Tag Archives: Scientific research

Amusing Monday: Citizen scientists lend their eyes and ears

Just about anyone interested in becoming a citizen scientist can participate in real-life research projects by connecting with Zooniverse, a website that has been expanding and refining its projects since I first wrote about it in Water Ways in 2017.

Zooniverse enlists the power of many people to analyze raw data of various kinds. As a participant, you sit down at your computer and follow instructions to make observations about nature, history, art, language or other fields of your choosing.

“The major challenge of 21st century research is dealing with the flood of information we can now collect about the world around us,” says the description on the Zooniverse webpage. “Computers can help, but in many fields the human ability for pattern recognition — and our ability to be surprised — makes us superior.”

The accumulation of human observations from a Zooniverse project can be used to actually train computers to make the observations, which ultimately speeds up the process of data analysis even more.

“With our wide-ranging and ever-expanding suite of projects, covering many disciplines and topics across the sciences and humanities, there’s a place for anyone and everyone to explore, learn and have fun in the Zooniverse,” states the description. “To volunteer with us, just go to the Projects page, choose one you like the look of, and get started.”

“These projects produce science,” declares Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics and the citizen science lead at Oxford University, (at 7:14 into the first video on this page.) “But that’s not the interesting thing about it…. What’s interesting are the people who are participating — a half-million people or so who are registered with the Zooniverse…

“These aren’t people who are already science fans…, nor are they science-phobic. They’re the kind of people who, if they are reading the Metro and there’s a science story, would read it. But they wouldn’t buy “New Scientist.”

While the people participating in Zooniverse contribute to real science projects, they are also learning about cutting-edge science, Lintott says, going on to describe what he knows about the participants.

Here are a few projects that caught my attention:

Floating forests

Giant kelp, a fast-growing seaweed considered critical habitat for many marine species, changes its growth patterns from year to year. Citizen scientists are needed to interpret satellite images, because so far computers are unable to determine the edges of kelp beds from Landsat photos.

“These satellites photograph the entire surface of the earth every 16 days and have been doing so since 1984,” states the description of the project. “When one of our project scientists first began working with these images, he had hoped he could just throw the hundreds of thousands of images into some image classification software, and have the software tell him where kelp was located.

“There’s just one problem: Landsat was not designed to be able to see kelp. Kelp’s reflectance signature (the color of light that it reflects) is just at the edge of the camera’s detection abilities. Because of this, kelp and something as simple as the glint of sun off of a wave look the same to a computer.

“But to a person, the shapes and patterns of kelp forests are fairly obvious. That’s where you come in. By tracing patches of kelp, you can do a far more accurate job than a computer, helping to process this mountain of data!”

Penguin Watch

As described by Chris Lintott in the first video, Penguin Watch asks observers to identify adult and baby penguins from images taken with remote, unmanned cameras that automatically take pictures of penguin colonies over time.

“Currently, there are numerous serious threats to marine predators in the Southern Ocean: namely climate change, fisheries and direct human disturbance,” states a description of the project. “However, despite over a hundred years of study in the region, we have little baseline information against which to measure change…

“Camera technology affords us the ability to deploy terminator-style biologists (they don’t sleep, they don’t eat) in hard-to-reach areas, or in places where human presence might disturb wildlife and therefore disrupt their behavior. By establishing a camera network in the Southern Ocean … we hope to capture novel behaviors and study penguin populations that have never before been observed owing to their remote locations.”

Other projects you might find interesting:

Seabird Watch, a project that classifies seabirds in remote locations

Cedar Creek Eyes on the Wild, a project that identifies animals and their interactions at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve north of Minneapolis, Minn.

Manatee Chat, a project that classifies the sounds that manatees make in an effort to identify calls related to communications.