Tag Archives: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Citizen Science II

In my last post I talked about ways that we can participate in science using the computing power of our home computers. BOINC (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure Computing) projects use screen saver type software to crunch everything from space data to climate models to malaria transmission rates.

These are all passive activities though, requiring just our machines and electricity.It’s a valuable contribution, to be sure, but what if there was more that we could do?

Well, there is. SETI@home’s original goal of proving the value of distributed science was a big success, as other scientific projects have expanded to use citizen scientists such as ourselves to help with the massive amounts of data that have been gathered.

Galaxyzoo is one of these. A multi-university collaboration, GalaxyZoo was designed to help get through the data gathered by the Sloan Sky Survey. The original goal for us users was to identify if a galaxy was present, if it was spiral or globular, and if spiral, if a bar was present. The project explained that human eyes could accomplish these feats where computer analysis could not, making our participation both more intimate and more valuable.

And it was fun! Every frame was a picture of deep space, and you never knew what might appear. At least one new object was discovered by a citizen scientist, and it now bears his name. Is that cool or what?

Around two dozen scientific papers have been written as a result of citizen analysis, and what we thought we knew about galaxy formation and growth has been challenged and expanded.  And I helped, in my spare time, from the comfort of my easy chair!

The U.S. Geologic Society (USGS) has the Bird Phenology program. Over the years, citizen birders have kept log cards of bird species. A literal mountain of paper is hard to study though, so they electronically scanned the log cards and gave us a browser page to read the card and enter the information into a database form. I’ve transcribed cards from as long ago as 1899. Besides the value to ornithologists of having thousands of first hand accounts catalogued by year and species and location, there’s an added value, a personal connection, in reading the name and handwriting of a person who thought it important to note the date that the robins returned to Indiana in the spring of 1912.

Then there’s Seafloor Explorer, a project by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in partnership with the Citizen Science Alliance. It’s my current favorite.  Just as Galaxyzoo used the Sloan Sky survey, Seafloor Explorer uses the WHOI HabCam survey of the ocean floor. Like in Galaxyzoo, the citizen scientist is presented with a frame of the ocean floor, and is asked to identify types of floor sediments (sand, shell, gravel, cobble, boulder), then to distinguish the life that may be present (scallops, sea stars, crustaceans, fish).

Every picture is both a mystery and an adventure, so much so that it’s almost addicting. You find yourself saying ‘just one more’ over and over, in anticipation of what you may see next. Will there be strange fish, or parts of a shipwreck? Or like in Jaws, just a too close up picture of the eye of a previously unknown sea beast?

But the work of science is mostly tedium. Mostly, it’s sand and shell, gravel and cobble. Mostly it’s sea stars and scallops, with a few sponges and fewer fish.

So far… like new galactic objects, finding new underwater species is inevitable.

People make our world better by using science to study and understand our surroundings, whether it is deep space, the deep ocean, or the microscopic world of sub-atomic particles. Modern techniques in gathering information have far out paced our ability to analyze it all in a timely fashion. Our computers and internet connections give us all the ability to jump in and lend a hand to help speed up the advance of human knowledge and understanding, and all in our spare time. Thanks to partnerships between government, the public and private sectors, we can all be citizen scientists helping to make the world a better place.

It’s easier than you think, and it’s a great way to give a little back for all we’ve received.