Power in Numbers: Getting Engaged with Citizen Science
By Katie Wolf, Science and Technology Librarian
What is Citizen Science?
April is Citizen Science Month, and it’s a great time to get involved with community science!
If you’re unfamiliar with citizen and community science, it’s a collaboration between scientists and anyone who is interested in participating in the world of research and discovery. There are a lot of challenges facing modern research, and having a motivated community of contributors can accelerate research, especially when the research involves a lot of data collection, data sorting, or even data analysis. With the help of a community, what would be a large amount of data processing can turn into a quick project. What’s even better is that these projects are often fun, interactive, and engaging, making them a great way to introduce those new to science to the research community.
Citizen science projects are a great way to introduce new students to research and the scientific process, as well as gather community support for and increase engagement with research. They’re also a great way to move forward with your own research! Take a look at a few examples of citizen science below to see what they’re all about.
Citizen Science Projects
Galaxy Zoo is a project on Zooniverse, which is a site that hosts a wide variety of interactive citizen science projects. Galaxy Zoo, launched in 2007, is one of the most well-known. While it’s had many iterations, the main goal is to better classify different astronomical objects.
This project is a great example of addressing “data deluge” – when the project was founded there were over 900,000 images of galaxies that needed to be classified. When they first started estimating how long it would take to finish this project, they gathered that it would take a graduate student working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 3 to 5 years to finish. It became clear that they were limited not by the data collecting, but by what they could realistically do with the data they already had – in essence, they faced a “data deluge”. This is where citizen science can really shine.
Classifying these galaxies takes only a minimal amount of training and can be done relatively quickly. So, instead of having one highly trained person do all the work, they outsourced it. By having multiple people with a small amount of training (there is a tutorial when you start informing you about the different classifications and what to look for when you classify) look at the same object (each object is shown to multiple people for increased accuracy) many times, they got almost the same level of accuracy in a shorter period of time.
Whenever there isn’t a community consensus about what type of galaxy an image contains, then those get looked at by experts, but for a majority of images, the community was able to classify accurately and quickly. During the first 24 hours of the project, they were able to gather an average of almost 70,000 classifications an hour, and by the end of the first year, the community around Galaxy Zoo had contributed over 50 million classifications. This is a great example of the power in numbers!
Citizen science is not just for brute force data analysis. It can also be used to gather information on things like how to program pattern prediction and make computer processing more efficient. Foldit is a game that anyone can play that contributes to the discovery of new antiviral drugs. By measuring the pattern-recognition and pattern-folding abilities of humans, and comparing them to current computer abilities, scientists use data from this game to teach computers how to fold proteins in new ways as fast as possible.
This is an example of using human input to better approach a problem with a vast range of possible solutions. Protein structures can be hugely complex, and the number of folds can quickly become almost impossible to calculate efficiently because of how many degrees of freedom there are in the problem. Then, there’s the step of figuring out which of these structures is the best one is even harder. By taking advantage of a human’s natural ability to find patterns, Foldit also capitalizes on competitive play to find the best folds for proteins.
There’s a tutorial to get you started, and then you can play as much as you want. It’s accessible to people of all ages, begins with the basics of protein design, and ultimately helps further the very complex task of protein creation and prediction.
Citizen Science is not just useful for data analysis or helping computers get faster – it can also be a project centered around long-term data collection. iNaturalist, a joint project between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, is a project that allows people to map and share biodiversity observations from around the world.
The project consists of mapping what you saw and where, for example, an Eastern Gray Squirrel in the southern portion of Central Park. A photo, or other evidence of the organism, is included with the data point. Once a data point is posted, the community is then asked to verify the accuracy of it, to better increase the overall accuracy of the database being built. Once an observation is confirmed as accurate, in addition to being added to biodiversity databases, it’s also used to train an automated species identification system, which further increases the speed and efficiency of biodiversity studies.
This project has contributed to some of the largest biodiversity databases and helps to track and monitor biodiversity in certain areas over time. This is an example of a community coming together to not only analyze data, but also to collect it.
Get Support from the Library
Whether you’d like to use an online project in future semesters, or you’re interested in a long-term, multi-semester project, utilizing citizen science projects can be a great way to engage with students and get them excited about current research. Having a tool like this in your back pocket can be useful when working in an online environment.
The library can help you integrate these projects into current and future courses, including helping you find projects that are relevant to your area of study and helping to find examples of previous projects that have been successfully used to teach. If you’re interested in exploring citizen science and community science further – whether you want to join in on a project or you’re interested in starting one of your own – reach out to the library to see what we can do to help you get started. Our chat service is staffed 24/7, and you can also email our library liaisons directly.
You can also learn more about Citizen Science Month at CitizenScienceMonth.org. You can also check out CitizenScience.org for more information about the power of community-driven science. If you’d like to get involved right away, SciStarter, CitiSci, and Zooniverse are great places to search for projects or even start your own.