With citizen science, people take research into their own hands

From CNET Magazine: Around the world, regular people with no formal training are contributing to some of today's most exciting scientific research. You can join them.

Jennifer Guevin Former Managing Editor / Reviews
Jennifer Guevin was a managing editor at CNET, overseeing the ever-helpful How To section, special packages and front-page programming. As a writer, she gravitated toward science, quirky geek culture stories, robots and food. In real life, she mostly just gravitates toward food.
Jennifer Guevin
6 min read

With a camera in hand, Dottie Dwyer peers out her window, scanning the view for flashes of color or movement. When she sees a bird, she'll record that sighting in a massive online database that scientists around the world will use in their own research. But Dwyer isn't an ornithologist. She's a retired deputy sheriff. She's one of an army of people who volunteer their time to collect critical data for scientific research. And this is citizen science.

Citizen science is a simple concept with big implications. It's the idea that people with no formal scientific training can contribute to meaningful discoveries. And it's taking off in a big way. Today, people from all manner of backgrounds volunteer their time to help scientists do research they could never do otherwise. They can help turn a scientist's team of just a few undergrads into a team of thousands.


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If you talk to the people who run these programs, they'll tell you this isn't new. Amateurs have contributed to scientific research for centuries. Many scientists of eras past were nothing more than intensely curious people who took the initiative to ask questions about the world around them. Even well-known scientists relied on volunteers to push their fields forward. Carl Linnaeus, widely considered the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, relied upon specimens sent to him by amateur scientists to build his species classification system.

But since the late 19th century, when full-time jobs in the sciences became more common, the notion of non-professionals doing scientific work started to become marginalized. Can the untrained public really be trusted to do legitimate science? Now it's clear the answer is yes. And technology is a key reason why.

Today's citizen science projects tend to fall into two categories: people either go out into the field and collect data on the plants, animals and conditions around them, or they sift through mountains of data to help find the interesting bits. They do this using technology many of us take for granted -- smartphones, digital cameras and Internet connections.

Is that a laboratory in your pocket?

Cornell University has organized a massive network of volunteer data collectors. Through its eBird program, run by Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, people can submit reports about the types of birds they see nearby. During the lab's volunteer projects, people identify bird species, snap pictures and even record birdsong with their phones, then send that information in.

One of those projects, the Great Backyard Bird Count, happens every February. Participants note what birds they see, then submit their sightings and location through an online form. That data gets added to the eBird database and is used to update maps of bird distribution in North America.

With that data, "we can almost instantaneously create a map of where snow buntings or American robins are," said David Bonter, assistant director of citizen science at the Ornithology Lab.

Of course, it wasn't always so quick and easy. Cornell has involved the public in scientific research since the 1960s, back when today's technology was unimaginable. Even when Bonter came to Cornell in 2002, almost everything was done on paper. People would mail in their findings at the end of a birding season.

"We'd spend months scanning data in," he said. Now Cornell can get much more data much faster. eBird receives tens of millions of records from across the globe each year. And Cornell makes all that information available to anyone who wants it. So a scientist working on climate change, for example, could use it to see whether certain environmental changes have affected bird migration.

That's just one example. NASA's S'COOL program (for Students' Cloud Observations On-Line), invites students to take photos of nearby clouds and send them to the space agency. NASA uses those pictures to validate its own satellite measurements. NASA gets the hard data it needs, and teachers get a chance to involve their students in a hands-on science project.

Snapshot Serengeti

Just one of the photos analyzed by people through Snapshot Serengeti.

Another recent project, called iSPEX-EU, recruited people around Europe to do an air pollution study. In that project, people snapped a sensor on to their smartphone cameras and took pictures of the sky above. Scientists could then compare air quality in 11 European cities without the expensive travel.

Some citizen science projects can be done from the comfort of your couch. In NASA's DiskDetective project, images from telescopes are posted online. People review those images and look for debris disks around stars, which is where scientists believe new planets can form.

A similar project, Snapshot Serengeti, asks people to classify animals photographed by camera traps in Tanzania. This approach allowed researchers to categorize hundreds of thousands of photos in about a week -- a feat they could never have accomplished on their own.

Quantity and quality

This is all well and good. But when the people doing the work have little to no formal training, can you really trust that data?

"That is the number one issue for citizen science," said Amy Kaminski, senior policy advisor at NASA's Office of the Chief Scientist.

But both Kaminski and Bonter agree that data quality is a concern in all scientific research. Even professional scientists aren't infallible.

"There are scientists who are bad at collecting their own data out there too," Bonter said. "There are undergraduate field assistants who don't have a clue what they're doing."

Technology is helping solve this problem too. Bonter talks about those old paper forms people used to mail to Cornell.

"It used to be that if people submitted data that was a little questionable, you wouldn't get the form until the end of the season, which might be six months later," Bonter said. "By then it was too late to go back and get validation."

Now Cornell has people submit reports through smart digital forms that check those findings against the eBird database. If someone reports a bird sighting that doesn't seem quite right for their area and the time of year, they'll get an immediate notification. They can then snap a picture of the bird and upload that so it can be reviewed by a professional ornithologist.

Other projects use the sheer number of participants to ensure their data is clean. In NASA's DiskDetective project, for example, volunteer scientists essentially check each other's work.

"For every image, at least 15 or 20 people are seeing the same image. In the professional science community, you don't necessarily have that same level of validation of data."

Uncle Sam wants you

Citizen science isn't just nice to have. Sometimes it's the only way to get research done.

"I think now the vast majority of academics recognize that, if you're trying to do something over extended time periods or big geographic areas, citizen science is the tool you need to use," said Bonter.

Even the US federal government recognizes the potential. Last fall, the Obama Administration held an event encouraging government agencies to incorporate citizen science into their research. It also released the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, a resource designed to help agencies create and manage citizen science projects.

This wouldn't be the first time the federal government recruited the public to help with research. For years, it's run a program in which volunteers catch, tag and release birds so they can be monitored over time. But the goal now is to initiate many more projects that get the public involved.

"This is to create a culture change among federal agencies and encourage them to use these tools to enhance our ability to do good science," said NASA's Kaminski.

With so many projects open to the public, and many more sure to come, maybe the next big scientific breakthrough will be made by you.

This story appears in the spring 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.