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Granite Geek: Research Leaves the Lab with Citizen Science

Paul Scott via Flickr CC

You may have seen ads posted on your community cork board for something called citizen science. It’s a trend in scientific research that allows regular people to help out with professional-grade studies by reporting data about their own backyards.

Tuesday at 6pm in the Draft Sports Bar in Concord, Concord Monitor columnist David Brooks will host the Science Café. He and a panel of scientists will talk about this innovative approach to research, and he spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello for a preview.

What exactly is citizen science?

Citizen science is basically getting amateurs like me to gather data for real scientists, loosely overseen.

It’s a really old idea. You probably have heard of the Christmas Bird Count that the Audubon Society runs. That’s basically citizen science. It says, go out and tell us what species of birds you see, and we’ll compile it. They started that in 1901, so the general idea has been around for a long time.

It’s gotten a boost in the last ten or fifteen years, basically because of the internet and smartphones. It makes the logistics of doing it much easier. It has, I think you can safely say, exploded in the last decade.

What can researchers glean from citizen science that they couldn’t get themselves?

Almost always, it involves low level but widespread data gathering. So if you’re a scientist and you want to know, for example, how the population of dragonflies is doing in the state, there are certain things  you can keep track of, like you know what kind of habitat they like and you can keep track of it—but you really don’t have numbers of how many dragonflies.

But if you can get people to go out and write down how many dragonflies they see in certain environments, and you can compile that data year after year, this can be a whole new information about how this population is doing. And that is a citizen science project, dragonfly watch.

That’s probably the most prominent and most common, going out and doing data about animals, plants, insects, and fish in the wild, because you can get lots and lots of people to go out there and gather data. We’re not gathering data to the level that real researchers do, or grad students, but we’re gathering it to a certain level and it’s compilable. Particularly if it’s widespread geographically and takes place year after year, it can be quite valuable.

In these circumstances, scientists aren’t asking citizens to do something very complex, right, go out and count something for example, but they can still mess it up. Do scientists account for that in their research?

Absolutely, and there’s a debate—citizen science has become an accepted part of standard research, in fact you’ll read papers analyzing best methods to use citizen science, because it’s low-cost if nothing else and it can be widespread. But there is debate about how to, say, use statistics, and how do you limit the amount of information amateurs like me are trying to gather, how much can you count on the errors cancelling each other out—some people will be over-enthusiastic and other people will be blind. That’s definitely part of the field, but it’s a legitimate field.

The examples you gave, like counting dragonflies, they tend towards biology. Do other fields of science get involved with citizen science?

They do, somewhat to a lesser extent. There’s a project called Zooniverse that’s entirely computer and internet based, and basically what it is is that scientists  and people in the humanities upload various amounts of data, and people like you and I look at that data and help them analyze it.

I was actually involved with something called Old Weather, in which they digitized and uploaded hand-written logs from British warships in the nineteenth century, and these are hand-written so it’s very hard to correlate them. Basically, we went through and typed up what we saw, and then that typed data could be analyzed.

Specifically, they were aimed at climate records. These ships were sailing in the arctic in 1832, and they were sailing in the south Pacific, so what did they see? But they could also be used for historical records as well.

There was a new one I just saw today looking at Zooniverse which is for tuberculosis in terms of antibiotic resistance. They upload pictures of petri dishes with TB bacteria that have been exposed to various types of antibiotics. You analyze what you see, then they can compare that with the genetic makeup of that particular strain, and they can reach conclusions that would be very difficult for the researcher to reach on their own.

Sample collection is something that’s hard, because you have to do it just right and you have to do it consistently. It’s much harder to have thousands of amateurs collecting samples in a scientifically legitimate way. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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