The Rise of the Citizen Scientist

Posted by Connie French on Apr 5, 2010 8:28:06 AM

We recently discovered a new web site, Science for Citizens, started by Science Cheerleader founder Darlene Cavalier and her business partner Michael Gold.  The site attracts a wide spectrum of people, who may or may not be "official scientists" but who enjoy working on scientific projects in their spare time.

We love the idea of the citizen scientist - many of these people have the same profile as our Solvers.   And we particularly like this site, because it has such a wide variety of interesting projects, from monitoring water quality in the Willamette River to building habitats for Monarch butterflies to helping build a database of dinosaur bones.  In addition, people who are enthusiastic about their projects are welcome to submit blog posts about any scientific topic that interests them.  Using the "Project Finder," users can search projects based on time commitment involved, whether the project takes place indoors or outdoors, degree of difficulty - there are even projects that are suitable for children.  The site is still in beta, but we think it's a great idea - in fact, we even posted one of our Challenges there.   We asked one of the founders, Michael Gold, to tell us a bit more about the project:

Hi Michael.  Thanks for agreeing to talk to us about Science for Citizens.  Can you tell us why you decided to start this site?

There's a growing interest in science among lay people. Concern is building about science-related societal issues such as the environment, including, of course, global warming. "Science cafes" where researchers discuss their work in an informal setting are popping up around the country. And impressive numbers of people seem inclined to "get their hands dirty" with science, either through recreational activities or full-fledged research projects. To take just a few examples, in the U.S. alone there are 48 million birders, half a million amateur astronomers, and another half a million volunteers who monitor the quality of our waterways. A few years ago when a citizen science project known as "Galaxy Zoo" put out a call for volunteers to analyze telescopic images online, nearly 150,000 people signed up.

Not to mention the 90 million Americans who like to work on do-it-yourself projects and the newly christened "Generation Jones," that sizable hunk of Baby Boomers who yearn to participate and be active.

But it can be hard for a would-be citizen scientist to find the right activity (or the next activity). Information about possible projects and supporting resources are scattered haphazardly around the Web—and many of the smaller, community-oriented projects don’t have any Web presence at all. On the other side of the equation, researchers and organizations hoping to enlist volunteers in their projects often have no efficient way to do so.

My partner, Darlene Cavalier (who writes the "Science Cheerleader" blog), and I decided that the field of citizen science needs a match-maker. The driving engine of Science for Citizens is our Project Finder—a match-making tool that brings all these science-minded individuals together with all these terrific opportunities to “do science.”

What is the audience for your site?

We’re defining our target audience very broadly. Many of those who will be interested in our site probably would not call themselves “citizen scientists.” Their connection to science may be casual, although they’re passionate about their activities. Nature-lovers, hikers, and casual star-gazers, for instance. Others may dedicate many hours a week, build their own equipment, and delve deeply into technical details. In age, they range from primary and secondary school children to young, active adults to parents looking for entertaining and enlightening family outings to life-long learners and retirees.

You can do citizen science in cities as well as in the countryside—and anywhere in the world, for that matter, so we’re hoping eventually for a global community.

What can you tell us about the organizations that post projects on Science for Citizens?

Again, it’s a very broad spectrum. We have projects from academic institutions such as Carnegie-Mellon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, government agencies such as the National Park Service, museums such as the California Academy of Sciences and the Boston Museum of Science, small local groups such as the Shermans Creek Conservation Association in Pennsylvania, and even private companies, including InnoCentive.

The site has been up and running for a few weeks now – what kind of participation have you seen?

At the moment, we’re keeping an intentionally low profile—the site is still under construction and in beta testing. Given that, we’ve had a surprising number of unique visitors in the last month--in the thousands. We've also got an active, growing presence on Facebook. People are really delving deeply into the site, checking out many project pages and lingering for a long time. In the next month or so, we hope the Project Finder will have collected at least four hundred or five hundred projects.

Can you tell us about a few of the interesting projects posted on Science for Citizens?

They’re all so fascinating and impressive that I’ll just name a random sampling. “Snow Tweets” enables participants to use Twitter to add their current snow depth measurements to a real-time global map. “Firefly Watch” enlists citizen scientists of all ages to monitor the presence of backyard fireflies; their data is passed along to entomologists studying the insects' habits. In “Project Gravestone,” volunteers gauge the weathering of tomb stones as an indicator of the acidity of rainwater. And "Solar Stormwatch," a cousin to “Galaxy Zoo,” asks participants to help track explosions on the sun and track them across space to provide warnings for astronauts and data for solar scientists.

What are your hopes for the future of the site?

We want to be a great match-maker that introduces regular folks to an ever-growing number of these cool projects, and encourages them to take the plunge. We hope that researchers and sponsors of projects—big and little—will take advantage of this billboard that we’re offering them to promote their activities. And we hope that our audience will share their excitement, trade "war stories" and advice, support each other, and generally discuss what they're learning and doing by posting accounts on their own Science for Citizens blogs. We hope the citizen science community grabs this site and starts experimenting.

Thanks Michael - good luck with the site.

Thank you.

Topics: Innovation Insights, Challenges

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