Tag Archives: Citizen science

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

They key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.