Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recover Historic Research with the Smithsonian

Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian
This blog was started to highlight the many citizen science projects available and show people how easy it is to contribute.  I've come a long way since then and have begun focusing on larger citizen science themes as well.  But I still like to showcase new projects every now and then.  Especially one so close to my heart.

The Smithsonian Digital Volunteers program needs your help going through their vast collection of historic scientific archives and transcribing the data for future analysis.  With a collection as large as the Smithsonian's a huge number of pieces are donated or created by institution scientists, but their data can easily be overlooked or lost among the overwhelming volume.  By digitizing and transcribing, all the information can be cataloged, stored centrally and then reviewed by anyone interested in the topic. It also allows researchers to use modern data management and analysis tools to find previously hidden connections from within the various sources.

This type of data has many different uses.  In some cases, historical weather data, and even counts of plants and animals, can be used to track climate change and global warming.  Even the impact of that change of local species can be tracked with that data.  It also allows information on now-extinct species that were alive back when the record was created, and allows scientists fill in the holes in the historic record to see how our wold overall is changing.

Transcription may sound easy but things can get complicated.  And not just because of handwriting that is worse then mine.  For example, take the snippet below from a mid-1800s electrical conduction experiment performed by former Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
There is a word here (highlighted in yellow) which seems to be six letters long and is some sort of synonym for "travel".  Also, based on a review of other letters on this page, it is most likely an "H" since the one other word starting with an "H" looks nearly identical to it.  But the word eludes me and has eluded the six other people who have worked on it so far.  You may have better luck, but it's this type of roadblock that can suddenly eat up your transcription time, and which the Smithsonian can not afford to have their own staff doing.  A further analysis of electrical terms beginning with an "H" may help provide the answer, but so far it's still being worked on.  This is where you come in.

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Register for a new account by visiting the New User Account page and supplying a username and email address.  Once entered, check your email and click the verification link to confirm your intent to create the account and set up a password.  No other personal information is required.
  2. Visit the main Transcription Center web site to learn more about the project and discover the source transcription materials that most interest you.
  3. Review the Instructions for transcribing.  In a nutshell, include every word as it appears in the document (misspellings included) and accurately describe any images on the page.  Don't worry about bold or italicized text but do note any underlines or strikeouts. 
  4. Go back to the main page and pick the source material you wish to work from.  Click on it, and then see all of the pages in that document. For starters, pick one that has not been begun.
  5. Transcribe the page as directed in the instructions.  Once you are fully done, click to Submit for Review.
  6. If you wish to review someone's transcription, click a page marked "Needs Review" and proofread the entire page.  If there is not a single error, click "Mark as Complete". This sends it to Smithsonian staff for finalizing.  If there is a problem, make the change and then click "Complete and Mark for Review" to have another independent person review this updated, corrected version.
  7. If you are unsure of a word, just enter a set of double brackets [[]] and add your best guess.  This will help the next person while not making it an official note.
That's all there is to it!

It really is simple to lend a hand.  Just select from the source materials currently available; right now they are categorized into themes of "Biodiverse Planet", "Mysteries of the Universe", "Field Book Registry",  "American Experience", "Civil War", and "World Cultures".  These aren't just pulled from the scientific artifacts but the entire Smithsonian collection.  So not only can you learn about science, but U.S. history and art as well.

This is a great project for new citizen scientists, people living in the Washington, DC area, environmentalists studying climate change, and anyone interested in the history of science.  So what are you waiting for?  Let's start transcribing!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Can we Talk About the 2015 Citizen Science Association Conference?

Next February 11-12, 2015, the Citizen Science Association will host it's first conference in San Jose, California.  Will you be there?

Two years ago citizen science practitioners and participants gathered in Portland, Oregon to discuss the present and future state of Public Participation in Scientific Research. Yours truly was there as were many of the most active players in our field.  Everyone learned a lot, shared their experiences, and started planning how to move the field forward.  Out of that an association was formed and now a conference is being planned.  So jump on board and join us in planning the next steps in our evolution.  It just get's bigger and better.

I plan to write MUCH more about this conference over the next few months to help set the stage.  But first a few logistics for you:

  • Get on the Citizen Science Association mailing list and help us grow by joining up today.  Membership is free (for now) and let's your voice be added to all the planning.  You'll also be the first to know once final registration details are announced
  • Register for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting that this is technically a part of.  Attend the whole AAAS conference or opt for a $23 reduced fee registration of just the Citizen Science Conference.
  • Make preliminary travel plans to San Jose that week and reserve a hotel room before they sell out.  Don't contact the hotels directly but instead work through the AAAS meeting coordinators.
  • Check back with the Citizen Science Association before November 10 when the Early Bird Registration Discount ends.

One more thing.  Have you thought about what you want to say?  The Citizen Science Association has placed a Call for Proposals (workshops, short talks, panel discussions, poster sessions) due by September 15, 2014.  Personally I am contemplating a few different ideas and am trying to narrow them down.  Some material will come from things I've discussed in this blog, while others may be from other experiences and new research I've been working on.  But if you have some interest in these topics or might like to join forces, just let me know at OpenScientist (at)  I think some of you are working on similar ideas and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  • For Love and Money: Business models for creating a citizen science industry infrastructure that supports, and benefits from, the work of citizen scientists.
  • Federal Government's Role in Supporting Citizen Science: A history and future opportunities
  • Transparency in Government-Funded Research: Pros and Cons from a Citizen Science standpoint
  • Citizen Science vs. Citizen Pseudo-Science: Separating amateur researchers from public crackpots
  • Re-Examining Citizen Science Throughout History: How pervasive were amateur researchers in the history of science versus "Establishment" or "Professional" researchers.  How can we apply those modern terms to yesterday's society?  Can we use historical lessons to increase public participation and respect in the field?

See you in San Jose!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Five Best Cities for a Citizen Scientist to Live

Last month I wrote a post on where the best places are for a citizen scientist to live.  In case any of you out there are planning to move, these are things to look for indicating many opportunities to participate in citizen science.  After hearing your feedback and doing some research on my own, I narrowed them to five general indicators:
  1. Access to Universities and Community Colleges
  2. Proximity to Museums and Science Centers
  3. Access to National, State, and Local Parks
  4. Dark Skies
  5. Environmental Consciousness
After hearing your comments and looking more closely a sixth criterion has revealed itself. This has also been added as an update to the previous post.

  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.

With these key traits in place we can start identifying the best U.S. cities for citizen science.  Admittedly one could argue over the relative merits of each city and their ranking.  But this is the sense I have from my years watching the field and it should move this interesting conversation forward.

5) Portland, OR
Portland has long enjoyed an independent streak among it's citizens, as well as a strong environmental awareness.  This has created a town with a larger-than-normal size of existing nature and animal tracking citizen science projects, and these are expected to just increase.  So it's the perfect place for new and experience citizen scientists to join existing projects or find people for new ones. It was even the site of the first Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference back in 2012; just another way it supports the citizen science community.

4) Phoenix, AZ
Picking just one city in the U.S. Southwest as best for citizen scientists was a difficult job.  All are in desert areas with the abundant life (if you know where to look), and many need scientific help to preserve the fragile environment.  The desert also holds many important archaeological finds as dinosaur bones and remains of ancient cultures lie just below the surface.  Just a few miles outside many of these cities find low populations and crystal clear skies at night...perfect for star-gazing.  But ultimately Phoenix rises above it's other desert counterparts.  It's high concentration of world-class research universities and concentration of PhD scientists make it a great spot for public participation in science.

3) San Francisco, CA
The San Francisco Bay area is known as the heart of Silicon Valley and the innovative technical culture that thrives there.  The University of California Schools, along with local Stanford University, provide a wealth of highly educated researchers ready to be involved in citizen science or guide the public in their citizen science endeavors.  Currently it is a great place to find new citizen science tools being made, from a thriving DIYBio community to programmers creating many of the citizen science apps we use today.  Even the old Xerox PARC center laid a building block for the 1970's amateur computer clubs that Apple eventually sprouted from.  Again citizen science and entrepreneurship show their close link and make San Francisco a worthy choice at number three.

2) Washington, DC
Free access to a treasure trove of information and activities are at the heart of DC's citizen science appeal. Start with the Smithsonian Institution Museums...the Air and Space and Natural History museums are free to the public and host world class treasures -- from the Hope Diamond to the Space Shuttle Discovery and everything in between.  The city also attracts leading experts to speak at free or low-cost events, either at the museums or at the many scientific associations around town (such as a American Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society) hoping to lend a scientific voice to our politics.  Even the headquarters of major Federal agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) offer access to cutting-edge discoveries to the public.  Of course, you can learn all about happenings in the DC area at our sister site ScienceinDC.

1) Honolulu, HI
What doesn't Hawaii top the charts in?  Ifthe beautiful beaches and tropical climate aren't enough to lure you over the Pacific, hopefully the scientific opportunities will!  The Hawaiian islands in general are a nature-lovers paradise with bountiful tropical forests to hike through, as well as an ocean filled with coral reefs and abundant sea life. There are active volcanoes for understanding the Earth's interior, and for experiencing completely different ecosystems at high elevation.  Finally there's Honolulu, with its high tech industry and world class university.  What more does a citizen scientist want?

So what do you think of this list?  Did I miss your favorite city?  Do you think Boston (MA), Ithaca (NY), or Oak Ridge (TN) were wrongly overlooked?  Let me know in the comments below and keep the conversation going.