Last semester in my Information Studies class I was tasked with doing a research paper on something related to information and the way it is changing in the digital age. We had just finished a unit on Wikipedia and so I was curious if there were other platforms like that where ordinary people contribute to something that used to be entirely the purview of experts. I started digging around, googling things I was interested in, and I stumbled upon citizen science. Although I have not yet participated in a project, I have since been in awe of the possibilities this presents.
Before I go too far down the rabbit hole, let me briefly explain what citizen science is. citizen science involves utilizing ordinary citizens in the collection of, and sometimes the analysis of, data for scientific purposes. I will not regurgitate my research paper beyond that, but the potential this creates is vast and then you throw in social media and the potential explodes.
Some days I worry that anti-intellectualism will get the best of us as a species when I see politicians mocked for being elitists because they are well-educated, see anti-science legislation introduced, and see “the other side” given equal airtime on the news for “balance” when the other side doesn’t have any science to back up their opinions. For these reasons not only is citizen science great for the scientific community; increasing the geographic diversity from which they can collect data, the speed of data collection, and the scope of their projects, but with more and more people participating in these types of projects it should increase scientific literacy. And that is never a bad thing.
If you have never heard of citizen science before or cannot believe scientists would rely on ordinary people to help with their scientific projects, you may be surprised to find out some of the organizations that utilize it. NASA, the United Nations, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Oxford University are just a few examples. There are simple apps that people can download like iNaturalist, trackmyfish, and BirdLog. Most of these apps are to help track plants and animals. There is even a U.S. government catalog of federal crowdsourcing and Citizen Science projects at citizenscience.gov.
The projects that I find the most fascinating are the ones that ask regular citizens like you and I to help map the universe. This National Geographic article from 2016 discusses a few of the most interesting projects of the time: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2016/06/28/you-can-help-make-maps-for-science-no-experience-needed/. These projects are helping to map both the planet and the universe. They highlight a few projects such as one where two Russians are credited with discovering a new cluster of galaxies via the Evolutionary Map of the Universe project. I like that they mention that Citizen Science isn’t new, even though we may not have called it by the same name prior to the 1990s. Bird watchers are the group I can think of that have been involved with this type of work for a very long time. However, with online communities and new apps being created and updated, we have gone from birdwatching to star watching and beyond, with much of the data able to be shared online in real-time. I cannot wait to see where this new frontier takes us.
To find a list of current NASA Citizen Science Projects click here.