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Science for everyone by everyone – the re-emergence of citizen science

By Katherine Aitchison, on 29 January 2013

Citizen science is something that has undergone a major revival in the past 10 years or so and in the Lunch Hour Lecture on 22 January, Professor Muki Haklay explained why and where the field is going.

The iBats logo

The iBats logo

It may sound like a load of middle-aged men playing with chemistry sets but actually citizen science has encompassed some great thinkers. Like say… Charles Darwin, I imagine you’re familiar with his work?

Darwin wasn’t affiliated with any university or other organisation; in fact, he was only on HMS Beagle as a companion to the captain rather than in any professional capacity.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1833 that William Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’ to distinguish the professional from the amateur. He used interested amateurs to collect data relating to tidal patterns and likened himself to the jeweller who strung these ‘pearls’ of information together to make the necklace.

This is an attitude that prevailed for some time; amateurs were of use because they could be used to collect a larger amount of data than professional scientists could manage on their own, but they often went without recognition and their observations were often viewed as untrustworthy.

However, over the past decade a number of innovations have been developed that have enabled the field of citizen science to undergo something of a revolution.

First and foremost has been the internet – most houses in the land now have a broadband connection allowing us all to spend whole evenings online browsing whatever takes our fancy.

And despite the temptation of online games and social networking, some people have managed to put this to good use. The most obvious example that any university student will be familiar with is Wikipedia.

The ‘free encyclopedia’ is open to everyone to edit and is what Professor Haklay refers to as a “collaborative, socially-based knowledge creation system”. Something that combines the knowledge of many hundreds of users for the use of all.

But there are many examples of citizen science that go far beyond the, somewhat scientifically limited, reaches of Wikipedia and have put amateur enthusiasts right to the forefront of scientific enquiry.

This is the realm of ‘citizen cyberscience’, which occurs mostly online and in a variety of scientific areas. There are sites where volunteers can download software that will run in the background continuously collecting data; Quake-Catcher, for example, where participants request a sensor that transmits information on seismic activity to help inform earthquake predictions and monitoring.

For those who want to be more involved in data collection, there are programmes such as iBats, a UCL initiative that asks volunteers around the world to record bat noise for further analysis by other volunteers as part of the Bat Detective scheme.

Bat Detective is an example of ‘volunteer thinking’, where volunteers use their brain power to analyse far more information than the researchers could ever get through.

These programmes are just a few examples of an ever-expanding field where interested people can get involved with data collection or preliminary analysis but where projects are still designed, run by, and ultimately analysed by, professional scientists.

Professor Haklay leads the UCL Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group, which is going a step further and encouraging communities to develop their own projects in order to answer questions that are important to them.

The group wants citizen science to include people with all levels of education, from anywhere throughout the world, and have them participate in all stages of scientific enquiry. This is a truly collaborative and inclusive approach to science that I think is very exciting.

Examples of ExCiteS’ activity to date include a group of residents living close to London City Airport who were able to monitor noise levels before and during the Icelandic ash cloud to investigate the impact the airport has on their live;s and the EveryAware project, which is similar in that it allows the public to monitor the state of the environment and answer questions about pollution and other environmental issues.

But the most striking example Professor Haklay shared with us is the work of one of his colleagues in the Congo.

A group of hunter-gatherers there were involved in a project to identify important resources that they wanted forestry management to be aware of. Developing the technology for them to do this allowed the group to go on and develop a method for them to monitor illegal poaching within the forest.

The field of citizen science is set to keep growing as more and more people cultivate an interest in the sciences, and technology is increasing at such a pace that new methods for research are developing all the time.

So with that in mind, here’s a list of sites where you can get involved in some scientific research of your own!

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