Friday, March 23, 2012

Keys to Successful Citizen Science Projects - Connecting it Together

Photo Courtesy: Richard-G
We've spent the last six weeks investigating what comprises a successful citizen science project.  After reviewing a wide range of projects, and after analyzing two of the most popular citizen science developers (the Zooniverse Group and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) we came up with a laundry list of important elements.  These aren't a to-do list or a design template, just a list of common over-arching themes that breed scientific success and popular appeal.

One thing you may have missed during this time is that while the laundry list is a great model for understanding and explaining project success, it's not perfect.  There are connections between each trait that are lost and overlap that is not accounted for.   Take the following example:

  • Education is a benefit people receive that keeps them motivated. 
  • Education also improves their participation skills, allowing researchers to Trust them with increasingly challenging tasks. 
  • Educating participants is easier if you have a Simplified process and Focused research problem. 
  • Simplifying projects helps you Educate participants and allows more Challenging projects
  • Challenging projects involve a greater need to Educate
  • Challenging projects motivate participants to keep coming back...

See how the process keeps building on itself?  These connections are vitally important and can get lost lost in the individual blog posts.  So below is a quick chart showing those commonalities by the four major success themes:

Image Courtesy:

So where do we go from here?  Well, for one thing this was never a "how-to" or step-by-step guide to creating successful projects.  We never discussed marketing strategies, interface designs, or other highly important implementation points.  That's been left for another day.  But I definitely plan a future series on this topic once everyone has digested the basic themes first.

What are your thoughts?  I'd love to hear any of your comments and criticisms below.  Have I over-simplified or under-simplified?  Have I left out important themes?  Do you have ideas for successful implementation strategies for the next series?  Just let me know in the comments below.


Friday, March 16, 2012

It was a Dark and Starry Night...

Photo Courtesy: Anton

There are many things I love about citizen science. Much of it boils down to a romantic image of a person standing alone in a field, looking up at the stars and discovering something new. Something that billions of other people have overlooked. Something that professionals with million-dollar equipment have overlooked. All because they had passion, patience, and access to the same sky everyone else has.

Sadly this image is in jeopardy. Not the power of citizen science, but the ability to have a clear night sky every other generation has taken for granted. Light pollution from cities and towns is increasingly bright and washes out the stars we all love to gaze upon. It also threatens wildlife that navigate by the stars, and it threatens human emotional health by killing the wonder of the sky.

For ten days this month, between March 13-22, the Globe at Night project is working to solve this problem.  First by measuring how bad it is in certain areas, and secondly by drawing attention the public's attention to the problem.  As citizen scientists who share a romantic ideal of keeping the skies dark and clear for everyone, won't you help them?

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit Globe at Night to learn more about the problems of light pollution and ways we can increase public awareness of the program.
  • Wait until it get's really dark outside and the sun is no longer providing any light to the sky. 
  • Find Orion.  It's most identifiable by the string of three bright stars in a line that indicate his belt.  If you aren't sure, look for a free star chart online, download the Star Walk application (or similar app) to your mobile phone, or watch this video for help.
  • Determine the magnitude of stars visible in your area.  For help, compare the sky to these online magnitude charts.  If you aren't sure exactly how to use them, read through all the instructions and take this practice quiz until you are comfortable making these observations.
  • Once you ahve all this information visit the data reporting page to make it official.  Find your location on the map provided, estimate how many clouds were in the sky (a guide is provided), and report the magnitude of stars that were visible.
  • That's all there is to it!

Wasn't that simple?  Of course you can go the extra mile and help promote the Globe at Night campaign with marketing materials from their site.  Tell your friends, your neighbors, or your classmates.  In the last few days over 6,000 data points have already been reported.  Let's add yours to the list too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Keys to Successful Citizen Science Projects - Case Studies

Photo Courtesy: Richard-G
The last few weeks I've looked at key elements to creating successful citizen science projects.   Although the projects are varied and spread across many disciplines, a few important themes keep popping up. I've seen them in my project research and wish to see them spread throughout the community.  Of course no single project can include all of them.  But the more elements are included the stronger a project it will be.

Now that we've discussed many of the important elements how do they actually operate in practice?  Let's look at two citizen science communities which incorporate many of them well.  Both are also extremely popular and should be familiar to most of you.  But I bet you've never thought of them in this light before.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been on the forefront of modern citizen science for over 40 years.  They specialize in bird behavior, biology, and ecology, utilizing close ties with the birdwatching community for assistance gathering data.  So it's just natural that researchers relying on amateur field observations look to successes at Cornell when developing their own projects.

A quick scan of the group's web site shows the wide variety of research performed at Cornell.  All have different goals and methods for collecting data, but that's an asset when appealing to the wide variety of interests and skill levels of most citizen scientists.  Users can just visit the site and pick on that best fits your interest.  They can even move between projects as their interests change and experience grows.

Currently over 200,000 citizen scientists participate in the 7-10 projects available each year.  They also produce a large amount of scientifically useful data, leading to over 60 peer-reviewed scientific papers over the last ten years.  So let's see how they've incorporated the keys to success we've described over the last few weeks:

  • Benefit the User: As a university sponsored lab, educating participants is an important part of every project.  All help users identify birds in their areas and provide many different teaching techniques suitable to every learning style.  In the Great Backyard Bird Count observers can use the project spotter guides or join a group to learn from knowledgeable experts; in Project FeederWatch detailed information is given on the target species, and on eBird information is available on the participants mobile phone (just to name a few).  They've also begun rewarding participants with game-style "badges" in the Round-Robin project.  So they take the extra step to not just educate their participants, but to actively thank and reward them too.
  • Engage the User: Cornell's long-standing support for citizen science has created a community of users willing to work on it's many projects.  The birdwatching community is a loyal one and the tools created for them build a framework for long-lasting cooperation.  People keep coming back not only for this support, but because they can grow together.  Tools and projects get more advanced as users gain more experience.  Once these users first join, Cornell engages closely with them and builds a relationship meant to last. 
  • Trust the User: Of the many things that set the Cornell projects apart from other citizen science projects is the extensive amount of data provided back to the public.  Great examples include the opening the eBird tool to users by publishing the APIs (letting others adapt it to their own purposes), the online Breeding Bird Atlas, and the extensive Avian Knowledge Network data sets. So Cornell doesn't just ask participants to collect information, they develop tools to use it and provide access to everyone.   This level of trust and transparency not only benefits the scientific community (the more minds the merrier) but reinforces the relationship between amateur and professional scientists.  We may have different roles to play, but both are just as valuable, and both can use the data for exciting discoveries. 
  • Keep it Simple: The wide variety of projects (currently nine but varying over time) let's scientists stay laser-focused on their topic and let's them design projects optimized for the research.  This keeps the data accurate, simplifies the project for users, and makes it easy to learn.  It also allows users to pick projects the best appeal to their interests and  experience level.  Embracing mobile technologies also helps make participation convenient.  The eBird tool and others all let birdwatchers participate on their terms, providing easy-to-use tools that can go anywhere and can be used not just for the Cornell group's projects, but for the individual's own purposes. 


The Zooniverse is a collection of web-based projects that crowdsource routine data analysis tasks to citizen scientists.  Participants analyze  images from NASA telescopes, transcribe old naval climate records, and listen for patterns in recorded whale songs.  Once complete, project scientists use this data to identify larger patterns and develop theories to fit the data.  They are constantly adding new projects as older projects wrap up their data collection and publish their findings. 

The Zooniverse team includes scientists from multiple research institutions who have developed a common project interface and infrastructure.  While each project is unique, all are built around the same general design of a web-based interface for analyzing the scientific materials.  There are no field-based observations or independent studies, just raw data supplied by the researchers and a set of tools for interpreting it. 

The Zooniverse also claims to be home to the Internet's largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.  Let's see why that is:
  • Benefit the User: The Zooniverse scientists understand their audience well and chooses research projects designed to challenge them. This brings in large projects answering big questions (what happens when galaxies collide?!) which is always popular with citizen scientists.  But with this comes the need to educate users in the science they are getting involved with.  This includes the theoretical background, the method for gathering data, how it will be measured, and what it ultimately means.  It may seem like a side issue for some, but educating your participants is an important way to keep them interested in the project.  After all, if they don't understand it, why would they donate their time to it?
  • Engage the User: Participant interaction is a key way Zooniverse scientists engage their users.  Every project has a way for participants to tag any interesting items they come across.  They can also start discussions with the project researchers and other citizen scientists as they explore what the data means.  Not only does this keep users motivated by showing respect for their opinions, but some of the most interesting findings come from these unlikely sources (as did the often-mentioned Hanny's Voorwerp discovered by a project volunteer).  Another large motivator is the continued scientific success as peer-reviewed papers are published and the discoveries are promoted through the popular press.  Not only can people see the fruits of their effort, but they can take pride seeing the praise knowing they played an important role in the findings. 
  • Trust the User: All of the Zooniverse projects "Think Big" by focusing on very difficult projects.  They parse it into small pieces for each user but the overall scope is quite large.  It's not easy to map every single set of boulders on the Moon (MoonZoo), translate the language of whale songs (WhaleFM), or discover how galaxies form (GalaxyZoo: The Hunt for Supernovae). But the Zooniverse is audacious enough to let us try, and their record of scientific papers shows we are up for the challenge.  Much of this success is due to their methodology for combining data from the large number of participating users.  Although not everyone is an expert, the theory of crowdsourcing says the combined brainpower of multiple people can overcome any errors introduced by the individuals.  For example, the Milky Way Project assigns everyone the task of finding "Bubbles" in infrared telescope images.  Not everyone can find them and some people my find ones where they don't exist, but the project compensates for that.  Only bubbles identified by at least five separate users are counted.  This weeds out the false data and maintains data quality on an ambitious but ultimately successful project.
  • Keep it Simple: Last but not least, a huge key to the Zooniverse success are their ingeniously simple interfaces and user-friendly tutorials.  Since all are web-based project, each has an interface showing an image to be analyzed and a small set of tools for marking the image appropriately.  For example, in the Milky Way Project users find the aforementioned bubbles, circle their outlines, and answer a few simple questions about them.  This records the finding and allows it to be compared with those from other users.  Similarly the Galaxy Zoo: Hubble project displays images of far-away galaxies and walks users through a series of questions about its shape and size.  There are many questions but the guided nature means you don't have to remember multiple things at once...just focus on the task at hand.  Making this even easier are the tutorials built into each project.  All are short, which helps keep people from being overwhelmed, and each provides full examples of exactly what the user will see at each step. There are often practice sessions too which show illustrative examples of a phenomenon and ask users to analyze it.  If you get the right answer you move on, if not it provides hints on what you did wrong.  Others even have short video tutorials where participants can watch an expert walk through each step for you.  So there is no guessing involved when users participate for real...they've already seen the possibilities before and can feel comfortable staying involved.

These have been a few ways researchers have created scientifically and popularly successful citizen science projects.  They certainly aren't the only ones, but I wanted to highlight some groups that display a wide variety of approaches.  We need to learn from each other to design more successful projects. 

But what are your thoughts?  Are there other things we should highlight from these two groups?  Are there other keys that are important to projects you've participated in?  Are there problems with these approaches?  Let me know in the comments section below and we'll keep this conversation going!


Monday, March 5, 2012

Search for Alien Inelligence in Real Time!

The search for alien life has always been popular with citizen scientists.  The SETI@Home project kicked off the modern era of citizen science and amateur astronomy projects continue drawing the largest number of participants.  In many ways it drives the field.  Some of these projects have been around for 15 years now, so as the SETI astronomy field advances it is good to see the associated citizen science fields advance too.

The most recent iteration of this is the SETILive project.  Beginning just a few weeks ago, it asks participants to identify potential extra-terrestrial signals collected by the Allen Telescope Array.  Although this 42-telescope operation is small compared to its ultimate 350-telescope goal, it already allows the collection of unprecedented amounts of radio data for the SETI project.  It is currently targeting planets recently discovered outside our Solar System by the Kepler space telescope.  So the odds continue to improve for a successful hunt for alien life.

Photo Courtesy: and

The idea for SETI Live came from a wish at the TED Conference.  Speaker Jill Tarter requested a way " empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company."  This ended up winning the TED prize and $100,000 to fund development of  If you aren't familiar with the conference, it brings together world class entrepreneurs, innovators, and entertainers to discuss world-changing ideas.  The talks are always fascinating and ask users to press beyond their normal assumptions about what is possible.  If you haven't watched the talks before it is well worth your time...each is usually less than ten minutes long and always involves an idea worth spreading.  Just like we spread the project to you.

Once the project funding was in place and the Allen array began collecting data, the project was set up as part of the Zooniverse series of citizen science projects.  So you know a lot of thought has gone into building a high-quality, simple-to-use project.  But enough overview, let's dive right in!

Getting Started is Easy
  • Visit to read all about the project and learn more about the Allen Telescope Array.
  • Register to join the project by providing your name and e-mail address, and by creating a unique password (you can also log in with your Zooniverse account if you already have one).
  • Take a quick tutorial to learn about the radio signals and what to look for (don't only takes a minute or two to learn).
  • You're now ready to classify the radio signals.  Below is an example of the first thing you'll see, a waterfall image of apparently random signals.  Normally there are two "beams" of data collected...both are shown at the bottom with the selected beam highlighted above it.  You can also see the planetary system targeted (middle right).  Unfortunately there are no interesting signals in this image so we click on "Next Beam" (bottom right), which turns into "Done" once the second image is shown.

  • Next you will now see a new image like the one below, with an interesting signal crossing diagonally from left to right.  This is what the human eye catches quite easily but is difficult for computers...which is why you're help is so important.
  • To mark the signal, click on any part of the line created by the signal, as shown below.  If it's not directly on the signal hover over the mark and drag it to the proper position.
  • Now click on any other part of the signal.  You'll see a line form across the screen and a dialogue box asking you to classify the line.  In this case it is both "diagonal" and "broken", but we can pick only one, so I've indicated "broken".
  • That finishes the first beam image.  If you aren't satisfied with then answers just click on "Clear all Signals" to start over.  Otherwise click on "Next Beam" to mark the second image (often it will be very similar, but not always). 
  • Once both beams have been completed, click on "Done".
  • Finally, you will be asked if you want to discuss the observation (Yes/No).  If so, you will be taken to a comment board where you can see your results and enter your thoughts for the science team. Otherwise you'll just be sent to the next set of images for classification.
  • That's all there is to it!
Once you get the hang of it the project moves along very quickly.  Don't worry about running out of images though...there are many planets targeted at the same time and the array is always moving. Every 1-2 minutes a fresh batch of data will be collected for sorting.  So there's no need to wait, just get started!

  • Interested in other SETI projects?  See the SETI@Home distributed computing project.
  • Interested in the Kepler Space Telescope? See PlanetHunters, another Zooniverse project.
  • Interested in finding extrasolar planets?  See the Agent Exoplanet project.