Monday, August 29, 2011

Citizen Sci-esmology in the News!

Image Couresy: 
Iván Martínez / Wikimedia Commons
It's been a big week here on the East Coast with hurricanes, locusts, and even an earthquake.  Well, maybe not locusts, but I wouldn't be surprised by anything at this point.  There's been a lot of destruction in a very short period of time.

But with all things there is silver lining, and when it comes to Earth Science these events always bring us more data to predict and prevent future damage.  It's also a valuable chance for everyday people to interact with nature.  This is especially true for Carolyn McPherson.  She's a citizen scientist whose earthquake-detecting seismometer was the closest to capture data on last Tuesday's DC-area earthquake.

There's a fine article in today's Washington Post ("Earthquake Brought Seismometer of 'Citizen Scientist' to life in Charlottesville") that tells her story quite nicely.  Her husband purchased her a $50 seismometer from Stanford University's Quake-Catcher Network for Christmas, and after months of sitting silent she finally got a nice strong reading when the quake struck.  In fact she was the closest person to the epicenter and was able to send all her data for the project scientists to analyze.

The Network is in the midst of sending out 5,000 mini-seismometers to schools and individuals across the country, with people in certain quake-prone areas receiving them for free.  Scientists hope this network will provide much more detailed data than the current network of highly sensitive $100,000 sensors.  One hope is continued development of micro-zoning theory.  As described in the article:

“If we have more sensors, we can, in theory, detect earthquakes and characterize them before they hit surrounding areas,” said Jesse Lawrence, a Stanford seismologist who helps lead the Quake-Catcher Network.

Lawrence hopes the project will eventually help first responders in a huge, damaging quake by directing them toward places prone to more-severe shaking. As the sensor network records smaller quakes, it can slowly sketch a picture of more-vulnerable areas.
Seismologists have just begun to get a handle on this phenomenon, called micro-zoning, said Elizabeth Cochran, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. Variations in the geology underlying a region can shake one building severely while another just a few miles away experiences far less movement.

“You could potentially use the information to know which areas of the ground will shake,” said Cochran, who dreamed up the network in 2006.

This is the first I've heard of the Quake-Catcher Network but rest assured I'll do a much longer piece on it in the near future.  Until then I hope this article provides a little inspiration to all of you and reminds us that every person's data counts...especially when you're in the right place at the right time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tell NASA Where to Send A Speeding Spacecraft

Four years ago NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft towards Pluto.  The craft was designed as light as possible so it could travel this long distance faster than any other craft previously launched.  On the bad side this means there is not enough fuel on board to stop and orbit once it reaches the planet; New Horizons has to take it's measurements and keep on going.  But the good news is now New Horizons can be steered toward a treasure trove of smaller worlds past Pluto (called Kuiper Belt Objects) that have never been visited before and which are shrouded in much mystery.  As we are told by the IceHunters web site, the spacecraft will " the KBO with high resolution images, investigate its composition using infrared spectroscopy and four-color maps, and look for an atmosphere and moons."

Kuiper Belt Objects are a collection of minor planets, comets, and asteroids They have been theorized for a long time but were only first seen in 1992.  While  over 1,000 more have been identified since then, much is still not known about them and there are many more waiting to be discovered.   So while flybys are planned NASA doesn't know enough to decide where to actually send it.   Once New Horizons passes Pluto NASA will decide which KBO (or KBOs) are best to visit, and we need to help this task by finding new KBOs in New Horizons potential path and identify them for further review by NASA planners.  And you can help.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the New Horizons: IceHunters web page to register and create an account, or just log in with an existing Zooniverse account.
  2. Click on The Science to learn how to identify potential Kuiper Belt Objects and other Asteroids from the images collected for the project. 
  3. Click on "Do Science" and review the image carefully. Mark any potential KBOs (which look like white blobs) with the "Mark Blobs" cursor and any potential asteroid streaks with the "Mark Streaks" cursor. If you have trouble seeing these features you can also "Change Contrast" for a different view. 
  4. If you are interested each image also allows you to comment on the overall quality of each image. While not a part of the technical data being collected it will help project scientists improve the quality for future images and identify problems that may impact the project results. 
  5. Once you've fully scanned each image click on "Done Marking" to save the data and load the next image.  

That's all there is to it. As you can see this is probably one of the simplest interfaces of any Zooniverse project so far. Most people should be able to visit the first time without knowing any more than what's in this blog post and start providing valuable data in less than five minutes. Even though this project doesn't offer the fancy animations and tutorial videos of other projects in this case they really aren't needed anyway.

One interesting part of this project is the project's ultimate goal...deciding where to send a spacecraft already rocketing through the solar system. So not only does the project create useful science data but participants can actually see the results when the craft visits an object identified by participants. That future feedback helps set IceHunters apart and makes it a worthy project for any new or experienced citizen scientist.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Identifying Who Citizen Scientists Are by What They Do

Photo Courtesy: Booksworm
To help define what citizen science is we need to ask what a citizen scientist does.  This will help us cull through the proposed definitions for ones that may be too restrictive and show us ways to improve the academic proposals with real-world examples. 

After reviewing that 70+ citizen science posts I've put up this year, I created a table of all the projects and identify key characteristics of each.  This should help us narrow the definitions, as well as help characterize the various types of citizen science activities currently going on and help us identify key aspects of successful projects.  A summary list of projects we've posted soon once I've completed analysis for another project I'm working on. I've posted an early version of the list here that you are welcome to review.  But below are some key findings you may find interesting that may help us answer our question:

  • Areas of Science:  The large majority of projects reviewed have been in the area of astronomy and ecology, as well as meteorology and engineering.  Many of these also have secondary areas of science (such as ecology projects involving biology) and can also be sub-divided into other areas of science (such as biology sub-dividing into zoology and  botany).  Although useful for better classifications and as data for search engines, this overlap does not change our general description of the overall citizen science field.

  • Types of Citizen Scientist Involvement:  This looked at how each project utilizes the citizen science participants engaged in the program.   Although the scientific emphasis is what papers are written about and where we get the technological payoff we need to look at what people actually do in the projects.  Overall I found six (and a half!) general types of involvement as described below.  I also found that these roughly correlated to the amount of expertise required to participate, an important finding designers of future projects may want to consider:

    • Distributed Computing:  Citizen scientists participate by allowing project-specific programs to run on their computers.  Utilized for computationally-intensive research, huge number-crunching tasks can be divided into small chunks that personal computers can handle, with the results of all participants reassembled and analyzed by the project team.  Although some initial user set-up effort may be required, normally the program runs in the background with little or no intervention required from individual participants.   The SETI@Home project is a perfect example of a distributed computing project.
    • Transcription: Users are given existing data and are asked to transcribe it into another form usable by project scientists.  Examples are Herbaria@Home and OldWeather, projects that scan historical paper records from over a hundred years ago  and ask participants to read the information and log it into the project database.  Most of this is relatively simple recording of other people's work and can be performed by less-experienced or beginner citizen scientists.
    • Observational Measurement: Users are asked to perform simple quantitative measurements that do not require complex analysis or qualitative reasoning in the measurement.  Projects such as Snowtweets requests users make simple measurements of snow cover with just a simple ruler, and does not require any interpretation of the data or analysis of the type of snow being measured.  These are also highly accessible to novice participants.
    • Observational Analysis:  This is strongly related to the Observation category above and does not truly fit into its one category, thus my considering it a "half-category".  Many of these are "Identification" type projects, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey or the Valley of the Khans project.  Although there are quantitative aspects similar to the Observational Measurement projects they are differentiated by the need to evaluate each measurement qualitatively or to interpret the meaning of each measurement.  For example, understanding the differences between subtle shades of feather colors or bird calls, or the unique geography indicating potential archaeological sites.  These are often accessible to novice citizen scientists but more expert users may get more out of it and may participate longer that less expert users.
    • Research Analysis: These are projects that offer data to users for analytical or research purposes but generally don't provide any formal hypotheses for testing.  Instead they make the information available and allow users to utilize it in their own projects and create their own hypotheses for testing.  An example is the U.S. government's site, which offers data from numerous official sources but does not ask users for any specific analyses or results.  Since there is very little structure these projects normally attract more experienced citizen scientists.
    • Game: Projects that use the entertainment value of puzzles and games to engage participants in performing the scientific tasks necessary to complete the project.  For example, the FoldIt project which has turned the challenge of protein-folding into competitive games with rules, strategies, and scoring to organize the difficult work of understanding complex chemical bonding.  This also helps less-experienced citizen scientists get involved by providing an easy and fun-to-use structure for their participation.
    • Challenge: Similar to Games, these projects organize competitions around specific goals with participants competing for prizes of tangible worth.  The prizes can be quite large (up to $20 million in some cases) though many Challenges of smaller size are also available.  The incentivization of prizes is meant to drive competitive innovation and encourages participants to work intensely on the sponsor's behalf, but it also requires significant work for Challenge sponsors to set up, administer, and judge the competition.  Examples are the Ansari X Prizes which have helped reinvigorate this type of project and remains a solid model for future projects.  The many higher-value projects tend to attract more experienced users, but lower-value prizes are available for less experienced citizen scientists.
Now that we've discussed the variety of different projects falling under the "Citizen Science" title, does it give you any more ideas about what a proposed definition should or should not include?  Does it reveal weaknesses in any of the previously proposed definitions.  Let me know in the comments below so we can all benefit from each other's ideas.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Some More Citizen Science Defintions to Consider...

Photo Courtesy: Booksworm
I've been working on our citizen science definitions project over the last few days and came across a few articles that have helped me in my own understanding and may help prod you too as you think about the issue. So I offer them here below without any editorial additions.  But please let me know your comments. I can write essays on each but I'd like to hear your thoughts first.  After all, I'd love for this to be a team discussion too.

“[Citizen Science is defined as]...partnerships between volunteers and scientists that answer real-world questions” Wiggins, A. and Crowston, K. "Designing Virtual Organizations for Citizen Science" presented at IFIP Working Group 8.2 OASIS workshop, December 2009
"[Citizen Science is defined as]...scientific activities in which non-professional scientists volunteer to participate in data collection, analysis and dissemination of a scientific project..." Po Ve Sham blogpost dated July 20, 2011
"Citizen science enlists the public in collecting large quantities of data across an array of habitats and locations over long spans of time" - Rick Bonney, Caren B. Cooper, Janis Dickinson, Steve Kelling, Tina Phillips, Kenneth V. Rosenberg and Jennifer Shirk "Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy" 2009 BioScience. 59 (11). P. 977-984.
"The term 'Citizen Scientists' refers top volunteers who participate as field assistants in scientific studies.  Citizen scientists help monitor wild animals and plants or other environemental markers, but they are not paid for their assistance, not are they necessarily even scientists.  Most are amateurs who volunteer to assist ecological research because they love the outdoors or are concerned about environmental trends and problems and want to do something about them.  Typically, volunteers do not analyze data or write scientific papers, but they are essential to gathering information on which studies are based." - Cohn, Jeffrey P. "Citizen Science: Can Volunteers do Real Research?"  BioScience 58(3):192-197. 2008
"A citizen scientist is a volunteer who colects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry." - Silvertown, Johnathan "A New Dawn for Citizen Science" Trends in Ecology & Evolution Volume 24, Issue 9, September 2009, Pages 467-471
Science: 1) a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences. 2) systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation." -
What do you think?  I see a number of items that are missing but also see a number of areas we should explore.  Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm back for More, But Wondering What Citizen Science Really Is

Utah's Rainbow Bridge
Courtesy of DPCShots
It's been three weeks since leaving for Utah and stepping away from OpenScientist for a little bit.  The State was beautiful and I learned so much about it's unique geology...around every corner was an education in the powers of wind, water, and plate tectonics.  Now I'm refreshed and back with ideas for new features on this blog, such as starting a number of longer-term projects to work on through the blog. 

So far I've been dabbling with different projects and moving on to another, but it's time to both create my own and spend some more time really getting to work on a topic.  This isn't just about me though...I'd like to bring you along too.  Everything I'm working on will be posted up here with my thoughts but your thoughts are incredibly important too.  Let's make this a true community effort.

The first one we'll look at may seem a bit introductory but it's an area where not enough has been done, and we are perfectly placed to contribute.  It's also something I've been working on behind-the-scenes while working on this blog.   Basically, developing a new classification and understanding of what citizen science is, and how it differs from other community thinking efforts (such as so-called "Web 2.0 Projects", "Crowdsourcing", and other concepts).   With the budding collection of project listings we've collected it's time to better classify them and help people better access them.

As a very basic starter, Wikipedia (a crowdsourced initiative itself) defines Citizen Science as "...projects or ongoing program of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement, or computation."  From my perspective there are definite holes in this definition, but before I cloud the field with my own thoughts I'm curious about your thoughts to these questions:
  • What is Citizen Science?
  • What is not Citizen Science?
  • Why is this differentiation important? 
Hopefully you can come up with a few ideas on your own...feel free to brainstorm and don't worry whether it's a fully-formed idea or not.  Just add it to the comments and let it inspire thoughts in others.  The more brains we can put on this question the more depth we can get to the conversation.

If you have trouble coming up with ideas take a look at a recent blog post on the Classification of Citizen Science Activities by researcher Muki Haklay from the University of London.  He's looking at the same question from an academic standpoint, and may provide some additional inspiration for your own thoughts.

So let me know your thoughts in comments below and I'll try to put together an analysis combining those ideas next week.  And in the meantime OpenScientistBlog will still feature new projects you can join in other areas.  Sounds like a fair trade to me!