Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Government Challenges YOU!

Last week we talked about how NASA's Centennial Challenges and the X Prize Foundation have been using incentive prizes to spur radical technology breakthroughs.  But while NASA was one of the first U.S. government agencies to see the value in incentive prizes, the spirit has caught on and now many agencies are trying the same thing.  So now we have, the government's central web site for innovation prizes.

It's important to note that not all of these challenges or scientific or technological.  Viewed postitively this broadened field provides more variety and let's citizen scientists use their gifts not just for discovery, but artistry and humaintatianism.  Here are a few current examples of the types of project available, with many more coming on line in the near future.

  • Public Service Announcements:  Film a video or create an advertisement promoting a national asset (like a US park), educating the public on an important topic, or encouraging positive behaviors.
  • Photography: Display the beauty of our country in photographs, or use photographs for scientific or historical purposes.
  • Automation and Programming: Design software or develop a system to perform tasks much more effectively than currently done.  For example, counting the craters on a planet or identifying people in video footage.
  • App Development: Design computer applications that help the public better interact with the government.  For example, tracking tax refunds online.
  • Children's Educational Projects: Create educational tools or projects that help kids learn, such as sample science fair projects.
  • Product Design: Design commemorative coins, medals, or badges in a variety of fields. 
  • Slogans: Create slogans or songs promoting various government programs.

These are just a few of the many challenge types available to you.  So click on over and search for an area you're interested in.  Let your mind roam and your creative juices flow to win some federal challenge money.  After all, they were your tax dollars!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Challenges of the Century from NASA

Earlier this week we talked about the Ansari X Prize Foundation and the success they've had driving innovation with incentive competitions.  Prizes challenged Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic, inspired SpaceShip One to send the first humans into space on a privately-funded vehicle, and continues to inspire innovative moon landers and oil cleanups.  The U.S. government and NASA have also seen these successes and are hoping to use similar incentives for additional aerospace advances.  So today let's look at NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

NASA has been running their flagship Challenge program since 2005.  Previous contests developed new spacesuit glove designs and extracted oxygen from artificial moon rocks.  Since those successes the program has expanded to new frontiers, often upping the ante by increasing the difficulty (and prize money) after each year's competition.  So the winning design for one year must be constantly improved to stay competitive and keep moving the technology forward.

Below are some of the current and future competitions NASA is holding for their Centennial Challenge program.  There are actually many other (smaller) competitions NASA runs that are also open to the public and accessible to citizen scientists, but I wanted to start with the big boys first.  The rest we'll cover in a future post about, the US government's central web site for competitions from many different agencies.  So let's get down to it!

  • Green Flight: Next month (July 10-17, 2011), nine teams will compete for a $1.65 million prize purse for the most fuel efficient plane that can fly over 200 miles in less than two hours while using less than one gallon of gas per occupant.  Watch here for updates on how they do and who wins the big prize.
  • Stronger Tether: This ongoing challenge has watched teams compete four times since 2007 with none claiming the prize for the strongest woven carbon nano-tube tether.  But hope springs eternal and competition is set yet again for the Space Elevator Games on August 13, 2011.
  • Power Beaming: This challenge has been successfully completed when last year a team won $900,000 for designing a machine to climb one kilometer up a tether powered only by beamed laser light.  But this success just raised the bar for the next ambitious step, a "power beaming to lunar rover" competition being designed for next year.
  • Sample Return Robot: A $1.5 million competition is being designed for building a robotic retriever that can find pre-hidden "rocks" in a simulated moon landscape and successfully return them to a central point.  Final rules have not yet been published and a competition date has not been set, but stay tuned as this project should be finalized soon.
  • Nano-Satellite Launch: A $2 million competition for a privately-funded team to launch a 1 kilogram mass (measuring 10cm x 10cm x 11cm) into orbit and have it circle the Earth at least once.  Planning is still in the early stages for this project but keep watching this space as the rules become clearer.
  • Night Rover:   A $1.5 million competition for building a robotic rover that can collect energy during from the sun during the day, store the energy, and compete for longest night-time driving with that stored energy.  Planning is also in the early stages for this competition but more details are expected in the near future.
All these programs are not just opportunities for citizen scientists to strut their stuff, but also for NASA to learn from the public and better engage the community.  So let's support these important efforts and give them the best our ingenuity has to offer.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Spurring Massive Technology Change with the Ansari X Prize

I can't believe it's taken me two years to finally start posting about the Ansari X Prize and its contributions to citizen science.  Not because they haven't made fantastic contributions to the field or haven't been incredibly successful in pushing technology innovation (which they've done in spades).  Nor because the big prizes often require large investments beyond the reach of individuals at home (many are smaller or require the input of individual citizen scientists).  These are important projects that amateur scientists are involved in and enjoy watching.  So it's time to remedy the situation and start following them now.

The Ansari X Prize was modeled on past technology challenges like the early 20th Century Orteig Prize that spawned Charles Lindbergh's famed Atlantic Crossing and spurred a fledgling aviation industry to rapid innovation.  Today the X Prize Foundation sponsors large incentive prizes ($10 million for the flagship Ansari X Prizes and smaller X Challenges) to encourage private investment and overcome key technology obstacles that will spur entire new industries. 

The foundation has already been successful with the first X Prize for private human spaceflight when Spaceship One launched a man into space twice within three days, and helped create the booming private spaceflight and space tourism industries.  They also succeeded with the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize that awarded $10 million to the best cars with 100 mile per gallon fuel economy and helped spur innovation in important energy efficiency technologies.  And now they have their sights set on three more innovative challenges:

Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge:
This is a one-year competition to develop breakthrough oil-spill cleanup technology that can  respond to future environmental disasters such as last year's BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Scheduled to end in Fall 2011, teams will compete for $1.4 million in prizes by cleaning up a simulated spill at the OHMSETT National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey.

Google Lunar X Prize:
This is an ongoing competition for $30 million to the first privately-funded team that sends a robot lander to the moon, travels 500 foot along it's surface, and transmits video and still images back to earth.  NASA is also assisting this project by purchasing up to $10 million in design information and data from competing teams that will be useful to the government agencies own spaceflight initiatives.  Due to the significant size and scope of this project, 29 teams were registered for the current phase of the project and are quickly moving toward their planned moon launches.

Archon Genomics X Prize:
This ongoing competition looks to rapidly decrease the cost of sequencing entire human genomes; helping to uncover new medical discoveries and usher in an age of personalized disease treatments based on an individual's own genetic makeup.  To do this teams must be able to sequence the entire genome of 100 individuals in 10 days, at a cost of less than $10,000 per genome.  The $10 million dollar prize will provide at $7 million to the winner if three teams are successful, $7.5 million if two teams are successful, and the full amount if there is only one winner.

There are also a number of other competitions on the horizon that you may be interested in and that we will also be following.  The first is the Qualcomm Tri-Corder X Prize providing $10 million for a mobile device that can diagnose human illness better than a panel of board-certified physicians.  Although the goal has been set the competition rules are still being sorted out, and the project not yet begun (expected early 2012) .  The Foundation also continues to develop new ideas and has recently completed a Vision summit to brainstorm additional X Prizes.  The final candidates are listed on the Prize Development website and are available for voting by us, the public.

These are exciting times we live in and the X Prize Foundation is helping to keep it that way.  So stick around as we follow these competitions and the private individuals competing in them.  We wish them all the best of luck.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cataloging the Herbaria of Europe

At OpenScientist we often think of Citizen Science as a recent phenomenon.  The web-based nature of many projects reinforces this notion...after all, it helps bring many people together and supports the "crowdsourcing" necessary for many projects to succeed.  But much of today's knowledge comes from previous generations of amateurs and collectors investigating the world on their own.  Their legacy exists not just in their discoveries, but in the collections themselves that live on and still have secrets to tell.

A prime example of this can be found in the Herbarium Collections scattered in museums across England.  The island has a wonderful tradition of citizen science dating back hundreds of years, with many wealthy gentlemen collecting botanical specimens for their private use.  All were tagged, sorted, and kept secure in collections that have passed down from generation to generation.  The information and samples are still available, but the cataloging is not.  So we need to help transfer these collections to the digital age where scientists can take further advantage of this historical treasure trove.  And that's where the Herbaria United team and the Herbaria@Home project come in.

This is a Transcription-type citizen science project for entering collector, collection date, and geographic data for the botanical samples scanned by the participating museums.  You don't need to identify the plants...this first step has already been done by the project staff.  But it's all the other data needed to fill out our knowledge about each piece.  Making the project even simpler is the series of drop-down options for each of the data fields.  So even if you have trouble reading the Victorian-era handwriting, you just need to get close and find the closest from those already entered by other users.  All this means that...

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Read all about the project on the Herbaria@Home web page and click on Herbaria@Home: Register.
  2. Watch the Introductory Videos and read the Tutorial Documentation for explanations on what the project aims to accomplish and the nitty-gritty of how to participate.
  3. Click on "My Sheets" to bring up five specimens to catalog.  You can also search for specimens by species if you have an interest in a particular plant type. 
  4. Click on one of you sheets and enter the requested data in the form fields.  Move the image around and zoom in on the collection tags to find all the necessary information.
  5. If you get stuck, note that writing is illegible and flag it for other users to help with.  The sheet will stay in your queue for cataloging while you move on to other items.  Once a fellow user finds the answer just go back to the previous sheet and record the answer.
That's all there is to it!  This will keep the information alive and available for new uses, such as understanding the increase/decrease of certain plants over time.  If you want to do even more though, Herbaria United can help you too.  Just pull up the data collected from users like you, or from other related data sets, and perform your own research.

But nothing can happen until this data has been digitized.  So help both past and future citizen scientists by signing up.  You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Firing One of the Biggest Model Rockets Ever...

Photo by Thomas Pedersen, Copenhagen Suborbitals
Congratulations to Copenhagen!

This is a project we haven't been following but yesterday's big accomplishment demands attention.  The scrappy group of amateur citizen scientists at Copenhagen Suborbitals successfully launched their Heat 1-X rocket after years of steady work.  We still await details on how high it went or any issues they encountered, but whatever the final numbers this is still an outstanding achievement.

The group's goal is eventually launching a human into space.  This launch of the Heat 1-X rocket with the Tycho Brahe spacecraft is yet another in a series of steps to making that possible.  But as always with science, steady patience (with lots of experimentation) wins the race.  I could write much more about what they are doing next, but your best bet is reading it yourself on their website at

A few members of the US media have been following the group and are also publishing follow-up stories.  So you can also check out articles in places such as Engadget or MSNBC for more information.

Mapping Nature One State at a Time

The warm day's of June may not seem like Spring...but the beautiful May flowers from the April Showers sure are spring-like.  So we continue "Spring into Citizen Science" with the network of projects powered by the NatureMapping Foundation and it's biological diversity mapping tools.

There are a few differences in this project from previous one's discussed on this OpenScientistBlog.  For one it's not open to everyone around the world, or even the country.  It's only open for projects in thirteen states (see the NatureMapping: Project Map for lists of projects near you).  Which leads to the second difference, that I haven't actually joined this project myself since there are none near me (so sad).

But what NatureMapping does is provide the basic tools for schools, museums, and governments to create their own projects for local citizen scientists to get involved with.  Some areas have created for local schoolchildren to map lizards in their area, or help local farmers understand the wildlife in their area.  In other cases governments have used the tools to map area biodiversity for use in planning and eco-management, as well as for curtailing growth that may encroach on vital habitats.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Find a project in your state by using the map at NatureMapping: Project Map. Though not all states are covered there will hopefully be one in your area or at least close by.  There are also projects based in one state but which can still use help from participants in other areas.
  2. Set up your own project at NatureMapping: Participate -- It's up to You. This is specifically designed for citizen scientists who have already engaged on an "Early Inquiry" and basic research level to step it up a notch.  You can join a local BioBlitz or even set up your own.  It's up to you.
  3. Finally, you can analyze the data collected by the various sites across the country.  So even if you can't participate directly you can take advantage of the data and provide your own insights.  Just scan through the constantly changing data sets available for more information on each of these.  I also plan to look at these myself and highlight some good ones for you.
To wrap up on a completely selfish note, I'd love to see some of you look at Option 2 and think of projects in your community that could utilize these tools.  It's simple to do and can be quite rewarding.  And let me know when you do...I'd love to follow it on OpenScientist and show the world what you're working on.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Everything Comes Together: Cosmic Mergers in the Zooniverse

Over the last few months we've looked at many fun projects from the Zooniverse group covering the fields of history, astronomy, and climatology.  Each has gained a loyal following by sticking close to the Zooniverse practices of being easy-to-learn, simple to operate, and producing meaningful science.  We have also watched as the team crated new interfaces and tutorials that have propelled the overall field of citizen science forward.  So it's only fitting that we look at the last, and latest offering Galaxy Zoo: Understanding Cosmic Mergers incorporating many past successes into a single project accessible to people of all levels of interest and experience.

The most interesting part of this project (from an OpenScientist point of view) is the three levels of participation that let you come in for a few quick games, to running and even manipulating computer simulations.  So you can put just a few minutes into the project, or hundreds, all depending on your interest. 
  • The first is a simple "wars" type game that asks you to compare two simulation images against an actual image, and determine which most looks like the actual image.  Pretty simple.
  • The second has the computer run and display eight simulations for comparison against an actual image.  Users pick the ones looking most like the actual image.  It's still a "wars" type game but with many more options, and with the computer actually running simulations fresh instead of just comparing previous simulations.
  • The final version allows you to pick a simulation run that looks similar to the actual image, but change the parameters manually to create your own simulation.  This can take a lot more effort but can that much more rewarding too.
Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Galaxy Zoo: Understanding Cosmic Mergers web page and click "Get Started" to sign in with your existing Zooniverse profile. If you have not previously registered for another of their projects all it takes is your name, e-mail address, and a password to sign up.
  2. Click the Understanding Galactic Mergers: How to Take Part link for a one-page description of how to participate in the project.  Each of the three parts is described along with a video tutorial and demonstration of each component.
  3. Click on the Merger Wars activity and compare images in a tournament-style comparison game.
  4. Click on the Merge Galaxies activity to run original simulations on your computer and compare them in a tournament pitting your own images against each other.
  5. Pick one of your most successful simulations and click the "Enhance" tab in the simulation module.  All the tools you need are right there for you.

This wraps up our coverage of the Zooniverse sites for now, but the team keeps building new ones and we hope to see some more soon (apparently some are being prepared as we speak).  And like Cosmic Mergers we expect them to continue to  improve and learn from the last project's experience.  Today we saw how combining successful techniques can greatly improve a project.  Now we wait to see what new innovations will come along to grab our attention and ignite new discoveries.