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.


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