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)


  1. I'm sure those specialists behind the ipad application development of citizen science-related apps could gain much if they take these points into account. I especially like to see them develop more on the teleprescence concept.

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