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Science + Tech

Science: Citizens Are Getting to the Basics

The ins and outs of citizen science, and why it can't be muzzled. Second in a series.

Katrina Clarke, Katiusha Cuntrera, Spencer Davis, Kristina Virro and Justin Zadorsky 20 Apr

Kristina Virro, Katrina Clarke, Katiusha Cuntrera, Spencer Davis and Justin Zadorsky, 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. Find the whole series so far here.

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ZombeeWatch pulls in citizen scientists across North America to help study the workings of a parasite the kills honey bees.

[Editor's note: A group of 36 students in Western University's Master of Arts in Journalism class has spent three months studying and reporting on citizen science. In seven parts, they will cover how it emerged and evolved, where it stands now and where it's going. Today, the basics.]

At a time when the Canadian government is being investigated for attempts to muzzle scientists, a form of science -- citizen science -- that can't be silenced may be all the more important.

Citizen science is changing science as we know it. It involves everyday citizens and trained scientists coming together, crowdsourcing data and creating meaningful research. This movement provides an equal-access platform for contributing to and discussing science. Citizen science uses Internet technology to collect and analyze data and to get the word, and the data into the wild.  

Anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can get involved. And, citizen science advocates promote transparency about how data is gathered and what it's used for.

There is still debate in the scientific community over how effective, accurate and trustworthy citizen science can be.

But one thing is certain -- citizen science is opening up discussion and challenging ways of thinking about science. And that's happening in public, by the public.

Meanwhile, government funded professional science projects and experiments may be forced to be conducted behind closed doors. Recent complaints from Democracy Watch that have prompted Canada's information commissioner to investigate allegations that federal government policy is restricting scientists' ability to talk to the media.

As tension escalates surrounding the ability of traditional science to be conducted transparently, citizen science is about engaging people around the world and encouraging the gathering of more data and a broadened description of what science is.

Our team is looking at what citizen science is, how it's done, who's involved and why it matters.

What is citizen science?

There are several definitions of what exactly the term citizen science means, but citizen scientists do agree on some qualities that make up the core of this phenomenon. For instance, Jennifer Shirk, a project leader for the Citizen Science Toolkit Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says that the term citizen science describes a wide range of initiatives where members of the public are engaged in the process of scientific investigations.

"I see citizen science as also including work where members of communities begin scientific investigations to address issues of concern within their own community. Whether that's related to air quality or water quality or other types of issues that can be appropriately addressed through scientific evidence," she said.

Jim Sirch, the education coordinator at the Yale Biodiversity Citizen Science Initiatives, has similar ideas on what the term means. He says citizen science is a way for citizens or the general public to make observations and take data which help scientists find out more about the Earth and beyond. It might be about bird migration times, frog population sizes, finding new stars and more.

"In the process, observers themselves find out more about the Earth as well," he adds. "If people learn more about the environment, they might make more positive contributions and decisions, which in turn might affect the environment in more positive ways."

Here are a few examples of citizen scientists doing just that.

ZomBee Watch

One project making a buzz on the Internet is ZomBee Watch. This project studies a parasite, Apocephalus borealis, commonly referred to as the Zombie Fly, and how and why its infection in healthy honey bees causes them to be attracted to nearby lights, get disoriented and die.

It's a project run by Dr. John Haefernik out of San Francisco State University. "What we wanted to do is to have a way to find out fairly quickly how widespread the phenomenon of the fly parasitizing honey bees is across North America," Hafernik said. Scientists studying this parasite are not able to be out in the field across North America finding the infected honey bees. "We thought this would be perfect for citizen scientists," Hafernik said.

Citizen scientists from across North America go online and report odd honey bee activity, reports that can include images and video clips. That data shows how widespread the problem is.

Planet Hunters

This project is organized by an umbrella organization called Zooniverse that oversees a number of citizen science projects. The Planet Hunters project uses NASA's Kepler spacecraft's database of images to try to identify new planets.

With the massive amount of data that the Kepler has, it's difficult for scientists (even with computers) to analyze them properly. So Chris Lintott, the director of the citizen science project Zooniverse, got his community of non-professionals involved with the planet hunt. Citizens can look at Kepler's images and identify and note what they believe to be planets. With a little training from the Planet Hunter's website citizens can help very easily. In one case citizen scientists discovered a new planet with four suns. "We don't understand how such a planet could have formed," Lintott said.

And the computers missed it. Why? Because humans are far better than computers at recognizing certain kinds of shapes and patterns, like the clues that reveal new plants.

"It's a classic example of something no one knew to look for which the computers and the professional astronomers missed, but our citizen scientists got and got there first," Lintott said.


Citizens taking part in science is nothing new. Historically some of the world's greatest discoveries were made by self-taught scientists like Benjamin Franklin. What makes this latest wave of citizen science unique is the sheer number of people involved.

As the number of projects grows, so too have the amount of people taking part. But what accounts for the sudden rise in numbers? The simplest answer is advances in technology.

It has never been easier to become a citizen scientist thanks to rise of computer technology and the Internet. There a number of projects that don't require a person to leave their bedroom. People can log onto a website and start analyzing radio signals from the universe, or play a game and start building gene codes that help cure diseases.

It's all about connectivity, and while many projects only ask people to gather data, Zooniverse's Lintott says the rise of Internet communities allows people to take part in analysis.

"If you told me five years ago that would be possible I would have called you crazy, but it turns out once you got this engaged community they are capable of doing a huge amount more than just the simple clicking," said Lintott.

Though technology may help people connect and get involved, Lintott says there needs to be something more in order to keep people active.

"You need an action that has consequences. So in our case it's 'classify this and we'll know more about our universe,'" he said adding that technology allows people to interact in ways that weren't possible 10 years ago. Lintott believes the human element is crucial because the human eye can analyze a galaxy much better than any computer program they might design.

Getting involved

There are two main ways to participate in citizen science: as a volunteer looking to contribute to data, or as a researcher looking for help with gathering or analyzing data.

For volunteers, finding a citizen science project is as easy as doing a simple Google search. From there, it's about finding a project that is of particular interest to the volunteer. After all, citizen scientists often partner with professionals in order to reach a common goal, and having similar interests is usually a hallmark of these types of projects.

Jonathan Silverton is a professor of ecology at The Open University in the United Kingdom. He himself is a part of two citizen science projects, iSpot and Evolution Megalab.

"It's basically just about the power of the crowd" being able to join up people who know stuff with people who like to know stuff in the interest of learning," he said.

And since projects vary in complexity and commitment, citizen science is not limited to any particular group; children and teenagers can discover and create their own citizen science projects. Silverton added that schools, children, retired individuals, and university students alike have contributed to his projects.

But what motivates people to get involved in the first place?

Most people participate to satiate their "scientific curiosity," says Silverton.

"It's the fact that when people know stuff, they like to share it with other people," he said. "We're a social species, and we like to share what we know with other people; it gives us a buzz!"   

Aside from accessing data, researchers can also use citizen science to connect with collaborators and broaden the scope of their project, improving the accuracy of their data.

And Silverton says that the field's popularity is growing more and more: "Year on year, the number of publications with (citizen science) in the key words or somewhere in the article is going up astronomically."

Making science public again

As Canadians await the findings of Canada's Information Commissioner's investigation into the federal government's attempts to muzzle scientists, trepidation about the future of the traditional scientific community's ability to be open and transparent with the public is likely to mount.

And as this occurs, questions will be raised. How can I get involved? Can science be brought back to the public sphere? Citizen science may indeed be the answer to these questions.

The role of citizen science is evolving and at this tense time for scientific community in Canada, we are bringing you the straight talk on a way of doing science that could forever change the way we think of science.  [Tyee]

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