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Rise of the Citizen Scientist

Innovations Times

Posted by JR Reagan on April 18, 2013

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New projects enlisting the help of “citizen scientists” make headlines nearly every day, and there are literally thousands of ongoing ventures.

The concept of citizens as scientists is hardly new. In the late 1700s, Thomas Jefferson planned the first weather network, which would record temperatures twice a day in every county in Virginia. Though Jefferson’s plan was interrupted by war, he is still dubbed “the father of weather observers” by the National Weather Service. Other early citizen scientists documented observations on bird migrations—century-old observations that are now being used to analyze the impact of climate change on bird populations.

The typical image of a scientist working in a university or government laboratory held true through most of the 20th century…until computers made their way into homes, the Internet brought data to the masses, and mobile phones equipped with GPS became the norm.

Witness the rise of the citizen scientist.

Amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic

Citizen science is scientific research conducted by crowdsourcing, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists.” By using the words amateur and nonprofessional, Wikipedia’s definition might lead some to question the efforts and outcomes from citizen scientists.

They shouldn’t.

In a world of Big Data, citizen scientists are not just valuable, but necessary. In 2012, IDC estimated that more than1.8 zettabytes of digital content would exist in the world (up 48% from 2011). What’s a zettabyte? It’s an almost unimaginable amount: a trillion gigabytes of data. Granted, some of that content consists of cute kitten videos, but the remainder contains information that can help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Challenges with so much data to collect or analyze that small teams simply can’t process it.

Perhaps the Wikipedia definition should be revised to call citizen scientists “unpaid” or “volunteers” instead. Just take a look at some of the contributions these amateurs are making.

Storm surge

In September 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the launch of CycloneCenter.org, a project that will help scientists better understand hurricanes and cyclones. According to Chris Hennon, Ph.D., an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at UNC Asheville and a principal investigator for this project, “The human eye can best recognize patterns in storm imagery, which is why we are enlisting the public to identify image patterns and build a consistent analysis of tropical cyclone data worldwide… By collaborating with the public, we hope to perform more than a million classifications in two months, something that would take a team of analysts more than a decade to accomplish.”

In the wake of devastating super storms like Sandy and Katrina, we can only wish the citizen scientists of CycloneCenter Godspeed.

Found in space

Other citizen scientists are peering into deep space to help identify new planets. At PlanetHunters.org, citizen scientists get instruction in how to sift through the16 terabytes of data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Kepler space telescope and spot as-yet unidentified planets. According to the site, “The human brain is particularly good at discerning patterns or aberrations and experiments have shown that when many people work together, the collective wisdom of the crowds can be better than an expert. Planet Hunters is an online experiment that taps into the power of human pattern recognition.”

Both of the above projects are part of Zooniverse, an Internet hub for citizen science experiments that boasts more than 700,000 participants worldwide. Among its other projects, citizen scientists listen to whales, classify cancer cells, and use ship logs to model climate change.

Keep up with other citizen scientists at work in the new blog Citizen Sci.

Cloud science isn’t nebulous

With massive amounts of data come massive storage needs…and Europe’s trying to stay a step ahead of demand. In March 2012, three leading European research centers teamed with commercial partners to announce Helix Nebula – The Science Cloud, a secure to support the colossal IT requirements of scientific research.

When the power of the crowd meets the power of the cloud, who knows what problems will be solved next?

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