In Blog

Citizen Science through the Internet

by Geraldine Lindley, August 2016

I have had a busy time as a citizen scientist lately – counting penguin chicks in Antarctica, and listening to bat calls in warmer climes – all from the comfort of my armchair with cup of tea in hand!

A while ago I blogged enthusiastically about two citizen science experiences working side by side with researchers in the field (i.e. on Nova Scotia and St. Croix beaches). In this blog I wish to talk about a different approach – using the web as a means to participate.

To explain the participation of citizen scientists in on-line data analysis, I have chosen Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org) as a significant example – a citizen science web portal of the Citizen Science Alliance which is governed by a board of directors from various U.S. and U.K. institutions (www.citizensciencealliance.org). I registered on-line and, as a volunteer “Zooite”, had my pick of a selection of crowd sourced scientific research projects. A research and conservation project on penguins (Penguin Watch) enticed me to view images from a remote camera set up on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Although my interests focus on nature projects (and more specifically it seems, nature projects on beaches), interested citizen scientists can select projects from several general categories. When accessed on March 28, 2016, there were 46 active projects: for example, the Natural World category provides the opportunity to (over 18,000 currently active) volunteers to identify animals from trail camera photos in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This category also has a climatology project that helps predict future storm behaviour by analyzing patterns in satellite images. Space projects may have the keen citizen scientist viewing images from far away galaxies; under Humanities, one might get involved in transcribing museum reports (Notes from Nature), or reading war diaries (Operation War Diary). Perhaps of great attraction to many young citizen scientists is the Worm Watch Lab (Biology and physics category) where one can watch videos of nematode worm behaviour to help researchers understand puzzling genetic questions.

Images of wildlife, galaxies, and historical records are just a few of the fascinating discoveries available to the curious after a bit of on-line training. As a citizen scientist one can also join discussion boards for conversation with researchers and fellow volunteers,; and access published articles resulting from research projects.

Citizen Science Alliance states that involving the public in online citizen science projects is essential to cope with the copious amount of data researchers have to deal with – and that “in its first six months Galaxy Zoo provided the same number of classifications as would a graduate student working round the clock for 3.5 years”! I also found it refreshing to read that our brains are still better than computers in ways such as pattern recognition, and the ability to be surprised by the odd; and that indeed, the large citizen science data sets can be useful in training machines to learn. (http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/philosophy.html)

Reflecting upon my limited experience in the realm of citizen science, I thought not only about my fascination with the complexities of nature and my satisfaction in contributing to building scientific knowledge, but I also thought about the larger implications for society. In a general way (without debating the merits of particular research), it may be stating the obvious to say that facilitating scientific research (some of which would likely not be accomplished otherwise due to resource constraints) is beneficial to society.

But a less obvious potential benefit of citizen science participation comes to mind. Could we also be building mutual understanding between citizens and scientists, thus furthering the understanding of research in a broader context? In 1990, in her article Reflections on Science and the Citizen, well-known scientist and social activist Ursula Franklin stated that building this relationship between citizens and scientists a key task for the future. She explained that the scientific method, in its “emphasis on abstract knowledge over concrete experience…has drastically lessened the confidence of people in the astuteness of their own senses.” (Franklin, pg 315) She further identified the problem of undervaluing direct experience as a source of knowledge in favour of scientific experts. Dr. Franklin believed that these two factors “greatly impeded’ the “participation of concerned citizens in political decisions with significant technological or scientific components”. (Franklin, pg 316). However, through working with citizen groups she believed that having ”a strong motivation, a confidence in their own common sense, and a non-competitive atmosphere in which participants are both teachers and learners” provided a base for developing scientific knowledge and becoming “responsible citizen scientists”. (Franklin, pg 316). Thus, these concluding thoughts on citizen science have broadened my perspective of its contribution to the public good.

References

Franklin, U. (2006). The Ursula Franklin reader – pacifism as a map. Toronto, Ontario: Between the Lines