Volunteers Flock To Sign Up As Citizen Scientists

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(Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
(Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Jeanne McHale has been self-isolating in her house in Pittsburgh with her husband, four kids and a dog for 14 days. There are goods to bake and some school work to get through.

But there’s also deciding whether that antelope-sized animal with stripes and a horn is a bushbuck or a yellow-backed duiker.

“I think it’s a bushbuck,” McHale says, pointing to the computer screen. Freda, her 7-year-old daughter, disagrees.

“No, that can't be it. It’s too big,” Freda says.

They aren’t playing a fun computer game. They are helping real scientists from Oxford and Yale classify data collected from cameras in Africa for a citizen science project called Wild Gabon. The researchers are trying to figure out how important the edges of ecosystems are to a national park in the West African country.

The project is housed on the website Zooniverse — the largest citizen science platform in the world. Projects are arranged by topic from space to ecology, climate to medicine, to history and art. There are nearly 100 to choose from.

Researchers would not be able to do this on their own, Dr. Laura Trouille says. She’s the president of citizen science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the co-leader for Zooniverse.

She says the datasets researchers work with are massive and require a team of human eyes to identify patterns or behaviors.

“They have huge datasets — it's always in the hundreds of thousands or a million of something,” Trouille says. “Like a million galaxies to tag or hundreds of thousands of tuberculosis samples to test against different antibiotics.”

That’s why crowdsourcing online is “a very useful solution,” she says.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, they’ve seen a huge increase in participation, Trouille says. There’s typically about a hundred thousand classifications a day across all the research projects worldwide. But last week, the participation rate shot up by about a third, according to Trouille. She thinks it’s because more people are home and looking for ways to connect and have an impact.

Each project has a forum where the research team and volunteers can chat with each other about the science, unusual objects they're seeing in the data or just their lives in general.

“It’s been really heartwarming to see the role that citizen science can play right now in particular,” she says. “We've really appreciated how all the 98 different research teams are particularly present right now in those discussion forums, both talking about science, sometimes talking about coronavirus and what we know right now, but also just being there for each other as people as a worldwide community engaged in a shared effort.”

Mark Cartwright is one researcher who says he’s seen an uptick in citizen science since the coronavirus pandemic started. He is part of a research team from New York University and Ohio State University studying urban noise pollution, a project they named The Sounds of New York City.

Citizen scientists are asked to listen to and then tag different city sounds. There’s a long list to choose from including jackhammer, siren, car alarm and reverse beeping. The categorizing helps train machines that, in the future, will automatically monitor and mitigate dangerous noise pollution.

“Really what citizen science gives us is scale,” Cartwright explains. “And that's really what we need in order to train reliable models for detecting these sources of noise pollution.”

The team is also looking into how social isolating during the coronavirus crisis is affecting the noise of the city, he says. Researchers want to determine if their sensors can detect changes in human behavior from the social distancing measures, or if the reduction in noise pollution is affecting creatures such as birds.

“These are research agendas that obviously we just started thinking about in the past week, so it'll be some time before we actually have any results from that,” he says.

In addition to researchers being able to unlock huge amounts of data, Trouille says citizen scientists help in another way: moral support.

“It's a huge motivator, knowing that there's a public engaged with your work, wanting to know how you're using the data, wanting to help you do,” she says. “It keeps you energized and feeling like what you're doing really does matter and really does have appeal and really can be useful.”

Four-year-old Nina Schulz of Pittsburgh and her mom, Cristy Gelling, spent one recent morning categorizing photos of penguins, collected by the research team behind Penguin Watch. It’s one of the most popular citizen science projects with more than 8,000 volunteers.

Nina examined each photo that pops up on the computer screen carefully and then labels what she sees: a green marker for adult penguins; blue for babies; yellow for eggs.

“How do you know it’s a baby?” her mom asks her.

“Because it’s not black and white; it’s gray. And fluffy. I thought it was just a rock but it wasn’t!” Nina responds.

Gelling reported that Nina loved the project and it kept her very focused.

“Unfortunately I had to boot her off so I can go back to work,” Gelling says, “But I'll let her do it again later in the afternoon.”

Tom Hart, an Oxford researcher behind Penguin Watch, says citizen scientists are a vital part of his research. The team leaves cameras out to film bird colonies in both the Antarctic and Arctic.

“We’ve cracked the data collection but now we’re faced with millions of images. This platform we’ve created, where they click on penguins … over time we get the timing of breeding and nest survival,” he says. “It allows us to make these massive wide-scale comparisons.”

Hart’s research team always needs more citizen scientists willing to help. And he said kids are especially good at it.

"It’s deliberately intuitive,” he says. “They’ll see some penguins, they’ll learn about stuff but mostly they’re just really, really helping us.”

He just has one warning: It’s “mildly addictive.”

This segment aired on April 14, 2020.



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