Hello Citizen Scientist

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

Citizen journalists are in the streets, documenting revolutions every day. The New York Times blog uses Twitter to report the news, often from citizen Twitterers, effectively turning on-the-ground witnesses into national reporters. It goes without saying that this would not be possible without the tech of Twitter and camera phones, but there’s a bigger change – and it involves something less visible than a piece of hardware.

Editors are trusting us.

I never did get  the memo from the New York Times editors saying that they would be trusting citizen journalists to report serious news, but that’s just what’s happening. In the connected world, so often derided for being impersonal or faceless, citizens are trusted as never before. Driven by this change, journalism has been open sourced. This has also been happening in science.

Earlier this week, I was speaking with Marc Kuchner, author of  Marketing for Scientists, asking questions about how to connect people who communicate about science with scientists like him.

Why do people care about science in the first place? What are the points of entry for people to get interested in science?

Well, for one thing, science has a lot of fans. Many of us are willing to connect with our inner science geek. It’s not just when we watch movies like The Matrix or Star Trek. Scientists are willing to trust us to gather data for them and even help interpret it. There it is again: the trust factor.

Ushahidi is a crowdmapping platform that trusts citizen mappers using their cellphones to send in data. It’s been used to dynamically track revolutions, document oases of safety in dangerous places, and count schools in parts of Africa where the outside world didn’t know schools existed. The tech is pretty amazing, but even more amazing is the  trust. But let’s not get too misty-eyed about this: With GPS and timestamps, it’s harder to fake things. With data coming in from dozens if not hundreds of people, it can be cross-referenced instantly. This creates an atmosphere in which citizen data projects can thrive. The Citizen Science Alliance has a listing of projects you can be part of, and Scientific American tracks citizen science also.

Backed by Los Alamos National Laboratory, Aurorasaurus is a project that gives you a way to Tweet about sightings of the northern lights and contribute to mapping them.  Digital Fishers is a sealife identification project. You watch a short video and describe what you see, helping scientists tune their instrumentation, or at least get their underwater cameras aimed in the right direction. Spacewarps shows you images of space, and you see if you can spot a rare occurrence where galaxies overlaps, bending space around each other.

My personal favorite? That would be the Road Kill Project. You’re out riding your bike and you see road kill. You hop off , snap a cell phone shot of the creature and send it in to UC Davis so they can map animal migrations, or where some of those migrations ended rather suddenly. Don’t laugh. It’s data. And they’re trusting us with it. What better way to connect with your inner science geek.

Image via Creative Commons by Mandiberg.