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!