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.