Introduction: How to Be a Citizen Scientist

About: I'll try just about anything!

Citizen Science has been around for centuries. In fact many of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have been made by amateurs: Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin were gentlemen scientists. In recent decades, citizen science has been limited by the cost and availability of data, but it continued with amateur astronomers making many significant discoveries and bird watchers participating in counts of migrating and nesting birds. These amateurs traditionally have devoted their lives to studying their subjects

But with widespread availability of broadband internet access. it has become much easier for scientists to pass data between themselves and regular people who want to contribute. Always wanted to explore space? Concerned about global climate change? Fascinated by undersea life? Or are you more interested in human history? Does helping find the cause and cure of cancer appeal to you?

Step 1: What You Can Do That a Computer Can Not Do

Scientist are working on all of these issues, but with reduced funding from governments and foundations, they have to limit the scope of their projects. Now there are ways for you to help by doing the work a computer can not do. Technology has contributed greatly to science but for many purposes, nothing can replace the human brain. In an instant you can tell the difference between cat and a dog. Or in the top image above, the difference between a cancer cell and normal cell. Or count how many penguins appear in the the photo above.

There are MANY things that the human mind can comprehend that today's computers can not understand. Those are the tasks where scientists need your help most. They would have to either hire and equip armies of workers to do the work or spend all of their time recruiting volunteers. The first is financially impossible and the second would take those scientists away from the work for which they are trained.

Step 2: How to Get Involved

There are a few Citizen Science options, but the largest for citizen projects is called Zooinverse. It is a nonprofit organization that provides a home for projects run by other scientists. Zooinvese is funded by donations and foundations. They are not the only source of projects on the internet but they are the one I know about and will be used to illustrate this Instructable. I first heard about them on a podcast that discussed the recovery of the California Condor.

With Zooniverse, you register one time to get access to a couple of dozen projects that are running at any given time. They have plans to expand, but as of today there are 25 projects looking for volunteers. Zooniverse does not hit you with fund raising requests nor do they spam you with regular emails. Their small staff is primarily technology support and scientists.

They review and select projects from some of the most prestigious research organizations in the world. The projects are selected to appeal to the general public, but also to be ones where you can contribute with no professional training.

The projects currently available are from Oxford University, NOAA (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), The Imperial War Museum, The (US) National Archives, National Science Foundation, the University of California, The (Chicago) Adler Planetarium among many others. Heavy hitters in the science world.

Step 3: Getting Started

After you complete your registration, you will be able to test drive as many different projects as you want. You can stay one minute or a year on any given project. If you get bored or find your first choice does not interest you, try another one.

Each project I have participated in has a short tutorial to explain what they are doing and why.

Some of the projects involve looking at photographs and spotting odd things or identifying items in the photo from a list. One has you listen to whale sounds to look for patterns. At least a few have you read something written by hand a hundred years ago and try to figure out what it says!

The projects fall into general groupings, which have more to do with the type of science than with the type of work they are looking to have done.

Space - the moon, Mars, the Milky Way, the sun, asteroids, all kinds of space stuff. There are more space projects than any other subject area.

Climate - historical weather data

Humanities - read WWI diaries and ancient papyri

Nature - whales, penguins, sea floor, museum collections

Biology - cancer cells and genetics

Step 4: What Is It Like?

Each project is different but here is an example.

I am going to show you what I do on the Old Weather Project. This is the project I have settled into for several reasons. I like the adventure of traveling through time to take passage with a sailing ship in the late 19th century. I like sticking with one ship and watching the adventure take place over time as the ship continues on its mission.

This project's main objective is to transcribe weather readings taken by military ships (US and GB for now). The military ships kept fastidious records and traveled to remote corners of the world. These weather readings are combined with 20th century readings to identify patterns of climate change.

When I start a new page, I get an image similar to the one above. I use the tabs across the top to enter the information I see on the page. After I finish the weather reports, I get the second page of the day that reports any activity.

For this project, recording the weather reports is the most critical. There are, however, items listed on the commentary pages that are both interesting and potentially useful to historians and scientists. In the 2nd photo above, my ship has just spotted a wrecked whaler in Alaskan waters (the "Jane Gray"). They spend several days righting the whaler and making her seaworthy before towing her back to civilization ("civilization" is a relative term for Alaska in the 1890s). (the handwriting was almost indecipherable to me at first but I have adjusted to it). What it actually says is "At 3.10 sighted wreck of schooner 'Jane Gray' & stopped ship & sent boat to examine her. She was lying on her port side, mast resting on an ice floe."

I try to work on my project every day, but that is completely up to you and your schedule. I can spend a minute or an hour working on it - depending on how busy I am. All of the projects are designed to be flexible so you do not have to sit down and devote a huge uninterrupted block of time.

Step 5: What Happens to All the Work I Do?

After you submit your work through the project, it is combined with all of the other volunteers' efforts. In most cases it is processed through sophisticated computer models to help the scientists understand what is happening with kelp or asteroids or penguins. They will use the large data sets to test theories and ideas - something they could not do on a large scale before.

Most projects have a blog or other way to tell you what the project is discovering. There is also an overall blog for Zooniverse and several of the projects have discussion groups or forums. There are links to published papers from the Zooniverse pages as well as a Twitter feed that often links to an article in the press.

Other Citizen Science sites may have less formal processes, but I am sure they all try their best to keep you informed.

note: all of the images in this Instructable are from the Zoonivese site and its sponsored projects. I am not an employee of Zooniverse or any of its projects, I just think it is really cool to be able to contribute to science while sitting at home.