Take the power of smartphones, add a healthy dose of curiosity, and what you have is a recipe for a rising culture of 21st century citizen science.
Citizen science and the idea of crowd sourcing may be as old as when humans first realised the advantages of loosely organising for mutual benefit or at least to collectively try to get some answers to the universe’s great unknowns.
National Geographic puts the origin of citizen science down to an 1833 meteor shower in America. It allowed astronomer Denison Olmsted to use “crowd-sourced” witness accounts to eventually understand the gravitational pull that causes the meteors to fall and to work out the cyclical nature of the annual showers.
Fast-forward and it’s today’s surge in the uptake of smart devices and the ability to instantly connect to an online community via keyboard strokes or button clicks that makes crowd sourcing a perfect moment for advancing science.
Crowd-sourced science gives the average Sipho and Sarah the opportunity to undertake small science-based tasks on behalf of a scientific organisation or a university in a fun, uncomplicated way.
The person can sign on wherever they may be in the world, and by taking part they help complete much of the grunt work of data collecting for the people with microscopes and lab coats. There are as many citizen science projects as there are research topics and there are also different levels of involvement and science proficiency involved.
Some recent projects have included the Royal Society’s 2012 Laughter Project which asked people to listen and rate different laughs. It was aimed at helping scientists at University College London to understand how humans perceive the sincerity of laughter and how we react to laughter.
Another is the Project Nightjar project based at the University of Exeter. The project’s aim is to increase scientists’ understanding of camouflage in the wild and how it’s used as a survival strategy.
The colour perception tests that formed part of the research were concealed within a citizen science game.
In South Africa last year the Wits University paleoanthropological project, Rising Star, made use of the expertise of cavers from the Speleological Exploration Club of South Africa to do the initial cave explorations in chambers scientists as novice cavers could not access. Also, the six international scientists who eventually made the final cut for the fossil excavations were all found via social media.
This collaboration between volunteers, enthusiasts and scientists has the power to spark interest in science and builds bridges and understanding between the ivory towers of specialists and academics and the common people.
One of South Africa’s biggest projects that has relied on public data collection for years is the Southern African Bird Atlas Project. The first edition of the project was launched in 1987 and ran until 1991. It was a way to gather mass documentation of bird distribution and abundance in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and, by 2012, also in Namibia.
By asking volunteers to turn their collective gaze skywards, the project database managed to register 80 000 completed bird checklists and 4.2 million records by December 2012.
Today the project continues with as much ardour but, in its modern incarnation, information arrives at scientists’ desks via smartphone apps, Facebook posts and uploads to a public virtual image gallery.
The Bird Atlas Project is a partnership between the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at UCT, Bird Life South Africa and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).
Professor Les Underhill of the ADU says: “Back in the day people used to record their bird sightings in koki pen and send what they recorded through to the project by post. Now about a quarter of our data is what’s sent via smartphones apps.”
Underhill says the immediacy of using a phone app to identify a bird or to snap a picture of a butterfly or a wild dog and send the image instantly with a GPS co-ordinate has revolutionised citizen science and bolstered data collection.
The role of citizens is prominent on their mission statement that appears on ADU’s Facebook page. It reads: “The mission of the ADU is to contribute to the understanding of animal populations, especially population dynamics, and thus provide input to their conservation. We achieve this through mass citizen science participation projects, long-term monitoring, innovative statistical modelling and population-level interpretation of results.”
Underhill adds: “What is useful is that the data collected helps us establish a more accurate baseline of not just birds but also of mammals for our other research projects,” says Underhill.
Knowing population numbers means trends can be mapped and can serve as an early warning system where and when biodiversity comes under threat.
For Bird Life South Africa’s regional conservation manager, Ernst Retief, the public participation in data collection through events like backyard birding days, make use of fun participation to raise awareness. It also does double as an educational tool.
“There are some clear scientific protocols that are included in all the projects to make sure the information is as useful and accurate as possible, but more than anything, events like our big birding days are a way for people to have some family fun and also to realise just how rich the bird life is in South Africa,” says Retief.
Citizen science puts fun first and the emphasis is on getting the volunteers to do just enough, in their own time, before the task becomes a chore or an obligation. On a site like www.zooniverse.org the armchair scientist can choose to become involved in projects as diverse as helping discover near Earth asteroids, annotating and helping researchers tag diaries of World War I soldiers to classifying cyclone data or helping scientists understand how whales communicate.
In identifying galaxies for instance, Zooniverse asks signed-in participants to look at images of galaxies and to decide on their shape. With sunspots, it’s about rating the “complexity” of the sunspots.
Much of it is as simple as choosing and clicking on answers. There’s loads of wriggle room for error too and a reassuring note that settles the nerves for the scientifically-challenged. The note says: “Trust your gut, you’re probably right and don’t worry, loads of other folk are looking at the same images too.”
It’s this mass sampling that helps weight percentages in a certain way and points scientists in the direction of where they should or could make deeper enquiry.
Dr Claire Flanagan, director of the Wits Planetarium, says: “Citizen science is really about helping scientists rather than doing science. The work is set up cleverly so that many people can be asked to do a little bit of work in methods scientists can use. Of course a great knock-on effect is that people may actually come across something they think is really cool and it gets them interested enough to find out more.”
She adds that citizen science also works well where computers still can’t beat humans – tasks like identifying a shape of a galaxy for instance, or spotting extraterrestrial life from radio telescope data.
At www.setilive.org, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence site shows the public live data collected by the radio telescopes in the Seti Institute’s Allen Telescope Array. The site says: “We believe the human eye will have a better chance than Seti’s computer algorithms to find ET signals there.”
That’s 1 for humans and 0 for the computers. The counter on the Seti site also shows what activity’s been recorded among global ET spotters. On a quiet Tuesday night in spring it shows 5 717 188 classifications and 100 099 people having taken part to date. It’s a lot of pairs of eyes and that’s exactly the point.