5 March 2013 by Alice Bonasio

uncategorized research miscellanea  Science Citizens Unite!


There’s been a lot of buzz around “Citizen Science” lately, so it’s only fair to ask whether the hype is really justified or if it’s more of a gimmick or passing fad. Taking some time to look at the projects that have already harnessed the power of the masses to advance scientific research, however, it’s difficult not to get excited.

Citizen Science, as the name suggests, is where ordinary citizens volunteer their brainpower, time, and other resources such as spare computer power, to help with research projects. From asking people to count squirrels in their backyard to encouraging you to build your own laser harp, there literally is something out there to suit everyone’s abilities, resources, and disposition. Getting involved can mean something as simple as donating some spare computer time; ClimatePrediction.net, for example, aims to produce predictions of the Earth’s climate up to 2300 by asking users to download and run a model program when their computers are on but not being used to full capacity.

For those looking to get more involved, however, there is the opportunity to hunt for stellar clusters in the Andromeda Galaxy, identify and measure the orbits of Near Earth Objects , or help researchers at Berkeley in their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence through the SETI@home project.

Closer to home you can view and classify pictures from the hundreds of camera traps set throughout the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, monitor the status of bat populations, measure the evolution of tropical storms, or help survey scallop numbers in the New York Bight by analysing undersea images captured by a robot submarine named Dora. Even the humanities need not feel neglected, as nearly 800,000 people signed up so far to help the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford increase access to their music collections by transcribing information from digitized sheet music. Sites like Zooniverse aggregate the largest and most popular projects, and you only need to register once to participate in as many as you like.

But while a lot of these projects only require people to view, interpret and process images, some actually ask you to actively solve puzzles, effectively turning scientific questions into games.

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a substance used by our cells to translate genetic information from our DNA. Folding and shape-shifting allows RNA to control cells in a predictable way, and this has huge medical and biological implications that are still to be discovered. This is where EteRNA come in: It’s a game where you design RNAs, which are then scored according to how well they fold. The best examples are added to the first large-scale library of synthetic RNA designs in the world. Similarly, Phylo is a game where participants align DNA sequences by shifting puzzle pieces as a way of achieving Multiple Sequence Alignments. A sequence alignment is a way of arranging the sequences of DNA to identify regions of similarity. From such an alignment, biologists can trace the source of certain genetic diseases. Traditionally, alignment algorithms use computationally complex heuristics to align the sequences but this is prohibitively expensive; by taking data pre-aligned by a heuristic algorithm and abstracting it into manipulating patterns consisting of coloured shapes, the game harnesses the natural human ability to recognize patterns and solve visual problems efficiently.

This is something that research institutions and charities such as Cancer Research UK are keen to capitalize upon. They are teaming up with games designers and computer programmers from tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook and Google to find a way to gamify the search for DNA mutations which lead to cancer. The data needs to be analysed by eye, as computers cannot identify the subtle differences which give the clue as to what the genetic causes of cancers might be. They are aiming to have the project up and running this summer

So it might be that this democratization of science, opening it up to ordinary citizen participation from all over the world, could aid the discovery of a cure for cancer, uncover the secrets of the universe, and help us advance knowledge in all areas of human knowledge. What do you think about it? Have you been involved in such a project or considered crowdsourcing as a way to advance your research? Or have you participated in these or any other projects as a citizen scientist? We’d love to hear your experiences, so do leave a comment or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

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