Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy Holidays to Citizen Scientists Everywhere!

The Holiday season has almost drawn to a close.  For the past few weeks friends and family have discussed the Peace, Love and Joy of the season.  But I want to talk about one more thing...the joy of giving citizen science.

Unlike other gifts citizen science is not just enjoyed on Christmas or Hanukkah.  It is a gift of lifetime exploration and the wonder of nature.  It also helps everyone else...helping researchers learn more and advancing the technology crucial for making the world a better place.  Each post of mine tries to big that same gift to you, and  my holiday gift guide hopefully helped you give it to others.  But I was also fortunate to receive a couple gifts myself this year and wanted to share them with you.

First up is a homemade gift put together by my mother-in law.  "Citizen Scientist Dave's Chemistry Lab" is a collection of pre-packaged  experiments demonstrating important scientific concepts.  It includes projects in splitting water through electrolysis, creating plastic, acid-base reactions, and the famed Diet Coke - Mentos experiment.  Everything I'll need is in each container, including raw materials, instructions, and measuring supplies.  Interestingly, the packaging is reminiscent of the main kits I've received from other citizen science projects so she must have been on to something (or she's secretly been enjoying those projects herself!)  I'm still unpacking and cleaning from the holidays but will report back soon on the fun I've had with each project.

Second up is a gift from my sister-in-law, a digital camera binocular for viewing, and capturing wildlife at a distance.  At 10x25 magnification it should provide a nice field of view and good magnification; perfect for the backyard or an afternoon hike through the woods.    But better than just seeing birds, you can take pictures of what's in the viewfinder and download for future viewing.  So I hope to add these pictures to future blog posts about nature, or to future sightings in Nature's Notebook, the Great Backyard Bird Count, or other citizen science projects.

Coming up is 2013 and a whole new year of citizen science.  I look forward to playing with these new gifts and discovering many projects to discuss with you.  Things are changing rapidly and I'm excited to have you on board with me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Discover the Living World Hidden in Your Own Home

Photo Courtesy:
Let's get back to basics. Here at OpenScientist we haven't looked at an individual project for a while now.  Although spouting off my opinions on citizen science is fun my first love has always been the projects themselves.  So today let's look at an interesting one I've waited a long time to join, Wild Life of Our Homes.

I discovered this project about six months ago but when signing up discovered they were temporarily filled up.  Ever since I've been waiting to receive participation kit.  But that wait is over as it arrived in the mail last week.

If you've ever wondered about whether your house is really as clean as you think it is, this project will be perfect for you.  Researchers are looking to understand the millions of tiny creatures and microscopic life living on your doors, your kitchen counter tops, and even your pillow.  It may seem a bit gross at first, but remember, you've been living with these creatures all your life.  In fact some may even be beneficial to your health.  So scientists need to learn more about them and how they impact human health.

What specific hypotheses are they trying to test?

  1. Your home's physical characteristics influence the microbial communities found inside it.
  2. The macro-species with whom you share your home influence the microbial communities found within it.
  3. Geography, Climate, and Landscape features influence the microbial composition inside and outside of houses.
  4. The microbes you live with influence your health and well being.
The only way to find these answers is to sample homes from across the country.  So won't  you sign up and donate a little bit of home to science?

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Check out the main Your Wild Life web site to learn more about this and a number of other related projects. 
  2. Register online to receive a collection kit.  While mine took months to arrive they still have a few kits available and the wait is currently quite short.
  3. Once the kit arrives create a new account at  Provide your name and e-mail address, and once you receive a confirmation e-mail back then click through to finish registering.  The process is admittedly odd but doesn't take up too much time.
  4. Log back in and complete the participant questionnaire.  It's a bit long but the questions are easy.  Just provide short answers to about the pets and plants in your house, describe the house, and let them know about home's residents and any relevant allergies. 
  5. Click Submit and get your confirmation code.  And before you forget, write this number on the handy test tube labels provided in the kit.
  6. Now Collect some SAMPLES!!!  The instructions are pretty easy to follow; just unwrap the packaging, twist off the cap, and simultaneously rub both Q-tips on the requested surface.  Close it up tight to keep everything sterile and attach the proper label.  This should take less than five minutes.
  7. Last but not least, sign the informed consent document and seal everything up in the pre-addressed envelope.  Add $1.95 in postage (5 first-class stamps) and send it on it's way.  Don't worry about the $2's a small price for the fun of participating and let's the researchers send kits to more people.
Now we just have to wait until the analysis gets done...and that's when it gets interesting.  Participants will receive an e-mail linking them to the results from their very own kits.  So if you want to know, really want to know, check back in and learn about all the wild life living with you in your own house!  Just don't tell your significant other :)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Citizen Science Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us.  The nights are longer (for better stargazing) and snow is coming (to all you home meteorologists).  But you also need to do some gift shopping for all the citizen scientists in your family.  Sure, anyone can give a telescope or new set of binoculars, but you want to give something more creative.  Well have no fear, the 2012 OpenScientist Wish List is here.

Urban Weather Station:  For anyone who's worried about the air they breathe.  This is the first personal weather station designed to work with an iPhone or iPad.  Measure indoor air quality, sound quality, and CO2 amounts, along with indoor and outdoor temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.  All with a sleek design and ever sleeker iPad interface.    Available for $179 from NetAtmo at Alternatively, check out this blog post on choosing a home weather station for even more options.

Strain: Who says bio-engineering and family game night can't co-exist?  Let everyone get in on the DYBiology fun with this board game.  Race to design the most successful organism by adding organelles and making ATP while evading toxins and marauding viruses. Recommended for 3-7 players ages ten and up.  Available for $19.99 from CoolStuff at

Makey Makey:   This handy kit was featured on KickStarter and quickly became popular.  It's easy to see why.  The kit let's you turn anything (a banana, buckets of water, pencil drawings) into a computer interface.  So create your own joystick, motion detector, or musical instrument for a tiny price.  For the tinkerer in every family.  Available for $49.99 from Thinkgeek at

Archaeology Kit: Ideal for beginner and weekend archaeologists.  Take this collection of brushes, trowels, levels, and rulers out to your local Native American Heritage Site or Civil War battlefield to dig up a piece of history.  Just make sure you join up with a existing group so everything stays legal and your finds can be scientifically validated.  I bought one for my father last year (he loves to join archeological digs on the weekends) and it has really come in handy.  Available for $100 (US) from Archeostore at

Wildlife Camera: Enjoying all the birdwatching and backyard animal projects but want to take your game up a notch?  Don't just record sightings while you're in the yard...set up a camera and watch all the time!  With both night and day capabilities, this camera will sense when wildlife are near and snap a picture.  Not only will it improve your animal counts, but you learn more about the critters prowling around just under your nose!  True, this particular camera is made for hunters, but that doesn't mean we can't use it to protect wildlife as well.  Available for $78 from Amazon here.

FitBit: Track your fitness, eating, and sleep with just a tiny monitor worn on your arm.  The tiny FitBit stays with you and records vital body data to keep you fit and healthy.  You can also track everything on your iPhone or iPad with a quick wireless connection. Available for $99 at

Hopefully this will help you fill your loved one's stocking with the gift of citizen science.  But let me know in the comments below if there are other fun gifts you're buying for your loved ones!  (Don't worry...your secret is safe with us).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Citizen Science and Super Storm Sandy

The last few weeks I've been dealing with some family issues that have reduced my blogging.  So not much has been written since Hurricane Sandy struck over a month ago.  But there is one item we must get to before it is too late.

Photo Courtesy: SUDS and iAMScientist
The SUDS (Send Us your Dirt from Sandy) Project asks volunteers whose homes were flooded to collect the silt and sand that washed in and send it to researchers for analysis. This is a unique opportunity to cheaply obtain samples from a wide area and better understand the toxic chemicals survivors may be exposed to.  Anyone along the New York/New Jersey coast can submit a sample and it is not too late despite the Sandy hitting over a month ago. So despite the loss there is a silver lining of valuable information that can be obtained from the Storm.  In the words of the researchers themselves:
We are interested in learning what chemicals may be present in deposited sediment. We are already starting to receive samples collected by people in affected areas. The collected samples will be analyzed for a variety of organic and inorganic contaminants including heavy metals, organic compounds from gasoline and other fuels, pesticides and other industrial effluents following similar methods to those used following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Louisiana Peninsula (1).  Specifically we plan to measure leachable Cadmium, Arsenic, Mercury, Copper, and Vanadium by ICP-MS; pesticides by GC-MS and GC-ECD; benzene, ethylbenzene, and xylene by headspace GC; and PAHs  by HPLC or LC-MS.  
The results of this study will determine the extent of any contamination deposited as a result of flooding from Hurricane Sandy. By surveying flooded areas we can identify hotspots that may need further investigation and cleanup by the EPA. We may also be able to provide information to individuals who may be concerned about possible exposure. Knowledge of this type will also be useful for preparing for future flooding events in the region which are predicted to become more prevalent.
This is important science, and also a great way to help the area's long-term recovery from the storm.  I've made my own donation and hopefully you will contribute to this worthy cause too. 

But this is also a great opportunity to discuss a few other trends in the citizen science community. Unlike the historical model of working with existing groups of citizen scientists, or working with a site like SciStarter to market the program, this project is being advertised and funded through the crowdfunding site IAmScientist.   While this isn't a completely new phenomenon it's my first good opportunity to talk about it.

Crowd-funding sites not only spread the word they also help researchers find funding for their efforts.  For projects with particular public appeal or that can be readily explained to the lay-person, this can be a much better funding route than waiting for foundations and government agencies to select it for funding.  A popular topic can quickly become viral and allow researchers to hit the ground running.

An important part of these sites is letting donors become involved with the project.  In cases like SUDS it reaches out to people for submitting samples.  In other cases, such as on KickStarter, the more a person donates the more they receive as a "Thank You" for contributing.  This can be early versions of a product (for invention and design projects), access or acknowledgement in published journals (for basic science research) or offering subscriptions to a newly developed service.  This worked well for the Citizen Science Quarterly and can work for many other projects too.

The importance of involving donors is part of the overall goal of motivating people to participate.  First there are the incentives for participating, like we discussed above.  There are also "time-limited" challenges where projects must meet financial goals within a certain period of time to be funded.  Much like a car salesman's "Act now before it's gone!"  slogan, it provides a sense of urgency and energizes the fundraising.  Some sites, such as RocketHub, also use "Badges" to reward frequent funders; we've seen this tool before and it's a great motivator as well.

At this point the record of crowd-funding sites helping citizen science is a bit mixed.  The folks at got some help from it and CSQ sold a few quarterly editions of their magazine, but ultimately the energy ran out and not all funding goals were met.  Similarly various individual research/design projects, especially in the maker community, have been successful.  It's not always easy to explain these projects to the public or keep their attention for long periods of time.  But there have been successes and there is still a lot of untapped potential.

So I encourage you to check out this project or any of the other equally worthy projects looking for help.  There are many ways to pitch in when a community is struck by nature, now let's show everyone what the citizen science community can do.

P.S.  Followers of the OpenScientist Facebook page have known about this project for a few weeks thanks to lead researcher Neil Fitzgerald who posted it there and brought it to my attention. So I encourage both researchers looking for volunteers and people hoping to join interesting projects to join me on Facebook as well.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Citizen Science Inspiration from TED

Citizen science is one of the most inspirational fields to join.  The sight of everyday people asking their own questions and finding answers without the need for advanced education or expensive equipment is a testament to human ingenuity.  But sometimes we forget that.  So today I offer selections from the TEDTalks series to fire you up and make think about citizen science in a whole new light. 

The first features Beau Lotto and Amy O'Toole, two researchers investigating whether bees can be "trained" to collect nectar from certain patterns of flowers.  While this is meaningful research published in peer-reviewed journals, the science is not the most interesting part.  The fact that the authors are almost all elementary school students is!    So not only do we learn about bee behavior, but also the most important lesson that curiosity and play are the keys to successful science. 

In the second video, Clay Shirky talks about the rise of open source computing and the lessons it holds for democracy.  If programmers from across the world can self-organize and create incredibly complex software, why can't governments tap the knowledge of it's citizens when drafting laws?  It's an interesting premise and one I think also says a lot about citizen science.  We too are encouraging large groups of people to join highly complex scientific studies, or to advance theories within a deluge of academic research.  So we could also use some of the lessons from the open-source community.

Of course these are just a few of the inspiration videos available through the TEDTalks web page or on the TEDTalks podcast station on iTunes.  Some are science and even citizen science related, though others are in completely different areas or art and philosophy.  But all are worth exploring.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dreaming Big and Learning About Citizen Science

This blog's main goals is advancing the field of citizen science.  I like to show promoting citizen science projects and highlighting their successes.  I also enjoy helping creators of new projects improve their offerings.  Previously that inspired my research on keys to successful citizen science projects.  So I'm excited to talk about the many useful tools coming from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Association of Science-Technology Centers.

The best way to learn about successful projects is getting their leaders in a room and asking about their experience.  This Spring that's exactly what happened.  The California Academy of Sciences hosted a three-day conference on the role of citizen science in ecology and conservation projects. All with the goal of improving biodiversity in the State of California.

Much can be learned by listening in on their discussions.  They are filled with descriptions of successful citizen science projects, examples of the wide variety of projects inviting public participation in scientific research, and valuable lessons learned from researchers experienced with utilizing citizen science volunteers.

For starters I recommend taking a close look at the meeting proceedings for summaries of all plenary and breakout sessions.  There is a lot to digest in here and I too have many thoughts to share on the proceedings, but take a look yourself for insights that will help your own projects.  I also recommend reading the various case studies the Cornell Ornithology Lab and the Association of Science-Technology Centers have put together.  They turn academic insights into practical tools and can help improve may type of citizen science projects.

Once you've had a chance to review these we'll also talk about the many tools recently putt together on specific aspects of developing citizen science projects.  But more on that in the future...we've got a lot of reading ahead of us right now!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tracking the Weather and Hurricane Sandy with Citizen Science - Part III

Hopefully this posts finds everyone safe.  Hurricane Sandy walloped us with a big punch in the DC area, but the storm has pretty much passed and the cleanup can begin.  So let's look back at what happened as told through the eyes of our backyard weather station.

First we have a nice chart of barometric pressure (green) as well as average wind speed (blue) and wind gusts (red).  Wwe can see the slow but steady drop in pressure as Sandy nears.  As the pressure drop accelerates we can also see how the wind speed start to ramp up.  Winds near their peak strength at the lowest pressure point (28.70 in/Hg) and then quickly drop as the pressure increases.  So once the storm actually hits and starts moving away we immediately see a drop in storm intensity.  The time markers weren't able to display in the actual image, but the sharp decline in pressure started around 9:00 AM with peak wind/lowest pressure at 9:40PM.  I can't claim an end time since the storm had not fully dissipated when the data was downloaded, but certainly things have abated a lot.

Relative Pressure, Wind Speed, and Wind Gusts During Hurricane Sandy
Image Courtesy: OpenScientist

Now let's look at rainfall.  For the length of the storm (until I downloaded the data) we received approximately 4.8 inches of rain.  I was actually expecting more but this is in line with predictions.  Most of the time the rain was not overly intense...averaging under 0.2 inches per hour.  But we do have a big surge of rain (1.1 inches per hour) around 9:00 AM on Monday.  That is the same time as the barometric pressure really starts falling and the storm is now being felt.  So it's interesting how the actual moisture falls the most at the beginning.  However, excluding that one big surge, we also see a clear overall trend where the hourly rainfall generally increases/decreases in reverse proportion to the barometric pressure (in other words, one goes up as the other goes down).

Relative Pressure and Hourly Rainfall During Hurricane Sandy
Image Courtesy: OpenScientist

Looking beyond the scientific part of the hurricane, the data also tell a very human story too.  Using the weather station's sensors inside the INDOOR control station we can measure temperature inside our house as well as the weather outside.  The first thing you'll notice is a drop from 80 degrees to 74 degrees...this is me taking the console out of the box and letting it start record.  It was previously in a box next to a heating register and had to cool down a bit before registering room temperature.  There are then a few blips while the heater flips on and off to maintain a constant temperature in the house.  Still quite normal.  Then we see a big spike...that's around 6:00 when my wife started a fire in the fireplace.  Perfect for staying warm on a stormy night.  But then a problem hits right at 10:10PM Monday night (indicated by the red line)...that's when our power went out and we lost heating.  Temperatures keep dropping unchecked until 3:00AM earlyTuesday morning...that's the green line when PEPCO restored our power.  Temperatures rise as we stay snug in our beds until it hits 72 degrees; the new level set by my wife after it almost felt too hot.

Taking this one step further, compare the times between when we lost and regained power on the other charts (signified by the yellow lines).  This coincides with the period of strongest wind gusts.  Right up until 3:00 when after the wind drops down sharply...only then could power crews get back to work and restore our power.

So not only do we get interesting scientific data, it also tells the story of electric power and how quickly it's loss can be felt inside the home.

Internal Home Temperature During Hurricane Sandy
Image Courtesy: OpenScientist

Finally, there is one other interesting thing from all this data.  Look at the wind speeds again in the first graph.  Notice how even during the biggest increase at the height of the storm, the average wind speed was never more than 5.4 mph and the wind gusts were never more than 9.2 mph.  Very low for a hurricane.  What's happening here?

My first guess was the siting of the weather station...but I kept it away from the house and nearby tress as it sat at the edge of my patio near the middle of backyard.  So that's not it.  My second guess was it was too low...but the patio is raised a few feet above the yard itself and the station is a foot above the actual stand.  It could be a broken gauge...but I watched it spin quickly during large gusts and slow down during low times.  None of those could be it.  One clue I have was sometimes a big gust would come along and greatly shake the large (60-80 foot tall) trees around my house.  At this same time, however, the shorter trees (10-20 feet tall) would not be shaking, their leaves would not be falling off, and the wind gauge would only be spinning at a moderate pace.  I also noticed that my neighbor had left many small pots and lightweight patio furniture outside during the storm, but none was picked up or thrown around by the wind.

This leads to two theories:
  1. Wind gusts can only be felt much higher in the sky than the first 20 feet or so.  But this doesn't make sense when walking the streets of watching normal hurricane footage.  Clearly high winds are at ground level too.
  2. Strong winds and strong wind gusts are greatly mitigated in a forest setting.  My house is in a relatively wooded area and is surrounded on most sides by large trees and many smaller trees.  Could the winds be hitting this foliage and being somewhat neutralized?  Are they creating a wind barrier for my house?
Out of sheer personal interest I'm really curious whether hypothesis number 2 has any real merit.  So it's time to hit the library and maybe set up some additional experiments to test it.  All that will be in a future set of blog posts, so stay tuned to this page!


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tracking the Weather and Hurricane Sandy with Citizen Science - Part II

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
I've always been interested in the weather.  We learn about it in school and get daily mini-lessons each day on the news.  Teachers show us how to watch it scientifically with weather stations in schools across the country, and there are thousands of everyday people studying it out of pure curiosity.  So the approach of Hurricane Sandy and the unique weather associated with it piqued my interest once again.  Now it's time to teach myself about weather at home and become a meteorological citizen scientist.

The last blog post discussed all my requirements for a home weather station and how I ultimately chose the Ambient Weather WS-5300 as the right equipment for me.  I placed an order through Amazon and it arrived mere days later.  Opening the box my first impression is that pieces are smaller than expected and the plastic does not look very rugged. Though upon closer inspection they do seem tough enough to handle the job (we'll find out soon enough when Sandy arrives).

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist

Setting up the weather station took a bit over an hour. While it really is not too complex and the instructions are relatively clear, there were a few hiccups and I had to undo a few things after installing them the wrong way. I also didn't realize the need for a precision screwdriver for many of the screws and bolts (make sure to fish yours out of the tool shed before getting started). Now that I've set up once I could probably install another in just 10-15 minutes, but this first time took much longer.

Once all the connections are tightened and the wires strung it's time to set up outdoors.  When choosing a site make sure to stay at least 5 feet away from any structures (or trees) and at last twice as far from the highest structure as it is tall (so if your house is 30 feet tall make sure to be at least 60 feet away from it). This will keep the wind blowing straight and ensure the rain does not get blocked. You'll also want to find level place to either stake down the weather station or put down a very heavy stand. This does not come with the station but really is needed...especially if you are setting it up for a hurricane. In my case the metal stand for a patio umbrella does the job quite nicely but you may have other options at your site. If you have problems check out the Ambient installation site for tips and tricks for selecting a weather station location.  You'll see mine set up at the top of the page here, in my backyard but away from all the surrounding trees.

Once installed, aligned to the North, and with 2 x AA batteries installed, it's time to for the electronic installation. Everything flows through the weather console to the computer so we start with the console first.  Just add 2 more AA batteries and set the date/time.  Took less than a minute and I can already watch weather readings coming in wirelessly from the station outside.  Fortunately no wireless set up is required (phew!) Next plug the console into a PC with a USB cable then install the EasyWeather software included in the box.  It also loads in less than a minute, though starting it the first time requires actually right-clicking on the program and choosing "Run as Administrator".  But besides that awkwardness the start-up is simple.  You know have the same information showing on both the weather station console and your own monitor, and you can use both to see the current conditions.

Once the set-up is fully complete the computer provides many tools for analyzing, graphing, and reporting the collected data.  So for now I will let the machine keep collecting information and watch what happens over the next 72 hours.  Once we have some interesting data come in the next post will be all about the interesting things we can do with it.

During this time I recommend following the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang for continuing updates on the storm.  They provide similar forecasts that others do, but they also provide a large amount of educational information about each prediction focused on weather buffs and citizen scientists like ourselves.  So you can follow the storm and get an education as well.

Stay Safe!


Friday, October 26, 2012

Tracking the Weather and Hurricane Sandy with Citizen Science - Part I

Let's talk about the weather.

Photo Courtesy: Ambient Weather
I've been planning to plunge into citizen science weather projects but was pulled aside while writing about other important topics (such as encouraging donations to Smithsonian citizen science projects).  But with the approach of Hurricane Sandy (aka "Frankenstorm!") this seemed like the perfect time to start.  As a blogger in Washington DC we are right in the storm's bulls-eye and a great opportunity to gather interesting weather readings and show what the equipment station can really do.  And frankly it seemed fun too!

My goal is to better understand the climate in my local area and how it relates to the many nature projects I'm also working in.  As you've seen in this blog there are a huge number of nature-based citizen science projects and I've been participating in many of them.  Over the last year information about all the plants and animals in my backyard is available to researchers studying those species and the environment.  So if I can add detailed climate information to this data there may be many additional discoveries that can be made.

I'm also very interested in meteorology as a thriving arena for citizen science.  I have not written much about it but there is a long tradition of everyday people providing weather data to professional forecasters.  Not everything can be recorded at government science stations and much must come from widely dispersed people from all corners of the country.  In addition, many people have begun sharing and using this data for their own weather studies outside of "official" channels.  Much of it even exceeds forecasts from government sources.  So it's an area long-deserving attention from this blog.

The only way to understand this field is to actually join in, and the first step is purchasing my very own personal weather station.  So let's get started.  When reviewing equipment options I had a few simple requirements.
  1. Affordable price.  It had to be under $200 and preferably closer to $100.  There are many good-quality weather stations for home use that are more expensive ($300 and up) but that didn't seem appropriate for the everyday person just getting started with weather-based citizen science.
  2. Scientifically reliable results: There are many consumer grade weather stations available at reasonable prices, but these seem mainly for personal entertainment and can't be used by professional researchers. I wanted this data to be meaningful and have the potential to advance true meteorological research.
  3. Measures all important weather conditions.  Nearly all provide temperature with rainfall and barometric pressure also being quite common.  But wind speed also seemed important, especially if I want to provide meaningful research data.
  4. Wireless capability.  I can't afford a dedicated computer for this experiment and I can't run wires outside for it.  So some wireless capability was needed.
  5. Widely available:  My blog reaches a national (and dare I say it international) audience so any option should be available to the greatest number of potential readers.
After much research I finally chose the Ambient Weather WS-500 Wireless Home Weather Station.  Priced at $114.00 through (now on sale for $69.99!!) it was well within my budget.  This model has been very popular and supplies have run low at times, but I was lucky enough to get one recently.  It is a stand-alone unit with wireless transmission/recording that collects rainfall, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and barometric pressure data.  It is also compatible with various data protocols used by various weather amateur and professional weather networks (more about this in a future post).  The only draw-back was from many reviewers commenting that an extra temperature and solar radiation shield is required to give the most accurate readings.  While sold separately it was a bit expensive, but the total price of both the station and was still under $160 (at the time) and met my pricing criteria.

In just a few short days it arrived on my doorstep.  It was a small box inside a much larger box, but much was packed into it.  But was it simple to set up?  What does it look like?  All that it tomorrow's post!  So join me on Saturday as we set everything up and prepare for the big storm.

In the meantime I highly recommend following the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang for continuous updates on the storm.  I follow this group closely not only for their highly local coverage and breaking news update, but because they have been strong supporters of meteorological citizen science and include much information from highly-informed, hard-working amateurs who provide a fresh perspective on the weather.  Not only it's local impact, but the hows and whys written in a way that's accessible to professionals and lay-people alike.  So if you don't follow them already this storm is the perfect chance to get acquainted!


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Out with the Old...In with the New

I've been away for a few weeks so let's start off with a quick recap.  Some may see this as good news/news.  But I like to think of it as good news just in different ways.

First off, the OldWeather project has recently expanded with new data arctic weather data sets.  Taken from National Archives records of US Navy and Coast Guard ships, the weather logs in this set date back to 1850 and offer unique polar data unable elsewhere.  The research team can't do this alone and needs the help of everyday people to transcribe all the handwritten log information; leaving a great opening for citizen scientists and readers of this blog.

Second, two distributed computing projects we've been following are drawing to a close. Just announced last week, the Computing for Clean Water and Help End Muscular Dystropy will no longer be sending users data to analyze. Instead we've all done all the number-crunching needed by the scientists and they are now actively analyzing the reams of data. But that's what happens when projects are successful; the data collection ends and the discovery begins. It's also the start of publishing the data for the whole world to see. So despite the loss of a citizen science project I still consider it a very good thing.

Finally, you may have noticed that my "Citizen Science Supports the Smithsonian" campaign has been extended longer than initially planned.  Although I haven't had as many takers as expected, donations do keep coming in and I want to continue supporting the museums and science centers across the country.  So please consider even a small donation. 

I'll even make a matching contribution for each donor as an incentive!  Won't you help too?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Banding Together...and Banding Trees...for the Smithsonian

Atrium of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Photo Courtesy:

All my readers know the importance  of citizen scientists supporting museums.  But what do they do for us?  For starters, they are a great source of fun projects we can all participate in.

One great example is the Smithsonian's Treebanding Project.  Primarily targeted towards kids and schools groups, the project aims to create the first global observatory of how trees respond to climate.  With hundreds, and soon thousands, of trees being measured it is possible to watch tree growth over many years and see where it may be changing.

After signing up for the project, each teacher (or class or organization or science center) receives a tree-banding kit with tree bands of all different sizes, fasteners to hold them in place, and directions for identifying and tagging trees being measured.  It also comes with a nice set of calipers for measuring limbs and trunks of very young trees.  They just identify 3-5 trees to follow over the course of a few years, follow the directions in the handy User's Guide, and set up an account so all  the measurements can be recorded.

Photo Courtesy:
The banding is relatively simple and makes a good class project.  There are lesson plans and classroom activities available to build upon the treebanding activity.  It teaches about the life cycle of trees, what helps them grow, and how climate can impact tree health.  Everything an energetic science teacher needs to help tomorrow's ecologists.

Once the bands are in place and measurements are taken, see what other schools are doing and check out their results on the Tree Data web page.  And for those of you wanting a cold hard look at all the data, check out the reports available here.  You have to be a registered user to get access (since its your trees) but that's a very simple process.

The best time for banding is spring...right before the new year's growth begins and a full year of fresh data can begin.  But interested teachers should contact the Smithsonian soon to reserve a kit if they want to get involved.  There are only so many to go around.  The equipment costs money and their sponsors can only provide so much.  Leaving a shortage for the many interested schools, teachers, and students wishing to participate.

This is where you can come in.  The Smithsonian has already taken the first steps of setting up the project, finding the equipment for you, and organizing a data system.  But they can't do it without your participation and your financial support.  So won't you help?  Just donate whatever small amount you can afford on the right-hand side (marked "Donate").  You'll help a few more schools access the program, and you'll feel good helping us advance the field of citizen science together.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Continuing with the Smithsonian!

Just a short time left to go!  Our campaign to help the Smithsonian and advance citizen sciecne in museums is a few weeks old but we are still waiting for many of you to help.  Remember, this doesn't just help the museum or individual citizen science helps advance hte field and make new opportunities available for us all.  So if you can spare $10 or $20 just clikc on the "Donate" button on the right and help us all out.  We appreciate it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Helping the Smithsonian: In Their Own Words

Photo Courtesy:  OpenScientist

For the last few weeks I've been talking about the many great things museums offer and how instrumental they can be to citizen science. Our fields are interconnected and we can both help each other succeed. So if you have just a few dollars to spare won't you help by contributing to the Smithsonian this month? They are the nation's largest free museum and they provide help to other museums across the country. Just click on the "Donate" button to the right and I will also contribute $5 for every person who chips in.

So far the fundraising is admittedly behind where it should be, but let's keep pushing for the next two weeks and have a successful finish.

As a reminder of the Smithsonian's role, I received a timely e-mail last week that must be shared. It describes a $400,000 fundraising goal they are trying to meet by September 30 and the good things they are doing with their money. So don't just read my reasons to support the Smithsonian, here they are in the Smithsonian's own words.

People like you are making amazing things happen.

Planets are discovered, endangered species and ancient are revealed.  These things happen in no small part because of the generosity of people just like you.  Your gift to the Smithsonian truly matters.

As our fiscal year draws to a close, we're turning our attention to the next 12 months.  We have ambitious, exciting plans and were setting a BIG goal to help realize our dreams: we need to raise $400,000 before September 30 -- can you help us reach our goal?
Your gift helps make it possible for us to offer millions of people inspiring experiences that can only be found at the Smithsonian.  For example:
  • At the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, people of all ages marvel at a true icon of American space travel, the Space Shuttle Discovery, our nation's longest-serving orbiter.
  • At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Roads of Arabia exhibition provides visitors an eye-opening look at the largely unknown ancient past of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  • At the National Zoo's American Trail exhibit, a new habitat for seals and sea lions (plus beavers, river otters, bald eagles, and wolves) delights visitors while providing important information about America's indigenous wildlife.
We simply couldn't maintain amazing exhibits like these without the generosity of individuals like you.  Make a gift today and help us continue to provide the exceptional Smithsonian experiences that thrill visitors year after year.

The Smithsonian relies on both federal funding and private philanthropy.  While federal funding supports our infrastructure, it is the private philanthropy of individuals like you that truly makes it possible for the Smithsonian to continue to be a groundbreaking institution and a universal lens for learning.

Thank you for your dedication to the Smithsonian, and for making your special gift before September 30.

Warm Regards,

Laura Brouse-Long

Director, Friends of the Smithsonian
Smithsonian Institution
Of course you can always donate directly to them here.  But by using the "Donate" button on the right you help show the value of citizen science and the importance of our community.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Smithsonian Celebrates Orville and Wilbur Wright

Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
One great thing about Washington, DC is visiting all the various Smithsonian museums.  They feature one-of-a-kind artifacts and world-class collections and make them available for free to all visitors.  Add a heavy concentration on scientific exhibits, and you have the perfect organization for supporting citizen science.

One thing they also do well is telling the story of science and the people behind important technological advances.  Nothing illustrates the story-telling, and the power of citizen science, better than the "Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age" exhibit at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.  So when you help support the Smithsonian you help tell the story of how two bicycle mechanics with a vision changed the world and created the era of powered flight.

While much has been written about the entrepreneurial spirit of Orville and Wilbur Wright, and about their place in history, much less has been written about the duo as citizen scientists.  But the James Tobin book "To Conquer the Air" does a great job of it.  The book is also the story of competition between the scientific "establishment", personified by Samuel Langley and his attempts to build the first powered airplane, and that of the Wright's. For despite the resources Langley had at his disposal they were never enough. In fact, he spent over $70,000 (a huge sum at the time) on his own flying machine while the brothers spent just under $1,000 in materials and travel to Kitty Hawk by the time of their first sustained flight.

It is also a book about experimentation and challenging assumptions that have never been tested.  For example, pioneering scientist Otto Lilienthal had created a series of tables on lift that helped define how wings should be built and dictated the size of potential planes.  Everyone followed these tables except for the Wrights.  Through work with hand-constructed wind tunnels they re-wrote these tables and used the calculations to design their own flying machine. 

Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute had warned that any glider with wings longer than twelve feet was inherently dangerous, since it could not be controlled by shifting one's weight. Will had never made a free flight in a glider. Yet ... he chose to defy the world's only authorities on the basis of only his own calculations and preliminary experiments. 

Replicas and examples of these are showcased at the Smithsonian's exhibit, so you too can perfrom the same tests and learn more about the dynamics of flight.  But despite this success the book also describes the less-glamorous side of citizen science and the experimental method.  In one memorable passage, Tobin writes:
"[Learning to fly] was going to be an athletic endeavor, and its principal goal would be proper balance, as in skating or bicycling or gymnastics. When first mounting the parallel bars or the bicycle seat, you simply tried it, expecting to fall.  So it would be with this.  In the instant of the fall you might have an idea about how you could have turned your body differently or placed a hand elsewhere.  You tried again, fell again, considered, adjusted.  In this way he would learn new things.  He would attempt to build on others' successes, paricularly [Otto] Lilienthal's, with the aim of  answering the question he an Orville apparently had discusse off and on for years."
Wilbur Wright also dealt with the problems of how to become a voice in the growing field while being a non-degreed amateur with bright ideas.  Despite his personal confidence and the important insights being developed in their Ohio bike shop, he needed the intellectual and emotional support of the scientific community.  So they continued to blaze forward, even sharing many of their insights with famed Octave Chanute who took them under his wing for a time.  In a letter to Chanute he wrote:

I make no secret of my plans...for the reason that I believe no financial profit will accrue to the inventor of the first flying machine, and that only those who are willing to give as well as to receive suggestions can hope to link their names with the honor of its discovery.  The problem is too great for one man alone and unaided to solve in secret. 
Of course this part wasn't exactly true.  There was money to be gained...not just by the sale of patents and the Wright's sale of planes to the military but also in the many prize purses offered by countries and foundations to stimulate flight.  Everyone had an interest in those days and wanted to see powered flight.  So flight challenges and races were a popular way to move the field forward.  These would be the precursor to bounties won by Lindbergh when he crossed the Atlantic, and which organizations like Innocentive and XPrize use to stimulate citizen science today.  But the love of science for its own sake still remains, as Tobin summarizes the brothers' efforts over the years:

In 1899 and 1900, Wilbut Wright had pursued the problem of flight as a diversion, a hobby, a sport, with only a distant glimpse of the possibility of fame and fortune.  His brother had joined for the fun of it.  In 1901 and 1902 the hobby became a hermetic scientific quest.  Orville joined in earnest, and all the brothers cared for was to solve a mystery that obsessed them.
All of this is shown, and told, at the Smithsonian.  The story is fascinating and the exhibit is open to anyone, free of charge.  All this wonder and excitement, and a piece of history, made available through the generosity of James Smithson and the American taxpayer.  But won't you help them out?  Keep this exhibit and all others promoting citizen science by making a donation to the Smithsonian today.  I've set everything up for you on the right hand side of my blog, and I'll donate $5 of my own to every person who contributes.  Together we can preserve these stories for the future and encourage a whole new generation of groundbreaking citizen scientists.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Help Museums and Science Centers Teach Climate Change

All this month we are talking about museums and the role they play in nurturing citizen science research.  We've specifically talked about the Smithsonian and highlighted projects at other American museums as well.  Now it's time to discuss a very similar set of organizations; the zoos, aquariums, and other science centers located all across the country.

There's a huge amount I can write about both the commonalities and difference between those organizations. But that's not what you're reading OpenScientist're reading to find out about the projects they offer.  So we will start off by discussing Temperature Blast.  It's a project that both teaches about weather and helps scientists better understand climate change.  It's also another mobile application we can add to the growing list projects available on our Mobile Citizen Science Apps! page. 

Climate change research has been an important part of citizen science in the world of science centers for the last few years, and this application is a great example of it.  It is based at the Maryland Science Center and focuses on Baltimore-area data, but it is available nationwide and the science it teaches is universal.  As the Science Center itself describes the project:

Citizen Scientists collect live and archived Weatherbug data from select stations in the Baltimore region to compare temperatures and log this data for scientists. Scientists at the Baltimore Ecosystem Study then use this data to test models of temperature patterns across the city to aid in urban planning. This data illustrates the Urban Heat Island effect on the area, a phenomenon classified by temperature differences between a metropolitan area and more rural landscape nearby. An Urban Heat Island is not an effect of climate change, but rather of our activity shaping the environment around us. Citizen Scientists are asked to consider the question; if we can make changes on a local scale, how may be contributing to changes globally?
Sounds simple enough, right?  Let's get to it.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Maryland Science Center: Citizen Science web page to learn more about Temperature Blast and the other programs they have available.  You can also register for the program online at
  • Download the Temperature Blast app in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store for Android.
  • Once installed and registered you can start right up.  Up first is Intro screen showing a map of local weather stations.  Thins will give you a better understanding of where each one is and the type of area (city, rural, suburban) which may impact the local weather.
  • Once finished, click the large yellow arrow to see the current conditions at each site.  Again, click on the yellow arrow when you're done.

  • This next step asks questions about the conditions at each weather station.  Not only does this help teach about reading weather information, but you will also learn about the various factors impacting how hot or cold a place is.

  • Finally, once all the information is submitted take a quiz about weather, citizen science, and science in general.    That's all there is to it!
Hopefully you'll have a chance to play with this's fun and helps teach kids about climate change.  But remember that these projects do cost money for science centers and museums to create.  Scientists put a lot of effort into designing them and computer programmers put a lot of time into coding too.  So if we want to see more of these valuable projects we need help those museums.

Won't you join the cause?  On the right side of this blog is a giant "Donate" button that collects money for the Smithsonian through the non-profit Network for Good organization..  As the nation's largest free museum group it's the perfect place to show the size and dedication of citizen science volunteers.  There is much they can do to support the any amount you can afford helps.  I will even pitch in an extra $5 per donation for every donor (up to 100 donors) as encouragement.  It only take a few minutes and a few dollars on your part, but it can turn into a giant boon for citizen science in the future.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Museums Support Citizen Science...Will You Support Them?

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Photo Courtesy:
September is Citizen Science Supports the Smithsonian month.  It's our chance to show appreciation for everything museums do to help us, and to show that we can return the favor too.  On the right-hand side of this blog is a large "Donate" button provided by  I'm not asking for much, but if you could donate any small amount you can afford they'd greatly appreciate it.  And I'll even match $5 for every person who donates through the web site.  My goal is to demonstrating the power of our numbers so it's just a little incentive for every person that helps.

One of the best reasons to donate is to support the many projects that museums have previously put together as citizen scientists.  They are free for us to join but they do cost money.  Money to digitize collections so amateurs can classify images, money to pay researchers to organize and publish the data, and money to develop the computer programs used to collect the data.  Below are examples of some museum-sponsored projects we've highlighted in the past.  Won't you give back in return?

  • Project Firefly: Project from the Museum of Science in Boston to track the fate of these amazing insects. With your help, they hope to learn about the geographic distribution of fireflies and their activity during the summer season. Fireflies also may be affected by human-made light and pesticides in lawns, so they hope to also learn more about those effects.
  • Frogwatch: As the flagship citizen science program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, this project allows individuals and families to learn about the wetlands in their communities and help conserve amphibians by reporting the calls of local frogs and toads.  They also organize volunteers into self-supporting chapters that provide a community of like-minded citizen scientists you can interact with.
  • LifeMapper: Tool for mapping animal habitats and testing how those habitats may be altered due to global climate change. Users can tap the database of geographic data for over 900,000 species and 20,000 environmental species models to graphically display where animals have recently been observed, how their habitat may change as the environment changes, and how that environment may change based on various economic development models.  All species observation data comes from the Geographic Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a repository for data from governments and museums representing over 50 countries that have pooled their collections data in this one central facility. It also includes data from many museum-sponsored bio-observation projects. In other words, the citizen science projects you've been reading about on this very website! So now that you've worked on all these projects and diligently added your data to the collection, it's finally time to use it.
Of course this list just scratches the surface.  Museums everywhere need your help...both as citizen scientist participats and as financial donors.  It only costs a little bit to help but can make a world of difference to supporting our common cause.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Citizen Science Supports the Smithsonian

Atrium of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Photo Courtesy:
The past few years I've written about the field of citizen science and highlighted interesting projects that anyone can participate in. These projects need your help to understand our planet, explore the universe, and make our world a better place. And you've already responded generously with your time and effort.  Now I'm asking for your charitable help too.

All through September I'm starting the first Annual "Citizen Science Supports the Smithsonian" Drive.  We need to support our local museums that introduce citizens to the world of science, and we need to show them the power of citizen science to invigorate their research mission.  They have large collections of specimens and data waiting to reveal their secrets...the one thing they don't have is the scientific workforce to analyze all of it.  So on behalf of museums everywhere I'm asking for donations to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.  It is the largest and most well-known museum in America and is free for all visitors.  They also run a world-class scientific enterprise.  Making them the the perfect beneficiary for this drive.

To help with the drive I've partnered with Network For Good for all the logistical aspects.  Just click the large "Donate" button on the right side of this blog to go to their web site and make a donation.  None of your money goes to me..NetworkforGood handles it all so you don't need to worry about how the money is administered.  From there it goes straight to the Smithsonian.  Meaning all your money supports the cause with safety, security, and as few hoops as possible.

In connection to the drive I will also be highlighting many citizen science project currently run by museums and discussing the many ways museums can expand their citizen science offerings in new, exciting directions. There will also be some analysis of the things museums do well and how they can continue to improve. So even if you didn't know the good things Smithsonian and other institutions perform you'll hopefully be a believer by October.

Lastly, September is also the final month of the Smithsonian's fiscal year, the time when they are most in need and can best use the funding we provide.  So won't you make a donation?  Every little bit helps.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Mobile Citizen Science Apps: Ideas for the Future

Citizen science has always been about everyday people working to undersand the world around them. Questions are all around us and the data is more available than people think. So what "professional" researchers and project scientists need to do is provide us the tools to record and process the data, and make them available wherever a citizen scientist may be. That's where citizen science applications for mobile devices come in.

The other day we looked at a number of currently available mobile applications and the various common threads between them.  We also found there are many gaps between what projects could be doing and what is possible.  So I've started a list of things capabilities I'd love to see in future projects and that would continue to advance the citizen science field.  And if there are any budding programmers out there, let me know if you find any of these intriguing and feel free to start coding away!

  • Coordinated Observations: Many citizen science projects involve participants from around the country separately collecting data and submitting it to a central location.  While this is important and there is coordination among they TYPE of data collected, there is no as much coordination of participants at a given time.  But wouldn't it be powerful to contact everyone who is participating at a given time and have them coordinate their observations?  True, you can plan ahead and create a "participation day" or even a set hour/minute to observe, but tying everyone together through their mobile devices can be much more powerful.  Researchers can create observation goals at a moments notice (connecting to everyone in the field at that time) or make changes to the experiment depending on the results of previous tests.  Even observations that are super-sensitive to time (e.g., must be recorded within seconds of each other) can be handled if everyone uses on the same mobile application.  For example, a network of observers with weather applications can be immediately tapped for data during a sudden weather event, areported sighting of a rare eagle can be sent to other observers in the are with detailed information on what to look for, or split second changes observations of a seismic event scattered over hundreds of miles.  Obviously coordinated observations have been done many times before, but mobile citizen science apps take it to a whole new level. 
  • Distributed Computing: Mobile devices are not just souped-up phones. They are sophisticated computers whose power rivale that of high-end machines of just a decade ago. This power can be used not just to run applications, but to perform highly-complex scientific calculations. So the distributed computing model of breaking up large problems (such as forecasting global climate change or modeling biochemical reactions) should fit perfectly. In fact distributed computing hav previously evolved from supercomputers to desktop computers, laptops, and even gaming systems (such as XBox and PlayStation), so moving to mobile devices is the next logical step. Remember, the SETI-@Home program began in the late 1990s on computers not nearly as powerful as modern mobile devices, and that was one of the most successful citizen science projects of the modern era.  Obviously maintaining battery life is always an important concern, but researchers could design apps to only calculate when a device is both plugged in and fully charged. That way battery life stays high while the program pulls energy directly from the charging station and not its own battery.
  • Telepresence: Some current applications allow participants to upload photos or images to the Internet for comment by other users or project scientists. But why not take the next step? Enable real-time communication between participants and project scientists so they too are a part of a remote observation/experience without the travel expense. For example, instead of just commenting on a plant identification a researcher can ask a person to hold up the plant at a different angle, or show them how to check for certain marks not noticeable in a single picture. Or if a potential archaeological site is discovered by an amateur researcher, the archaeologist can walk that person to uncovering the site to confirm the find without inadvertently harming potential artifacts. It can even be used to help amateurs to fine-tune equipment taken into the field on a researchers behalf. This concept has already been proven for surgeons operating across continents and IT workers fixing computers from overseas. There's no reason we can't include research scientists too.
  • Incorporating Peripherals: App designers are not constrained to the capabilities of a single mobile device. Many phones also have space for users to add peripherals and other devices that extend it's hardware capabilities. For example, some merchants have added credit card readers to their phones to collect mobile payments. Applying this to citizen science, how about adding a sensitive thermometer or air pressure monitor to collect remote weather data, or snapping on a optical filter to collect pictures in wavelengths not captured by the built-in camera but needed for certain readings (like capturing infrared heat distribution images)? Even radiation monitors or chemical sensors could be used. Incidentally there is one project I've heard of which used calibrated microphones to measure sound pollution, but this has not been implemented broadly. Instead the closest to a peripheral most mobile apps use are cameras. Surely we can come up with more in the future.
  • Bounties: I've discussed this concept before, but incorporating bounties into mobile apps can really drive participation and turn a good project into a great one.  A form of bounty was used by the winning DARPA Red Balloon Challenge in which a team from MIT took less than 7 hours to find balloons stationed all across the country.  By creating an incentive system of $2000 per person who found each balloon, as well as bounties for people who invited those balloon-finders to participate, they created a powerful network of incentivized spotters who quickly captured first place.  While not every project can offer that much money, it illustrates a very powerful concept.
This is just a partial list of ideas.  There are many more stewing in my brain which could help researcher take the most advantage of the eager citizen scientist population.  Next week I'll talk about even more, the main difference being they will all help museums and other public organizations interact with citizen scientists through mobile devices.  So stay tuned...there's much more ground to cover in the weeks ahead.

  1. Trends and Initial Thoughts
  2. New Territory (Today)
  3. Opportunities for Museums (Next Week)