Drawing on the capabilities of social networks, scientists are collaborating with private individuals to help carry out their research work at a large scale.
In June the White House held its Champions of Change Awards event to honor twelve Citizen Scientists. In fact these kinds of initiatives, which aim to bring together researchers and the general public in order to carry out large scale data collection projects, are on the increase. Working via dedicated websites and platforms, teams of researchers collaborate with individuals to gather data from their environment. This movement seems set to break through the walls of traditional laboratory research and free up the data once it has been analyzed. In order to get the best out of their volunteers, research teams make use of various social networks but carefully monitor the quality of the data being gathered on an ongoing basis.
Crowdsourcing scientific research
Citizen Science mimics the practices of crowdsourcing that have already been employed to good effect by companies looking to constantly improve the quality of their products. During a conference held in San Francisco in August, researchers at the San Francisco State University and the University of California, Davis presented their latest projects. For example, the Great Sunflower Projectis one of the first projects to launch nationwide; its purpose is to gather information on the pollenization process. Other projects focus on various public health issues – for example American Gut in collaboration with the Human Food Project,the objective being to understand the impact of bacteria on the health of US citizens. Today’s new technologies enable scientists to carry out experiments on a large scale at a lower cost, as Gretchen LeBuhn, the University Professor behind the Great Sunflower Project, underlines: “By calling on citizen scientists it’s quite possible to gather local data on a large scale.” Especially in the context of biological or meteorological studies, this gathering of local data works in much the same way as smart grids: the system functions like an intelligent, reactive network which feeds back up-to-dateinformation to researchers on a permanent basis.
Using social networks
Citizen Science brings scientific methodology and vocabulary – which are sometimes little known to the volunteer collaborators – into their daily lives by constantly engaging with them on social networks. Various projects use traditional style networks to mobilize new volunteers – such as Meetup, which reaches out to amateurs keen on taking part in scientific initiatives and who are already part of online groups, or even the giant networks like Facebook and Twitter. However some research teams also collaborate with software developers to try to make the citizen exchanges interactive and fun. For Foldit, which explores the various possible combinations of proteins, an app has been developed in the form of a puzzle that encourages players to try and resolve combinations which computers cannot unravel. This kind of process can benefit both sides, since while they are busy collecting data volunteers get a better grasp of their own environment, which may well lead them to modify their day-to-day habits.