Thursday, September 8, 2011

Citizen Science. Get Involved.

Citizen science is becoming more and more popular these days. And why shouldn't it? It is an opportunity for volunteers, who may or may not have specific scientific training, to contribute to ongoing scientific research. The volunteer gets the benefit of participating in a task they are interested in and the scientist gets the benefit of many people going through very large amounts of data, allowing them to accomplish their research objectives. It is just a great way to involve the individual as well as promoting public engagement in science.

Citizen science is not a new concept, it has been around for centuries. However, with advances in technology and the rise of the Internet it has become so much easier to get people involved, especially across large geographic areas. And in most cases the human brain is much better at analyzing images and other data than a computer. Add to that the number of replications you can have when multiple people classify the same image and you can see how errors can be decreased and new discoveries made.

So how does this whole thing work and how can you get involved? Well, first, think about a scientific topic that interests you: ornithology, astronomy, climate change, geology...whatever. The scope of science is so big that there is likely a project that fits your interests. Next, you need to find a project. They come in several varieties. First there is the scope: international, national, regional, or local. Next there is the type of activity you want to do: field work, image or data analysis, or just contributing some of your computer's power. And finally, how long do you want to spend working on this: years, months, or hours. That sounds like a lot but once you have figured these parameters out it will make it much easier to find a projects that suits you. Once you have found a project there is typically a short training session to get you familiar with the user interface and how the data should be analyzed/recorded. Then you are all set to do some science!

I've divided some of the most popular citizen science projects down by category, giving a short description of each. Each icon is linked to take you to the project described. At the end I've linked to a couple of general, easily searchable websites that will help you find the project you want.


This is one of the most popular citizen science fields, and the projects that make up the Zooniverse are the most popular of these projects. There are several projects within the Zooniverse to choose from including:
  • Ice Hunters
    •  Help find the final target of NASA's New Horizons Mission! After passing Pluto (and pending NASA approval of an extended mission, of course) the spacecraft will retarget itself for an encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). The target won't be selected until shortly before the Pluto encounter and there will be lots of images to go through to find out where to go next. This is where you come in. Look at pictures of never seen before objects to find out which one we should visit.
  • Moon Zoo
    • Explore the surface of the Moon! Look through images taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and answer questions about what you see. Identify craters, boulders (called "Boulder Wars," LOL), or any interesting or weird features you come across.
  • Galaxy Zoo: Hubble
    •  There are hundreds of thousands of galaxies drawn from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope archive. In this project you get to look at the gorgeous imagery from this telescope and classify the galaxies. Are they elliptical, spiral, irregular? Or is there some new type out there waiting to be discovered?
  • Galaxy Zoo: Supernovae
    •  This project is similar to the project above, this time contributing data from an automatic survey in California, at the world-famous Palomar Observatory. Except here you are looking for supernovae. Exploding stars!
  • Galaxy Zoo: Mergers
    • Here you are looking for the merging of galaxies. From images you select simulations that look similar to the targeted merger, tuning your best matches. You can even decide which simulation wins in a series of tournament-style competitions.
  • Planet Hunters
    • Look for extrasolar planets (planets around other stars)! This project finds planets by identifying how the brightness of a star changes over time.
  • The Milky Way Project
    • This projects aims to sort and measure our galaxy. Using the beautiful infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope you are asked to find and draw bubbles. These bubbles identify the life stages of the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. 
  • Old Weather
    • This project works to recover worldwide weather observations made by Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I. This will contribute to climate model projections, improve a database of weather extremes, and track past ship movements and the stories of the people on board.
  • Solar Stormwatch
    • Help spot explosions on the Sun and track them across space to Earth! Not only will you help to identify and classify activity on the Sun but you will also contribute to early warnings if dangerous solar radiation is heading toward astronauts. 

These scientists are seeking to understand a star that has been a mystery for many years. This star is epsilon Aurigae, it is located in the constellation Auriga, and it is a variable star (it changes in brightness over time). This change in brightness is called eclipse. It takes over 600 days, and it only occurs every 27.1 years. The project scientists will guide you through the process of how to observe epsilon Aurigae, how to send them your observations, and then how to see your results, analyze them, and even publish them in a scientific journal.

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. It is completely safe. All you need to do is download the program and it will run while your computer is on, not disrupting any of your other computing tasks.


This project works to produce predictions of the Earth's climate up to 2100 and to test the accuracy of climate models. To do this, they need people around the world to give them time on their computers - time when they have their computers switched on, but are not using them to their full capacity. What do you do? Not much really. You to run a climate model on your computer. It runs automatically in the background, not affecting any other tasks for which you use your computer. It is completely safe and requires no more of your time than it takes to download the program. Read more by clicking the image link or go to download the program HERE.

Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) works to measure and map precipitation. Each time a rain, hail or snow storm crosses your area, you take measurements of precipitation from as many locations as possible and report it on the website. These data are compiled and used to provide accurate high-quality precipitation data, increasing the density of precipitation data available throughout the country, and encourage citizens to have fun participating in meteorological science while heightening their awareness about weather.

This project aims to accurately record and analyze "ice on" and "ice off" events as well as snow depth, air temperature, and wildlife observations to learn how climate change affects our environment. You will receive instructions on how to properly IceWatch (even if you live in a warmer climate), you pick your location to observe over the winter (like a nearby lake, bay, or river), record your observations, and submit them online.


This project is great for gamers!
Genetic sequences are difficult to understand and decipher their structure, and this project aims to compare them to detect any similar regions they may have. So they have put together a website that abstracts the multiple alignment problem to a game where the goal will be to align words made by pieces of different color instead of letters representing the genetic code (A,C,G,T). You create columns of the same color and create gaps, ultimately finding the best tradeoff between aligning color and creating gaps. You can even choose a puzzle to solve from the disease you want to treat.

Another project that is great for gamers. This project is all about protein folding. Proteins are built from individual amino acids but they don't stay all stretched out in a strand, they fold into very specific shapes. Finding the shapes and the optimal folding is the hard part though and is what this project aims to do. Knowing the structures is important to things like drug development and disease research. The problem has been put into game form. You, as the player, solve a series of puzzles to optimally pack you protein, hide the hydrophobic bits, and clear any clashes. You can play individually or form teams, competing with other protein folders around the world.


The whale shark photo-ID library...its cool just saying it. This project uses photographs of the skin patterning behind the gills of each shark and any scars to distinguish between individual animals. This helps scientists to see where individual animals are going, the abundance of whale sharks, and their distribution. If you see a whale shark while out diving you can report all kinds of information about the encounter by filling out their online form, and you can submit pictures to the library.

Do you love whales? All kinds? This project is working to classify the sounds that whales make into distinct regions. "For example, in Orcas (Killer Whales) there are over 150 identified types of call. Every time you match a pair of Orca calls, you're casting a vote for those two calls to be considered 'similar'." The more this is done the better map the researchers get of calls that are alike. This allows them to identify patterns, groups of whales, and eventually get a better understanding of how whales communicate with each other. All you do is look at a spectrogram and listen to a call and then find a matching call. Simple.

This is a project for reporting jellyfish and other marine organisms. If you have seen jellyfish, red tide, or any other unusual marine life you just go online and fill out their form and submit it. They even have a list of similar projects around the world that you can participate in.

FishWatchers is a project out of the International Game Fish Association. This website allows you to  upload your fish observations and photos through the Internet. Any fish any time. This information will then be used to create current distribution maps to assist in monitoring trends in biodiversity


This is a great project from a Dutch entomologist that lets motorists report the date, time, and location of their latest outing and the number of insects that get hit (and probably smushed) by their vehicle. Not only does it give an idea about how many bugs are killed by vehicles it provides insect presence in certain locations and information about their flight patterns.

This is a network of people across the United States who monitor plants as the seasons change. It is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data based on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants (plant phenophases). You can send in regular observations or just a single report. Everything is usefull. They provide good identification keys and other tools you will need to start. Not in the U.S.? I'm sure there is is similar project near you.

This is a U.S. based citizen science project that is a national animal and plant phenology observation program. You find out the plants and animals near you on a provided list, learn to select a site and observe and record what is there, and submit your results.

 eBird is a real-time, online checklist program that reports and accesses information about birds. It provides information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. It is amassing one of the largest and fastest growing biodiversity data resources in existence. You enter when, where, and how you went birding, fill out a checklist of all the birds seen and heard during the outing, and submit your observations into the eBird database. They even provide tools so you can maintain your personal bird records and even visualize your personal data with interactive maps, graphs, and bar charts.

Neighborhood Nestwatch is a project out of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The idea is to find and monitor bird nests so scientists can compare how successful nests are in urban, suburban, and rural areas. All you have to do is keep a watchful eye out throughout the year and report your results.

 I know several people that participate in the Christmas Bird Count each year and have a really great time. From December 14 - January 5 volunteers brave the cold weather to do a little bit of bird counting. Anything from feeder-watching to active birding counts. It provides valuable information on migrating birds, bird abundances and distributions, and much more. There are many groups out there too that participate in the count and would love to have another person to help, regardless of your skillset.

 NestWatch, as you might gather from the name, is a nest-monitoring project. It aims to compile large, continent-wide databases tracking survival and reproductive success of a wide range of species and provide a unified nest-monitoring scheme to track reproductive success for all North American breeding birds. You "get certified" (meaning you learn how to properly observe a nest without jeopardizing the nest), look for active nests, monitor the nests and collect data, and enter the data online. The fact that you get to see baby birds should be a big selling point *wink*

The Backyard Bird Count is similar to the Christmas Bird Count in that it is an annual event that provides a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the North America. The Count occurs from February 17 - February 20 and takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. When you are finished you enter your results on their webpage.

When it comes to doing science, watching the visitors to your bird feeder sure ain't bad. Project FeederWatch is a winter-long project of birds that visit feeders in backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. By counting birds at your feeder you help scientists to broadscale movements of winter-bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. You count birds at your count site that are there because of something you have provided (plantings, food, or water) and only report the highest number of individuals you see in view at one time, and then you report it online. Simple.


 The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN )is a collaborative initiative for developing the world's largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to Internet-connected computers. The QCN obtains information about earthquake waves (seismic waves) by using computers that are connected to the Internet. Many laptop computers have built in sensors and desktop computers can utilize small USB sensors to collect the data. The data from these sensors are collected only when the computer is turned on and idle and is sent over the Internet. It is safe and easy. All you need to do is download the program.

 I used to take my ecology lab students out to cemeteries so we could collect data to make life tables. They were always a little squeemish at first but ended up loving the work. The Gravestone Project aims to map the location of a graveyards around the globe and then use marble gravestones in those graveyards to measure the weathering rate of marble at that location. The weathering rates of gravestones are an indication of changes in the acidity of rainfall between locations and over time and could be used as a measure of changes in climate and pollution levels. You go to your local graveyard and take a few measurements such as the lead lettering or headstone thickness.

The bodyLab is a project that researches the evolution of human body shapes and our ideas of attractiveness. All you have to do is go to the website and rate the silhouettes of women and/or men based on if you find that body shape attractive. It is so easy to do you don't even need to create an account.

The Sound Around You is building a sound map of the world as part of a new study into how sounds in our everyday environment make us feel. All you do is use your mobile phones (or another audio recording device if your phone is not compatible) to record 10-15 second clips from different sound environments, or ‘soundscapes’ from a family car journey to a busy shopping center, and to upload them to the virtual map, along with your opinions of them and why you chose to record it.

Dognition is a site that offers dog owners a series of science-based games that determine their dog's unique abilities and their relative strengths and weaknesses in various thinking skills. These skills range from empathy to cunning to memorization. As a user, you enter the results of your dog's behaviors, contributing to a data set that can be used by researchers studying dog cognition. It also offers the owners a "window into [their] dog's mind, offering a first step on the path toward improved behavior." You can tell how your dog sees the world and how they respond in different situations while at the same time contributing to science. Note: As of now this site/service has a fee.


This is the best website I have found for finding a project that suits you. It has a great search engine and describes the projects very well. It also includes many local projects as well as great projects for kids.

This site is less detailed and contains fewer projects but is still a good source for citizen science.

(top image from

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