Citizen Science and Crowdfunding Research

[Because this topic is rather large, I will discuss the crowdfunding of research next Monday in Part II]

"The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." - Albert Einstein
As children, we're encouraged to discover the world around us, ask hard questions, and understand how things work. When you grow up, regardless of your chosen career path, that curiosity will still linger. You can quench that thirst through self-discovery, but that should not be the only outlet.
"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose" - Zora Neale Hurston
Scientific research does not happen in a vacuum, it happens within society, culture, and the economy. Advancements occur both to serve human purpose as well as to expand our knowledge of the world around us. This is true in both natural and physical sciences, as well as in life and social sciences. That's what citizen science is about - harnessing our innate curiosity into results that expand human knowledge. Also known as crowd science, citizen science enables people, no matter their educational background, to participate in scientific research in a meaningful way. It also can shift the time and effort of research from a team of scientists to a much larger number of people.

Hardly a new concept, citizen science has exploded in popularity in the last few years, mainly due to the accessibility provided by the internet. As for who can participate, the answer (in theory) should be anyone and everyone. I could stand in the middle of the train station at four in the afternoon, select ten people at random, and all should be able to participate in a project, given three things: the means to participate, the basic knowledge or willingness to learn how to participate, and above all the desire to participate.

Means to participate

The means to participate is arguably the largest hurdle to overcome. Above all, time to participate will be an issue, but most projects will allow casual participation. Furthermore, someone has to have the platform to access the project, most likely a computer or a smartphone. Finally, the project itself has to have the instructions and interface in a language that the citizen scientist can understand.

Some, like the SETI@home project, run on a project manager interface (BIONC) and require virtually no effort from volunteer participants - just your computer to run calculations. Known as volunteer computing, you're essentially letting the project use your computers capabilities (not your documents, data, etc., but rather your processing power and storage) when you're not using it. The interface is available in nearly any language as well.

via Foldit
Foldit is a game-based program that simulates protein-folding, and moves into the territory of citizen science projects that call for participation. Participants with no background in biochemistry at all have been able to outperform computer algorithms. The program is incentivized with a score-based system, making it a competition for those who want to participate often for fun, but is casual in nature. It is a program that runs on your computer and results from the project have yielded significant results. The program intends to be internationally accessible, with several language options available thanks to volunteer translators.

via Loss of the Night
Others operate as games or apps on your smartphone. One that I have is called Loss of the Night and asks users to go outside on a clear night and, with the help of an onscreen guide, determine what stars you can see. The goal of the project is to map astronomical light pollution from the ground from as many points as possible using GPS locating and star maps. Participants are free to choose when and where they observe the night sky and data is sent anonymously. The app is currently available in 11 languages: Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, and Spanish. I've used the app, and it's fairly intuitive and quick to use - I really recommend it!

The BIMBY project that I wrote a post about last week isn't technology-based at all, and instead samples participants backyard and submits the information to researchers to use, and is a one-time assessment. Because it's still in its infancy, its difficult to say how far implementation will go, and it depends on where and for what projects are implemented to determine how accessible and casual they are. SEANET, the Seabird Ecological Network, has volunteers walk a section of beach along the Atlantic Ocean twice a month for at least one year to survey beached birds, and would be considered to be a larger and more formalized time commitment than other projects.

Basic knowledge or willingness to learn in order to participate

Most projects, for obvious reasons, try to have as little prior knowledge required as possible. This not only allows for open participation, but it can also mean less mistakes. A great example is Galaxy Zoo, a popular and well-known project that classifies astronomical phenomena from Hubble Telescope and Sloan Digital Sky Survey images. Is it a smooth mass, a disk, or a star? Is it round, oval, or cigar-shaped?
Galaxy Zoo is part of a larger project, Zooniverse, one of many citizen science webportals that connects projects of varying levels of participation and skill. Other projects from Zooniverse include Bat Detective, where you classify bat calls based on sound and frequency, or Ancient Lives, where you transcribe Greek and other ancient texts. Identify wild animals from camera shots in Snapshot Serengeti, map historical climate data using ship logs in Old Weather - the possibilities are endless and most have tutorials to help you along (unfortunately, most projects are English-only, but a quite a few are simple or minimal English and get by with pictorial aide).

via LifeScanner
While most of these projects analyze via digital media or observation, LifeScanner provides you with vials to collect four animal specimens from your location. These vials are the sent for DNA sequencing, and you keep in touch with the entire process via a smartphone app. Currently only available in the USA and Canada, the interface is English only.

Desire to participate

No amount of gamification or flashy graphics will convince the stubborn or unwilling to participate in a citizen science project. However, considering how slick a lot of these projects are, it should be easy to incorporate into K-12 schooling or as a family activity. It also feeds that want for curiosity that I mentioned at the beginning. Sites like Zooniverse and this Scientific American portal are excellent because they showcase the variety of projects that people are able to participate in based on time commitments, topic, and type of participation.

With a lot of these projects, you have the option of being anonymous or signing up for credit when it is achieved. This serves both those who are hesitant to share their information as well as those who wish to be recognized for their work.

The final step then is convincing people that their participation will make a difference, and that lies in the persuasive power of scientists and their project publicist, and maybe the ability/audacity to play to someone's vanity. Do you want to help cure cancer, fight Alzheimer's, save the rainforest? Who wouldn't from the comfort of their own home and thirty minutes of spare time? It may seem cynical, but charities often use the same tactics to raise donations simply because it works.

Aspects of citizen science projects as determined by the scientific method

The three things I've talked about (means, required knowledge, and desire) are one way to categorize citizen science projects; the final way I'll discuss is to determine where it falls within the scientific method. As a participant, it's useful to think of it this way to understand where your impact is being made within the research. As a researcher undertaking a citizen science project, it's useful to know the additional responsibilities dictated by making your project open.

Not a lot of citizen-science projects are involved in having the public generate hypotheses, but I've found one that did - the Belly Button Biodiversity project. Look at your belly button - do you have an innie or and outie? If you have an innie, what's in it? No really, what is in that pit of flesh on your belly? Turns out, A LOT. And researchers began gathering participant ideas for the diversity and similarities that they were seeing. The project ended in 2012, though the research group in charge, YourWildlife, has plenty of projects that take place in North Carolina.

So why aren't there more hypothesis-generating projects? Because that's where scientists shine, to be honest. We're taught about problems and then are taught to solve them. It's part of that prior knowledge requirement as well. It's the next few steps of the scientific method that need participation the most.

via Ron Dunn's Lab
Data Collection
Several projects I've mentioned so far deal with data collection, both physical and digital - Loss of the Night, BIMBY, SEANET, LifeScanner, and technically the Belly Button Biodiversity project as well, need data to interpret. Loss of the Night uses sky brightness measurements via star visibility, SEANET (and every bird survey) uses bird counts, and LifeScanner and Belly Button Biodiversity collect samples that are then shipped to labs for sequencing. The diversity and coverage of sample data is taken care of by the citizen participants, and barriers such as property access are removed entirely. It just becomes a matter of cost to the project -

Data Analysis (sort of)
By analysis I really mean categorization or interpretation - the raw data is there, it just needs to be processed, sorted, counted, or translated correctly so that it can be further analyzed. This is arguably the most popular method of making a research project accessible to everyday folk, and kind of the most schadenfreude inducing as a grad student. I have a colleague who had to watch hundred of hours of video footage of a wasp attacking caterpillar larvae, if the wasp even appeared on screen at all. That kind of data analysis is gruelling for one or two people to go through, especially when they have other aspects of the experiment to take care of. Enter, the citizen scientists, who, in their hundreds, will watch the video for you.

GalaxyZoo, Bat Detective, Ancient Lives, Snapshot Serengeti, Old Weather - all are data waiting to be categorized. Seti@Home also falls into this category, albeit more removed than the other projects. Foldit replaces computer algorithms with humans for a more creative experimental design. The one aspect of data analysis that you don't outsource to citizens is the statistical analysis. Finally, there is always the risk of mistakes on the part of the volunteer. Mistakes are part and parcel of any scientific research, though projects that are open to public participation need to have more rigorous data management and quality control.

Results and Conclusions
This is obviously the domain of the researchers on the project, but it's important to note that in a citizen science project, participants may want updates on the project, credit, real-world outcomes, and a lot of updates along the way. While citizen participants may lessen one aspect of the workload or provide diversity in samples, they need maintenance of their own as well as a solid web presence, so additional staff will likely have to be hired.


The methods of categorizing citizen science projects I've listed is by no means exhaustive, and it truly depends on the circumstances. Before you start thinking that every research project can become a citizen science project, that's certainly not the case. The overhead and effort required for a successful citizen science project can be astronomical compared to not implementing it, so it's really a balance on the part of the research team. Some areas just don't lend themselves to volunteer input either. But it's definitely a way to involve everyday people in science and feed their natural curiosity.

Citizen science is hardly new - ecological surveys have been performed via outsourced counts and observances for decades, and areas such as medical and social research often rely on surveys and self-assessments, but this new wave of crowd science feels different. Increased connectivity and globalization through the internet has enabled projects to become more open, and that's great! I'm totally on board for open projects when it makes sense for the situation.

There's another way that people can participate in research: Funding it. Crowdfunding platforms exist for scientific projects, but what does that mean for research? Do only cool, 'sexy' projects get funded? It's a burgeoning field with some country-by-country platforms and restrictions, and is an entirely different nut to crack. Some other time!


Zooniverse portal
Scientific American portal
YourWildlife portal
Loss of the Night
Galaxy Zoo
Bat Detective
Ancient Lives
Snapshot Serengeti
Old Weather
Belly Button Biodiversity


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