This week, I sat in on a session at the American Geophysical Union meeting in which the speakers discussed the merits of citizen science and the potential impact that explorers could make on scientific data collection.
Many scientists are explorer and trek across the globe, but often they have responsibilities that keep them tied to the institutions where they work with limited opportunities to get into the field for data collection. If sampling techniques can be simplified and standardized so that anyone can learn how collect the necessary bits of rock, water, flora, etc. at particular sites, why not ask the people who are already out there to help out?
Additionally, those out exploring are often on the front lines of witnessing changes to our planet, and are passionate about wanting to help in some way.
Not all science can utilize the citizenry, but for those projects that can, this seems like an amazing resource on both sides of the equation.
A mysterious plague has manifested in the world's starfish population, quickly spreading to several regions in which starfish (also called "sea stars") are found. Starfish afflicted with the disease tear themselves to pieces, the arms crawling in opposite directions until the animals are literally torn to pieces. Unlike healthy starfish, the affected animals are not able to regenerate after they are torn apart.
The disease is largely a mystery. Researchers who are studying it are asking beach-walkers to photograph any starfish they see to tweet photos of it with the #sickstarfish tag. Starfish are important marine predators; a serious depletion of their numbers will have far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems.
The Los Angeles Maker Space is an inspiring project that comes along only once in a while, and many people apparently realize this. They reached their $15K funding goal within 30 hours of starting the plea. They are now guaranteed to have an expensive laser cutter and a couple of 3D printers in their space, yay kids!
However, these amazing tools will sit unused a lot more than they should if they do not reach their secondary funding goal of $25,000. This money will pay for live, talented adults to open and supervise the space on weekends. Recent events have shown us how important our children are, and how important qualified, responsible supervision of them is. Please visit their kickstarter page today and lets see their second goal hit the rear view mirror too, done, and done.
Here's an interesting project that combines participatory citizen science with crowdsource funding models.
American Gut is a project to catalog, analyze, and compare microbiomes of a diverse swath of Americans. Microbiomes are the bacteria that live in you (and on you). They're both separate from your body and a part of it. Scientists want to better understand what bacteria live with us, what they do, and how the populations of bacteria change depending on factors like your diet, where you live, and your ethnicity. The project is entirely funded by crowdsourcing, so how you participate is also how you donate. For instance, in exchange for a $99 donation, you'll get a kit that will enable scientists to do DNA extraction and 16sRNA sequencing on the bacteria they find in a sample of your skin, saliva, or poop. After they've studied the sample, the researchers will present you with information about your microbiome and how it compares to those of other participants.
Guido sez, "The microbiome is the genome sequence of all the
different bacteria that dwell on and in us, and it is very important, since there are 10 times as many bacteria cells as there are human cells in our bodies.
My friends Zac and Jessica started a crowfunded/crowsourced project to do the sequencing of as many people as possible, and they want to do this not as a project in academia, neither as a corporate project from big pharma, but as peer-driven effort in which people will fund it, contribute with their samples and have access to their information.
They want to make correlations between our bacteria and our health issues, individuals are experts about themselves. I think that this is specially important because unlike your genome, your microbiome can be changed, you can make a difference through lifestyle and behavior. We still ignore a lot, so this is why it is important to have a massive set of users who can not only contribute with their samples, but help to make correlations and crunch the data."
The more people join the uBiome community, the more statistical power the project will have to investigate connections between the microbiome and human health. For example, with 500 people, uBiome will be able to answer questions about relatively common diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. With 2,500, the project can investigate connections to breast cancer. With 50,000 people, the project can begin to address multiple sclerosis and leukemia.
Safecast is a "global sensor network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments, which has become the largest project of its kind in history." Our friend Sean Bonner is one of the leaders of this cool citizen science effort. This video is in the running to win a $200,000 award. If you like it, vote for it!
If you're staying home from work today because of Hurricane Sandy, you might be able to help out a team of scientists from the University of Utah and Purdue. They're studying isotopes of water — small differences at the subatomic level that can tell you a lot about where water originally came from and how it got to the place it fell in the form of rain or snow. They need people collecting precipitation samples over 12-hour periods. And they're especially looking for help in some inland places, including West Virginia, Virginia, and eastern Kentucky/Tennesee. Find out more at their website. (Via Sarah Horst)
This is seriously awesome. Researchers with the Mastadon Matrix Project need help sifting through "matrix" — the dirt that a fossil is embedded in. Join the Project, and you'll be sent a kilogram of matrix from a mastadon dig in New York State. You can do the analysis with inexpensive, easy-to-find equipment, and then send your discoveries back to the scientists. It's a great chance to do real, valuable scientific research in your school or home. Check it out! (Via Karen Traphagen)
You've doubtless heard about the parasite Apocephalus borealis, which infects bees and turns them into weird zombies. It's pretty awesomely awful stuff. The ZomBees project aims to track the spread of the parasite through citizen scientists like you, who will run the critters to ground and tell the project about them. ZomBees are implicated in the apocalyptic Colony Collapse Disorder, which threatens the world's food security.
We need your help finding out where honey bees are being parasitized by the Zombie Fly and how big a threat the fly is to honey bees. So far, the Zombie Fly has been found parasitizing honey bees in California and South Dakota. We are teaming up with citizen scientists (like you!) to determine if the fly has spread to honey bees across North America.
You can do some citizen science in space, with the help of ArduSat—a proposed satellite that will be an open platform allowing the general public to design and run experiments, games, and photography projects in space. Right now, Discover magazine is hosting an awesome contest where you can win an Arduino development kit worth $1500, which will help you create an experiment that works with the satellite—and get a week of uptime on the satellite to bring your project to fruition. All you have to do to enter is donate to help fund ArduSat on Kickstarter (you can donate as much or as little as you want), and then submit a plan for an experiment or project to the editors of Discover. BadAstronomy blogger Phil Plait will be among the judges and the winning project will be announced on July 20th.
Scientific American and YouTube are offering teenagers a chance to participate in real science. It works like this: Think up a question that can only be tested via an experiment performed in space. Make a video about your idea and submit it to the contest by December 14.
The two best ideas will actually be tested in space. That's right. If you win this, an experiment you designed will be performed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. And you'll get some cool stuff—like a zero-G flight on board the "Vomit Comet" now, and, when you turn 18, actual cosmonaut training in Russia. Yeah. For real.
Oh, and Stephen-freaking-Hawking will be one of the judges.
This whole thing is a little insane.
If you're between the ages of 14 and 18, and you live on Earth, you can enter. Do it. Seriously. There are grown-ups who want to live vicariously through you.
Fiona Romeo, who has worked with Greenwich Observatory on some successful "citizen science" initiatives, gave a presentation called "The near future of citizen science," explaining what she's learned and what she thinks the future will hold:
It’s my contention that the near future of science is all about honing the division of labour between professionals, amateurs and bots...
Selecting Flickr as our platform for the competition immediately got us to ask, what would be the space equivalent of geotagging? Astrotagging, obviously. If astrophotographers were to accurately describe what their photo depicts, and where in space that is, we could create a user-generated map of the night sky. But – as you might have already been thinking – working out where you are in space is much trickier than putting a pin on a map because there are the added dimensions of depth and movement. In addition to the space equivalents of longitude and latitude (RA and Dec), we required pixel scale and orientation.
Would anyone really go to the trouble of figuring out and tagging all of that information? Probably not. We were going to need a bot.
Fortunately Flickr isn’t just ‘a great place to be a photo’, the API also allows you to develop bots that act autonomously for a user or a group. Early bots in use on Flickr include Hipbot and HAL. Hipbot, for example, automates some of the moderation tasks in the well-defined squared circle Group, automatically removing photos that are not square, or are too small.
The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) is home to the Astronomic Photographic Data Archive (APDA), a collection of photographic plates taken by optical telescopes from the mid-19th century through the late-20th century. Some of these plates are the only existing documentation of astronomic features that are no longer there. All of them represent shots of the night sky before the advent of "space junk."
It's an amazing project, and one that citizen scientists can get involved in as well. Through SCOPE—Stellar Classification Online Public Exploration—you can get a good look at the plates in the APDA archive and help professional scientists document and classify all the stars depicted in them.
As important as proteins are, we know relatively little about how and why these complex chains of amino acids fold and twist the way they do and how that structure relates to function. Foldit takes advantage of the fact that, given the right rules, people can come up with possible, plausible protein structures far faster than a computer program can factor out all the possible permutations. And that's why Foldit players—citizen scientists of a sort—were so useful in this case. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science explains:
They discovered the structure of a protein belonging to the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close relative of HIV that causes AIDS in monkeys.
These viruses create many of their proteins in one big block. They need to be cut apart, and the viruses use a scissor enzyme –a protease – to do that. Many scientists are trying to find drugs that disable the proteases. If they don’t work, the virus is hobbled – it’s like a mechanic that cannot remove any of her tools from their box.
To disable M-PMV’s protease, we need to know exactly what it looks like. Like real scissors, the proteases come in two halves that need to lock together in order to work. If we knew where the halves joined together, we could create drugs that prevent them from uniting. But until now, scientists have only been able to discern the structure of the two halves together. They have spent more than ten years trying to solve structure of a single isolated half, without any success.
The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.
“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”