Citizen science. It’s frequently plugged in the media these days, but what exactly is it, and does it really warrant all the attention? In a nutshell, citizen science is crowdsourcing for science. Just as crowdsourcing capitalises on the collective power of “crowds” to complete tasks more efficiently than any single person, citizen science outsources tasks requiring little or no scientific expertise to ordinary folks. This hastens data collection and/or analyses. Moreover, with a little strategic oversight from the scientists in charge, this increased rate of data collection and/ or analysis can be achieved with minimal loss of accuracy.
For example, the “Range Extension Database and Mapping Project,” or “Redmap,” is hosted by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the University of Tasmania. Redmap aims to discover the extent to which Australian marine species may be “relocating” in response to environmental changes, like ocean warming. However, given that Australia’s coastline stretches almost 60,000 km, it would take more than a few enthusiastic marine scientists with a couple of decades and a few thousand Qantas points to spare, to make any headway in mapping the full extent of such shifts.
Instead, Redmap relies on the thousands of avid fishers, divers, snorkelists, and swimmers to “spot, log and map” unusual marine visitors to Australian waters using their smart phones. These photographs are then channelled to a group of about eighty dedicated Redmap marine scientists from who collate the photographs and authenticate the identities of the species spotted.
The Redmap initiative is still in its infancy but is already making waves (pardon the pun) in Australian marine research. In Tasmania, where the initiative first began in 2009, scientists have found strong evidence for southward range shifts of several species like rainbow cale (Heteroscarus acroptilus) and the gloomy octopus (Octopus tetricus).
Redmap scientists are hopeful that the data will ultimately inform critical management decisions so that research can be directed to the areas and species most severely impacted by climate change and range shifts.
Citizen Science in the Smartphone Era
Redmap is an ideal example of how citizen science can contribute to legitimate and important scientific discovery. It also illustrates how citizen science and technological advancement go hand-in-hand. Anyone with an ounce of technological know-how can download the Redmap smartphone app for free and within seconds be “spotting, logging and mapping.”
At risk of exaggerating, the abundance of smartphones marks a new era of citizen science. Today, the overused saying that “there’s an app for everything” indisputably includes citizen science projects as well. Go ahead. Verify this for yourself. Search for “citizen science apps” or “citizen science games.” Warning – avoid doing this if you have any impending assignments.
In order to save you the trouble of trawling through the deepest, darkest recesses of the internet, below is an assorted selection of citizen science apps and games for you to trial at your leisure. Some have been selected for their potential contribution to science while others simply piqued my (apparently morbid) sense of curiousity.
You’ve got to hand it to the developers of this app for having a sense of humour. On the other hand, however, the aim of Splatter Spotter is no laughing matter. By improving our understanding of the frequency and locations of most road kill incidents, scientists at California State University Channel Islands hope to reduce wildlife mortality rates.
Users download the Splatter Spotter smartphone app and report the locations, type, and road conditions of any road kill spotted during their travels.
The resulting “incident database” is used to elucidate which wildlife is most prone to road mortality and how roads can be better designed to minimize road kill. Such knowledge is invaluable given the far-fetching impacts of road kill such as impeded migration routes, increased threat to already endangered species, and subsequent imbalances in natural predator-prey populations. What’s more, if you’re not fussed about wildlife kills and ecological implications (shame on you), the data can also help reduce vehicle accidents and human injuries associated with road kill.
Unfortunately, Splatter Spotter is not yet available for download in Australia, though hopefully not for much longer. It is reported that on average, in Australia, one animal is killed for every three kilometres, with 96 percent of animal collisions involving wild animals.
Want to do something soothing whilst simultaneously mapping the human brain? The Eyewire app takes the adult colouring craze 3D by getting gamers to essentially “colour in” 3D models of tiny neurons visualised using electron microscopy.
Eyewire, which is pioneered by the Seung Lab at Princeton University, aims to uncover the ways in which neurons connect and exchange information. It also seeks to refine artificial intelligence algorithms for mapping the brain’s neural connection, because, as it stands, humans still do a better job of this.
The problem is that it currently takes one person about 50 hours to map a single neuron. Considering that a single human brain contains about 85 million neurons – that’s 4.25 billion hours or about 485,000 years to map the human brain. This is where citizen science becomes especially useful.
Eyewire enables gamers to compete for points and interact with fellow gamers. The faster and more accurately you trace a specified neuron, the more points you rack up. Even if you’re not too fazed about speed or accuracy, check this game out for its vivid and rather therapeutic colours, patterns, and elevator-style background music.
If you really want to increase your science street cred, you may wish to consider joining a community of over 150,000 players by downloading Quantum Moves.
The game was created by physicists at Aarhus University in Denmark and aims to harness the people power of thousands of non-physicists in order to build a quantum computer. Yep, that’s right – a quantum computer. Wouldn’t that be a great accomplishment to add to your résumé?
Quantum Moves challenges players to find ways to manipulate and move atoms. These moves ultimately translate to movements of actual laser beams and atoms in the quantum laboratory housed at Aarhus University.
There are currently well over 150,000 dedicated Quantum Moves players. An early trial of the game established that over half the computer-refined solutions from just 300 volunteers who played a particular level of the game 12,000 times were more efficient than the solutions generated by computer algorithms alone.
This last website isn’t a game as such but rather a platform upon which scientists, or anyone in fact, can create and promote their own citizen science projects.
Users can create their own individual citizen science project using a range of free templates available upon the website. Projects are split into categories, for example, biology or economics, and common tasks include image classification, transcription and geocoding.
For example, let’s say you have several SD cards worth of camera trap photographs. Each card holds several hundred images and you need to sort through them to discern species counts.
Instead of spending you precious weekends battling dry eyes, you can use Crowdcrafting to easily recruit volunteers to help sort and describe your photographs. The website provides detailed and easy to follow instructions for creating a range of projects. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a cash-strapped, time-poor PhD or Honours student.
If the above apps and games peaked your interest, you may also want to check out the following links for further information about citizen science projects, which rely on mobile phone technology: