with pH monitoring, some with tracing individual chemicals or harmful microbes, while others are concerned with fish surveys or remediation work.  And the good view is there's something for everyone.  So pull out your best galoshes, find a local group, get involved, make new friends, and be sure to have fun!

        Tuesday, September 27, 2011

        Earn Citizen Science Merit Badges with Project NOAH

        Welcome to the first week of Fall and the continuing saga of Tuesday's Citizen Science "Tools of the Trade" profiles.  This week we look at Project Noah, another in the line of mobile field guides available for most popular cell phones and tablets.

        Project NOAH (Networked Organisms And Habitats) is not a citizen science project in and of itself, instead it is a tool for citizen scientists to store information on any animals they spot and make that data available to researchers regardless of the project.  So users take pictures of specific animals, provide notes on the species along with the habitat they were found in and the geographic location, and upload to the central system.  If you can't identify the species you've spotted you can also ask the citizen science community to help classify it for you.  Once properly classified the system also links to both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia of Life where you can learn much more about that animal and its habitat.

        This data is not just available to individual users.  It also made freely available to other users and independent researchers to work with as they please.  So projects that track certain species or the biodiversity of a certain geographic area can use the information made available to them through the project.  Researchers can also design their own project (such as tracking squirrels in a certain area) and work with the Project NOAH team to create a "Mission" requesting users specifically look for and upload information on any squirrels they spot. 

        This emphasis on missions is one area the helps Project NOAH differentiate itself from the many other citizen science tools and projects already out there.  To encourage participation users are awarded "Mission Badges" for completing certain animal spotting goals.  Similar to the badges used by FourSquare and other social networking companies, these can be created for reaching a certain quota of animal spottings, for successfully participating in a mission organized by an independent research team, or by proving a certain number of spottings in a geographic area (or areas).  So you can win awards for submitting data from three different countries, participating in a butterfly sighting program, or uploading pictures of ten different animal species.  The badges can reward almost any activity that the system can track.

        Getting Started is Easy:
        • Visit the Project NOAH web site and click on Mobile to access the Android Store or iTunes Store to download the application.  The app is available on the iPhone and adaptable to the iPad, but there is no dedicated iPad app yet.
        • Once installed open the application and sign in by either creating a new account or by logging in through an existing social network account, such as those through Google, Yahoo, Facebook or Twitter.
        • Once logged in, take a long walk and find an animal of interest you wish to record.  Click on the "New Spotting" button and then "Take a New Photo" (you can also take a photo separately and just access it through the application, but let's try it the fun way first).  This will bring up your device's camera mode...just get as close as the animal will let you safely approach and take the picture.
        • Identify the basic type of animal (e.g., mammal, bird, fish, invertebrate, etc) with the spinning wheel and click "Go".  If you have location tagging on, make sure the map shows your correct position and click "Done".
        • You will now see your specimen sheet like the one shown below (a cute rabbit I found in the front yard).  It will have the picture you took in the top corner and categories for notes below.  Add as much information as you know.  If you don't know the species type click on "Help me ID this species" for assistance from your fellow citizen scientists in the Project NOAH community.
        • Click "Submit".  That's all there is to it!  You've created a record for you and everyone else to access.

        Photo Courtesy:
        Of course that's just how you get started.  There are now many more things to do once your first spotting is complete.  Go back to the home page and check out some available missions to participate in.  View the badges you've received.  Or look around the map for other users in your neighborhood and the wildlife they've seen.  But most of all, just have fun with it.

        Oh yeah...and let me know about your fun in the comments below too!

          Monday, September 26, 2011

          Coming Soon: Exciting Improvements for OpenScientist

          Wow. Its hard to believe I've published over 80 posts and discussed over 70 different citizen science projects and tools on this blog already. It's been a lot of fun and just the beginning as I look forward to many more posts. But it's time to start entering the next phase.

          One of the best things is knowing that I've already discussed a large number of different important projects. Certainly not every project available but a wide variety of the most popular, highest quality, and most accessible projects developed so far. This is the critical mass I hope to build upon in this next phase. You can see the benefits in some of commentary and analysis pieces I've posted recently. Discussions of what citizen science is, different classifications of citizen science, whether these should include distributed computing, and my call for more bounty projects have sparked many great discussions and inspired me to emphasize these thought-provoking types of posts in the future.

          I'm also committing to a more regular schedule of updates. So expect new posts at least twice a week every Tuesday and Friday morning. Of course I hope to have many more outside that schedule. But I wanted to make at least that commitment for you.

          Another change you may have already noticed is the web address changing to be much easier to find. So instead of the long blogspot address you can reach this blog directly at All my posts have also been moved to the new address but don't worry, all the old links (along with your bookmarks and blog links) will still reach the same place.

          Finally, what about content? Expect more compilation pages organizing the projects we've talked about in one easy-to-find place. Expect commentaries on reasons for private businesses to invest in citizen science, ways for workers to expand their employability with citizen science, and secrets to designing a successful citizen science project. Expect more of the citizen science projects you love.

          And continue to expect my favorite saying...Getting Started is Easy.

          Friday, September 23, 2011

          Searching for Citizen Science Bounties

          Photo Courtesy: AMagill
          Two weeks ago we had a great discussion after my Finalizing a Definition of Citizen Science post where I first mentioned the concept of bounty projects that could benefit from distributed computing. I also briefly touched on the concept when asking Is Distributed Computing Really Citizen Science?  But I haven't had a chance to describe it further until now.

          What I'm thinking of is very similar to, but distinct from, some of the innovation awards that groups like the Ansari XPrize and NASA Centennial challenges have offered.  Those are all focused on achieving a specific technical goal or development of a process.  And they are also quite large endeavors with precise rules on how the goal should be accomplished.  They may be somewhat loose rules, but they are still somewhat prescriptive in how to accomplish the goal. 

          The bounties I'm thinking of are different by focusing on discovery, not creation.  They reward accomplishment of a specific tangible goal but are usually smaller in nature or more precise.  The example is an award to people who can find examples of a particular rare bird, sight the first flower of a certain type to bud in spring, or discover an asteroid that will pass within a certain distance of Earth.  So it rewards a very specific discovery that is not a technical feat in and of itself, though building of tools to aid the discovery (such as building the proper telescopes of automating bird call identifications) may involve significant technical work.

          Historically people have used these types of bounty prizes to accomplish scientific goals but they haven't been popular recently.   The most recent example of this type of "pure" bounty prize I've seen are the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cooperative Computing Awards for finding the largest prime numbers.  The group offered prizes of up to $250,000 to the first person to discover a certain type of prime number.  There were no rules on how to do it, or what should be done with the number.  All the group required was someone to prove that the number was a Mersenne Prime and of the certain length.  This type of bounty-hunting is well-suited for distributed computing approaches that could crunch huge sets of numbers by brute force until the sought-after number was found.  And that's exactly what the GIMPS distributed computing project did to win the two most recent EFF bounties.

          As a side-note they are still looking to win more all about it in my GIMPS blog posting.

          There are also other uses for bounties that do not involve distributed computing but which could also benefit greatly from the approach.  One example is understanding protein folding...there are millions of potential solutions but only one correct one, so why not offer a reward to the person discovering the shape of certain important proteins from their component molecular structure?  In other words, researchers would provide the components of a key Malaria protein and offer $1,000 to the first person that identifies it's shape.  Or provide the shape of an important AIDS protein and provide $5,000 to the person discovering a structure that will fit around the protein. In other fields I can even imagine prizes to the first person that spots a comet directly crossing Earth's orbit.  The possibilities are endless.

          On a similar note, there is another concept that I also put into the bounties category.  These again focus on meeting a simple, tangible goal, but are used to reward progress or effort on a per-unit basis.  Again, nothing is being created here.  Instead we are rewarding someone who performs a scientific analysis task ten times, or collects three samples of a certain specimen, devotes 100 hours of computing time, identifies 200 uncharted Mars craters, or tracks the pollution in ten different streams.

          Looking around I've seen a few examples of this so far but nothing major, and nothing active right now.  The closest I've found is the Cosmology@Home, a distributed computing project trying to model the current universe from various hypothetical starting points.  To encourage participation researchers offered a prize to the person whose computer model came closest to reality by a certain date; there was not a monetary prize but the winner would be mentioned in scientific articles about the work.  The most widely-known version may be's Mechanical Turk project.  Although not necessarily Citizen Science, it did provide bounties on a piecework basis for crowdsourced activities.  So people could be paid for writing ten web reviews, or transcribing a certain number of podcsts.  The private sector QMULUS Cloud Computing Platform also used this approach to encourage participation in an actual Citizen Science appplication.  Each month the company gave away gift certificates and free merchandise through a raffle to users of the system.  As a commercial entity they could afford to invest in these give-aways but there's no reason non-profit organizations couldn't do the same thing.   There could also be many variations in the raffle entry for every work unit performed, or for per person using the system per month, or per participant in general.  There are many possibilities that could fit depending on the nature of the particular project.

          So these are my initial thoughts on bounties.  Not much has happened in this area recently but I believe there's a strong potential for it to really take off.

          But what are your thoughts?  Is this a legitimate subset of Prize Projects in general or have I made an artificial distinction?  Are there other projects currently utilizing bounties that I've missed? Are there existing Citizen Science projects this idea could be adapted to?  There's much more to write but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below first.

          Tuesday, September 20, 2011

          Identifying Trees in a Snap!

          Fall is here again. A time when the seasons change and nature shows her full color in the leaves of Autumn.  It's also the perfect time to introduce our new Fall "Tuesday Tools of the Trade" postings for citizen scientists.   These are tools that people can use in their own scientific endeavors or to get more from existing projects put together by others.  But these tools aren't exactly projects in and of themselves, they just help you perform your citizen science job better.  So we'll be highlighting a new one each Tuesday for the next few months and showing ways they can help in a wide variety of projects and other uses.

          Fall is also the perfect time to talk about LeafSnap, a tree identification and marking program that is first up in our "Tools of the Trade" lineup.  This free iPad application let's you take pictures of leaves and have the tree they came from automatically identified by the program.  It also tags the tree's type and location for use by anyone looking for the data.  So I can use it to figure out the types of trees we have in my backyard, along with information on their flowering ability and species names.  I can also see the trees my neighbors have assuming they use the program too.

          The program is built on the power of facial-recognition software initially written at Columbia University and the University of Maryland, and utilizes the botanical collection information of the Smithsonian Institution.  So it's another great example of combining forces to create a field guide that can be used by anyone to advance citizen science.  Currently the program can only identify trees in the Northeastern U.S. (e.g., New York and Washingon, DC areas) but they are looking to expand nationwide.  It is also not yet available for either Android (or even the iPhone) but additional versions are promised soon.  But let's now wait any longer...let's dive right in!

          Getting Started is Easy!
          • Go to the LeafSnap web site to learn more about the program, or just go straight to the iPad App Store to download the program.  Just search for "LeafSnapHD" and install it for free.
          • Find a tree in your backyard and (gently) remove a leaf that appears typical to that tree.
          • Place the leaf flat on top of white piece of paper making sure it is in a reasonably well-lit area.
          • Open the iPad Leafsnap App and once it loads click on the "Snap It!" icon.  This will start the iPads camera function. 
          • Center the leaf in the center of the white-framed area, being sure to get as close as possible so the leaf fills the white-framed screen.  Click "Snap It" to take the picture.
          • Once the picture is taken your iPad will analyze the photo by connecting to the internet and comparing it to known shapes in it's database.  If you don't have an internet connection you can always upload it for identification at a later time.
          • If this is your first time using the program, uploading the first leaf sample will trigger the app requesting a username and password to set up an account.  You can also determine if you want the location tagged on your data.
          • That's all there is to it!  Now that you know the species open your web browser and learn more about the trees around you.

          In the picture above you can see I've tried the program with a Japanese Maple tree from my own backyard.  It's a beautiful specimen with strong green leaves that also have a solid red tinge to them.  They turn a lovely bright red in the fall (which is a sight to behold) so I've always been curious to learn more about them.  Thanks to Leafsnap, now I have my chance.

          So what can you do with the program?  Well, for one the data is now available to see what neighbors around you have and to see what the local ecology is like.  For birders, you can use LeafSnap to see where the birds you hear are residing and if there are any preferences to those you follow most often.  For participants in Project Budburst or other phenology projects, this will help you identify the flowering plants you are reporting on.  But it's also just a great way to learn more about your local environment. 

          So have fun with LeafSnap, and let me know what interesting uses you are putting it to!