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.
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.
GENETICS AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY
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.
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
TERRESTRIAL PLANTS AND ANIMALS
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.
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.
WEBSITES FOR FINDING CITIZEN SCIENCE PROJECTS
(top image from thisgreenblog.com)