Thursday, November 26, 2015

Citizen Science Holiday Gift Guide - 2015

The Holiday season is here again and your shopping has begun.  Shopping for some people is easy, but what about the citizen scientist in your family...what do you get them?  And what gifts can a citizen scientist buy to share their love of this exciting field?   Fortunately your friends at OpenScientist are here to help.

Below is a small collection of items we think any citizen scientist would love to give...or get.  No what your age or or interest I hope you can find something below.  All on top of the many other items on my previous Citizen Science Holiday Gift guides from the last few years (2014 and 2012).  One key difference for this year is that I've teamed up as an Amazon affiliate for some of these items, meaning that if you purchase after linking from this site we receive a small commission.  Just purchase from any of the links below or search for all Amazon Citizen Science products. This won't make me rich, but I do promise to use 100% of the money I receive will go to continue providing more tools and information on this site.  So it's a win--win for all of us!

Do-It-Yourself Gamer Kit:  Most people buy video games to play...but citizen scientists make their own!  The $98 DIYGamer Kit provides you all the hardware pieces to build a handheld game console, as well as software to design games that run on it.  For more advanced gift-givers can you can buy versions that require soldering, while others are available solder-free for beginners.  And this is just the start.  TechnologyWillSaveUs also sells DIY Synthesizer, Biology and other kits for the Maker crowd.  So pick the one your friends will like most and help them start building!

Family Game Night: Compounded: The Board Game lets you and your family be the lab manager.  Collect and trade elements to create new and exciting compounds before your opponents do...and before they cause an explosion!  At $27 its the perfect gift for the chemists and biologists in your life.  If you need the perfect board game for biologists, try Peptide the Card Game, where players collect amino acids and compete to create new proteins.

GoPro Video: Perfect for recording all your scientific field work on beautiful 1080P High Definition video. Use it to verify findings for others, records data for review and analysis at home, and capture the joy of excitement to be shared with your loved ones (and friendly citizen scientists). For $139 the GoPro Hero Starter Bundle comes complete with a head strap for hands-free recording of all your adventures. I've used it myself for recording scuba dives and nature hikes, and bet the lucky gift receiver will find many more good uses too.

Cooking for Geeks: Unfortunate title aside, Cooking for Geeks is a great way to not only learn about the science behind the food we eat, but how to have fun with it too.  You not only get recipes optimized by the science, you also get tips on ways to experiment on your own to improve the food you eat.  The book also applies the scientific techniques used in the citizen science world to improve cooking, such as easy ways to properly calibrate kitchen equipment.  Perfect for the amateur investigator in your house.

Project MC2 Dolls: Mixing science and play, the MC2 line of dolls are perfect for young girls looking to enter the world of science.  They come with their own clothes and this case safety goggles and a real working volcano experiment! I've featured the Adrienne Attoms doll, but you can also get the Bryden Bandwidth, McKeyla McAlister, or Camryn Coyle dolls. You can also buy the MC2 Ultimate Lab Kit to conduct additional experiments of your own!

Science Barware: After a long day of research every citizen scientist needs a way to relax.  So help them out with some fun science-themed bar and glassware. With these your family and friends can drink out of the very same types of containers used in their research. Thinkgeek has a couple of fun items, including the Chemist's Cocktail Kit (with an Erlenmeyer flask mixer and test tube shot glasses), Laboratory Shot Glasses or the Erlenmeyer Flask Coffee Mug.

Three-Body Problem: This is the highly-acclaimed bestseller now translated into English.  Winner of the Hugo Award and a Nebula Award nominee, The Three-Body Problem chronicles what happens when Chinese scientists send radio signals out into the Universe to contact alien life.  When the signal is received by a potentially dangerous alien species, humanity splits into different factions figuring out what to do as Earth awaits its fate. Given the popularity of extra-terrestrial search (SETI) projects among citizen scientists, the insights offered into the Chinese scientific community, the human emotions explored, and the literary acclaim this book has received, it's a great gift for citizen scientists wanting a good beach read as they relax from their research.

Great Courses: What better way to learn about a new area of science than by attending a college-level course taught by world-renowned professors.  While there are a few different companies offering this type of content, I've found the Great Courses are some of the highest quality (and with some of their great sales, some of the highest value too!).   If you want something for the space enthusiast in your family I highly recommend  Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders.  It not only highlights many of the wonders out there in the universe, but shows you how to witness them yourself with just a small telescope or binoculars.  Letting them see these amazing sights with their own eyes.  Others I've enjoyed and which you may also find interesting include Leonardo da Vinci and the High Italian Renaissance (famed artist and citizen scientist), and Roots of Human Behavior which uses the behaviors of apes and monkeys to help us understand where our humanity comes from.

uBiome Microbial Analysis: Everyone knows about the world of bacteria that live out in the world, but there is also a whole world of bacteria that live inside every one of us.  These are almost always good bacteria that help our bodies function, aiding digestion and performing other important tasks.  But each person's is different.  As their web site says, "Our microbes outnumber human cells 10:1. Like the rainforest, the healthy human microbiome is a balanced ecosystem. Microbes perform essential functions such as digesting food and synthesizing vitamins. Studies have also linked the microbiome to human mood and behavior, as well as gut health, human development, and metabolic disorders."  With uBiome you can collect DNA from various parts of your body and send it for a quick analysis, making it the perfect gift for the biologist in your family. Kits are available for between $90 and $400, depending on the amount of data you want.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Where Does My Baby Come From (Part II): A Citizen Science Exploration

A year and half ago I decided to learn about genealogy.  As a citizen scientist I started with the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project (2.0) to trace my genetic heritage.  And as I was about to become a new father, it would give insights not just to my origins, but new son's as well.  The process was relatively simple and you can read much more about it in the original blog post (see: Where Does my Baby Come From).  The analysis came back in the 1-2 months they promised, but fatherhood and job changes left me to busy to provide the interesting updates.  Now that he's almost 20 months old, time to share with everyone where his father came from.

For starters, the DNA lineages provided by Geno go way back, over 100,000 years and some ancestors (such as Mitochandrial Eve) we all have in common.  It turns out they I have slightly higher amounts of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA than average, at 2.4% and 2.3%, respectively (expected is slightly over 2.0% for Neanderthal and slightly under 2.0% for Denisovan).  Caveman joke's from old college friends notwithstanding, it is interesting to see how much caveman is still in me.

From these ancient origins you can trace the movements your ancestors made across the globe.  Searching for food, water, and adventure, they spanned out from Africa to the many corners of the Earth, and in some cases (like mine) spread out and then doubled back.  You can see this below.  The program itself provides detailed descriptions of each genetic marker and the lands/people encountered there, but summarized in various step-by-step tracings and actual heatmaps shown below.  This includes both paternal and maternal lineages, and the different markers used for each.

Image Courtesy: OpenScientist
Geno also compared me to other users and people from the initial research studies.  Based on that data I have the most in common with inhabitants of both the United Kingdom, as well as Greece. You can also see the broader breakdown of my heritage.
  • 42% Mediterranean
  • 37% Northern European
  • 19% Southwest Asian
I've known about the Mediterranean and European components from family histories but know much less about the Southwest Asian connection.  So that's something I want to look deeper into for the future.

As good as this data is, it's getting better.  Just in the time between first submitting my data and writing this post, new sets of genetic markers have been traced using DNA from people joining the program.  So not only are we learning about ourselves, we are helping advance knowledge for future generations.  The test has also been slightly changed in that time and can be ordered directly here.

I love this type of information...showing where we started millions of years ago, as hunters and gathers fighting for food, though the various migrations up and down the globe.  Not only is the human story interesting, but knowing that science can identify these long-forgotten movements is fascinating too.  But I do want to learn more.  Where did my family come from over more recent generations?  Oral histories tell me significant portions came from Italy, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, but is that it?  Are there other branches we don't know about?  And how do we find them?

Fortunately National Geographic has us covered.  Not only are they continuing research and updating user profiles as more data is available, they've also teamed up with Family Tree DNA to help people link together through their genetic information.  So you can find lost (and no so lost) relatives with any additional cost.  There is a bit of extra time involved though, so I can't tell you those results yet. But I will be reporting back along with information from other DNA testing, genealogy, and citizen science programs.

In the meantime, have you joined any of these programs? Have interesting results you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Aliens, Asteroids, and Citizen Science - A Messy Love Story

Citizen Scientists love aliens.  Science Fiction and E.T. have been driving forces that helped first open up our field, and they continue to add to the mystique of citizen science.  But is this always a good thing?

Last week there was much excitement as the discovery of a potential "Alien Superstructure" were breathlessly reported in the news media.  Details varied, but some strange readings were seen from the Kepler planet hunting satellite and, after much consideration, the investigators reviewing it conjectured that it could be due to the relics of an ancient extra-terrestrial civilization.  And now the team is looking for additional telescope time and other resources to investigate it further.  After telling the news media, of course.  If you have not already heard the story check out various versions at The Atlantic and NBCNews.

Of special interest is the fact that the data was initially noticed by citizen scientists using the Planet Hunter program through the Zooniverse. This is great.  A major news story highlights the role made by citizen scientists showing they can make real discoveries of great import.  It also highlights projects available on the Zooniverse the public may wish to join.  And it may truly have an alien origin (one never knows).  But that’s definitely not guaranteed.

There is the fear of what happens if this turns out to be less “exciting” and is “only” a collection of exocomets or other natural phenomenon.  Will that make people think it was the citizen scientists jumping to conclusions, harming our reputation?  Will it decrease excitement for the natural cause that (in and of itself) should still be quite interesting?  Obviously it would not be the end of the world for citizen science, but it would be disappointing.

Thinking about this made me realize how closely tied to the citizen science and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) worlds are to each other.

In many ways the “modern” era of citizen science began with the SETI@Home distributed computing project, which brought myself and many others into the citizen science world.  And one of the key factors for success in citizen science projects has been the Excitement factor.  Although not restricted to SETI projects it certainly does apply.  All of which can be seen in the success of PlanetHunters and related space projects looking for signs of ET or sending messages to him. 
But does this do justice to all of the non-SETI citizen science projects out there?  The same thing goes for the hunt for asteroids; there are many good reasons to search for these artifacts from the solar system's creation, including understanding how our planet was initially formed.  But when discovered by citizen scientists the main story is about whether the asteroid will hit Earth.   Yes, that is a concern.  But is it really the only newsworthy concern?

Every day volunteers collect important environmental data and power important studies in medicine and ecology.  Do these get the same press coverage and support?  Sadly I don’t think they always do. 

Yet I love it.  Sure. these scientific fields may receive an inordinate amount of coverage and steal recognition from many other worthy projects.  But citizen scientists are drawn not just to the academic thrill of discovery, but the more visceral thrills of things that light up their souls.  We are here for the fun and for the adventure.  We were raised on Star Trek and Carl Sagan.  So we are drawn to aliens and asteroids like moths to a flame.  That is not too ignore the many people trying to improve their world through environmental or medical science projects, but it recognizes the different roles each plays.  They touch different parts of people's psyches and attract new talent for those different reasons.  Making us a more diverse, and more powerful, force in the scientific world.

These are just my initial thoughts…it seems citizen science is connected much more closely to the SETI field than other fields that typically receive more attention from scientists and funders.  And is that close a connection good for the citizen science field?  Are there risks to much of our press coming from the search for ET?  I don’t have all the answers, or even some of them.  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

But what are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, October 5, 2015

White House citizen Science Toolkit - A Former Fed's Thoughts (Part 1)

Photo Courtesy: White House on Flickr
Last week was an important one for Citizen Science.  On Wednesday, the White House held a large “Open Science and Innovation” forum highlighting the promise of citizen science and outlining ways Federal agencies can take advantage of this growing movement.  It was hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a hugely influential body overseeing the efforts of such agencies as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health.  As a former Policy Officer at NIH who used to implement many of these initiatives, believe me when I say that OSTP initiatives are taken very seriously.

It’s important to say up front that none of this happened on its own.  The citizen science community has been building its reputation and reach for years to the point where it can stand tall at the national level.  And the government has not been ignoring citizen science up to now; they have highlighted it at previous events, discussed citizen science at White House Science Fairs, and have been discussion open innovation and crowdsourcing in a variety of initiatives (including ongoing Open Government Initiative).  So there are both many people to thank as well a strong foundation to build on.

Much of the attention from this event has gone to the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit toolkit.  It’s quite large and frankly much more complete that can often be expected from these types of events.  To start, I recommend taking a look at the various case studies presented on various projects designed by, or in coordination with, government agencies.  These are models that can be reproduced by other State/Federal agencies or can be developed by citizen scientists to help those agencies.  It’s also a great place to draw inspiration for future projects.  But that is just the first step.  Starting up a new citizen science program, either privately or in the government, involves many moving parts and a lot of key decisions.  So the toolkit also provides a long listing of resources that practitioners can use to start and grow their projects.  There is no way to highlight them all but I do recommend browsing through them for any insights that will help improve your own work.
As a former Fed who has dealt with many of these Open Innovation/Open Government issues before, what really interests me is the memo put out by OMB (the government’s management arm) on “Addressing Societal and Scientific Challenges through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing”.  This is what actually pushes agencies to include more citizen science in their programs and future budget requests, putting dollars behind the top-down push.  But it also brings up a number of questions for me.

One key element is creation of an online catalog of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects to help the public discover them.  This is a laudable goal and on the surface seems like a no-brainer.  But I question the real-world practicality of this approach.   To begin with, the number of Federally-funded citizen science projects is quite small compared to the total number of projects available (both nationally and internationally).  So to create a highly visible database showcasing a minority of projects can cause non-Federal projects to be overshadowed and less able to attract participants.  As a community the SciStarter database has become the go-to site for this type of information; highlighting projects regardless of funding source.  At the very least I hope the Federal solution is able to partner with SciStarter so their efforts are complementary instead of working against each other.

There are also questions with the real-world usefulness of this web site to remain current.  In many cases these types of government catalogs rely on manual entries made by employees from numerous different agencies and bureaus, all with different definitions of what citizen science is and with different amounts of time/energy devoted to populating the database.  Unless it is made a high priority for agencies (which is easier said than done) the database quickly lose relevance as the project data grows increasingly out-of-date.

Second, I question the concept of it functioning as a real-world way for people to find participation opportunities.  For many years the government has operated the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (  highlighting every grant program available to the public.  It is supposed to help people find programs (and funding support) that meets their needs.  But in reality I don’t think anybody uses it that way.  Most of the CFDA programs are broad, vague listings that each cover a wide swath of opportunities.  As an example NIH has less than 50 active programs listed under the CFDA system…but this is a tiny number for an agency spending $30 billion per year on grants.  At that high level the CFDA listing can barely capture the specifics needed to inform people about the individual programs currently available. Instead, people looking for grant funds can just go to which lists every Funding Opportunity Announcement across the government with detailed, complete information on each.  So I fear the Citizen Science database may just be like the CFDA listing and not provide nearly as much value as is hoped.

A thid issue I see was not addressed by the memo but can quickly come into play with Federally-funded citizen science projects.  A relatively unknown law called the “Shelby Amendment” requires that any Federally-funded research findings used to inform any regulatory action be made publicly accessible through FOIA.  Although a laudable goal, the implementation of this on the citizen science community may cause problems.  As we know, many citizen scientists get into the field to help preserve the environment and so a large number of citizen science projects look at ecological questions.  So if this research is funded by the government, and if the data is ever used to support a future regulation, all of the research data is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  But is this burden appropriate for citizen science?  The law was designed to cover university and agency researchers who can easily comply with the requirement.  Citizen scientists, on the other hand,  may have much more difficulty with those costs.  It is also highly intrusive for what may be a small citizen science project that gets caught up in politically-sensitive research.  So we need to really think about how these types of Open Government/Open Access requirements impact us.

Finally, but most importantly, a key agency action under the OMB memo is to diversify project by creating mechanisms for providing small grants to individuals and communities that may not be affiliated with universities or traditional government contractors.  As we just saw above the FOIA requirements can be overwhelming to small projects.  But what about all of the other administrative requirements necessary to operate a Federal grant?  That’s a huge issue and a problem that can’t be ignored, but it’s too big for just one blog post.  So I’m going to keep putting together my thoughts and write more on this issue in the near future.  

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?  Anything you find particularly beneficial, or particularly troublesome? Send me an email (OpenScientist - at - or let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Citizen Science Summer

It's been a long summer. Between a new job, a fast-growing 18-month old, and a vacation to wild Alaska, there has not been much time for citizen science. So sadly my blog has been quite for a few months. But with the advent of Fall and the rest of life settling down, I'm ready for a new push. 

But what have I missed?

Photo Courtesy:
Social Media: A friend of OpenScientist and former Guest Blogger Michael Bear has been busy lately. As an avid diver and lover of the ocean, he has set up the new Citizen Scientists of the Ocean Facebook group with constant posts throughout the day. It has grown quickly with new followers joining each day, many adding to the marine science and conservation topics he posts about. As an added bonus he has also started the new “Citizen Science” Facebook page as well with topics from all fields of science and ecology. That group is still in its early stages, and is still the younger brother to its ocean-themed sibling, but there is lots of good information there too. Follow them to find out yourself, after, of course, following my own OpenScientist Facebook page as well. :)

Crowdfunding: Some new projects have been announced through various crowdfunding platforms that citizen scientists may be interested in.

The first might be of special interest to all of my project to research who reads science blogs and why.  As a reader of one right now, and someone who might help answer those questions and help us science bloggers better meet your needs, this could be a good one to support.  They are only asking for $6,000.  Check it out here and think about whether you have a few extra bucks to give.

Also, for people near my home town of Washington, DC, the Greenbelt MakerSpace group is looking to expand into the community with a new mobile MakerWagon. Not only is this a great idea, but the DC area is a prime area for citizen scientists but which has, sadly, not really begun to tap its potential. It's also a great way to get kids involved in STEM education.  I have not formal connection with them but any help you all can give would be appreciated by all.  You can check them out here.

Scientific Press: Back in August the prestigious journal Nature published “Rise of the Citizen Scientist” recognizing the incredible growth our field has seen and the many contributions we’ve already made. As an editorial coming from one of the most trusted (and wide-read) names in science this can be a very positive thing. Even the well-meaning discussion of issues around data quality, health confidentiality, and recognition are important to address and are things the citizen science field itself has grappled with for a long time. But the concerns about political motivation of volunteers and its potential to raise conflict of interest concerns struck an odd chord.

The Citizen Science Association followed up by registering some concerns with those ideas, and I find myself agreeing with them. Without rehashing arguments already made well by others, my concern is about the scientific community being so ready doubt citizen science data on the basis of the presumed motivations of a subset of volunteers. Industry and academic researchers all have their own biases and potential conflicts of interest, and people pay much less concern to those conflicts even though the dollar amounts are much greater. For citizen scientists the individual stakes are much smaller and should raise much smaller concerns. Also, unlike in academic and industry research, many more people are often involved in citizen science studies which mitigates the impact of those very conflicts. So instead of singling out citizen science with special concerns, the field should be applauded for discovering methods of reducing scientific conflicts of interest. But this also provides me hope as I foresee future research in our field looking at this very subject and showing the inherent value of our field, much the same way research on data quality in citizen science showed the data is not only as reliable as from traditional sources, it can often be better.

And that's just for starters!  It's been a busy summer but time to get back to work. So keep following me here, on Twitter (@AnOpenScientist), and on Facebook for deeper dives and  more frequent updates.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Citizen Science You Can Wear

This week we are proud to be joined by guest blogger “Best in Latest”. With the recent popular interest in wearable technologies the potential for a dancing citizen science grows. So today she looks at many of these exciting possibilities for us.

Wearables for Citizen Science - What Does it Mean to Us?

The rise in the demand for more portable assistive technologies means that wearable devices are currently in high demand, especially in the world of citizen science.

Photo Courtesy: Janitors via Compfight

How can wearables change and revolutionize our industry?

Wearables can be a digital health tool, particularly with smartwatches and fitness bands. They come with the ability to track and measure heart rate, stress levels, speed and distance among other things. The next wave of wearable releases are said to focus on assisting patients with particular health needs such as the Google smart contact lens for people with astigmatism while the Embrace band will assist those that suffer from seizures.

In terms of acquiring data, a study revealed that smartphones are more accurate in getting health data than wearables. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that health apps for smartphones are More accurate in counting the steps of users than the built-in pedometers on wearables. This is also one of the reasons why people still prefer using their handsets rather than investing in new devices that still require the need to be paired with smartphone.

Today’s premium smartphones are now built with health sensors similar to smartwatches and fitness bands. Even without the Apple Watch, O2 said that the iPhone 6 Plus can track the speed, distance, and elevation level of its user through its built-in M8 motion coprocessor and barometer respectively. Other premium smartphones today are also incorporating the same features to give people more variations in tracking their health.

But, convenience appears to be the main factor why people purchase technologies. Demands for wearables continued to rise this year, with 50% now considering purchasing smartwatches as they offer the consumer the same features as smartphones but with more convenience. 

In citizen science, volunteers will be able to gather the real-time health data of patients. Virtual health assistance is now the new trend in citizen volunteer divisions in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) collaborated with a mobile network company to provide volunteers and medical practitioners with cost-effective and reliable devices and plans to connect them with patients in real-time. Click here to know how they perform this in the public sector. Apart from social workers, nurses and doctors are also able to maximize the same technology to further assist patients quickly during emergency cases.

Additionally, wearable devices are also seen to have the potential to change the way scientists monitor air quality. In a post on, author Brian Handwerk said that emerging technologies such as smartwatches and smart headsets can turn help anyone monitor environmental factors such as air quality. In particular the TZOA, a wearable device that measures air quality, will be able to help the public and even scientists in monitoring the quality of air we breath in real-time. This type of innovation is a good stepping-stone for many scientists to crowdsource pollution maps for smartphones and other consumer tech items.

A large-scale effort in Europe is well underway wherein portable and wearable environmental-focused technologies are being assigned to further assist in scientific research in the region.

“People may use this information to organize themselves with other like-minded people to take action or go to their (local) politicians and ask that they do something about pollution,” said Mark Nieuwenhuijsen of the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Space. He also uses wearable monitors to measure and map air pollution.

Wearable devices have plenty of potential in citizen science. It will only be a matter of time before these technologies will develop and become a main component in the science and technology industries. How do you think wearables can shape the citizen science sector?

Exclusively written for Open Scientist
By Best in Latest

Monday, July 20, 2015

Radio Astronomy in the News

Have you heard about the new Breakthrough Listen project?  Funded by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and supported by Stephen Hawking, Fran Drake (of the famed Drake Equation for calculating the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations) and many others, the project hopes to use powerful radio telescopes from across the world, famed researchers, and everyday people to search for alien intelligence.

As a recently inducted member of the radio astronomy community I am still learning all the great things this funding can do for SETI.  As my new job involves working with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia that will be funded for much of this work I may be biased, but I honestly think this is a fantastic shot-in-the-arm for the SETI program, and understanding our place in the Universe.  It's also a great testament to the science communicators out there who have kept these dreams alive in the public.

This is still a breaking story with much more news to report as time goes on.  But in the meantime take a look at some current thinking on the subject:

  • Scientific American:
  • Wired - UK:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A New Job: Radio Astronomy and Citizen Science

This is a big week both for OpenScientist and for me personally.  I just started a new job at Associated Universities, Inc and working with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.  Much of my job will be overseeing sponsored research funding and administration for all of the grants and contracts they operate.  But I will also be helping set up a citizen science program for them in radio astronomy.  A dream job for a guy like me!

For those of you who may not know, for the past ten years I have worked at the National Institutes of Health overseeing many of their grant policy and compliance efforts.  It did not directly intersect with citizen science, but as one of the largest funders of scientific research, ethics rules kept me from talking about it.  I also could not write about the large amount of biomedical research taking place with citizen science.  Projects like EyeWire, uBiome, and others were blazing interesting paths in the field but I could not write about it.  With the new job that all changes.  So expect to see much more of the "pent-up" supply of articles to be posted in the near future.

I'm also hoping to help AUI incorporate everything I've learned about citizen science over the last ten years into radio astronomy.  There are still many different ways this may happen and I don't want to make any commitments yet, but the opportunities for scientists and the public are too great not to do it.  Much of it will likely take place as part of my "day job" under the NRAO or AUI but I will also talk about it here.  Making sure you never miss out.

That's the big news!  Hopefully you will see the fruits of this new job soon, and we can continue a new journey of citizen science together.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Bounty Hunter

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previous: Educator

This Week: Bounty Hunter
Next: Organizer (Coming Soon)

I've been thinking about citizen science bounties for a long time.  Back in 2011 I wrote an initial article talking about their definition and basic potential, hoping this would kick start some new thinking.  Much of that thinking is still valid and has been incorporated here.  But while people sent me some great ideas I have not seen it take off in the field yet.  Still not sure why.  Either way, there are still many great opportunities for both citizen scientists and for businesses wanting to work with them.

What I'm thinking of is very similar to, but distinct from, some of the innovation awards that groups like the Ansari XPrize and U.S. Government's site have offered.  Those are all focused on achieving a specific technical goal or development of a process.  And they are also quite large endeavors with precise rules on how the goal should be accomplished.  They may be somewhat loose rules, but they are still somewhat prescriptive in how to accomplish the goal.  

The bounties I'm thinking of are different by focusing on discovery, not creation or puzzle-solving.  They reward accomplishment of a specific tangible goal but are usually smaller in nature or more precise.  They also often involve more "brute-force" or trial-and-error searching as compared to innovative or creative puzzle solving. The example is an award to people who can find a particular rare bird, sight the first flower of a certain type to bud in spring, or discover an asteroid that will pass within a certain distance of Earth.  So it rewards a very specific discovery that is not a technical feat in and of itself, though building of tools to aid the discovery (such as building the proper telescopes of automating bird call identifications) may involve significant technical work. 

Historically people have used these types of bounty prizes to accomplish scientific goals but they haven't been popular recently.  Some of the more illustrative examples of bounty prizes I've seen are the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cooperative Computing Awards for finding the largest prime numbers.  The group offered prizes of up to $250,000 to the first person to discover a certain type of prime number.  There were no rules on how to do it, or what should be done with the number.  All the group required was someone to prove that the number was a Mersenne Prime and of the certain length.  This type of bounty-hunting is well-suited for distributed computing approaches that could crunch huge sets of numbers by brute force until the sought-after number was found.  And that's exactly what the GIMPS distributed computing project did to win the two most recent EFF bounties.

On a similar note, there is another concept that I also put into the bounties category.  These again focus on meeting a simple, tangible goal, but are used to reward progress or effort on a per-unit basis.  Again, nothing is being created here.  Instead we are rewarding someone who performs a scientific analysis task ten times, or collects three samples of a certain specimen, devotes 100 hours of computing time, identifies 200 uncharted Mars craters, or tracks the pollution in ten different streams.

Looking around I've seen a few examples of this so far but nothing major, and nothing active right now.  The closest I've found is the Cosmology@Home, a distributed computing project trying to model the current universe from various hypothetical starting points.  To encourage participation researchers offered a prize to the person whose computer model came closest to reality by a certain date; there was not a monetary prize but the winner would be mentioned in scientific articles about the work.  The most widely-known version may be's Mechanical Turk project.  Although not necessarily Citizen Science, it did provide bounties on a piecework basis for crowdsourced activities.  So people could be paid for writing ten web reviews, or transcribing a certain number of podcasts.  The private sector QMULUS Cloud Computing Platform also used this approach to encourage participation in an actual Citizen Science application.  Each month the company gave away gift certificates and free merchandise through a raffle to users of the system.  As a commercial entity they could afford to invest in these give-aways but there's no reason non-profit organizations couldn't do the same thing (ultimately I don't believe the QMULUS group was successful but that doesn't mean other firms can't be successful with similar ideas). There could also be many variations in the raffle entry for every work unit performed, or for per person using the system per month, or per participant in general.  There are many possibilities that could fit depending on the nature of the particular project.

Business Opportunities:
Much like "Solver: models, bounty models are great opportunities for companies interested in the Open Innovation benefits that come with asking the public for help on specific business problems.

One example is understanding protein folding...there are millions of potential ways a large molecule can be put together, but only one is the most stable.  So why not offer a reward to the person discovering the most stable shape using only knowledge of the molecular structure?  If the target chemicals are potential drugs or the cause of a disease, there is a lot of value in this work.  Researchers could provide the components of a key Malaria protein and offer $1,000 to the first person to identify it's shape.  Or provide the shape of an important AIDS protein and provide $5,000 to the person discovering a structure that will fit around it (thus neutralizing it's effect).

Bounty opportunities don't just involve one-of-a-kind discoveries. They can also be used to promote people finding more common items they wouldn't otherwise look for in an organized manner.  For example, a business operating in an environmentally sensitive area may want to encourage citizen scientists to survey the wildlife around a work site to show that environmental protections are working.  It can be expensive to constantly count the animals and plants in the area.  So they could pick some representative species (such as an apex predator) whose presence/lack of presence is correlated to how impacted to the area is, and then offer a bounty prize to whoever spots those animals near the firm's operations.  This rewards the citizen scientists doing the work, and since finding those species has economic value to the firm (by reducing their survey costs and protecting them from the costs of having caused pollution).  

Some people have started trying this model.  One example came up at CitSci 2015 in Tracy Lee's poster, "Unlikely Bedfellows: Industry, Conservation and Citizen Science in the Canadian Oil Sands".  A partnership put between a Canadian oil company (Cenovus) and the environmental non-profit Miistakis Institute created the Wild Watch program for tracking wildlife around some of their oil production facilities.  These facilities extract petroleum from the Canadian Oil Sands, a highly controversial activity due to its potential environmental impact.  Adding bounties as part of the reward mechanism encouraging citizen scientists to participate could potentially increase public participation greatly.

So these are my initial thoughts on bounties.  Right now there is a lot more promise with bounties than successful examples.  But hopefully we can help businesses and citizen scientists build them up together.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Educator

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previously: Paid Participant

This Week: Educator
Next Week: Bounty Hunter

A lot of value comes from the work of citizen science projects.  Some of this comes from the varied and unique perspectives that come from opening problems to the overall public; they can bring ideas that any small group would never have discovered themselves.  In fact the greatest promise (in my mind) of citizen science is this very type of benefit. But currently most value comes from another source, people volunteering to offer free services to the professional and academic researchers.  But why do they do this?

One of the main reasons people join and engage with citizen science projects is for the educational opportunities.  They want to learn about a particular area of science or about the scientific process in general.  So this opens up a new model for monetizing citizen science: Educator.  The best part is, this model provides great opportunities for both businesses providing educational services for profit, as well as individual citizen scientists retaining the value of their own work by selling it as an educational tool. Meeting our goal of businesses both rewarding, and benefiting from, the work of citizen scientists.

Incorporating Citizen Science into Educational Tools
Helping teachers involve students in citizen science is a great opportunity for everyone.  Teachers excite their students about science and help them learn.  Kids get to experience science first hand and have lots of fun in the process.  And businesses can benefit from helping them.

Remember, just because these are children does not mean they can't meaningfully contribute to new discoveries.  Even as we establish that findings of citizen scientists can equal that of paid researchers some people still doubt that extends to schoolchildren.  Yet they've been involved since the very beginning.  Many wildlife identification, weather monitoring, and environmental tracking projects rely on data from schools. The limitation is not the age of the children, but the passion of the teacher and access to the right tools.  And these tools are what businesses can provide.

I'd suggest businesses wanting to enter this market initially approach it as any other "Educational Support" opportunity.  Just take the existing product categories and add a citizen science component.  
Written Materials - For new entrants to the educational field creating supplementary materials for individual science classes.  These can either be project specific, describing a citizen science experiment and providing the educational materials that support it,or it can discuss a scientific topic area and include both experiments and educational materials covering that whole field.   For example.  creating a supplementary text for 6th graders for use when they learn about weather.  The basic science will already be covered in the regular textbook, such as cloud types and how wind is created.  But the supplementary text would go one step further, providing specific guidance on how to go outside and identify various cloud types, how to track them over time, and even how to report them to existing citizen science projects looking for that information.  NASA's S'COOL project collects that as part of it's regular research, though there are presumably others as well. 

There is also a very real market for science textbooks that include citizen science as a part of the curriculum, or even as an overriding theme throughout the book (since much of what has been discovered historically has some sort of citizen science connection).  This new focus can help publishers differentiate their texts from those of competitors. But given the high entry barriers facing new textbook publishers, this is primarily a strategy for current publishers.

Equipment, Supplies, and Kits - There are many firms that manufacture scientific equipment, and many that manufacture equipment to sell to schools.  These are different markets differentiated by the latter typically being lower quality, fewer options, and lower cost.  This meets the needs of students while keeping production numbers high, maximizing efficiencies, and staying within a tight budget.  There is also a third market manufacturing equipment where quality standards increase to be scientifically reliable, but production is still in bulk and options are few to remain cost-competitive to schools. These are perfect for citizen science education and connecting students (of all ages) to real-world research.  This is then sold to the school (or classroom) centrally and then distributed to the students.

Building on our weather example above, there is much more to data collection than just visual observations.  Much of it requires specific equipment such as wind gauges, rain gauges, thermometers and barometers, etc.  There are already non-profit citizen science projects (such as CoCoRAHS) that send out rain gauges and connect them to current research.  But an equipment manufacturing firm could design a whole line of inexpensive, but scientifically accurate, equipment and supplies designed from the beginning to perform real research and connect to ongoing science projects. Some do this for the general public now selling home weather stations that connect to research projects (e.g., National Weather Service stations or Weather Underground), so they'd just need to add educational components that tie everything together and help students learn.

Science Fair - Designing a package of materials that lets students participate in a citizen science project in a stand-alone way so they can use their research as part of a school science fair. This would include background educational material to bring students up-to-speed, detailed instructions on how to set up the project (including connecting to a larger project it would be a part of), and providing the necessary equipment/supplies needed to participate.

The main way I see to be successful is realizing that while science in classrooms is performed by teachers who are trained in the subject and can properly guide students, it is left to parents to guide students in science fairs.  Most don't have the expertise needed to properly guide those kids, so purchasing assistance from a company is a great solution for them.  This is especially because science fairs encourage students to perform more original research than they would in a classroom, leaving parents without much material to draw on.  Another key insight is that while a kit based on existing science materials and experiments might be somewhat successful, it is the citizen science component that makes it special and offers higher returns.  This shows the student performing their own research, a key goal of the science fair. S

The previous two models are focused on class-wide activities and are directed by students.  So we emphasize cost constraints and the need to focus on teacher or school board as the actual customer,  But there are also student-led initiatives, epitomized best by the classic school science fair.  And unlike the previous two models, selling for use in science fairs is much more of "retail" strategy (where units are sold in small individual units to the public) as compared to a more "organizational" strategy (where units are sold in batches to an institutional buyer purchasing for many people). Science fair materials would thus be marketed primarily to either the parents or individual students, though some school districts or teachers may help by steering students toward certain products or favored companies.

Since science fairs are much more about students following their own interests than on pre-determined coursework, any for-profit provider would have to create a wide variety of kits to be successful.  For example, the level of involvement can vary between novice/contributory levels up to expert/co-created types of projects.  Typically this will vary with the child's age (allowing companies to sell to students throughout their educational career) and approximate age level, and should also include a variety of subject areas.  So children can go from just making observations that are part of a larger national project (and learning about the science behind it through the company's supplemental materials) to purchasing kits in later years that involve projects that are much more free-form and 

This looks simple.  Making these citizen science components meaningful is the tough part, especially since the more you can have students creating new research (and not just treading over existing research) the more compelling the product will be. So the development of close ties to the citizen science community and understanding the state of the field are competitive advantages that must be cultivated.

Providing Science Education to Citizen Scientists 
Young students are not the only ones in need of science education these days.  Citizen scientists (of all ages) need it too.  They need it for the projects they join and, as people who by definition have an above average interest in science, they want education for the general learning it can provide. Opening up yet another market for entrepreneurial businesses.

Training Materials Targeted to Specific Citizen Science Projects
Proper training is key to many successful projects and is an element project designers invest a lot of time and money into.   If a company can provide high quality training in this area at a reasonable cost, they should be ale to market it quite effectively.

After initial recruitment, one of the biggest issues citizen science projects must face is properly training their volunteers. While they may come in with much zeal, and maybe even a lot of general science knowledge, they typically are not experts in the field and they certainly don't have the skills for whatever task is being asked of them.  Projects are highly specific and almost always require at least a bit of specialized training.  Even a Ph.D. ornithologist who studies birds for a living may not have training on citizen science projects researching birds not in his specific area of study.  This needs to be taught.  

The needed types of training typically fall into the following categories:
  1. How to use the physical equipment/supplies for real-world projects, or the user interface for web-based projects, and
  2. A description of the essential science specific to the project.

For some projects this is part of the intake process as new participants sign up.  If it's easy for a person to back out (as is the case for many web-based projects), the initial training can be crucial to retaining volunteers.  After that, the quality of training will show up directly in both the quantity and quality of results provided by participants.  This directly impacts the value of the project; either the cost-savings to research or profitability from selling the research.  

Historically project designers create the training themselves because it may need to be specific to the project.  But approached correctly there are many ways for-profit companies can take over that role and do so in a cost-effective way:

  1. Skilled science writers employed by companies do not need expert knowledge of the areas they develop training materials for.  They are knowledgeable enough to learn from the project designers quickly and do their own research to fill in the gaps.  Once caught up, they can develop content that can far exceed what most scientists can.  Developing the science project is where the researcher utilizes their strengths, while the writing and material development is where the science writer's strengths shine.

  2. Although the science in each project is different the methods of teaching and basic principles are often the same. So creating various "modules" that can be mixed/matched to various projects and tweaked to meet the various idiosyncrasies of those projects would be helpful. Companies could invest in them and market to researchers, and if the product is high quality everyone would win.  Especially the citizen scientist learning the new project.  The Zooniverse group of projects are a great example of this.  They do a great job with short-and-sweet trainings that quickly bring participants up to speed and teach some of the science as well. They also seem to use modular concepts, utilizing various bits from existing projects and adapt it to the new.  It's a great model to draw inspiration from.

Learning Materials Targeted to General Scientific Fields
Training citizen science participants is not just important for guiding them through the project and ensuring high quality data.  It is also a goal of its own for citizen scientists themselves.  Many times they join for the specific purpose of learning more about science, and the citizen science project is a fun way to do it.  Making general science education a key retention and recruiting tool; one that can help projects differentiate themselves and attract volunteers.  It's also one I consider a key element to success.

Fortunately providing general science education in a research environment is well-suited to development by outside experts instead of the project designer.  They can invest in developing quality training that can then be easily adapted to other projects (due to it's general nature).  All it takes is the preliminary work and some adaptation tailoring it to the specific project.  

Of course these are just a few of the ideas for how businesses and citizen scientists can team up both educate and be educated.  There are so many more examples and possibilities that can't fit into a single blog post, but are definitely worthy of discussion.  So let me know your own thoughts in the comments below and I'll keep putting together more thoughts of my own for you.