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Science + Tech

Citizen Scientists: Friendly Future for DIY Tech

Who needs a fancy lab or degree to create breakthroughs? First in a series.

Blair McBride, Kate McKenna, Jane van Koeverden and Alexa Zulak 16 Apr

Blair McBride, Kate McKenna, Jane van Koeverden and Alexa Zulak, journalism students at the University of Western Ontario., are part of a team producing this Citizen Science series for co-publication by The Tyee and Rabble.

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Sonaar Luthra discusses his team's Water Canary gear allowing anyone to test for contamination and warn others about it via wireless networks. Watch his Ted Talk here.

[Editor's note: This is the first in a seven part series exploring the growing citizen science movement. Produced by three dozen students in the Masters of Journalism program at Western University, the series is being jointly published by and]

When John Powell was 17 years old, he and four friends got together and did something daring: they bid on a NASA contract.

"We were bidding against Lockheed (Martin) and Boeing and General Dynamics and all the big guys, and there were initially 600 bidders and it got down to three," Powell said.

"That's when NASA discovered that we were all 17 and in high school."

Because of their age, they were denied the contract. But it was the beginning of JP Aerospace, a volunteer-based organization dedicated to building low-cost spacecraft and technology.

JP Aerospace is one of many organizations in the citizen science movement. Their goal is to produce cheap and simple technologies that can be used by anyone, largely without the help of professional scientists.

Over the years, JP Aerospace has completed contracts with the US Air Force. They've proven themselves as a legitimate research group. So how do they keep growing from here? It's a question that many citizen science organizations are facing.

For Powell, the hope is that people begin to realize that science is more accessible than they think, and anyone can contribute -- not just rocket scientists.

And according to some citizen scientists, as technologies become more practical, portable and cheap, citizen science will definitely continue to grow.

New kind of technological revolution

It seems like every week a new app, smartphone or gadget comes out, and each new development is cheaper, more mobile and easier to use than the last. As technology becomes more available to non-specialists, people like Powell and other citizen scientists are finding new ways to carry out their experiments.

One future technology that citizen scientists can look forward to is the Water Canary. Currently in development by journalist, teacher and citizen scientist Sonaar Luthra, the Water Canary is a small yellow box, slightly larger than a cell phone. The device will be able to test water quality, flashing a red light when it senses contaminants and a green light when the water is drinkable.

But more importantly, the device would belong to a network and would record results on a map in real time. This way people can actively check what locations have healthy drinking water.

"Someone testing water for themselves is simultaneously testing water for everybody else," said Luthra. "And that may mean you with your handheld device will be capable of protecting everyone around you."

The Water Canary is still in development -- Luthra and his team have partnered with UNICEF to make the most precise device possible. They will eventually bring the project to Uganda, where, according to Luthra, nine out of every 100 children die of diarrheal disease. And its potential applications could be boundless -- citizens all over the world may be able to test and monitor drinking water in their own homes and in other countries simultaneously.

In many ways, the Water Canary is an example of the kind of technology that will shape citizen science in the future. It's an accessible, mobile and inexpensive piece of technology. But as Luthra explains, perhaps its best characteristic is its ability to connect people through information.

"Most of the things we've been doing with technology dealt with questions of connectivity, of getting to a point where our machines can talk to one another, where we can talk to one another and where we can make connections to people and places that have never been in touch with one another," Luthra said. "Although we still have a ways to go, it's very clear that those technological solutions are rapidly finding their way into every corner of the world."

Citizen science will benefit from new technologies, like the Water Canary. But if Luthra is any indication, citizen scientists won't be mere bystanders of technological innovation in the future. They will be the driving force behind it.

"With basically about a hundred dollars of buy-off-the-shelf parts, we get precision that beats $100,000 spectrometers. And that is truly game-changing in terms of what it can put in the hands of anybody with the means to purchase or make their own device," said Luthra. "It started out as just a goal of democratizing existing scientific equipment, but now I think we're really on the verge of pushing the state-of-the-art in terms of scientific experimentation into entirely new directions."

In the hands of citizen scientists, technology will provide new possibilities for measuring the world. But how will that information contribute to science in the future? It may be a matter of making connections -- sharing information and collaborating between two worlds: professional and citizen science.

Breaking down barriers

The professional walls separating serious scientists from the rest of the world are not as difficult to break down as they seem.

In science, physics is often viewed as among the most impenetrable of all scientific fields.

But Martin Laforest, a physicist at the Institute for Quantum Computing, dismisses the idea that science is a closed club.

"You don't need to be a professional scientist to go to a conference," said Laforest.

"If you're informed, you're well educated and you don't come up with a wacko theory that doesn't make sense, whether you're a nurse or truck driver or computer scientist I'll listen to you with as much respect. So that would be something that would be very nice to have ' more citizen scientists at conferences."

Can 'amateur' programmers make real contributions? 'I don't care what you do as your day job' says Martin Laforest, physicist at the Institute for Quantum Computing

But citizens are becoming active players in the scientific process as well. Arfon Smith depends on citizen scientists for his astronomy experiments at Zooniverse.

"We will make the very best use of your time that we can to solve a real problem," he said.

"And you will be credited for your efforts. You will be... in some cases an author on an academic paper, or at least credited in some other way."

When citizen scientists participate like this, they can be taught the scientific method and scientific research skills. And as more scientists recruit citizens into their work, like the way Zooniverse is doing, it deepens the relationships.

From citizens to scientists

Citizen scientists are more than hobbyists. They are people who are striving to contribute to scientific growth. More and more people involved in citizen science are blurring the lines between professional and non-professional scientists.

Sheldon Greaves is the co-founder of the Citizen Scientists League in Florida. He pointed to the example of bird enthusiasts undertaking hummingbird research, and how these kinds of groups have the citizen part figured out, but are lacking the science.

"You can't really call this person a scientist because they haven't learned how to formulate a hypothesis...construct an experiment or some kind of procedure for testing it, apply some kind of scientific model ' all of the basic things that are associated with actually doing science," he said.

But Greaves has seen changes, and those changes are coming in the shape of groups like Reef Check, which expects more scientific knowledge and skills from their members.

It is an organization of professional divers with its headquarters in Los Angeles. Reef Check's vast network of global volunteers perform coral reef analysis on reefs in over 80 countries, according to its website. It also has a unique Reef Check California program and its data is publicly available.

Its training program educates divers on coral ecology and how to properly gather data. Among other institutions, the UN uses data gathered by Reef Check. And it has even become the UN's "official community-based reef monitoring program," according to Reef Check's website.

Citizen science leader Sheldon Greaves talks about where the movement is headed and what it might accomplish.

For Greaves, Reef Check is a model for how citizen scientists can develop themselves into more professional organizations in the future.

"That's where I would like to see citizen science go," Greaves said.

"Where we have more rigorous training, where we have follow-up, where people can take their interests from one project and start doing other projects. And there are other organizations already doing that sort of thing. But I think where the CSL wants to do the most is to become a center for learning and teaching and training and refining the techniques, taking these citizens and turning them into scientists."

It's not rocket science

These days, when they're not busy building technology for the US Air Force, John Powell and JP Aerospace are encouraging students to take part in citizen science.

They've developed a program where students can design and build their own mini probes - literally ping pong balls with GPS, cameras and tracking devices attached-- that JP Aerospace sends up into the atmosphere with their own experiments.

John Powell of JP Aerospace on the joys and challenges of citizen science in a field dominated by big corporations.

But it's not just the changing technology that will encourage more citizen scientists to participate in the future. According to Powell, the citizen science movement will expand as the relationship between citizens and scientists grows closer.

"You know, to most people NASA is the same as Star Trek. It's something you watch on TV. It's all cool, but it has nothing to do with them. And it's kind of sad. It's gotten this whole giant disconnect. Astronauts are just these distant video people, that you see or go get autographs from. We want to make space something that regular people are a part of," he said.  [Tyee]

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