What is Citizen Science?

CROWD & CLOUD host Waleed Abdalati (center) on location in the Florida Everglades with Mariel Abreu (to left) and Angel Abreu, during Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.

By Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, Project Director, THE CROWD & THE CLOUD

My first science series for public television turned out to be a classic: Carl Sagan’s original 1980 COSMOS, on which I was a senior producer and series director. After that, I worked on the modestly-titled CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE and several NOVA programs on space missions and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. As the Internet grew, with support from NSF and NASA, my partner, Erna Akuginow, and I created live online experiences linking researchers in the Antarctic and the Amazon with audiences across America. Our work was with professional scientists doing the most amazing things in otherwise inaccessible places. And interacting with those brilliant minds was a blast.

But THE CROWD & THE CLOUD has a very different cast of characters from those we’ve worked with in previous PBS science series. Now our heroes and heroines are not exploring distant planets and Earth’s remotest locations. Instead they’re helping to generate new knowledge about environments much closer at hand. This is the age of “citizen science,” and we’ve been finding the work of “the crowd”, shared via “the cloud,” to be just as exciting, and the discoveries often very different but equally important.

Until the 19th Century, all science was citizen science. Charles Darwin wasn’t a tenured university professor or salaried government researcher, but an individual fascinated by the workings of the natural world. His amateur curiosity revolutionized our understanding of how life evolves.

Today more and more people are capturing images and information about the world around them, and analyzing what they see. Many are bird-watchers, or trout fishermen, or proud to be known as “weather geeks.”

L: C&C videographer Andy Quinn filming participants in TROUT UNLIMITED’s “angler science” in a Pennsylvania stream, documenting water quality. C: CoCoRaHS observer, Dan Matthews in Canada’s New Brunswick: he and his wife brave deep snow to make daily measurements of depth and density. (CoCoRaHS = Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network.) R: Scott Eustis (bottom left), Shannon Dosemagen and Jeff Warren captured images of the BP oil spill using kites and balloons, when a news blackout limited information.

Some are Makers and DIY enthusiasts, contributing to Public Lab, adapting low-cost cameras and sensors to capture data that official agencies neglect. Others are community activists concerned with the air their children breathe and the water their neighbors drink. Some seek new ways to diagnose and treat disease, and use innovative mobile technology to promote health.

L: Cassandra Martin (seated) explains to local teens how to map air pollution recorded by low-cost sensors, as part of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. C: Wyoming resident, Deb Larson, reached out to the Bucket Brigade to record levels of chemicals surrounding fracking sites. R: Louisville resident Christine Vaughn uses a Propeller Health sensor to record where she resorts to her asthma inhaler. Her automatically-recorded GPS location helps physicians and city government map environmental triggers.
Cornell researcher, Chris Shaffer, uses innovative lasers to show how blocked blood vessels in the brain may be involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Soon “WeCureALZ” will invite the public to participate in crowd-sourcing data to speed up the research.

In this blog and our other social media platforms we’ll be sharing stories dealing with invasive species, pollinator conservation, surfers documenting ocean acidification and Sherpas downloading climate change data from instruments buried in Himalaya snow and ice.

Our canvas is as wide and eclectic as today’s citizen science.

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