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.

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