Citizen Science

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Citizen Science


Context

Rebecca Blood: "Wide adoption of the Internet has fueled a resurgence of citizen science. Cornell's Project Feeder Watch employs 16,000 volunteers across North America who record their sightings on a website that will automatically ask them to double-check if they report sighting a bird that normally does not range in their area. In Canada, Frogwatch has set up systems for reporting and mapping observations so that volunteers can see the results of their input immediately.And Earthdive is working on a global scale, allowing recreational divers and snorkellers to record their experiences. Members can search and explore dives, snorkel trips, science logs, and personal experiences recorded all over the world. By including sightings of key indicator species during their dives and trips, Earthdive members are creating a daily global snapshot of the state of our planet's oceans." (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002974.html)


Discussion

Citizen Science as an alternative to centralized Big Science

In this NYT editorial, Aaron Hirsh first describes the inevitability of Big Science approaches as scienfific communities grow, but also argues in the second part, that distributed citizen science is an alternative way to achieve bigness wihout centralization:

"if Big Science is what it takes to gather the truly precious data, what are we to do?

There is another way to extend our scientific reach, and I believe it can also restore some of what is lost in the process of centralization. It has been called Citizen Science, and it involves the enlistment of large numbers of relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific data. To return to our architectural metaphor, if Big Science builds the high-rise yet higher, Citizen Science extends outward the community of villages.

For me, an especially inspiring example of Citizen Science is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Every winter, from mid December to early January, tens of thousands of intrepid hobbyists fan out across North America, and together, they do their best to answer two basic questions: How many birds are there? And what kinds?

It’s a simple sort of data, to be sure, but it is nonetheless scientifically invaluable. The CBC dataset now covers 109 years, and this remarkable temporal extent, along with geographic range that spans the continent, enables scientists to address questions that would otherwise be as inaccessible as a Higgs boson. Just in the past few years, scientists have used the CBC dataset to track the emergence and impact of West Nile virus, to understand the ecological effects of competition between introduced species and to measure the shift that birds make toward the poles in response to global warming.

The CBC is surely a glowing exemplar, but there are many other cases of Citizen Science in action. Even underwater, a snorkeling citizen can serve science by taking down a few notes, which he’ll enter into a website when he returns to shore. The Internet is a natural medium for Citizen Science — widely distributed yet highly organized, it’s the ultimate network of villages — and an initiative known as The Encyclopedia of Life has called upon the world’s hobbyists to contribute their sundry discoveries to a Web-based library of species: one page per organism, featuring photos, taxonomy, natural history, even ecology.

Of course, Citizen Science won’t be very helpful in genome sequencing or particle physics. But it will be helpful — indeed, perhaps essential — for gathering a kind of data that will be increasingly important over the next few decades. Widespread networks of observers are especially well-suited to detecting global change — shifts in weather patterns; movements in the ranges of species; large-scale transformations of eco-systems — and that, unfortunately, is something we will need to know far more about if we are to mitigate and adapt to the fateful effects we are having on the planet.

In the end, though, what may be most important about Citizen Science is what it could mean for the relationship between citizens and science. When everyone is gathering data, that rather austere and forbidding tower becomes a shared human pursuit. In 1963, Alvin Weinberg, who was then the director of Oak Ridge, likened Big Science to the greatest monuments civilizations have ever built: the cathedrals of medieval Europe; the pyramids of Egypt.

But just as we build higher our temples of scientific investigation, so too should we strengthen their foundations, and broaden their congregations. Perhaps the new administration, which has already proven itself so skilled in using the Internet to coordinate broad networks of volunteers, ought to consider a national initiative in Citizen Science. It would provide us with timely data, and it would make us better citizens." (http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/guest-column-a-new-kind-of-big-science/)


Collaboration between experts and amateurs

Citizen science projects pose the problem of accuracy and the cooperation between experts and amateurs.

By Adam Glenn at http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=116168

See our entry on Citizen Journalism for extra context:

"I think such citizen science projects offer valuable models that can be applied to citizen media projects:


1. Rigorous data collection. The Bird Count uses carefully developed methodologies to avoid spoiling data with inaccurate or duplicate information. Likewise, citizen journalists can establish and disseminate guides for reporting and photography standards -- especially regarding verifiable info such as names, quotes, attribution, numbers and the like.


2. Pooling and verifying cumulative results. The sheer volume of overall data collected in the Bird Count ensures that, if any contaminated info does sneak in, it won't unacceptably distort the final result. That's an important lesson for citizen journalism sites, harking back to the journalistic principle of verifying information with multiple sources. Ideally, citJ projects should seek multiple iterations of information -- for example, requiring that assertions by one contributor be verified by others.


3. Vetting amateurs. Even small hurdles like registration forms and minimal fees can weed out the unworthy, while extensive mandatory training can seriously raise the level of contributions (as well as the cost, unfortunately). It's worth considering whether citJ sites might benefit from mandatory online tutorials, accuracy checklists or story forms to make sure vital info isn't left out of submissions.


4. Expert-amateur interaction. Most citizen science projects aim to pair the novice with either experienced amateurs or experts themselves, fostering mentoring relationships that ultimately improve the data. Why shouldn't experienced citizen journalists (or professional journalists associated with new media or even mainstream media) provide the same mentoring? This could be done via workshops, in-the-field training, online editing, or other means. If the gains in media democratization aren't enough for you, how about the ways in which the resulting bond with the community and its most active news consuming members could pay off in loyalty to the news product?" (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=116168)


Citizen Science Differs from Crowdsourcing

"the distinction made between crowdsourcing and citizen science, by Yale-based astrophysicist and Galaxy Zoo founder Kevin Schawinski:

“We prefer to call this [Galaxy Zoo] citizen science because it’s a better description of what you’re doing; you’re a regular citizen but you’re doing science. Crowd sourcing sounds a bit like, well, you’re just a member of the crowd and you’re not; you’re our collaborator. You’re pro-actively involved in the process of science by participating.”

On comparisons between Galaxy Zoo and [email protected], [email protected], etc., etc., etc.:

“Galaxy Zoo volunteers do real work. They’re not just passively running something on their computer and hoping that they’ll be the first person to find aliens. They have a stake in science that comes out of it, which means that they are now interested in what we do with it, and what we find.” (http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2009/02/09/crowdsourcing-versus-citizen-science/)

Examples

Some other examples:

  1. distributed proofreading for Project Gutenberg, at http://www.pgdp.net/ #Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, http://www.mersenne.org/prime.htm #NASA Clickworkers, http://clickworkers.arc.nasa.gov/top ;
  2. SETI http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu
  3. Christmas Bird Count

Related movements:

  1. DNA Hacking ; Biohacking ; DIY Bio

More Information

See our entry on Communal Validation