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)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mobile Citizen Science Apps: Trends and Initial Thoughts

The continued rise of citizen science comes at a very interesting time.  The tools and data available to everyday people rival those of leading scientists from just a short while ago.  The Internet provides access to world-class data, and home computers give people the power to analyze it.   But now the popularity of mobile smart phones adds a whole new layer.  Now data collection and manipulation doesn't just need to happen at your desk, but anywhere you can go with a fully charged battery.

A few months ago I put together a web page highlighting many existing mobile citizen science projects looking for participants.  While many of these are high-quality applications there are still relatively few for all the promise they bring.  So I want to help this field grow. 

For this first post I'm looking at general themes seen in the most recent crop of mobile apps available for iOS and Android devices.  I think we'll see some trends in how they are being used and what types of projects are most suited to the mobile environment.  I also want to lay out what people have already done to encourage others to strike out in new areas.  That's where an upcoming post will fit in...hopefully identifying some innovative ways project researchers can take advantage of all these devices have to offer.

  • Location Services: Most smart phones and tablets include location trackers using GPS technology.  With the value of mobile devices being there ability to collect data anywhere, maintaining accurate location data is a natural.  For example, night skies are darkest in remote parts of the country and these are the best place for everyday people to spot meteors.  So the NASA MeteorCounter app is sure to collect this ground location data while recording user inputs on meteor brightness on location in the sky.
  • Guided Checklists: Ensuring that data is not just accurate but also complete is an important hurdle for many citizen science projects.  People may begin participating but may not see things through to the end or may forget key steps in the experimental process.  Researchers have tackled this by including guided checklists and fillable forms with automatic uploads to their apps.  This ensures all necessary data is collected and that answers to potential questions can be answered just-in-time as the participant is collecting it.  A good example of this is the Nature's Notebook app which has users initially set up the plants and animals they will track, and then each observation period the app walks them through each targeted species
  • Camera Functionality: Most mobile apps include various degrees of photo integration. of photo functionality.  For some (such as the CreekWatch app) the camere lets participants record the scene they are observing and document it for posterity.  This allows users to go back and refine their observation later and for project managers to review the data.  Other apps, such as LeafSnap, go one step further with the device performing it's own analysis.  In this case performing the tough task of plant species identification.  This can be difficult for untrained human eyes, so the computer runs a leaf picture through its database to find close matches, and then having results confirmed by the user.  It's like having a phenology expert in your pocket!
  • Transit and Traveling Data: Mobile devices don't just let you make observations in far-flung places, they also let you record observations in a series of places while traveling.  More than just a snapshot in time, transit data can show change over a short amount of time or provide a tracking over time and distance.  Splatter Spotter uses this capability to understand animal encounters not just in individual sites, but along entire stretches of highway.
  • Social Connectivity: One of the top uses for mobile devices are for social networking, so many apps have included social concepts to their apps.  Some use Google+ and other providers as a login and personal identifier, and others allow observations collected through the app to be posted on Facebook.  The WildObs and WildLab-Bird are great examples of both these techniques.
  • Badging: One of the more recent innovations in crowdsourcing and citizen science gaming is the use of badges.  These reward progress and offer incentives for achieving milestones in the project.  In the citizen science realm, these can be offered to participants who meet certain participation goals (e.g., report five observations, collect data on ten separate days) or to reward important finds (e.g., special badges for finding rare birds).  These have been used quite successfully by the Project NOAH app which uses them not just to improve the user experience, but to help them "compete" against the many similar biological observation apps offered by other researchers.
  • Filling Free Time:  Let's face it, mobile devices aren't just for calling and keeping track of business meetings.  They are also great for playing games on the subway or waiting for a dinner date to return from the restroom.  People just want a short distraction while they're on the go.  The GalaxyZoo mobile app fits this bill nicely.  As an offshoot of the existing Galaxy Zoo: Hubble project, they've designed an interface for ranking galaxies that users can complete in less than a minute and have it uploaded as part of the growing body of data about galactic shapes and sizes.  So don't just waste time playing Tetris, help understand how the Universe was formed.
These are my initial thoughts.  But what do you think?  I'd love to get your opinions as well and hopefully flesh some of these concepts out further.  This is all citizen science so I'm hoping we can work through this together.  If we're successful, that just means more fun citizen science apps foe everyone to enjoy.  What could beat that? 

  1. Trends and Initial Thoughts (today)
  2. Ideas for the Future (Tomorrow)
  3. Opportunities for Museums (Next Week)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Track Your Backyard: YardMap

The third edition of Track Your Backyard takes outdoor nature spotting one step beyond than the rest.   Sure, many projects help you track the plants and animals in your backyard.  And many projects collect information on the local habitat.  But YardMap takes goes further by helping you easily map your yard from a birds point of view.  As you'll find out backyards take up millions of acres U.S. bird habitats and over 75% of endangered species live on private lands.  So understanding these human-based habitats is vital to understanding the birds that live on them.

All the YardMap information is not just useful by itself. It let's scientists discover what types of food, shelter, and vegetation is available. It also helps scientists better understand the birdwatching numbers already provided through those other programs.  So not only is it important that ten birds of a single species visited your area, but there may be clues to why based on the structures or food sources available in your backyard.  Yardmap helps science makes those connections.

Finally, one of the best features of this project is the large amount educational tools provided by to you.  Learn about the various habitats in your area, what types of "ecological traps" can fool birds into thinking your yard is safe when in fact it is not, the importance of varying vegetation and types of shelter, and other methods for making your home a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife.  There are a variety of videos and fact sheets pulling from the vast experience of the Cornell Lab, so help them map bird habitats while getting some useful tips for yourself.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the main YardMap site and the YardMap: Learn site for information on bird habitats and the program in general.
  2. Register with YardMap and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to create a new citizen science account. They ask for very little information (name, email, address, and user name) and provide access to a wide variety of projects you may also wish to join.
  3. You will be taken to the main YardMap project site.  Click on "(1) How to map a new site".  A list of four options will come up.
  4. First find your site by address or zooming with the map.  You'll find your location as well as any other nearby locations also participating in the program. Note that in the current iteration you cannot keep your information private so be sure you are okay with that before proceeding.  Privacy will be available in future versions but not yet.
  5. Next, click on "Outline site" to mark the boundaries of your yard.  Just click on each of the four corners (in order) and trace any curves.  The program will connect the dots and do the rest.  Then identify the type of habitat (such as Home-Yard, School, Farm, or Park)
  6. Click on "Draw Habitat" to outline your house and other structures (such as building pavement, edibles, lawn, forest, or shrubbery). 
  7. Now "Open" the site and provide basic information about the habitat, such as bird types and habitat characteristics. 
  8. Finally, click on "Place Objects " to show additional items of interest to birds (and birdwatchers) such as flowers, bird feeders, bird baths, rain barrels, and compost.
That's all there is to it!  At least the yard mapping part of it.  But now you can browse the site, find other people in your area, and talk with other members about their yards.  You may also get tips from others on improving your yard for birds and increasing the variety that visit you.

Of course, if you don't want to follow all these written steps and prefer to watch a video instead, they have a really nice (and short) tutorial viewable here.  It's quick and easy to learn, and I promise you'll learn a lot.


See More in the Track Your Backyard Series:

  1. Nature's Notebook
  2. Nature's Notebook - Mobile App
  3. YardMap (Today)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Track Your Backyard Part II: Nature's Notebook Mobile

Previously we looked at the Nature's Notebook project from the USA National Phenology Network.  Anyone can participate by finding a plot of land and committing to visiting for a few minutes once a week.  Just record any animal sightings and track any physical changes to local plants.  It's a pretty simple project but it provides a wealth of good date for scientists and is very easy to join.

There was just one little problem.  Everything had to be recorded by hand in a notebook or other method, then separately added onto a pre-loaded form on your computer.  Well now even those steps are gone with the Nature's Notebook mobile app.  This is a very well-designed program that simplifies participation and re-creates many important aspects of the traditional program, but without attempting to do everything.  For example, the vast array of biology education and project tutorials essential to the project are not available on the app...which is just as well since I don't think they would translate easily.  But the pre-loaded forms and site location (aided by GPS) greatly simplify those aspects of the project. 

So I recommend checking out the initial Nature's Notebook program and then adding this mobile app to help you get more from the project.  It's available for iPhone, iPad, and Android.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the main Nature's Notebook registration page and sign up for an account.  They don't ask for much (User name and password)  but you need to do this off-line before downloading the app or starting anywhere else.
  • Learn about how to pick a site and the basics of observation.  There are some great easy-to-follow instructions, as well as a number of step-by-step video tutorials if you prefer learning that way.
  • Download the Nature's Notebook App from either the Apple App Store or Google Play.
  • Once you are ready to begin your observations head to your site, open the app, and sign in. 
  • The first thing to do is record the location.  Since you are already on-site the GPS location will mark it.  All you have to do is name the location and press "Submit New Site".  In the example below I've pretended we are near the US Naval Observatory (it's actually set at my house, but the naming is just for fun).

  • You will be returned to the main screen hat let's you create new locations, choose a network (probably won't change for you), record a plant observation, or record an animal observation.

  • First let's record a plant observation.  Hit the "Add plant observation" button for the plant identification screen.  I have lots of English Ivy in my yard, so I will use the scroll menu to select it.   I give it a nickname (so I know which plant it is) and am then shown both a picture of the plant and map of it's territory.  This helps confirm that the plant really is what I think it is.  Click "Add this plant" to record it in my notebook. It will then be available for this session and all future observing sessions.

  • Now you just need to observe any changes occurring in the plant.  Each plant brings up a series of custom questions, as shown below, and you can always hit the "?" for a detailed description of what the question is asking.  This way you don't need to be an expert at phenotyping to participate, just an eager observer.  Once you've answered all the questions hit "Submit Observation" to return to the main screen.

  • Now you can record any wildlife you see.  Once returned to the main screen just click "Add animal observation."  You will then go through the same process for this case an American Bullfrog observed in the area.

  • That's all there is to it.  Just repeat these steps for each of the animals and plants you choose to observe.  Everything is uploaded automatically and recorded for the project scientists.  Just keep regular schedule of visiting and observing at the site. 
Hopefully this makes an already simple project to participate in even simpler.  It might even free up your time join even MORE citizen science projects.  If so you can always find other ways to participate, either through other National Phenology Network projects, or on my list of similar nature projects available here.  Just remember to keep having fun!

See More in the Track Your Backyard Series:

  1. Nature's Notebook
  2. Nature's Notebook - Mobile App (Today )
  3. YardMap (Coming Soon)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Track Your Backyard Part I: Nature's Notebook

This week I want to look at two projects for tracking nature in your backyard.  It's timely as the fall observing season approaches, and as I come back invigorated from PPSR2012.  These are two projects I've wanted to highlight before but couldn't fit in before the conference.

The first is Nature's Notebook.  This fun project helps you track changes to plants and animals living in a specific site.  Although this can happen anywhere it's easy to pick a site at your office or in your own backyard.  Just commit to spending five minutes once a week.  That is enough to notice any changes to nearby plants, count any animal species that are (or aren't!) around that day, and describe conditions in the area.

This is not the first nature tracking program; others ask citizen scientists to look for specific animals/plants of interest or provide data to different sets of researchers asking different questions.  So there is overlap with projects such as Project Budburst, ProjectNOAH, and the Great Backyard Bird Count (among others).  But Nature's Notebook sets itself apart in a few different ways.  First, the large amount of easy-to-use training materials available for every type of person and learning style.  It is also created by the USA National Phenology Network so we know the data will be disseminated broadly and can be correlated with the huge archive of historical data they've already collected.  So not only does it add to that collection, it can fill in a lot of holes and allow better understanding of niche environments researchers were previously unable to study.

Like many projects, Nature's Notebook takes little time to learn.  There are just a few steps below, but if these seem too vague or if you have questions the Nature's Notebook web site offers a wealth of additional information.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Select a convenient site for nature watching.  If you are just looking for plant life the site can be quite small, and for animals it can be as large as 15 acres or as small as your backyard.  Ultimately the area's size is not as whether it is representative of the local area.
  2. Select the plants and animals you wish to observe.  For plants, make sure they appear undamaged and healthy, free of pests and disease.   You should also pick one "calibration species" determined by Nature's Notebook that will keep you data in line with observers elsewhere in the country. For animals it should be those you are confident identifying by sight or by sound.  Help with identification of both plants and animals is available on the site here.
  3. Mark any plants you are tracking with tape, pins, or other methods so they can be easily identified later.  Make sure to have permission of the landowner first if it is not your own.
  4. Register as a participant with the USA National Phenology Network.  They don't ask for much, mainly just an email account they can use to identify and communicate with you.
  5. Register your site and the plants/animals you will be tracking online.  This will generate the check sheets Nature's Notebook provides to help you collect data and prompt you for the most important things to observe.
  6. Start observing.  Once a week is a minimum but feel free to visit more often.  Once you are finished make sure to transfer those observations online through your registered account.
  7. If you have any questions, check out the series of helpful tutorial videos.
That's all there is to it...or at least a quick summary of it.  Of course every animal or plant will have unique items that need to be observed, and every site will be different.  But Nature's Notebook helps guide you through that process and keeps you on track.  So if you want to help science, and want to learn about the wildlife in your backyard at the same time, check out Nature's Notebook.  You'll be glad you did.

See More in the Track Your Backyard Series:
  1. Nature's Notebook
  2. Nature's Notebook - Mobile App
  3. YardMap (Coming Soon)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Notes from Summer Camp (aka PPSR 2012!)

What a great weekend it was.  Nearly 300 citizen science researchers from across the country.  Over 160 posters.  And one big room to hold all the excitement.

One of the interesting things for me was the focus on the use of citizen science in local communities and it's potential for environmental, public health and socioeconomic impact.  Typically this blog focuses on large scale or national projects that many people can participate in.  But the researchers I talked with often focused on smaller projects. This includes helping Native American tribes protect restore local waterways, identifying pollutants harming workers and their families, and helping endangered species native to specific areas.  So it was a great reminder that while large projects ma get a lion's share of press and attention, much of the hard work (and scientific progress) comes from local and regional efforts.

A personal highlight for me was talking with all my colleagues at the three poster sessions.  I got to speak with creators of some fine projects previously discussed on this blog(such as MAPPER and the various Zooniverse projects), talked with creators of projects to be highlighted in the next few weeks (such as YardMAP and the CitizenSort games), swapped ideas with people whose work I've enjoyed over the last few years (such as SciStarter and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and discussed citizen science with the many people dropping by to visit my poster.

The poster focused on my experience participating in over 100 citizen science projects over the last ten years and attempting to find the various methods projects used to ensure success.  After thinking long and hard I came up with 17 elements of success in four families: Trust the User, Engage the User, Benefit the User, and Keep it Simple.  All of these are described at length in my previous blog posts.  I also evaluated over 80 projects based on how much they incorporated each of the 17 elements of success, and compared these rankings with a few extremely simple success indicators: Popularity (determined though Google hits) and Scholarly Success (determined through paper citations in Google Scholar).

The actual correlations and rankings can be found in the full poster (available here).  But the overall finding is that  no single element will guarantee success for a particular project.  Instead researchers need to utilize those that are most applicable to the project.  Some project types (like distributed computing projects) have success correlated with marketing-related success factors, so researchers should concentrate on maximizing these.  Conversely ecology projects are often smaller or have a different audience, so researchers should design projects that play best for smaller audiences.  The same goes for projects focusing on youth (keep things simple for them) or use of complicated equipment (provide significant amounts of education).  We all have limited time and different strengths, so focus on the elements of success most applicable to your situation and maximize them as much as possible.

However, the conference also gave me many new perspectives on citizen science success.  First, looking at additional potential success elements such as providing users autonomy and providing users ownership of their portion of a project.  I also gained perspective on general benefits to communities involved in projects, including the socioeconomic and employment impacts it can have.  There are also similarities to models designed by others, such as the Zooniverse's contract with participants that 1) participants are not users, 2) participants should contribute to real research, and 3) don't waste people's time.  These ideas in there that cross over into my success elements and I'd like to examine them further.

As much as I learned at PPSR2012 this post only scratches the surface.  Fortunately there is a whole year's worth of blog posts to incorporate the many other things we discussed.   I also came away with new ideas on the future of this blog and the future of citizen science.  There are many opportunities as a new professional group may be forming to represent the interests of citizen science, and opportunities for yours truly to help them (including ideas for their future web presence).  So it's a very exciting time.

Finally, the biggest takeaway was not the research or the new perspectives.  It was the validation of everything we've been talking about.  That citizen science can have a positive effect on people and communities.  That data from citizen science can be as strong as, if not stronger, than data collected through traditional methods.  And that the thoughts of a humble blogger actually can make a difference and help like-minded researchers. 

That was the best of all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Meet OpenScientist in Portland!

This weekend I will be attending the 2012 Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) Conference in beautiful Portland, Oregon. It is taking place August 4-5 as part of the Ecological Society of America 2012 Annual Meeting, and is sponsored by the good folks with and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The best part is I've taken the recent posts on identifying the Keys to Successful Citizen Science Projects and turned it into a poster. So stop by on Sunday and we can talk about my findings and your thoughts on the project. Much of it has been discussed here but there are other nuggets still waiting to be unveiled. It will eventually be posted both here and on the conference web site after I've incorporated the good comments people give me. Yet another reason for you to stop on by.

For an agenda and other information about the PPSR conference, visit

For more information on the 2012 ESA Annual Meeting, visit

See you in Portland!

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who stopped by and all the illuminating conversations we had!  It was very successful and extra copies of the poster quickly ran out.  But for anyone who missed it, a copy of the poster is available here and should also be available through Citizen Science Central (allong with many of the other posters) in the near future.