Monday, January 31, 2011

Distributed Computing Projects Looking for You!

As your mother always said, "Many hands make light work."

The same is true for science.  For really large calculation-intense problems scientists would love to just build a giant supercomputer, plug in the data, and let the computer zip along until it finds an answer. But despite recent gains in computer technology many problems would still takes months (or years!) of data crunching even with the fastest supercomputers. So instead we need many hands, or in this case, many computers, to make light work.  The technical term for all of this is "Distributed Computing".

This is one of the first big areas to utilize citizen scientists and you'll see there's a new OpenScientist Distributed Computing Projects Open for You web page devoted to these projects.  Only a few projects are listed now but it will be updated regularly as I can test run them all.  For starters, check out the projects listed below and if any of these sound interesting to you here are a few you may want to try...
  • Searching for Alien Life: SETI-@Home ( is one of the first and most popular programs available. Running for nearly 12 years, the project uses your computer to help search space-based radio signals for signs of intelligent life. See OpenScientist's SETI-at-Home blog post for more details.
  • Protein Folding: The Folding@Home project ( simulates biological proteins to discover their natural shapes and understand how those shapes are created. In many cases the incorrect folding of proteins or a small problem in it's overall shape can cause serious health problems. Most recently the team has been studying Alzheimer's and Huntington's Disease, and even show the results of all this effort on their list of 75+ peer-reviewed publications.
  • Prizes for Prime Numbers: The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search is looking for a particular type of prime number from the formula (2 to the power P) - 1. From a technology standpoint this knowledge is useful for encryption and computer standpoint. But for everyday people it also means cash! The Electronic Frontier Foundation is offering cash prizes for discovering extremely high prime numbers, and the project team is offering users whose computer's find these numbers to share in the winnings. So downloading this project doesn't just help science but can help you win the prize as well.
  • Designing Solar Cells: The Clean Energy Project is attempting to increase the efficiency of solar cells by identifying organic molecules that best collect, store and transfer energy from the sun. By testing a massive number of potential candidates through distributed mathematical modeling scientists hope to greatly increase solar cell efficiencies and test the best ways to manufacture them.
  • Discover Gravity Waves: Gravity waves were predicted by Albert Einstein, and although many astronomers agree that violent events in space can cause gravitational "ripples", none have ever been found. Scientists expect they are finally ready to detect them and have built to gravity wave detectors (one in the U.S., one in Germany) for that purpose. Since they create a huge amount of data the project scientists have turned to distributed computing users for the massive amount of analysis needed to identify a wave.
Of course these are just a few options. But keep coming back when there will be many for you to choose from. And if you know of any we missed, or would like us to include a project you are working on, just let us know in the comments below!

Getting Started with BOINC Is Easy:
  1. Go to the BOINC web site and click on Download BOINC Software.
  2. Check that you meet the necessary system requirements and click the "Download BOINC"
  3. Once downloaded, double-click the file to install the software.  Choose a target directory for the program and follow all the prompts.
  4. Once the program is installed, click on the BOINC Manager file to start the program.  On the top of the window, click on "Tools" and click on "Attach to a Project or Account Manager" and then "Attach to a Project".
  5. Select the desired project or projects you wish to contribute to from the list provided.  If you aren't sure what each one does, check out our Distributed Computing web page to learn more and decide if you want to join.  If you are a new user, set up a new account with a Username and password.
  6. That's all there is to it!  Just let your computer run and everything will happen automatically.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

SkyWarn...Eyeing the Skies and Saving Lives

Mother Nature can be cruel.  Each year over 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, and 1,000 tornadoes strike the U.S., and all can ruin lives or destroy property.  While technology has provided many tools to  predict severe weather, the best and most reliable observer is still a trained human being reporting what they see in front of them.

In the 1970's the National Weather Service created SkyWarn to enlist private citizens in identifying severe storms quickly and helping emergency responders pinpoint areas needing the most assistance.  With a large network of over 290,000 people, SkyWarn can provide timelier, more precise data than radar can.  The network also collects data  for improving storm forecasts and validating local weather models.

Many SkyWarn volunteers are first responders such as police and firefighters, as well as utility workers and private citizens looking to lend a hand.  The program is also a great vehicle for learning about thunderstorm development, storm structure, weather safety, and other meteorological data from trained professionals and your own (future) SkyWarn experiences.  So this is definitely a program we recommend everyone consider getting involved with.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Find the local SkyWarn coordinator (Warning Meteorologist Coordinator) in your area by clicking on the National Weather Service local Weather Forecast office map.  All SkyWarn acticities are coordinated by these offices and they will help you become an active part of the network.
  2. Attend a two-hour SkyWarn training class in your area.  With over 122 offices nationwide offering frequent classes you shouldn't have to wait to long to attend a session.  Online versions of the basic and beginner classes can found online on the SpotterGuides web site but we still recommend an in-person course.  Not just for the training, but so you can get more involved with the actual community of SkyWarn observers and interact with them personnaly.
  3. Go about your daily business.  You don't need to constantly observe or provide weather data; only when severe local storms and similar weather phenomena are in your area.  But always be ready for the day an event does occur.
  4. When a storm hits use your training to obtain accurate observations.  Many people relay sightings in through a HAM radio but this is not a requirement.  Many SkyWarn offices also collect information through phone calls, faxes, e-mails, or other online communication methods.
That's all there is to it.  SkyWarn just requires a small personal investment for training and a commitment to stay alert when storms approach.  And it benefits not just your own intellectual curiousity, but helps emergency responders react quickly and ultimately save lives.

Just promise you'll try to stay dry!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Check out our New First Time Users Page

Today I'm proud to announce the newest part of OpenScientist, our Getting Started page with notes for first-time citizen scientists.  Short and sweet, it provides the basics of citizen science and get's people started on their first projects.

We've hand-selected three projects for their ease-of-use, scientific impact, and ability to make the work entertaining and fun.  More may be added in the future but with just three it gives people interesting options without overwhelming them. 

So check it out if your a new user.  Or, send some friends and family this way.  Everything they need to get started is right here!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Climbing to the (Prize) Summit

This recently came to my attention and I thought some of you might be interested.  Especially any citizen scientists over in Europe and close to the action.

The London School of Business and it's sponsors are hosting The Prize Summit on April 8, 2011.  Billed as the "First ever global summit on prizes and competitions" this summit will help build the platform to an ultimate goal of creating an independent, international forum for organizers of crowdsourcing competitions and innovation contests.  Although the regular public is not seen as the primary audience we are very interested in what comes out of the meeting and what it holds for future developments in the field.

The primary audience members are government officials, sponsors, and organizers that create and benefit from the prizes.  Participants will be discussing lessons from previous competitions, exploring the many issues surrounding the field, and comparing best practices from every one's combined experiences. 

The Summit describes competitions as the new drivers of innovation and we'll be watching for the interesting developments to come out of it.  Here's hoping we see some exciting innovations come out of this conference as well as the competitions they discuss!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Facts for Ideas for Good

Welcome back to Part 4 of the Toyota "Ideas for Good" contest here at OpenScientist.  We've talked about the basic rules, brainstormed a few times for interesting ideas, and have started narrowing down to some of the better ones.  Now it's time to start developing some facts to bolster the strongest ideas.
Looking at the judging criteria is a great place to start, and maximizing scores is obviously the goal for any entry.  But the more I think about the contest, the more I think we first need to focus laser-like on the statement of actual need.  I came to this conclusion after looking through the ideas posted on the gallery of existing ideas posted on the web site, and looking at the commercials Toyota is airing to promote the contest.  The one thing all these ideas have in common is their descriptions include a clear and demonstrable need for the technology. 

For example, let's quickly look at the idea for creating ventilation systems for tents to assist disaster victims, or the Wake Forest project analyzing THUMS data to help protect high school football players from traumatic injuries. None of these are really that creative/original (25% of the score) or necessarily that viable for prototyping (15%).  But they all demonstrate a high social need, and at 30% of the score this is the social relevance/benefit area is one contestants must emphasize to be competitive.

So, since demand for the technology clearly weighs heavily in the game creators minds, how can we maximize it?  Well I have a few suggestions that will be explored more in the coming weeks, and that I'm curious to hear your comments on (my fellow citizen scientists) as everything is developed.

  • Every idea considered for submission must display a demonstrated need.  Any that don't, but which are just cool ideas searching for a problem, must be taken off the table.  No matter how much it hurts to do so.
  • All brainstormed ideas we develop further should have a solid "statement of need" written to justify their inclusion.  Although this may not be copied verbatim into the final contest submission, it will inform the final language and will help us cull the large number of brainstormed ideas.
  • All statements of need should include documentable, reliable facts to back up the demand.  We need to show the judges concrete evidence that it is needed and to quantify for them how large the impact will be.
  • Final contenders for submission should be ranked by demonstrated need, and those scoring highest should receive the most development.  There is no use spending time on an idea expected to score significantly less on the most important ranking criterion.
With all this in mind I think I'll start going through our brainstorm lists and developing those statements of need. I'll also be scanning the web (and my trust hometown library) for facts that will help strengthen the submission. 

But feel free to help me.  Just join in with your comments below (and have fun)!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Milky Way Project: It's Bubblicious!

There's a new project in the zoo. 

The scientists in the Zooniverse consortium have recently started  the Milky Way Project to determine the size and shape of our own galaxy by analyzing pictures taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.  The main target are so-called "galactic bubbles"; circular green areas (often with a red center) thought to show areas of new star formation.  Since they are not well understood the project aims to create a catalog of as many as possible to help identify any trends useful to support their theories and build a large data pool for study and creation of new theories.

The project uses visually stunning infrared pictures taken by the telescope and asks for identification of bubbles and other features.  Like other projects, this one hopes to tap the collective knowledge of citizen scientists to locate galactic bubbles, a feat best performed by the human eye.  Once located, users mark each with the drawing tool to provide the identity, location, and size of each.

Getting started is easy:
  1. Travel to register online (if not registered already).
  2. View the tutorial video at Milky Way Project: Tutorial and study the short set of instructional materials.  You will learn to primary task: spotting green bubbles in the photographs and marking their size with the circle marking tools.
  3. Don't forget to review the written materials at the bottom of that same page.  While the video introduces you to the interface and how to identify a galactic bubble, the other features needing identification (such as dark nebulae, green knots, and star clusters) require some training with the example photographs also provided on the page.
  4. Click on Take Part: Draw Bubbles link and begin the program.  Each photograph takes only a minute or two and then you can move straight to the next one.
As usual for the Zooniverse team, this a project that combines the simplicity of an easily understood interface and straightforward task with the awe-inspiring beauty of actual images taken by Spitzer.  The program even let's you save any photos you want for future reference.  So the prettiest pictures are always close it hand. It's clear the design team understands the power of these images and uses them to their (and our) satisfaction.  This is definitely another citizen science project I highly recommend.

So what are you waiting for?  Get started and have fun!

FoldIt: Solve Puzzles for Science

The problem of protein folding is a complex one that the citizen science movement has tackled for many years now.

For those not already familiar, proteins are highly complex molecules used for a wide variety of functions.  If DNA is the blueprint of life, and amino acids are the building blocks, proteins are the full structures designed by DNA and made up of the 22 amino acids standard in humans.  But each protein can have hundreds or thousands of different amino acids and can take on a world of different structures.  Since these structures are a big part of how a protein works, understanding protein shapes (or "protein-folding") becomes very important.

As a quick illustration, in this first example from the game tutorial you can see a DNA helix (the familiar shape seen on TV shows like CSI) and how the strands bond together.

Photo Courtesy: and FoldIt

This same ability DNA pairs use to bond can also be used to attach a DNA strand to a protein.  In this example you can see the protein, the DNA strand, and the striped blue "Hydrogen Bond" that connects the two structures together.

Photo Courtesy: and FoldIt

FoldIt asks users to build on these concepts and apply it toward increasingly complex problems.

Previous efforts asked users to lend their computers to massive supercomputing projects in attempts to try every possible structure and calculate the best one. A related project by some of the FoldIt scientists called Rosetta@Home aimed to do just that, and we will look at those efforts again in the near future. But now the makers of FoldIt have designed an interactive game that let's individuals or teams compete to solve these real-life biochemistry problems. This is what we're looking at today.

Getting started is easy:
  • Visit the FoldIt  web site and register a new account.
  • Download the appropriate Windows 7, Mac, or Linux version of the program and install to your home computer or laptop.
  • Start up the FoldIt program and follow the in-game tutorial.  It will guide you through folding 27 increasingly complext proteins, teaching about the program and the principles of protein-folding in each step.  By the time you finish not only will the interface be familiar, but so will the science behind it.
  • Work your way throught the "Novice" levels of proteins to practice your skills.  Here you are asked to provide solutions for proteins whose structure is already known, and let's you compare your results to the true answer found in nature.
  • Finally, you are ready for the Grand Challenges tackling full proteins that have not been characterized.  You can do this alone or as a team, saving your work at every step.  Or you can act as an "Evolver" that takes a partial solution another person created and add your own improvements.  People aren't required to provide others access to partial solutions but the option is available for those who want work collectively.
One of the many beauties of this project is its ability to show how molecules attract/repel each other and how they can be molded together.  After a while, you too can be a master of changing alignments, twisting sheets, rotating helices, hiding hydrophilics, and other tricks used to make the pieces fit. 

So stop waiting and get started.  And have FUN!  After all, it is a game.

Monday, January 17, 2011

ChartPorn (it's not what you think)

Don't be fooled by this web sites title...there isn't much salacious about unless you consider graphic design and data visualization sexy endeavors.  But it is a fascinating site showcasing research performed by citizen scientists and the intriguing graphics use to explain the findings.  It's also an example of how a little creativity can make scientific discovery relatable and truly bring it to life.

Below I've listed a few you might be interested in:
  • Do-it-Yourself Climate Change Analysis - Although this chart illustrates the impacts of climate change on the global environment, it was created as part of a web-based tutorial on creating interesting graphics using publicly avaiable data sets.  So not only can you produce a similar graph the blog walks you through every step! 
  • Baltimore Trash Migration - This author collected trash around his neighborhood, identified where it was created (e.g., which store a reciept was from) and plotted it on a map.  Also a quick example of local research one can do with little or no training at all.
  • Map of North American Accents - Although this author has a PhD in Linguistics, he created this chart on his own time of all the accents in North America and their connections to each other.  Also a good example of someone using their current expertise but applying it toward their own research interests (not just their employers).
Feel free to click over and wander around a bit.   Hopefully you'll have as much fun perusing the site as I have.  Maybe you'll be inspired to create your own charts too!

Friday, January 14, 2011

How's the Weather in Your Neighborhood?

As the old joke goes, "Everyone likes to complain about the weather but nobody does anything about it."  Well now you can do something about it, or at least get involved with measuring it.

The Citizen Weather Observing Program (CWOP) is a partnership between the U.S. Government (NOAA) and the public to collect local weather data and feed it into national weather maps.   These are the temperature, rainfall, barometric pressure, and other readings necessary to track the weather, make accurate forecasts, and validate readings taken by satellite. 

Currently there are over three thousand users participating in this project and you can be one of them too.  Although the CWOP project began life as a HAM radio project but is now online and collecting electronic data through the internet.   So now anybody can take part.

Getting started is easy:
  • Find a good weather observing site around your house or apartment that's representative of the area and free from any obstructions.
  • Purchase (or dare to build) a weather station compatible with AWRS data logging software.  This means that it can record and store data in the format used by CWOP.  I don't want to recommend any specific company or equipment, but a couple you may be interested in include:
  • Set-up your weather station per the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Set-up your personal computer to collect data from the weather station -- either wirelessly or through a USB connection.
  • Obtain an account from CWOP Registration Form by providing your name, address, nearby town, and elevation.
  • Connect your computer and weather station to the CWOP data system.  There are many different ways to do this depending on the weather station and software you are using.  Some will be easy, some are more complex to set-up.  But detailed instructions for many different programs can be found here.
  • If you have any problems with the set-up I recommend reviewing either the CWOP Guide or the CWOP Technical Information Page for more detailed information and links to even more (much much more) technical assistance.
  • Sit back, watch the weather data flow in, and have fun!
Now I will admit that these instructions may seem a bit over-simplified, and depending on how much weather data you want to collect this can get quite involved.  But it doesn't have to.  Stick with popular equipment brands and software and much of the work will be done for you.  Once you've mastered the simple level you can move up to more complex levels of involvement.

In the future we will dive even deeper with more detailed advice and recommendations for you.  But don't let that stop you from getting involved now!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Brainstorming for Toyota...continued

Last week we continued talked about the Toyota "Ideas for Good" competition and began brainstorming some ideas.  I also pulled some ideas from the gallery of existing ideas Toyota has put together...not to steal someone else's idea but to help you get your mind moving.  This week I want to continue driving down that road for just a little while longer to enssure we have a wide range of ideas to choose from.

In no special order, here are some ideas for you to consider:
  • Solar Powered Ventilation System - We talked last week about using this technology to keep animals comfortable in barns or circus trains, but livestock trains and horse carriers could also be good ideas.  Alternatively, the technology could also be adapted to greenhouses, especially in extreme climates that aren't normally hospitable to planting but could be moderated with the technology and used to grow food.
  • Hybrid Synergy Drive - Many different vehicles have been proposed for the hybrid motor so we need to think of a non-obvious vehicle that puts on large number of miles and can take full advantage of the engine: regenerative braking, lulls and spurts in energy usage, and downhill energy regeneration.  So one thought is interstate busses that put on high miles and can be easily adapted, as well as trolley cars that climb/descend many hills and frequently brake, all with the high mileage public transportation covers.
  • Advanced Parking Guidance System - People have talked about adapting this tehnology for truck or airplane parking, but looking a bit more obscure, what about boats?  In high seas or for novice boaters pulling into a dock can be very difficult.  Canals are also places where tankers can barely fit and parking/docking assistance could be of great help...especially with multi-million dollar tankers having to fit in tight places with their cargo.  We can also consider bikes -- using the technology as a training device for kids on their first two-wheeler or for adults learning to drive a brand-new Harley.
  • Touch Tracer Display - A number of people have proposed incorporating Touch Tracer technology to help people communicate.  But what about animals?  Gorilla's and other higher primates have shown an ability to use sign language to communicate with humans, so we could use this technology to accelarate their learning and better understand the process animal brains go through in learning human communication.
  • THUMS (Total HUman Model for Safety) - Previous ideas have talked about concussions in football, but it's also a huge problem in the military and the technology can be used to prevent and treat soldiers with head injuries.
Hopefully this gives you a few (more) good ideas.  Next week I'll talk about winnowing down our ideas and some additional criteria we should use to judge our ideas.  Until then...keep the ideas flowing!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Finding Planets...Hidden among all the Data

This is the newest Zooniverse project and has probably the most tantalizing goals...searching for planets amongst data from the Kepler space telescope.  Citizen scientists accomplish this by looking for the dimming of starlight that occurs when a planet transits, passing in front of a star and blocking the light.  Users are also asked to classify how variable the star's light is, and whether it pulsates, has sharp gaps in output, or has any other odd features worthy of note.  The site even prompts users on each star whether any of those features that should be discussed with the science team.

Admittedly, getting started is easy. But there are some problems. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Travel to the PlanetHunters main page, where you are greeted by a super quick tutorial teaching the project's basics.
  2. Once complete, review what you've learned through the slightly more in-depth tutorial and video at thePlanetHunters: Getting Started page.
  3. Click on the PlanetHunters: Classify link and get started!
This is the third Zooniverse project I've reviewed in the past two weeks. And generally I've been highly impressed with their ability to create science-worthy projects that are simple to learn and fun to use, all at the same time. So I had real high hopes when first signing on for this project. It's just too bad the third time is not a charm.

In fairness they do many things right.  The immediate introductory tutorial, which only takes a minute or two, really helps get things started and let's casual web surfers see just how easy participation can be.  The follow-on video and tutorial do a great job of filling in the necessary science background and providing additional training to users.  The interface with easy prompts makes the work as simple as can be.  And they've even added "dummy" data to test users and statistically validate the work being performed, with feedback to users on how well they analyzed the "dummy data"

But the problem is that while the other Zooniverse sites incorporated astronomy images (with their own inherent beauty) and asked users to study the pictures, this project only provides scatterplots of light intensity data to analyze (like the ones shown below).  Is this real science...Yes.  Is this a scientifically rigorous way to find planets...Yes.  But it lacks a lot of the joy factor the others do.

So I continue to give the Zooniverse team credit for continuing to make telescope data usable by citizen scientists, and for continuing to innovate better ways to get people involved in the analysis.  But they are victims of their own success.  From a pure users standpoint I must recommend trying one of the other Zooniverse sites instead, such as MoonZoo or GalaxyZoo: Hubble.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What's a Hanny's Voorwerp?

It's Dutch for Hanny's Object, of course!

What, that doesn't clear things up for you?  Maybe a picture will help:

OK.  For those of you who have not already heard, Hanny's Voorwerp is a strange celestial object discovered by Dutch teacher Hanny van Arkel while working on the Galaxy Zoo project.  She's not a researcher or a PhD, just a regular 27-year old woman with an interest in science and Queen guitarist Brian May (whose web site first got her interested in Galaxy Zoo).  In 2007 she was reviewing images as part of the project and noticed a strange blue smudge beneath a beautiful spiral galaxy.  Intrigued, she copied the picture and asked fellow project members if they knew what it was. 

Three years later we finally have a better idea of what she was looking at. As described by MSNBC reporter Alan Boyle:

"Hanny's Voorwerp turned out to be a small part of a 300,000-light-year-long streamer of gas, located about 650 million light-years from Earth. Scientists suggested that a quasar in a nearby galaxy, known as IC 2497, was shining on Hanny's Voorwerp, lighting up the oxygen in the streamer with a greenish glow. The only problem was that no quasar could be seen. Eventually, astronomers spotted a radio source in the galaxy that was sending out weak emissions. "That's like seeing a bank of fog lit up by a floodlight, but when you look to where the floodlight is, you see a laser pointer," Yale astronomer Kevin Schawinski said today.

[One] possibility is that the swirling disk of material surrounding the black hole switched the way that it gave off energy. Instead of radiating energy as quasar jets of light, the disk started throwing off kinetic energy, in the form of a shock wave of gas moving into the surrounding space. The high-resolution Hubble image supports [that] explanation."

Recently Hanny appeared at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society where a paper was presented based on follow-up images taken by the Hubble telescope.  She's getting a good amount of (well deserved) press again as the excitement over her discovery continues.  But enough of this second-hand reporting...check out the full story yourself at MSNBC's Cosmic Log.

And hopefully one day I can write a post about your next discovery!

A Trip to the MoonZoo

MoonZoo is another Zooniverse project available for you to get involved with. But instead of looking deep into the far universe, with MoonZoo you stay closer to home by analyzing moon data from the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter. 

This project comes in two parts: Crater Survey and Boulder Wars.  In the Crater Survey users are asked to label and measure craters in lunar pictures; this data is used to help date various sections of the moon by comparison with data collected from other scientists and the 1970's Apollo missions.  In Boulder Wars users compare two separate pictures and identify the one with the most apparent boulders.  Since boulders are crated by large impacts that force out the lunar soil areas with many boulders can tell us much about the composition and depth of the underlying soil.

Similar to other Zooniverse projects, the researchers have taken much care to make the project as user-friendly as possible while generating very specific data that can be rigorously analyzed. After watching the tutorial videos and viewing examples of various lunar features, users can hop right in to either project and get started.  All this takes less then ten minutes.

Getting started is easy:
  1. Travel to MoonZoo and register online (or sign in with any other Zooniverse account). 
  2. Travel to the Tutorial page and watch the Boulder Survey and Crater Wars videos.  The first is less than five minutes long and the second is under two minutes long.
  3. Review the rest of the tutorial page.  Most of this just reinforces what you were already taught in the video though the added examples are quite useful.
  4. Click either Crater Survey or Boulder Wars from the left-side menu, and let the games begin!
As an added bonus, the projct team is also looking for Space Hardware and other hard-to-find but scientifically interesting features that may be visible in the photographs.  So you really do get the thrill of discovery with this project!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it...Tweet?

Here in the NorthEast we're preparing for another good snowstorm.  So it's the perfect time to talk about SnowTweets, a relatively new project that collects snow depth information from users across the globe.  All you need is a ruler, some snow, a twitter account, and you're in business.

The data is collected in near real-time and can be viewed with the special Snowbird visualization tool the team has created.  So you can quickly see your published measurements and compare it to snowfall measurements around the world.  This helps the science team test snowfall data obtained from satellites, confirm the measurements, and validate weather models used to forecast snowfall.

Getting started is easy:
  1. Measure the snow outside your house with a standard household ruler.  Look for an undisturbed, representative area patch of snow for your measurement.  More detailed measuring instructions can be found on the SnowTweets: How To: Measure section of the web site.
  2. Log on to your twitter account (or sign up for a new's easy!)
  3. Publish your snow measurement on your twitter account with the following protocol: #snowtweets at .  Or go to the  SnowTweets: How To web site for more detailed instructions and examples on the snowtweets protocol.
  4. That's all there is to it!  Now go build a snowman, fire off some snowballs, and have fun in the snow you just measured!
Hopefully I'll be able to join this project in the near future...I just need some good snow to cover the lawn first.

Access a World of U.S. Government Data

The U.S. government has been collecting and analyzing scientific data for the government is making it available centrally at (   From community health data, to earthquake trackers, geographical data, and environmental pollutant data, this is a wide collection of data available for anyone to use.

Some of the most usable data is presented through Apps created by Federal agencies for sorting and displaying the information.  These are increasingly user-friendly although the variety of application is still limited.  There are also "Raw Data" and "GeoData" catalogs filled with much larger amounts of data, though it is less organized and requires manipulation by users.  These may be difficult for less experienced users.  But we will look through this data in greater detail in future spots.

Getting Involved is Easy:
  1. Visit
  2. For first timers, review the easy-to-use applications by clicking on "Apps".
  3. Pick your favorite choice and follow the directions once you are re-directed. 
  4. As an example, pick the "Visualizing Community Health Data" application and then "Community Health Status Indicators Database"
  5. Choose a State (e.g., Maryland) and County (e.g., Montgomery) and select "Display Data".
  6. Review the type of data you're interested in for that county.  For example, find average life expectancy data under "Summary Health Statistics", prevalence of various infectious diseases and pollutant exposure under "Environmental Health", or comparisons to similar communities under "Relative Health Importance".  You can also find demographic data, rates of common risk factors for premature death, birth and death measures, and other types of information that may be interesting or useful for you.
Enjoy browsing all the data at your fingertips and check back frequently as the government continues expanding the data sets, making it accessible, and providing tools for analyzing and interpreting the data.

Citizen Science on the Radio

On Friday Ira Flatow on NPR's ScienceFriday spent half an hour talking about Open Science and Citizen Science projects with GalaxyZoo's Arfon Smith and author Alex Wright.  They chat a lot about the GalaxyZoo project in particular, but also about the field in general and a few specific projects that people can get involved in.

Listen to the recorded broadcast or read the transcript for NPR's Doing Real-World Science, But Skipping The Ph.D.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Playing in the Galactic Zoo

From the brains behind Zooniverse (including MoonZoo and the original GalaxyZoo) comes Galaxy Zoo: Hubble.  Drawing on images collected from the Hubble Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, users are asked to view pictures of individual galaxies and comment on their appearance.  This helps scientists take on the large task of identifying features in the large number of galaxies they've captured and to do so in such a way that multiple independent viewers can confirm the result.

The beauty of this project is the care taken to make it as user-friendly as possible while generating very specific data that can be rigorously analyzed.  After reviewing the well-designed tutorial, users are shown a picture of a galaxy and asked a few simple questions (whether it is smooth or rounded, whether it has any special features or disks), then drilling deeper depending on those answers.  Ultimately you may be asked to describe the number of spirals, the number of clumps, the galaxies overall symmetry, or other attributes.  This creates a catalog of data that scientists can use for general analyses or to identify candidate galaxies worthy of further study.

According to the web site over 250,000 have already taken part but they are looking for your help too.  Getting started is easy:
  1. Travel to Galaxy Zoo and register online (optional) to create a profile and get credit for your work.
  2. Take the one-page tutorial on galaxy classification at Galaxy Zoo: How to Take Part.  You will read about the various visual features being classified and take simple quizzes to get a feel for each type of attribute.
  3. Click Galaxy Zoo: Classify Galaxies and answer the questions to identify each galaxy.
  4. Have Fun!
Finally, the Zooniverse group has put together a number of other similar projects designed for easy use by citizen scientists.  So if you enjoy this project check back over the next few weeks for descriptions of other exciting projects!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brainstorming for Toyota

Yesterday I talked about the Toyota "Ideas for Good" contest looking for interesting ways to use their technology and make the world a better place.  All you need are a great idea, a 750-character description, and an optional photo.  But how do you come up with that good idea?

To help with the brainstorming I starting thinking about different ways to look at the problem, and about the different things the judges are looking for.  Maybe these will help you brainstorm some great ideas too!

  • Think Animals, not Humans: All of these technologies are designed to help humans, but instead of keeping the car's interior temperature controlled for human comfort, could this be benefit animals instead? A couple of possible ideas are installing a solar-powered ventilation system on a barn or stable roof to help keep the interior temperature-controlled without outside electricity, or installing it on a train roof instead of a car roof to keep circus animals comfortable when traveling between cities.
  • Help a Group with Special Needs: The goal of the project is to do more than sell cars...Toyota wants to show how they can help make the world a better place.  So while the technologies help a large swath of people would they benefit some people even more, such as those with disabilities?  A few ideas are using the Parking Guidance System to train guide dogs for the blind (who must perform a similar task for their handlers), or using the interactive nature of the Touch Tracer Display to help people with limb muscle problems in rehabilitation therapy re-learn everyday motions (including driving motions).
  • Focus on What the Technology Does, Not How it is Used: The Solar-Powered Ventilation System keeps people cool, but what it actually does is to circulate air without outside electricity.  So think of other places requiring air circulation, such as coal mines removing dangerous methane or landfills removing natural gas (methane again) from the soil.  Also, think of the Touch Tracer technology that can follow small hand movements and display them visually on a separate screen.  This could be a useful analytical tool for studying drunk driving, helping young children learn handwriting, and helping people rehabilitiate their fine muscle control after a disease or an accident.
  • Who Else Uses Similar Technology: If this is an improved technology, think of the original technology and where else it is used.  For example, the Hybrid Synergy drive could be used for other types of engines such as lawn mowers. Although a smaller engine, they can be very wasteful and put our large amounts of both carbon dioxide and noise pollution, and small improvements could make a significant climate impact.  The Hybrid drive could also be placed on subways or trolleys, helping them regenerate power during braking and reducing the need for external power sources.
  • Keep it Fun: The judges are looking at creativity as one of their main criteria, not only for innovation's sake but so Toyota can make their technology exciting in future marketing (remember, it's all business).  So think of the "Fun" aspects of the technology.  For example, instead of studyng football head trauma or automobile accidents, try using the THUMS technology to study riders on roller coasters, or launching into space on a rocket ship.  Both of these involve complex biomechanics but also have a certain excitement the judges and Toyota are looking to promote.
Hopefully this has given you some new ways to look at the problems and inspired some brainstorming of your own.  Feel free to run with these ideas.  Although the contest only allows submissions from individuals working together through this forum can help us all develop, improve, and refine all our exciting ideas.  Just start with a comment below and let the group brainstorm begin!

THUMS: Special Olympics Training Tool, Roller Coaster

Supernova Knows No Age

The stars may be billions of years old, astronomy thousands of years old, and even most astronomers are well into adulthood.  But that didn't stop 10-year old Kathryn Aurora from discovering her own supernova.

Staring at images of galaxy UGC3378 with her father in New Brunswick, Canada, Kathryn made the discovery on January 2 and was later verified by independent astronomers in Illinois and Arizona. 
Much more on the story can be found on and

Obviously this is a proud moment for 10-year old Kathryn and her parents.  But it also shows that no matter how old (or young) you are, there are still many exciting discoveries waiting for us all.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Good Ideas for (and from) Toyota

Toyota is looking for ways to "improve the world" and highlight some of their most innovative technologies. As an incentive, the best idea for each technology earns the winning individual their choice of 2011 Toyota car: Prius, Highlander, or Venza in the "Ideas for Good" contest.

Ideas do not have to be fully developed for this contest...just send them your best idea (or ideas!) in 750 characters or less, add an illustrative picture, and then help vote on everyone else's ideas.  Do this before the due date of February 28 and come back in April for community voting before the official judging begins.  All ideas will then be selected by a panel of judges based on:
  • Best re-purposing of Toyota Technology (25%)
  • Creativity Orginality (25%)
  • Social Relevance and Benefit (30%)
  • Viability of Idea for Prototyping (15%)
  • Overall Presentation (5%)

The five technologies are:
  • THUMS (Total HUman Model for Safety) - Computer-simulated crash dummy software that mimics the human body and can identify causes, effects, and ways to prevent injury.
  • Solar Powered Ventilation System - Set of solar panels used to ventilate a car; keeping it cool in the summer and warm(er) in the winter.
  • Hybrid Synergy Drive - Combination of gasoline engine, batteries, electric engine, and regenerative brakes that make a highly fuel-efficient motor.
  • Advanced Parking Guidance System - Combination of cameras and sensors that help cars nearly park themselves!  Though with just a tiny bit of human assistance.
  • Touch Tracer Display - System that translates finger controls in one area (such as a steering wheel) and projects those motions in another area (such as the instrument panel).
We will have a lot more to say about this challenge in the next few days and weeks.  But in the meantime, check out the toyota website (, leave a comment below on any of your dieas.  Let's talk through these together and come up with some winning submissions!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year from OpenScientist

Happy New Year to the OpenScientist community!

A New Year brings new excitement, and never more so than in 2011.  The field of OpenScience continued to flourish in 2010 and we hope to build on that in the future.  We expect this is the year when many years of dedicated work coalesces and begins having a real impact on our everyday lives.

Here at OpenScientist we also have many exciting plans for the new year.  Vastly increased content and updates.  Development of many tools you need to take advantage of existing opportunities.  And a new look-and-feel to make navigating all these opportunities easier.  Specifically:

  • Posts and content added three or more days a week.
  • Updates on opportunities previously discussed on the site.
  • Increased use of social media and web-based platforms to spread the word of OpenScience.
  • Enhanced web site functionality to provide a more exciting and useful experience.
  • One-stop access to resources needed to work on the projects we discuss.
It has been our goal over the last few years to bring our years of experience to promote the field and enable everyday people to make meaningful contributions to scientific advancement.  We hope these opportunities excite you too and that you'll join us on our journey through 2011 and beyond!

Finally, to cap off 2010 the right way (and as a teaser for 2011), check out the following article in about new Federal government efforts to take advantage of our nation's inventiveness and scientific curiousity:

Hopefully this gives you as many ideas as it gives us as we plan to talk about it much more in the near future.  So once again, Happy New Year!