Primal Numbers – Citizen Scientist

Have you ever imagined yourself stumbling across a rare scientific find? Maybe the fossilized missing link in human evolution, or proof that alien spaceships have visited Earth. Well, you might not discover something that exciting, but science has plenty of ways for you to contribute to ongoing studies. The only question is, should researchers really rely on the data from citizen scientists?

The idea of citizen scientists is nothing new. Backyard astronomers, storm trackers, and birdwatchers have been collecting and sharing data for centuries. The difference now is that, instead of a few hundred birdwatchers sending sightings to a local club, the latest technology allows millions of people around the world to send real-time data to researchers in just about any field you can think of.

Like the Weathermob app that lets users track and report weather conditions from anywhere they go. Or PHYLO, an online game That’s much more than a fun time waster. It’s hosted by McGill University, and is ?a puzzle game that contributes to genetic disease research.?

As this CBC article explains, there are dozens of other projects to take part in, including some for kids, like the home kits that let them ?sift through actual sediment samples in search of fossilized shark teeth from the Atlantic coastal plain.?

Getting people involved in research projects is a brilliant idea for plenty of reasons, especially with government cutbacks to scientific funding. But if the concept is going to fulfill its incredible potential, one simple fact has to stay front and centre: scientific results are only as good as the data going in, and that raises some big questions about quality control.

In some cases, like PHYLO, that isn’t a problem. Data aren’t being independently reported. And projects like BOINC, an app from the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, let you lend your computer’s processing power to a project you choose.

The potential downfall lies in observer-based data?things like reporting temperature, bee sightings, or fish at your local pond. Even with the best intentions, people make mistakes. Maybe they forget to record a sighting or write the temperature down wrong. There’s always a certain margin for error in final results, but It’s not hard to see how small inaccuracies, multiplied thousands of times, can skew results.

Ideally, researchers would verify the findings based on reliable data from another source. Say, checking citizen-reported temperatures against the ones from a national meteorological society. That’s not always possible though, especially when observer-based data is the only source of info. Were there really 30 bluegills in that pond, and what are the odds they were actually red-ear sunfish? It can be hard to verify that kind of data.

Of course, trained researchers make mistakes too. And computer models can have one faulty calculation that throws an entire conclusion off. In science, as in everything else, there are no guarantees. At least, not until data has been checked and verified dozens of times. And That’s a process that, while sometimes more difficult, is definitely doable with citizen science.

So yes, in spite of the potential drawbacks, the value of crowd-sourced data far outweighs them. It connects people to the discoveries and technology that shape our lives, helps researchers, and promotes the inquiring mindset that brought us things like the telescope and blood banks.

And maybe, just maybe, it will inspire the next young Mary Anning or Carl Sagan?and we’ll discover an Ichthyosaurus on Mars.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.