This story was first published on March 27, 2020
Jeanne McHale has been weathering the pandemic in her house in Pittsburgh with her husband, four kids and two dogs for 14 days now. There’s baking to be done – and a lot of online school work – but there’s also deciding whether that antelope-sized animal with stripes and a horn is a bushbuck or a yellow-backed duiker.
“He does have that stripey thing down his back,” said McHale, pointing to a computer screen. Freda, her 7-year-old daughter, took a closer look, “And he’s big! I think it’s a bushbuck.”
They aren’t playing some 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.
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The project is housed on the website, Zooinverse.org, the largest citizen science platform in the world. Projects are arranged by topic from space to ecology to climate to medicine to history and art. There are nearly 100 to choose from.
Dr. Laura Trouille is Vice-President of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the co-leader for Zooniverse. She said researchers truly would not be able to do this on their own.
“They have huge datasets — it’s always in the hundreds of thousands or a million of something,” Trouille said. “Like a million galaxies to tag or hundreds of thousands of tuberculosis samples to test against different antibiotics. Research teams tend to be relatively small and with such large data sets, and if it relies on human eyes to detect some kind of pattern, crowdsourcing through an online platform is a real and unique and very useful solution.”
Trouille said that since the coronavirus crisis began, they’ve seen a huge increase in participation. 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.
“It’s a huge motivator, knowing that there’s a public engaged with your work.”
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 said. “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 has definitely seen an uptick in citizen science since the coronavirus crisis started. He is part of a research team from New York University and Ohio State University studying urban noise pollution. The project is called 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, 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 explained. “And that’s really what we need in order to train reliable models for detecting these sources of noise pollution.”
Cartwright said the team is also now looking into how social-isolating during the coronavirus crisis is affecting the noise of the city. They want to know if their sensors detect changes in human behavior from the social distancing measures of if the reduction in noise pollution affecting things like 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 said.
Trouille says that in addition to researchers being able to unlock huge amounts of data, citizen scientists help in another way: moral support.
“It’s a huge motivator, knowing that there’s a public engaged with your work,” she said. “Wanting to know how you’re using the data, wanting to help you do–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 popped up on the computer screen carefully, and then labeled what she saw: a red marker for adult penguins; green for babies; yellow for eggs.
“How do you know it’s a baby,” her mom asked 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 responded.
Nina loved the project and her mom reported that it kept her very focused.
“Unfortunately I had to boot her off so I can go back to work, but I’ll let her do it again later in the afternoon,” Gelling said.
Tom Hart is the Oxford researcher behind Penguin Watch. He said citizen scientists are a vital part of his research.
“We leave cameras out on bird colonies in the Antarctic and the Arctic,” he said. “So 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. 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. 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.
Top photo: Citizen scientist Nina Schulz, 4, counts penguins for Penguin Watch, a research project found on the citizen science platform, zooinverse.org Photo courtesy of Cristy Gelling