Power to the people

Citizen science relies on the public’s curiosity and enthusiasm – not to mention computing capacity – to supplement the work of scientists.

The take-away

  • In 2007 an astronomy research team at the University of Oxford was struggling to classify more than one million images of galaxies. When the team invited people to analyse the images on the internet, it received nearly 50,000 classifications per hour.
  • Teja Philipp made use of several FabLabs when designing the prototype for his “Mr Beam” portable laser cutter. The project’s Kickstarter campaign was one of Germany’s most successful to date, raising more than €900,000.

Each day, tens of thousands of neophytes set to work transcribing museum archives or observing the animals of different national parks on the citizen science platform Zooniverse. They’re part of a new wave of non-professionals who, curious and eager to help, are becoming involved in areas beyond those in which lay people usually contribute, like astronomy and ornithology. “Amateurs have always participated in scientific research,” says Sascha Dickel, a researcher in the sociology of science at the Technical University of Munich. “Their exclusion is a relatively new phenomenon which started in the late 19th century, when science became professionalised.”

Stay-at-home particle physicists

Though CERN’s research findings routinely make headlines, most people know little about how the Geneva-based nuclear research organisation functions. But since 2004 anyone can participate from the comfort of home, just by making his or her computer’s power available to CERN (see “Solving the universe’s mysteries”, below).

“People really want to contribute,” says Laurence Field, an IT engineer at CERN. “The general public remains an underutilised resource.” But there’s a real need for such help: CERN lacks the infrastructure to analyse all the data it produces. Volunteers are actually the second largest producer of simulations for one of its experiments. Even though projects like the one at CERN are open to anyone with a computer and Internet access, studies show that the participants are mainly tech-savvy computer geeks.

Citizen science also attracts people for tasks that cannot be automated, often in the form of games. Galaxy Zoo has been a huge success, with about 50 publications under its belt. In 2007 Chris Lintott’s astronomy research team at the University of Oxford was struggling to classify more than one million images of galaxies. “The algorithms couldn’t differentiate between elliptical and spiral galaxies, whereas humans can easily recognise those patterns,” explains Laura Trouille, who oversees citizen science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, a partner in this trans-Atlantic collaboration.

Lacking the resources to perform these classifications by hand, the team allows people to analyse the images on the Internet. So far it’s a huge success: within 24 hours of launching the project, the team was already receiving nearly 50,000 classifications per hour. After a year, that number had reached more than 50 million.

Galaxy Zoo’s success gave rise to the Zooniverse platform, which includes some 40 citizen-science projects in fields ranging from astronomy to social sciences (see “Glimpsing into the artist’s mind”, below).

“The public’s help is making a real difference,” says Daniel Lombraña, co-founder of Crowdcrafting, a platform on which people can create citizen-science projects. “Working with Cancer Research UK, we’ve shown that users can recognise cancer cells almost as well as experts can.” After a brief tutorial, 1,000 volunteers learned to identify cancer cells in photos of tissue samples with 90% accuracy.

Human detectors

FabLabs and science shops are other examples of successful citizen participation. The goal is to get the public even more involved in research. FabLabs are collaborative, creative spaces in which people can access an array of tools, from 3D printers to laser cutters. Teja Philipp made use of several FabLabs in Munich and Berlin when designing the prototype for his “Mr Beam” portable laser cutter. The project’s recent Kickstarter campaign was one of Germany’s most successful to date, raising more than €900,000.

Science shops, on the other hand, are more of a cross between university and society. They receive questions and requests from non-government groups on issues such as local pollution and traffic management, and conduct research with university partners to come up with solutions.

Projects like Zooniverse attract people of all ages, half ofwhom do not hold a university degree. But there is noconsensus yet on whether these initiatives are actually gettingbroader groups of people involved in science.

“Most projects ask people to perform tasks that require little expertise, limiting their role to that of a human detector,”says Dickel. “The alternatives, however, attract narrower groups. So we’re faced with the choice of either getting as many people as possible involved or giving more responsibility to participants.”

You, too, can be a research scientist


With these four citizen projects, anyone can help advance knowledge without leaving home.

Solving the universe’s mysteries

Website: lhcathome.web.cern.ch

By whom: CERN

Since when: 2004

How to participate: Volunteer your computer’s power to help physicists analyse data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Install the appropriate software to start running simulations when connected to the Internet. The software may be configured to run at the lowest priority or not at all while your computer is in use.

Simulations completed: 3 trillion

Connecting brainy dots

Website: eyewire.org

By whom: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Max Planck Institute of Medical Research

Since when: 2012

How to participate: Play a game to help researchers map and understand the trillions of connections between neurons in our brains. After registering on the website, players solve 3D puzzles to earn points while building the model for neurons in a microscopic retina sample.

Players: over 200,000

Glimpsing into the artist’s mind

Website: anno.tate.org.uk

By whom: Tate Gallery and Zooniverse

Since when: 2015

How to participate: Transcribe handwritten texts from artists’ sketchbooks and letters to help the Tate digitise its archives. Tasks are completed on the project’s website, with the option of transcribing one or more lines of text from the personal documents of Francis Bacon and 30 other painters, photographers and sculptors.

Documents transcribed: 17,000

Evolving at a snail’s pace

Website: evolutionmegalab.org

By whom: The Open University and other European contributors

Since when: 2009

How to participate: Hunt down common snails in your garden and record their colour and pattern. Mapping banded snails’ characteristics throughout Europe will help researchers confirm whether their evolution is linked to climate change – possibly because darker shells warm up faster in sunlight. For all ages, available in 14 languages.

Records submitted: over 10,000

Sascha Dickel (Technical University of Munich), Laurence Field (CERN), Galaxy Zoo/ Zooninverse, Laura Trouille (Chicago’s Adler Planetarium), Daniel Lombraña (Crowdcrafting)


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