Ever woken up wanting to change the world but not quite sure how? What about becoming a citizen scientist? The internet is full of opportunities for people who want to make a difference to science and society. All you need is access to the net, a bit of spare time and the desire to do some good.
The arrival of new technologies, the growing pervasiveness of affordable and powerful smartphones, and increased access to high speed internet has meant that the phenomenon known as “citizen science” has boomed in recent years. Anyone with access to the world wide web can now join professional scientists in making discoveries and helping piece together the blocks of the world around us, simply by making observations, collecting data, and sharing their findings with others online. In fact, citizen scientists have already been authors of genuinely groundbreaking scientific discoveries: like in 2011 when online gamers played their way to solving the structure of a retrovirus enzyme that had left scientists puzzled, opening the way for the development of a new AIDS drug, and in 2013, when a bunch of online volunteers discovered the existence of previously elusive gamma-ray pulsars as part of the project Einstein@Home, that uses volunteers’ computers’ idle time to search for weak astrophysical signals from spinning stars.
And citizen science has a raft of other benefits too: it’s not only capable of enhancing scientific research, it also democratises the whole scientific process, and as well as engaging and applying the public’s interest in scientific discovery, effectively empowering the people who take part. But it goes without saying that there are downsides too. Issues include data quality and reliability: the internet is an anonymous place, and with no one required to take ownership of their online actions, how can we be sure that the data collected is accurate? In short: how can citizen science be held to the same standards as conventional science? In the US, this very issue has been taken so seriously that last year they even introduced legislation to encourage and support the appropriate and effective use of citizen science, taking steps to both facilitate people’s access to citizen science projects and help Federal agencies design and manage citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. It’s now just a matter of waiting to see whether legislation like this can be effective in a space as unregulated and immense as the internet.
Just like Slacktivism – that Reset looked at just last week – is too easily labelled “not real activism”, it’s all too easy to dismiss citizen science as “not real science”, but in my opinion its power outweighs its potential pitfalls. When it comes to dealing with the immense flood of information faced by scientists and researchers every day: the images collected by monitoring devices and cameras, the information and documentation stored in libraries and archives, and the real-life incidents that are happening around us in the natural world every minute, the help of lay volunteers to piece together all the data can be hugely important. So why not join the growing crowd of people who’ve signed up to help puzzle together, decipher, and interpret the mysteries of the world around us? If you’ve never tried your hand at citizen science before, take a look at RESET’s pick below.
…helping scientists map the surface of Mars?
Planet Four: Terrain is a project that asks the public to review images of Mars’ south pole taken from orbit. The images were taken with the highest resolution camera ever sent to a planet, and your feedback on them can help scientists examine how the surface changes over time.
…hunting for particles in the Higgs-Boson?
Becoming one of the Higgs Hunters means helping put together the building blocks of the universe. Log on to the website to help scientists search for exotic particles that computers just aren’t able to detect.
…spotting leopards in Mozambique?
The Wildcam Gongorosa project needs people to pour through the countless photos that their field cameras have captured in Gorongosa National Park in Central Mozambique. The wildlife there was almost wiped out during the country’s civil war, and it is now the centre of one of Africa’s most ambitious wildlife restoration projects.
…logging landslides in the USA?
Did you See it? is a US-based crowd sourcing initiative that collects data about the occurrence of landslides, helping scientists get a better handle on their cause, helping them improve disaster mitigation and educate people about potential risks.
…revealing the secret lives of artists?
Working together with the British art collection the Tate, the Anno.tate project needs people to help transcribe documents from their collection: diaries, letters and sketchbooks that are bursting with information about their lives and their creative processes.
And if there was nothing there that got you interest, just try logging on to Zooniverse.org, currently the largest online platform for collaborative volunteer research, a site with a huge list of different opportunities and information about how to get involved in people-powered research in just a few clicks.