Citizen science: feed your inner geek

Citizen science is a hot topic right now and will only grow over time. Citizen science projects are studies where non-professional scientists help with the research. You can get involved in citizen science projects in a number of ways. Sometimes the work is online and on other occassions it involves hands-on field observations. It’s totally up to you and your interests.

A great place to start getting a feel for what’s available is the Scientific American Citizen Science blog or the just-launched PLOS blog CitizenSci.

This post is a quick run-down of the types of projects for citizen scientists, ranging from crowdsourcing for online analysis of data to DIY science.

Online analysis of data collected by scientists

Scientists often have huge quantities of data that it would take years to analyse the information. Instead, the researchers use crowdsourcing to find citizen scientists who want to help. In this category, Zooniverse has a great list of online projects covering space, climate, humanities, nature and health. For example, you can help identify whale song (WhaleFM) or look for star clusters in data from the Hubble Space Telescope (Andromeda Project).

If you’d like to get a feel for how a Zooniverse project might work, read this article from Hannah Waters at Scientific American blogs. She describes how she is helping scientists to identify wildlife in the Serengeti from three million photos collected using motion-sensing cameras (Snapshot Serengeti).

Play games to solve scientific puzzles

Some problems, like the folding of proteins, are too complex for computers to solve. is a computer game where the human creativity of citizen scientists helps to solve protein structures. The first paper describing was published in Nature in 2010, one of the world’s best science journals. A number of other high-quality papers have since been published, including the first crowdsourced protein design (in Nature Biotechnology in 2012).

Provide the data for scientists to analyse

In this category of citizen science you provide the data and the researchers analyse it. An example of this type of project is Project: play with your dog. Take a short video of yourself playing with your dog and upload it to the website of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab in New York City. They will then use the video in their research.

If you live in Australia and enjoy fishing, diving or boating you can help scientists map unusual species in various coastal areas. The Redmap project was launched by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania in 2009 and has recently expanded to cover all of Australia.

Along similar lines, citizens can help scientists during environmental disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. In a study about to be published in Ecology and Society (Dec 2012 issue, volume 17, issue 4, not yet available online), Sabrina McCormick found that reports from citizens helped public health officials to quickly identify environmental hot spots.

Go on an expedition with scientists

I’m saving up to go on one of these. For example, Earthwatch Institute runs expeditions all over the world for those interested in sustainability or conservation. Earthwatch trips aren’t cheap but you can look around for local environmental groups who might be looking for volunteers for projects.


Image credit: Suzan Black 12.6k

DIY science

A growing number of people want to run their own projects. Examples of the ways people can do DIY science include projects for classrooms suggested by organisations like CSIRO, a community biolab in New York City called Genspace, a program designed to produce the next generation of innovators and technologists, called HackNY.

For those interested in astronomy, amateur astronomy societies are situated around Australia.

Have you heard of any interesting projects?

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