Sunday, October 20, 2013

Michael Faraday - A Victorian Citizen Scientist

The history of citizen science continues to impress me.  Everywhere I look citizen scientists played key roles in the discoveries and inventions we take for granted.  In fact there are so many it may seem like I'm biased and give them too much credit.  But looking closer, these really are eminent scientists with important insights who have not been recognized for the amateur scientists they once were.

It is a bit sad that much of this history is overlooked.  But a few writers have begun to notice and I've tried to profile these books whenever possible.  So it's time to look at a famed citizen scientist who made important strides in electricity and chemistry, and development of the electric motor.  It is Michael Faraday, as described in John Malone's "It Doesn't Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science".

Born in September 1791 to a poor family, Michael Faraday had very little opportunity for a proper education.  He only made it through grade school and basic arithmetic before having to end his formal education.  So he received no real training in algebra, geometry, chemistry, biology, or any other scientific discipline.   With a curious mind he come to learn many of these, but he certainly came from outside the typical academic world.

In those days if you were a young child and not going to school, then you went to work.  So at age fourteen Faraday became an apprentice bookbinder to a local bookseller named George Riebau.  Here he began learning the tricks of the trade and how to become a successful businessman.  But nothing about science.

At some point Faraday's intellectual curiosity got the best of him and he picked up a copy of Mrs. Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry.  Mrs. Marcet was a writer of educational books, written for a lay audience, that were quite popular in the Victorian era.  Amazing discoveries from the land of science and tales of new lands being explored around the world left the public hungry for accurate information about them.  Mrs. Marcet filled this niche not with textbooks, but books for everyday people.  Much like the popular science books and magazines avidly read by people today.

Faraday was an avid reader and didn't just read the words, but mulled them over, questioned them in his mind, took copious notes, and even performed experiments described in the book.  To help with this he actually tore apart his volume and, "...using his new bookbinding skills, rebound it with a blank page interleaved between each page of text so that he could take notes as he gradually taught himself the rudiments of the science."  It is this combination of curiosity, hard work, and questioning of the world around him that are the hallmarks of many great scientists.  As described by Malone:
As he was discovering chemistry from Mrs. Marcet in his teens, Faraday was also inspired by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, particularly its entry on electricity. But with his usual modesty, he would later write, "Do not suppose that I was a very deep thinker, or was marked as a precocious person. I was a very lively, imaginative person, and could believe in the Arabian Nights as easily as in the Encyclopedia; but facts were important to me, and saved me.  I could trust a fact, and always cross-examined an assertion."
Another way Faraday was able to catch up with his peers and learn about the frontiers of science was by listening to experts such as Humphrey Davy of the Royal Institution. He also attended a number of public lectures sponsored by the City Philosophical Society:
Young Faraday took another step toward enlightenment by attending a dozen lectures on natural philosophy (which is what science was then called) between February 1810 and September 1811. He had seen an advertisement for these lectures while walking along Fleet Street, the rowdy center of London journalism. They were held at a private house under the auspices of the recently formed City Philosophical Society. Each lecture cost a shilling...These lectures added to Faraday's growing store of knowledge, and brought him the acquaintance of several young men who would remain lifelong friends...Faraday also started taking lessons in drawing and perspective, so that he could better illustrate the notes he was assiduously taking at the Philosophical Society lectures.

We now see Faraday gaining knowledge and preparing a scientific career through many of the tools still available to, and used by, citizen scientists today.  He devoured popular texts in his areas of interest.  He attended public lectures at scientific organizations (such as museums) on the cutting edge of discovery.  And he was beginning to network with established luminaries of the day.  So everything was set as he looked to dive in to scientific discovery with both feet:
As Faraday approached the age of twenty-one in 1812, his apprenticeship as a bookbinder was drawing to a close. The Davy lectures had greatly inspired him, and he was determined to become a scientist. But with very little formal education and no money, he knew his prospects were dubious. He wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, the head of the Royal Society, begging for any kind of position in a scientific laboratory, but received no reply. He then recopied the notes he had taken at Davy's lectures, gave them a fine binding, and sent them directly to Davy, imploring him to give him a position at the Royal Institution, no matter how menial… On his return to London, Davy examined the bound notes from the young bookbinder and was impressed. Although he was now ensconced in the upper rungs of British society, he had come from a family that, while not nearly as poor as the Faradays, had suffered its own financial difficulties-after his father's death, his mother had taken in boarders to survive. Faraday had indicated in his letter that he not only wished to pursue a career in science, but also to help his widowed mother financially. Touched, as well as impressed by the notes themselves, Davy granted Faraday an interview in January 1813… In a bit of extraordinary luck, a position did open at the Royal Institution in February... He would be paid twenty-five shillings a week, and given two rooms at the top of the Royal Institution. Thus a self-taught amateur chemist entered upon a career that would eclipse that of Davy himself. It has often been said, in fact that Michael Faraday was sir Humphrey Davy's greatest discovery.
It was now off to the races for Faraday.  One of his first discoveries came in 1819, when he helped characterize a number of chlorine and carbon compounds such as hexachloroethane, which would later become a primary ingredient in fire extinguishers.  A few years later he would follow-up by isolating the common organic compound benzene in 1825.

Chemistry was Faraday's area of expertise but it was in electromagnetism that Faraday would see his greatest fame.  He showed that the electricity in eels and in batteries were the same thing.    He developed the still used terms of "electrode", "anode", "cathode", and "electrolysis".  He devised Faraday's Three Laws of Electromagnetism and Two Laws of Induction.  In 1821 he first demonstrated "a circular aspect to electromagnetism" through experiments that made a magnet move in the presence of an electric current.  Through much tinkering this would become an actual dynamo generator and then a primitive electric motor.  He also created the first electric transformer. Though it would take over 10 years to step through this process it would set in motion everything required for Edison and others to  realize the electric revolution. 
Faraday resigned from the Royal Institution in 1861. He had already been provided with a house at Hampton Court by . Queen Victoria, where Sarah cared for him as he gradually sank into senility. He died at the age of seventy-five on August 25, 1867. If he was loathe to accept honors during his lifetime, they were heaped upon him in the course of the twentieth century. He is safely enshrined among the greatest scientists in history. The centenary of his discovery of the dynamo was the occasion of major celebrations in Great Britain in 1931. For the 150th anniversary of that event, his face temporarily replaced Shakespeare's on the ten-pound note. But the blacksmith's son lacking a formal education might have been most pleased by a salute from another great experimenter. Thomas Alva Edison, who also had no more than a grade school education, often said that Faraday's papers, books, and lectures were his greatest inspiration and taught him more than everything else put together, because the ideas were stated so clearly and cleanly that even an uneducated person like himself could readily understand them.

Despite being just a poor schoolboy with a simple grade school education, this citizen scientist was elected to the Royal Academy in 1824.  Here he continued his work FOR citizen science by the Friday Evening Discourses where experts would discuss the latest scientific discoveries with the public for a small fee, and the Christmas Lectures offered free of charge (and focused on children).  So not only was he a citizen scientist we can all take inspiration from, he helped set the stage for many more generations of citizen scientists.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joseph Priestley - The Citizen Scientist That Discovered Oxygen

A priest, a linguist, and a chemist walk into a bar.  Some might mistakenly think this is the start of a bad joke.  Instead it's just the life of citizen scientist Joseph Priestley.

Most people learn about Priestley as the man who discovered both carbon dioxide and oxygen.  They may also learn about his role as the first person to describe photosynthesis.  But what they likely don't learn is that he was just an amateur scientist with no academic training in the sciences.  It wasn't even his initial occupation (clergyman) or what he is most known for (philosophy).  To help round out this fascinating man, Author John Malone gives a short yet insightful description of his citizen science background in his book "It Doesn't Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science". 

Born on March 24, 1733, Priestley spent his early years raised as a Calvinist but quickly began searching for his religious bearings, ultimately becoming a priest in the Dissenter (and later Unitarian) church in his late teens.  He spent this time preaching at local churches, writing well-regarded books on grammar, and teaching both languages and rhetoric.

While his newfound faith may have separated him from the mainstream of religious thought of that era, it did open up a world for new philosophical inquiry.  This would come into play when a met a famous American in his mid 40s.  As Malone describes it, 
"Unitarians tended toward very liberal political views from the starts, so it was hardly surprising that Priestley would hit it off so well with Benjamin Franklin when the two met in London in 1776….The interest in electricity that Franklin aroused in Priestley was strikingly rewarded within a year, when the clergyman was able to demonstrate that graphite conducted electricity."
How did this meeting happen?  Well, by the 1770s Priestley had already been making quite a name for himself.  As a "quintessential amateur" he had a curious mind that would latch onto a question, research it, and methodically experiment until he found his answer.  This led to one of his earliest discoveries, the creation of sparkling water by infusing carbon dioxide into water, and earned him the prized Copley Medal in 1773.  
With the Copley in hand he quickly earned a spot in the Royal Society in 1776.  It also helped him land the rich William Petty (Earl of Shelburne) as a patron for his future studies. As Malone again describes,
"It was quite common among the aristocracy to employ an artist, writer, or naturalist (as scientists were generally called) to serve as an intellectual companion.  By this time Priestley was quite a catch, and he was able to command a very comfortable situation…It was over the next several years that Priestley did his most important scientific work."

Having a patron meant not just a steady source of income, but also a steady source of time for devoting to one's personal interests.  This let Priestley continue letting his mind wander.  For example, at one point he had heard of some discoveries from the mysterious Americas that were all the rage in Europe.  There was one tree in particular with a "a gummy substance secreted by a South American tree" that had very unusual properties.  Many people were playing and experimenting with it.  But Priestley was the first person to notice that not only was it stretchable and pliable, but it could also be rubbed on a piece of paper to make any writing on it disappear.  He called this a "rubber" and the term, as well as his invention of the eraser, stuck.
While having a patron probably ended his time as a "citizen scientist", many of his discoveries came before he had this support.  He just kept up with the discoveries of the day and was an avid experimenter, often using items from around the house (such as laundry tubs or household jars) for his research.  While he would later have friends like china-maker Josiah Wedgwood create custom laboratory equipment for him, he still discovered much as an amateur with materials from home.
It should be noted one of the other reasons Priestley became so famous.  Not only was he naturally curious and an astute scientist, but he also knew the value of quickly publishing his discoveries.  Unlike some modern amateur scientists who may be intimidated by the committing themselves formally to paper, Priestley recognized it's value.  In fact his early publication helped support his claim as the first to discover Oxygen, when two others (including Antoine Lavoisier) later tried to take credit for it.
Ultimately Joseph Priestley died in early 1804 after a distinguished career.  In his book Malone sums him up best:
"Most great amateur scientists are known to us chiefly because of that scientific work.  But Priestley was different..  His theological treatises had great impact, particularly in America, where the first Universalist church to carry that name was founded in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1799.  Some treatments of Priestley's life are chiefly devoted to his theology and the liberal political beliefs associated with it.  Others concentrate on his numerous scientific discoveries.  Some religious historians claim that Priestley would have wanted to be remembered primarily as a theologian, but others are quite certain that his discovery of Oxygen was the high point of his life...He was certainly a very influential theologian, but he was also a major scientific figure.  In fact, Joseph Priestley packed more accomplishments in to a lifetime than most of us can even dream about, to the extent that it is difficult to see him whole, so brightly do the individual parts shine."

Friday, October 4, 2013

New Mobile Citizen Science App for Ocean and Shark Lovers

Photo Courtesy:
Everyone knows I love citizen science.  But I'm also a big scuba diving fan.  On most dives the goal is to watch the wildlife swim by in it's natural habitat, and to stay on the lookout for new and exciting creatures one has not seen before.  Most divers even take the time to log each dive and record everything they've seen.  Exactly the types of behavior citizen scientists are involved in.  So these seem like a perfect match.

For years I've looked for ways to better combine these two hobbies and get the most out of my limited vacation time.  Well it seems that wait is coming to an end.

Last week I was contacted by the founder of Sevengill Shark Sightings who let me know about a new citizen science app he's been working on.  It let's divers record information about any sharks they encounter into a central database to we can learn more about the range of their habitats and to help identify species that may be endangered.  The site also let's other citizen scientists view all the data through various maps so we can all take advantage of the information.  I'm excited about this one as both a diver and a citizen scientist, so I hope you all will check it out.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the  SharkSavers web site to learn more about citizen science efforts in the ocean.
  2. Visit the Sevengill Shark Sightings web page to learn more about this specific project and get started helping the shark research community.
  3. Register as a New User by clicking here and providing some basic user information.
  4. For Android mobile phone users, download the free SharkSightings application and log in with your username and password.
  5. Go Diving (don't forget your buddy!) and if you have an underwater camera, take it with you for snapshots of any sharks you encounter.
  6. For any shark sightings you have make sure to log them into the system.
    • Android users can do it directly from the phone, and can upload any pictures as well as a description of the animal
    • For non-Android users, visit the Shark Observation Network Observation site to record your information and upload any photos.
  7. Dry off and enjoy a beer with your dive partners back on shore!
This is the first scuba-based citizen science project I've described but I really am interested in learning about (and highlighting) more.  So if you have enjoyed any similar projects, or if you have any useful feedback on this project, let me know in the comments below.  The oceans are vast and deep, and can use the help of the many citizen scientists eager to volunteer.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Association for Amateur Scientists AND Citizen Science Professionals

Last week we learned a new Citizen Science Association was launched.  It took twelve months and the hard work of many smart people.  It also holds huge promise for advancing citizen science.  But there is one piece missing...the amateur scientists themselves.

At first glance the emphasis on communications, governance, conferences, and a peer-reviewed journal are just what the field needs.  They build the standing of citizen science as a research discipline and will let designers of research projects share best practices and develop new techniques. But it's very much focused on an academic audience.

To borrow a phrase from the association's planning documents, "Citizen science is a field based on partnering of scientists and members of the public."  But many citizen scientists don't attend national conferences and aren't able to publish in peer-reviewed journals.  Instead these initiatives are more focused on so-called "Citizen Science Professionals".  While amateur citizen scientists may benefit from improvements to the field made possible by those efforts and can take advantage of some new opportunities because of it, they won't benefit directly.

To be clear...I'm extremely thankful for all the work that's been put into it so   It's only because of their efforts that we are even having this discussion.  We also need to promote the activities of "Citizen Science Professionals" and not create a new, harmful divide.  Instead, it's our job as amateur scientists to think of what we need and work to help the association provide it.
So what do everyday citizen scientists need that could be met by a new association?  I've added some initial ideas below.  A few are things I always wished the Society for Amateur Scientists would have done back when it was active, and many of them probably still apply.  But I bet you have some good ones too.
  • Organizational Assistance: Creating "Maker Workshops" or "DIYScience Labs".  Even though they are populated by amateurs performing their own research, an association can help set them up, organize fundraising, and identify sources for equipment.
  • Promulgate Standards for Citizen Scientists:  Expectations for scientific rigor, codes of ethics, and citation requirements are well established in the professional scientific community.  And amateur scientists should be held high standards.  But amateurs will need help understanding the rules in a non-academic environment.  There may also be a need to modify those rules for amateur scientists with limited resources.
  • Amateur Conference Tracks:  Amateur scientists at all levels need different things from a conference than others would.  For example, how to get their work published in a scientific journal or meeting other amateurs looking for collaborators.  This can be done at a large national conference but there need to be unique offerings for them to make it worthwhile.
  • Tool Access: Providing amateurs access to the specialized computer and diagnostic tools typically available only to university researchers (e.g., low rates for high-end software licenses, access to specialized journals).
  • Open Data Access:  Open data exists in many places but nobody has access to all of it.  A central place listing where people can go for data could be very useful.
  • Educational Resources:  Offer training devoted to specific needs of citizen scientists (e.g., special biology or astronomy lessons aimed at lay-people with an existing knowledge of those fields and focused on helping them participate)

As always I encourage you to keep the discussion going in the comments below.  But also let the Citizen Science Association know your thoughts as well.  They are genuinely eager to hear your ideas.  And they want to do everything in their power to make the association work for everyone.  But we need to tell them what we want.

One final thing...if you have an idea and are willing to make it a reality, let them know that as well.  That's the only way we can make this thing work and build a successful organization.  We can't make them do all the work...we need to pitch in too.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Announcing a New Citizen Science Association

Last year a who's who of citizen science experts met in Portland, Oregon to discuss the current state of the field.  We've discussed many of the highlights from that meeting previously on this blog.  Now it is time for one more highlight...unveiling the just launched "Citizen Science Association".

Last week the association launched their web site ( and hosted an hour-long presentation describing the new organization.  Although a small group has gotten the ball rolling for everyone, and they've started the hard work of building an infrastructure, they can't do it alone.  They now need our ideas, comments and criticisms to ensure it meets all the needs that are out there.

Among other things, the new association looks to promote and advocate for the citizen science field, identify best practices, and foster professional development.  As a first step in accomplishing these goals four working groups have been put together in the following areas:

  • Creating a governance structure to support the new organization.
  • Setting up conferences. Initially they hope for a large national conference every two years with the next in early 2015. But they are also thinking of more frequent "virtual conferences" online as well as the potential for local or regional conferences in various areas.
  • Launching a peer-reviewed journal focused on citizen science as it's own discipline. Since citizen science is highly interdisciplinary the journal would not focus on research in other fields that just used citizen science as a tool...that would be more appropriate in the field the research was performed. Instead the journal would take articles on how different projects use citizen science, how it can be improved, and where citizen science is headed.  This was one of the most popular ideas and provoked much discussion during the presentation. 
  • Developing a communications strategy. This group will not just communicate to citizen scientists and fellow researchers, but also the public.  They can promote the citizen science concept and give the media a trusted source of information on citizen science issues. 
Obviously these are just the cliff notes of a much more detailed discussion. So go straight to the source.  Just download a copy of the original presentation and review the short (but sweet) background reports.  Of course, if you are like me you will also need a copy of the free WebEx player (available here) to successfully view the presentation.  But otherwise it's completely simple.

What they need now is your input. I've been thinking about it myself and am composing some of my own thoughts.  But what do you think?  Let them know by joining the discussion at and by providing feedback at  Or even in the comments below.  Whichever way you choose let's keep this important conversation moving.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Was Einstein a Citizen Scientist?

Everybody starts somewhere.  A young Michael Jordan lost countless basketball games to his older brother.  Abraham Lincoln lost many political races before becoming President.  Vincent van Gogh couldn't sell a paintings for a  $1 that now hang in museums.  And Albert Einstein was just an everyday citizen scientist.  Just like the rest of us.

Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe" shows how a man with a desire to learn and dedication to science can go from being shunned by world of academia to being embraced by it.  His ideas came from completely outside the professional establishment.  But they were so ground-breaking, and so correct, he forced the world to notice him.

Despite growing up in the Austrian town of Ulm, known for breeding world-class mathematicians, Einstein only received a limited education in the subject.  His verbal development was slow and the geometry he learned was done as his own (two years early) thanks to a book from a friend.  He also bought his own college-level physics textbooks while in high school to prepare himself for the Zurich Polytechnic Institute.  But these self-motivated initiatives and unique learning schedule were not necessarily a bad thing.  It helped him learn at his own pace and let his mind ask questions of the material he could never have asked his own teachers.  It also allowed him to master calculus before the age of fifteen (despite what unfounded rumors of his problems with math would have us believe). So by the age of sixteen he had written his first scientific paper, "On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field."  As Isaacson writes,
"His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led to one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much.  These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere.  But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern time."

After graduation Einstein ran into another of his many difficulties breaking into academia as his parents were unable to afford a university education.  Returning home he worked in the family electrical engineering business, but soon found his way back to Zurich Polytechnic.  His eventual graduation from Zurich also led to frustration as he would wait another nine years before being offered his first academic job as a junior professor.  All leading him to the famed Swiss Patent Office.
He soon learned that he could work on the patent applications so quickly that it left time for him to sneak in his own scientific thinking during the day.  "I was able to do a full day's work in only two or three hours," he recalled.  "The remaining part of the day, I would work out my own ideas." ... He came to believe that it was a benefit to science, rather than a burden, to work instead in "that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful idea.".....In addition, his boss Haller had a credo that was as useful for a  creative and rebellious theorist as it was for a patent examiner: "You have to remain critically vigilant."  Question every premise, challenge conventional wisdom, and never accept the truth of something merely because everyone else views it as obvious.  Resist being credulous.  "When you pick up an application," Haller instructed, "think that everything the inventor is saying is wrong."

All this work paid off during his "Miracle Year" of 1905.  In four brief papers published in the Annalen der Physik, he would upend the physics world and make a name for himself in the annals of history.
  • Photoelectric Effect: Showed that light energy is absorbed and released by atoms in discrete amounts.
  • Brownian Motion: Helped prove the theory of atoms by showing how their motion could be visually detected under a microscope.
  • Special Theory of Relativity: Established that the speed of light remains constant regardless of the speed of the observer.
  • Mass-Energy Equivalence: The most famous three-page paper which brought us the magical equation, E=MC squared

To quote Isaacson, "This was all quite presumptuous for an undistinguished Polytechnic student who had not been able to get either a doctorate or a job."  Though he would earn that Ph.D. later in the year.

Even this would not be enough for the establishment to immediately accept him.  While he convinced the editors to publish his papers that didn't mean other scientists had to accept what was in them.  Some thought his arguments were too "Jewish".  Others thought they were too conceptual and not what a true "Englishman" would argue.  In fact it was only as the many predictions made in those papers came true that the physics world would begin accepting the correctness of his arguments.  But slowly they do.  

In 1908 Einstein received his first true academic job and in 1921 he would receive the Nobel Prize for Physics.  He would then go on to a distinguished life in both Europe and America while continuing to search for a unified theory that would combine electromagnetism with his theories on gravity.  But his greatest successes were those performed by himself, outside of academia, with no support but his own mind and government salary.

Despite the prejudices against jews that kept him (and his ideas) out of certain prestigious schools, an intellectual background improved by academia but founded on self-motivated learning, and a lack of acceptance of his ideas by others, he upended the physics world.  Modern observers only see the man and his success, assuming he was always accepted.  But we give the scientific establishment too much credit if we think he came from that community.  He was a citizen scientist with very independent (outrageous!) ideas, and we forget how lonely he must have been knowing his ideas were right while being continually ignored.  To me it's a reminder of the vital importance of independent outsiders taking a fresh look at what is assumed to be true.  Science is built on over-turning previously held assumptions and the outsider is a great source of these fresh new perspectives.

Finally, as a fellow bureaucrat, it's a great reminder of the important work performed by our nation's government employees.  Isaacson sums it up best:

Had he been consigned instead to a job of an assistant to a professor, he might have felt compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions.  As he later noted, originality and  creativity were not prime assets for climbing academic ladders, especially in the German-speaking world, and he would have felt pressure to conform to the prejudices or prevailing wisdom of his patrons.  "An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality," he said...As a result, the happenstance landed him  on a stool at the Swiss Patent Office, rather than as an acolyte in academia, likely reinforced some of the traits destined to make him successful: a merry skepticism about what appeared on the pages in front of him and an independence of judgment that allowed him to challenge basic assumptions.  There were no pressures or incentives among the patent examiners to behave otherwise.

All of this confirms our titling Albert Einstein a great citizen scientist and an independent thinker we are proud to call one of our own.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Citizen Science on Vacation

I've just returned from a relaxing two-week vacation. It was just what the doctor ordered....time at the beach doing almost nothing.   It helped me get away from the stresses of everyday life and catch up on all my sleep.  But where does that leave my work citizen science work?

Just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you can't still participate in meaningful scientific research.  It just means doing things differently and learning new areas of research you have not dealt with before.  But isn't that a good thing?

Here are some ideas to test out on your next trip:

Photo Courtesy: Derek Keats
Dive for Science
My wife and I love scuba diving.  Spending time underwater watching fish swim by and counting the local species is a thrilling pastime.  One that's made even better when using that information to track the environment and save threatened species.  Many local areas have programs dedicated to counting and protecting local sea life that you can get involved in.  There are also larger programs (such as CoralWatch) dedicated to tracking also helping save it.

Photo Courtesy: Christine
Discover Local Plants and Animals
Whether you are spending lavishly to stay at a beautiful resort, or saving money with trips to a local park, you can always learn more about the wildlife around you.  Contact a local ranger station or inquire at the hotel desk about any nature programs available for visitors.  Many places are always looking to educate visitors and this is a prime opportunity to learn about the new varieties of life in your brand new surroundings.

Photo Courtesy: ScienceinDC
Tour Local Museums
City-based travelers are in luck too...every major city and most smaller ones all have museums of some sort related to science.  Some are science and technology centers.  Others may be zoos or local parks with ecological value.  And others may be monuments or birthplaces of famous scientists from history.  Take advantage of all the materials and programs available at these sites.  Many are free, but even those that aren't just cost a few dollars that goes back into the research anyway.  There's no excuse not to take advantage.

Photo Courtesy:
Grand Canyon NPS
Travel as part of a Scientific Research Mission
Don't just add science to the vacation...make it the GOAL of your vacation.  Groups such as the Earthwatch Institute, the Archaeological Institute of America, and others can connect you to world-class researchers who need volunteer assistants to help with their studies.  This could be helping dig up million year old fossils, counting insects in the rainforest, or finding new species on remote islands.   These scientists can't do it by themselves and funding for paid assistants is not always available.  While they need our help for their studies, we citizen scientists get the excitement of joining cutting-edge research.  Sounds like a win-win situation to me!


Photo Courtesy: PenguinMan13
Study the Night Sky
As someone who lives in suburban Washington, DC, star-gazing is not usually an option for me.  There is too much light and my work schedule prohibits late night viewing.  But that's not a problem on vacation.  My time is my own and staying up late for a meteor shower isn't a problem at all.  And some of the world's most beautiful vacation spots are in isolated or rural areas (such as tropical islands, hunting cabins, and national parks).  So you'll get a night sky not possible anywhere else.

Have you tried any of these on your vacations?  Any other ideas you wish to share with us?  Let me know in the comments below!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Hedy Lamarr and the Beauty of Citizen Science

There is beauty in science...from the prismatic effects that form rainbows to the rainbow of colors in a peacock's tail.  But there is also beauty in citizen science, as in the case of classic Hollywood Bombshell and pioneering inventor Hedy Lamarr. 

As a woman born nearly a century ago (November, 1913) it is time to celebrate some of her many accomplishments.  You can also read more about all these in Richard Rhodes' recent book, "Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Born in Austria as the daughter of a successful banker, he would teach young Hedy not just about banking but also all the other wonders of the world.  Much of this occurred during their frequent long walks through the Vienna Woods.  "Whenever they went together, he explained to her how everything worked - 'from printing presses to streetcars' she said.  Her father's enthusiasm for technology links her lifelong interest in invention with cherished memories of her favorite parent." 

She also learned much from her first husband, rich industrialist Fritz Mandl.  As an important munitions provider to both Mussolini and the Axis powers in the run-up to World War II, he would hold frequent parties with high-ranking military commanders and casually discuss recent developments in weapons technology.  While the men would talk freely Hedy would take careful notes in her head; the men just saw a pretty face but inside she understood all they discussed.  She was then able to use that knowledge when she left the marriage and came to America in the mid-1930s.

In many ways her looks were both a blessing and a curse.  They certainly helped her forge an exciting film career at the age of 19, receiving positive reviews in Europe which allowed her to start a new career with MGM once in America.  Since the movies she acted in only required a total of 2-3 to produce, it provided her money and free time to support herself independently and gave her freedom to engage her scientific interests.  But her looks also held her back.  It was tough to get her ideas recognized and have people take chances on her inventions.  "It also annoyed her deeply...that few people saw beyond beauty to her intelligence.  'Any girl can be glamorous,' she famously and acidly said, 'All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.'"

For many of these reasons her own accomplishments have been called into doubt.  For years even those people who recognized the importance of her inventions didn't give credit to her scientific capacity.  Instead they chalked it up to her skills at eavesdropping and copying the plans overheard during her life with Mandl.  But that belittles her own accomplishments.  After all, it's one thing to hear about a potential invention and a whole different thing to actual reduce it to practice.  In fact that's the essence of our patent doesn't count to have a basic idea you also have to make it work.  Looking back the Austrians and the Germans didn't reduce any of these inventions to practice.  They even had the benefit of large teams of scientists working on the problem.  Instead, it was the understanding, insight, and perseverance of Ms. Lamarr that made them work.

In many ways this is common to many of us in the citizen scientist world.  While not all are Hollywood bombshells, many still labor under the bias of traditional scientists who are not always able, or willing, to accept our accomplishments.  And Hedy Lamarr was definitely a citizen scientist.  As noted in various places through Mr. Rhodes' book:

Hedy invented as a hobby.  Since she made two or three movies a year, each one taking about a month to shoot, she had spare time to fill in.  She didn't drink and she didn't like to party, so she took up inventing....In Hollywood she set up an inventor's corner in the drawing room of her house, complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools....Spending evenings working at home working on an invention may sound surprising today, especially for a movie star, when so many other activities beckon through the Web.  In 1938 the most common intellectually stimulating entertainment available at home were books, card and board games, and musical instruments.  Hedy invented as a hobby.  "Howard Hughes once lent her a pair of chemists," Forbes magazine reports, "to help her develop a bouillon-like cube which, when mixed with water, would create a soft drink similar to Coca-Cola. 'It was a flop,' she says with a laugh."  Her daughter, Denise, remembers a tissue-box attachment Hedy invented for disposing of used tissue.  Hedy invented to challenge and amuse herself and to bring order to a world she thought chaotic.

As World War II approached she wanted to do more than just helping to sell war bonds (which he did very successfully).  She wanted to put her knowledge to use.  After the tragic sinking of the SS Benares by German Submarines and the death of 406 passengers (90 children) she joined up with composer-turned-inventor George Antheil. 

Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state.  She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons, some of which she had invented herself, and that she was thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington, DC to offer her services to the newly established Inventor's Council.  'They could just have me around,' she explained, 'and ask me questions.'" 

Her greatest breakthrough came as she and Antheil developed a remote-controlled torpedo that would be protected from jamming.  There had long been a desire to improve the accuracy of torpedoes by letting a ship fire them and have a spotter plane, far off in the distance, manually guide them toward the target with radio waves.  But given the current technology an opponent could just broadcast on the same signal and block the guidance.  Hedy's idea was that the ship and spotter plane should "frequency hop"...this random change of radio signals would make it difficult to jam since the enemy would never know what signal to block.  The key was to have the torpedo and spotter plane synchronize right before firing, and then change frequencies independently on a pre-determined basis. 
The basic components for such a system admittedly existed already. But nobody had ever put them together.   Even back in the 1940s Philco had created a remote-control for radios that used varying frequencies to change the channel, adjust volume, and other things.  Additionally, George Antheil had done much work on ways to synchronize player pianos so they would be completely in sync with each other.    Combining these two in a tiny package was Hedy's job.   
Invention in hand Hedy now had two options for getting it adopted...receiving a US patent and selling the concept to the Navy.  Sadly, at this time the Navy had two bigger problems than torpedo jamming; years of neglected research before Pearl Harbor left the Navy with torpedoes that ran too deep, missed their targets, and often failed to explode upon impact.  They need to figure out the basics and were not yet ready for the complex solutions Hedy offered.  So the Navy passed on Hedy's invention.  Fortunately, in August, 1942 Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil received Patent Number 2,292,387 for their "Secret Communication System".
At the same time Hedy Lamarr developed a few other inventions, such as an anti-aircraft shell fitted with a proximity fuse.  But the greatest value lay in her initial work with frequency hopping.  This technology allows communications between multiple people to be shared without interfering with one another.  Although kept classified for many years, the military at least realized that potential and incorporated Hedy's ideas into many secret communications systems after the end of World  War II.  But it's biggest impact would be in the private sector.
"[The discovery of frequency-hopping] enabled the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the majority of cordless phones sold in the US, and myriad other lesser-known niche products.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum.  So does the US military's $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communications network.  Wireless local area networks (wLANs) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home-controlled systems.  So does Qualcomm's Omni-TRACS mobile information system for commercial trucking fleets.  So do unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electronic automotive subsystems, aerial and maritime mobile broadband, wireless access points, digital watermarking, and much more.

A study done for Microsoft in 2009 estimated the minimum economic value of spread-spectrum Wi-Fi in homes and hospitals and RFID tags in clothing retail outlets in the U.s. as $16-$37 billion per year.  These uses, the study notes, "only account for 15% of the total projected market for unlicensed [spectrum] chipsets in 2014, and therefore significantly underestimates the total value being generated in unlicensed usage over this time period."  A market of which 15 percent is $25 billion would be a $166 billion market.

Sadly Hedy did no receive the recognition she richly deserved.  Whether because people weren't ready for a citizen scientist to achieve so much, or because they could not imagine a beautiful woman could be responsible for such innovation, or just because of the secrecy of military technologies, it is hard to say.  But the neglect was real.  As recounted by Rhodes:
"Hedy followed these developments.  Sometimes she felt bitter about her lack of recognition as an electronic pioneer.  In 1990, when she was seventy-five, she told a reporter for Forbes magazine how she felt.  "I can't understand," she said, " why there's no acknowledgement when it's used all over the world."  The reporter noted that she was "six times divorced and now living in Miami on a Screen Actors Guild pension" and couldn't help feeling she'd been wronged.  "Never a letter," Hedy added, "never a thank you, never money.  I don't know.  I guess they just take and forget about a person."

But that is not the end of the story.  Late but not forgotten, US Army Colonel Dave Hughes started making the connections between Hedy Lamarr's accomplishments and our modern world.  Thanks to his efforts in 1997 the Electronic Frontier awarded their sixth annual Pioneer Award to Hedy, then eighty-two years of age.  In her most humble voice, she said "I hope you feel as good as well as I feel good about it, and it was not done in vain.  Thank you."  A few years later she was awarded the Viktor Kaplan Medal by the Austrian Association of Patent Holders.    Since then the world has begun to better understand her role in our modern communications system, as well as learning that the Hollywood beauty shouldbe best known for her formidable brain.

"Hedy's fondness for invention remained with her until the end," writes her biographer Ruth Barton.  "She had a proposal for a new kind of traffic stoplight and some modifications to the design of the Concorde [the Anglo-French supersonic passenger airliner that flew from 1976-2003]. There were plans for a device to aid movement-impaired people to get in and out of the bath, a fluorescent dog collar, and a skin-tautening technique based on the principle of the accordion."
Sadly Ms. Lamarr passed away in 2000.  But her legacy lives on in our mobile phones, GPS maps, and Wi-Fi systems.  And it lives in with our continued recognition of the works of citizen scientists, and the work of beautiful women with equally beautiful minds.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Three-Pronged Citizen Science Test and Other Discussions

One benefit to writing OpenScientist is getting to talk about citizen science with many impressive leaders in the field.  They've been involved with the field for years but still find interest in talking to an amateur blogger posting from home every week.  Not only is it flattering, but it was also a lot of fun to discuss citizen science and think about it from a variety of new perspectives.   So when the good people at Socientize called wanting to discuss ways to advance citizen science in the European Union I jumped at the chance.

One of the issues we discussed was whether Distributed Computing projects should be considered citizen science.  Personally I believe it does and proceeded to provide a detailed (and hopefully not too rambling!) answer based thoughts I'd previously expressed in this blog (Is Distributed Computing Really Citizen Science?).  But I realized there needs to be a better answer.

Looking back on my response, my previous "citizen science" definition, and my initial approach for defining "citizen science" based on the activities of people involved in it, I thought we needed some sort of easy-to-use checklist to find the answer.  It must be in plain English and not bog down in overly long lists of potential activities.  Just short and to the point.  In no particular order, here is my 3-pronged Citizen Science test:

Are you a Citizen Scientist?
  • Are you doing this as your main job or is it a hobby?
  • Do you have advanced education in this field?
  • Are you helping to our understanding of nature or technology?
That's all there is to it.  It certainly is not a technical definition and there are always problems with over-simplifying.  But I think this could be useful.

Looking again at the Distributed Computing question it seems pretty clear that it is Citizen Science.  It is being done as a hobby, by people without advanced science education, which helps us understand nature and technology.  It doesn't matter if there is low engagement or thoughtfulness after the project is downloaded and begun.  There is still an everyday citizen performing science.

This leads to the continuing question of how to best understand all the various activities falling under the concept of Citizen Science.  Interestingly Socientize is working on this too.   They have set up an "All Our Ideas" site at to get everyone's input on the topic.  As you may remember from my previous post about All Our Ideas, this tool allows users to vote on a series of questions to gauge the popularity of each answer against the others.  It also let's people add their own suggestions and have others vote on those too.  This provides researchers with both structured user data as well as free-form input.  All important parts of any good citizen science project.

Do the good people at Socientize a favor and take the survey.  It will help them understand the field and find ways to improve it.  It let's us have a say in the future of citizen science.  And it let's you play with a fun new type of citizen science tool.  So what are you waiting for...check it out!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Citizen Science Genius and Renaissance Fool - The Athanasius Kircher Story

The tale of Athenasius Kircher is a fascinating one.  Born in 1602 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Geisa, he was a Catholic priest in a time when religious tensions were flaring and Europe was still reeling as the wars of Reformation began.  He rose from a humble son of a local magistrate to a highly-renowned expert on every scientific topic imaginable.  This was also the beginning of the Renaissance with knowledge being rediscovered all across the Continent. 

Kircher was a Jesuit priest in the thick of it, publishing approximately 40 books on numerous topics as a master of them all.  Sadly we was often as wildly incorrect as he was eerily prescient.  Some call him the Last Great Polymath while others call him a complete kook.  To author John Glassie he is something in between, as told "A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change."

As a Jesuit since the ago of ten when he first entered a Jesuit school, he was taught that "A greater understanding of the physical cosmos made for a greater appreciation of God's beautiful, complex creation, and a greater love for God, especially since, as the long-held belief went, everything in the earthly realm was connected through a giant chain of being-- through graduated correspondences and affinities -- to the celestial realm above." This kept him in good graces with the Pope and many private benefactors wishing to promote new discoveries...including the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III.

Through his insatiable curiosity for all things scientific and with the blessing of his superiors in the Jesuit order, Kirhcer spent much of his time investigating new phenomena and writing on a huge variety of topics.  Some described the state of science as it was currnetly known.  Some broached into new realms that the Church may not have been comfortable with.  And others may have been compelte flights of fancy.

One of his long-passions was magnetism.  In fact "Kircher wrote his first book manuscript in Wiirzburg, although at only sixty-three pages Ars Magnesia (The Magnetic Art) was more like a pamphlet, and since modern scholars see it as "highly derivative" of [previous works] on the subject, perhaps it wasn't entirely his".  Given all the controversy of the Copernican idea of an Earth revolving around the sun, in this book "Kircher steered clear of ... heliocentric ideas but echoed his views on magnetic attraction, describing it as 'primary and radical vigor.'"  Remember, this was in an age long before Newton and the concept of gravity. So while Kircher get's credit for recognizing certain aspects of modern science in the heliocentric model, he misfires greatly when describing it's cause from the Earth's magnetic attraction to the Sun.  This theme will play out his entire life.

We also see this in some of his works in the field of medicine.  In one book he dove deeply into the origin of life and became a strong proponent of "spontaneous generation", the long defunct idea that life could begin from inanimate materials.  But he was one of the first to notice the effects of microscopic organisms on rotting food (crude, early microscopes were just being invented).  As Glassie states in his book:
A medical historian writing in 1932 described Kircher's examination as "a farrago of nonsensical speculation by man possessed of neither scientific acumen nor medical instinct.'  But two years before, another historian determined from it that Kircher was "undoubtedly the first to state in explicit terms the doctrine of 'contagium vivum' as the cause of infectious disease" -in other words, that Kircher discovered microorganisms and was the first to propose the germ theory of contagion. If that's true, however, then his articulation of germ theory was predicated on notions (spontaneous generation, animism) that no modern scientist would be caught dead advancing. Besides, the concept of universal seeds went back to the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, and the idea that disease is living turns out to be both ancient and mystical.

Later in life he also described much about the Earth and Geology.  On the one hand he was the first to describe ocean-wide currents and the formation of igneous rock.  He also described the causes of earthquakes and volcanoes coming from an incredibly hot inner Earth. But he also claimed to discover Atlantis.   As described by Glassie:
ln Kircher's view, volcanoes, however awful and awe-inspiring, 'are nothing but the vent-holes, or breath-pipes of Nature' Earthquakes are merely the 'proper effects of subterrestrial cumbustions' that are sure to go on constantly. The 'prodigious volcanoes and the vomiting mountains visible in the external surface of the earth I do sufficiently demonstrate it to be full of invisible and underground fires,' he wrote. 'For wherever there is a volcano, there also is a conservatory or storehouse of fire under it; it is certain that where there is a chimney or smoke, there is fire. And these fires argue for deeper treasuries and storehouses of fire, in the very heart and inward bowels of the Earth.'

As his fame grew he also became a go-to person for the Jesuits on new knowledge, eventually curating a museum-like collection of exotic animal specimens and scientific artifacts in his quarters.  This included a large collection of Egyptian manuscripts as part his lifelong passion, Egyptology.  But while he made many grand claims that were eventually refuted and spent years on theories that never worked out, he was one of the first people to discern the connection between hieroglyphics and the Coptic languages.  This would be a key building block for Thomas Young and others who would eventually crack the code and be the first to (accurately) translate these ancient characters.  Who cares if Kircher's translation of ancient obelisks were completely least he made progress that would end up helping researchers years later.

Finally, he is even connected to the Royal Society of London.
Links to Kircher were widespread among the Royal Society's members and their experiments. Robert Boyle, who in 1661 published The Sceptical Chymist, an attempt to sort Hermetic alchemical fictions from experimental chemical facts, is also known for his work on vacuums, atmospheric pressure, and the properties of air, conducted in the late 1650s. Only fifteen years or so before, the jury was still out on whether vacuums even existed. Kircher, obliged to deny the possibility of a vacuum (vacuums were abhorred by nature, per Aristotle), had been present at an inconclusive experiment involving a siphon, water, and a very long lead tube, conducted in Rome sometime in the early 1640s. Kircher disingenuously reported that it had failed. But that experiment helped inspire Evangelista Torricelli, who in 1644 not only created a vacuum but essentially invented the mercury barometer - and that experiment inspired a great deal of discussion and trial by Boyle and others. In 1657, two years after Kircher's friend Kaspar Schott returned to Germany, Schott published the first of his own books, an aggregation of information on mechanics, hydraulics, and pneumatics. He somewhat unenthusiastically included a report  on the air pump recently invented by Otto con Guericke of Magdeburg, which Boyle read.  Boyle and his assistant, Robert Hooke, made an improved version of it, which allowed them to carry out their unprecedented series of experiments, published in 1660. And so it wasn't Kircher but his disciple who helped put old notions about the impossibility of a vacuum to rest.
From a modern perspective it is easy to dismiss Kircher and laugh at his many scientific failings.  But we all make huge mistakes and the work of scientists never proceeds smoothly.  There are many false starts along the way.  We also produce many bad hypotheses that don't pan out and design experiments that end up disproving the concepts they were meant to establish.  And I think that is one of the best lessons from Kircher.  As citizen scientists we can't be afraid to look foolish or make claims that might be wrong.  The best we can do is fearlessly discuss our work and allow the scientific method to judge our ideas.  Many things will be wrong.  But as a group we will keep getting closer to the answer, and can build on each other's work. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Research with a Humble Confidence - A Key to Citizen Science Ethics

Two short weeks ago the nation was shocked by the Boston Marathon bombing, and immediately we  wanted to help.  Many of us looked to give blood.  Others sent donations to help the surviving families.  And some wanted to ensure justice.

We saw this happen as people began combing through public footage to find clues the authorities may have missed.  They set up Internet chat rooms and decided (on their own) to  tap the public's collective wisdom and resources to find the perpetrators.  In other words, they crowd-sourced the investigation.  Users of the Reddit site quickly focused on one particular individual and began labeling him a potential suspect.  Sadly, it appears they targeted an innocent man as we now know the Tsarnaev brothers were the guilty parties.  But even worse is the fact that the notoriety quickly got to him to the point he was found dead last week.  You can read much more about this episode on CNN (here), the Washington Post (here) or any other news web site.

At this point we still don't know what happened and his death may have been completely unrelated to the investigation.  But it should make us all pause.  There is huge promise and peril with opening research to the vast public.  They can do great good or great harm.  The key is do it all with a humble confidence.

One of my main goals with OpenScientist is boosting the confidence of the citizen science movement and encouraging everyday people that their contributions are meaningful.  For too long society and academia have (inadvertently) sent this message and it remains one of citizen science's biggest obstacles to success.  So I try to remember that every time I write a new blog post and I purposefully include different references to it.  Sometimes it is showing all the famous scientists who began as citizen scientists.  Sometimes it is showing the great discoveries made by average people.  And other times it is showing that "Getting Started is easy" to help people start on their journey.

But the flip side to this confidence is humility.

We should not forget that while citizen science can match that of "professional" researchers, that doesn't mean to disparage the great work done in that realm too.  Tenured professors may be the in an ivory tower, but they have also been studying their issues for years.  They know the facts inside and out and have spent much of their life trying to develop new and innovative theories to move their fields forward.  Their opinions should not be taken lightly.  Citizen science should always augment their work and even question their work, but it must be done humbly and collaboratively.  The beauty of science is that the facts speak for themselves.  So we need to be part of the debate, not dominate it.

Crowdsourcing is a great part of that.  This technique works fantastically well in the sciences as multiple eyes and minds can do higher quality work than a computer can, and at a faster pace.  At that level having people scan video archives makes a lot of sense (and is similar to what many citizen science projects already do).  Even taking that nest step of fresh analysis and hypothesis development is within the citizen science tradition.  Though we are still figuring out how to identify good ideas from bad, there is still a lot of progress that can be made.  But this has only been done with classifying galaxies or identifying plants...nobody is hurt if mistakes are made. 

Handling error tolerance is an important design concept for crowdsourcing projects.  This is where the Reddit users fell down.  Once you start accusing a person of a horrific bombing it is tough to pull that back.  Even if the public forgets, that person still carries it with them.  So before we utilize a tool that can provide incorrect data, we need to have systems which correct that data or keep it in the proper context. 

They also forgot the massive expertise brought in by the FBI and the Boston Police.  Sure the investigators needed help...they often asked people to come forward with tips and for people with pictures/videos in that area to send them in.  But they had crack professionals with years of experience to dissect, analyze, and properly follow up on all the leads.

In other words, we need to have confidence that users will find important data, but humble enough not to accuse people of mass murder without overwhelming evidence.  And that we need to work with the authorities, not separate from them.

We see the need for humble confidence in the politics as well.  The 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of government information have many great benefits.  They keep everyone knowledgeable of world events, provide data to help them in their daily lives, and enable them to be fully active citizens in their democracy.  With citizen science being dubbed by some the "Democratization of Science" the parallels are many.  But like citizen science there are many downsides.

All of this information can also exacerbate our country's partisan divides and make our arguments even louder.  Everyone has their own viewpoint and now their own data to confirm it.  So people get louder and more self-righteous in their tone.  After all, they have evidence to prove their point or disparage the other side.  Why look for more?

Again, we need people to participate vigorously but with a humble confidence.

Policy is hard.  Understanding what laws to enact to create a desired outcome is exceptionally difficult. It requires knowledge of sociology, economics, science, and human nature.  And that's just for the easy ones.  Add science-intensive topics such as global warming or public health, and the ability to know the "right answer" becomes mind-bogglingly hard.

So all I ask is that we call keep moving forward and do the amazing work we are capable of.  Just remember that we are here as part of the discussion...we aren't the only discussion.  We need to listen to other viewpoints and be cautious in making outrageous claims until the weight of the evidence forces us to. In the end the truth wins out.  We just need to give it time.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Wiki Surveys and the Suggestion Box Problem

I'm still looking at the Suggestion Box Problem and finding ways citizen science can capture the breadth and depth of ideas available from the public.  There are so many ideas of varying quality and in vastly different areas it seems impossible to sort through them all.  But I'm determined to find some models that can.

Beginning my research I stumbled upon a working paper published by Matthew J. Salganik and Karen E.C. Levy titled "Wiki Surveys: Open and Quantifiable Social Data Collection"  (arXiv:1202.0500v1).  In it they compare different methods social scientists use to collect data from the public, and then go one step further to describe a new web site ( to implement their ideas and prove the value of "Wiki Surveys".  This seems like a great starting point.

I've highlighted a few key points from the article and offer some of my own thoughts on it's applicability to citizen science.  But I also recommend reading the full working paper yourself, available for free here.

The authors begin by looking at the problems with different ways of collecting data.
While surveys allow researchers to quantify large amounts of information quickly and at a reasonable cost, they are routinely criticized for being "top-down" and rigid; that is, the survey questions and possible responses are formulated before data collection begins, meaning that surveys generally are not open to novel or unexpected information from respondents.  In contrast, interviews allow new information to "bubble up" directly from respondents, but are slow, expensive, and difficult to quantify...Advances in computing technology now enable a hybrid approach that combines the quantifiability of a survey and the openness of an interview; we call this new class of data collection tools wiki surveys. 
The authors also describe the trade-offs involved in designing a collection instrument:
The primary advantage of closed questions is that responses can be handled with relative ease: answers can be assigned values, fed into statistical software, and employed in quantitative analysis.  There processes are relatively straightforward, fast, and inexpensive, making closed questions an efficient choice for large-scale social science surveys. In contrast, responses to open-ended questions are more complicated for researchers to reliably code and quantify...In some cases, however, open methods may provide insights that closed methods cannot because they are receptive to new information that was unanticipated by the researcher...Because respondents have a strong tendency to confine their responses to the answer choices offered (Krosnick, 1999; Schuman, 2008), researchers who construct all the possible answer choices necessarily constrain what can be learned.  This is unfortunate because unanticipated information is often the most valuable for research.
Looking at our own field, citizen science seems to rely much more heavily on the first type of collection type, closed questions, and must less on open-ended questions.  In fact many of the most popular citizen science programs involve public participation by collecting defined sets of data or answering specific sets of questions.  We see this in tools such as eBird, Nature's Notebook, and the many other survey instruments that ask people to collect and report wildlife data that can be .  There are also specific advantages to closed questions in citizen science, since often the public does not know what to look for or how to report it, since they are not highly trained in that field.  In these cases the structure of closed questioning helps them organize their thoughts and narrow their focus.   It also allows data to be transmitted electronically and stored as structured data items, helping analysis and accommodating mobile applications. So for many projects this can be a highly successful approach.  But it still means many things may be missed.
Traditional surveys attempt to collect a fixed amount of information from each respondent; respondents who want to contribute less than one questionnaire's worth of information are considered problematic and respondents who want to contribute more are prohibited from doing so.  This contrasts sharply with successful information aggregation projects on the Internet, which collect as much or as little information as each respondent is willing to provide.  Such a structure typically results in highly unequal levels of contribution: when contributors are plotted in rank order, the distributions tend to show a small amount of heavy contributors -- the "fat head" -- and a large number of light contributors -- the "long tail" (Anderson, 2006; Wilkinson, 2008).
The Zooniverse projects have had success combining types of questions.  Most of their projects break down large scientific tasks into smaller pieces and walking participants through a series of questions to describe a piece of data (picture, light curve, whale song, etc.) in a structured manner.  But they also encourage people to identify "unknown" or "interesting" aspects of each picture they are reviewing, and they also have discussion forums that allow users to discuss interesting items not captured by the project tools.  This is how they stumbled on Hanny's Voorwerp though there are also other examples.  Interestingly, the paper authors discuss this type of approach in their background:
[Yochai] Benkler (The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom; 2006) notes that successful information aggregation systems are typically composed of granular, modular tasks.  That is, in successful systems, large problems can be broken down into smaller "chunks" which require low individual investment of time and effort (granularity) and these "chunks" can be independently completed by many individuals before being flexibly integrated into a larger whole (modularity).
In developing their model the authors propose three traits that any successful survey instrument needs to have to capture information from a wide number of people and perspectives.  Although these are applied to the Wiki Surveys they may also have wide use for our citizen science "Suggestion Box" problem and will be a useful tool in evaluating other potential approaches.  The proposed key traits are:
  • Adaptive: They should be continually optimized to elicit the most useful information for estimating the parameters of interest, given what is already known. 
  • Greedy: They should capture as much or as little information as a respondent is willing to provide.
  • Collaborative:  They should be open to new information contributed directly by respondents that may not have been anticipated by the researcher, as often happens during an interview.  Crucially, unlike a traditional "other" box in a survey, this new information would then be presented to future respondents for evaluation.  In this way, a wiki survey bears some resemblance to a focus group in which participants can respond to the contributions of others.
Based on these concepts the authors developed the web site to implement the idea of Wiki Surveys.  Project designers set a broad question they want public input on, and then seed the system with a variety of responses.  These answers are then randomly mixed and presented to users as a set of binary questions with users picking whichever they prefer.  The system continues for as long as the user continues answering questions, each time presenting a newly-generated pair of answers.  In addition, the user can also add their own answers.  Those are added to the list of seeded answers and presented to other users as part of the survey process.  In this way researchers get answers based on their own assumed answers, as well as additional answers provided by the public.

For example, let's say you want to find out what the most popular color is.  As a researcher you seed the survey with Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  When a user logs on they are asked "Which of these two is your favorite color?" and they are forced to choose between Red and Indigo.  Then Orange and Blue.  Then Red and Orange.  The questions continue and slowly the system can rank responses based on how people respond.  Additionally, someone could add their own favorite, Maroon.  The system will add now include Maroon as part of the randomly-generated pairs, so some users will be asked to choose between Indigo and Maroon, or Yellow and Maroon.

The AllOurIdeas site has actually hosted many surveys since the paper was first published, with over 2.5 million votes cast over 1,500 surveys.  There were also over 60,000 new ideas submitted that the individual survey designers had not initially included and presumably never thought of.  This includes two specific surveys, one for the New York City Mayor's Office on creating a greener, greater city and one for the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  They noted a couple of interesting findings. 

One is that " surveys are best suited for situations in which there is a single predetermined question."  In some ways this fits the needs of citizen science projects since many currently exist with well-defined questions.  But it doesn't hit our biggest problem...capturing chance discoveries and unexpected results.  Some of the most powerful discoveries have been made accidentally while a scientist was looking at a different problem, or made a "mistake" in an experiment.  Just think of the discovery of Penicillin or invention of the microwave...none of these was planned for but they became very important.  It also doesn't capture theoretical discoveries or insights, just data.  So the model does require continued development.

Additionally, it was discovered that: both wiki surveys, many of the highest scoring ideas were uploaded by users.  For PlaNYC, 8 of the top 10 ideas were uploaded by users, as were 7 of the top 10 for the OECD. ..There seem to be two general classes of uploaded ideas that score well: novel information -- that is, new ideas that were not anticipated by the wiki survey creators -- and alternative framings -- that is, new and "stickier" ways of expressing existing ideas.
The alternative framings concept is especially intriguing to me.  While it may mean people are just re-wording what is already captured in the seed responses, often time re-framing is exactly what science needs.  All the data is in front of us, we just need a new perspective to understand it.  Unfortunately the authors don't go into any detail on this point but it's definitely worth a closer look.  Especially since their wiki surveys demonstrate an ability to both collect data and incorporate new ideas. 

All of this has given me some great ideas on how to use wiki surveys for my own research on citizen science topics. But I'm getting ahead of myself; there is still a lot more research to do first.  Hopefully this has given you some insights too, and let me know if there are other papers you find that are also interesting.  I'm still working through some more but would welcome any additional ideas. 

Just let me know in the comments below.