25 April 2011

Crowdsourcing Science

In this age of the ever-expanding scope and complexity of cutting-edge science, researchers are increasingly using any and all resources at their disposal to expand their capacity for data collection and analysis.  This may mean borrowing time on massive, multi-user super-computers to run complex simulations (climate models, for example), or it may mean larger and larger interdisciplinary collaborations among scientists who each have their own equipment and expertise.

In this age of ever-expanding wired interconnectivity, there are also a growing number of opportunities for members of the everyday public to voluntarily offer up their services in the name of scientific awareness and progress.  These citizen scientists have been helping in everything from surveys of wildlife (see, for instance, my last post about the updated winter wolf count in Wisconsin, which relies in part on observations from knowledgeable amateurs) to surveys of interstellar gravitational waves.

With my recently adopted role as a non-scientist (in the sense that I’m not actively pursuing research) science communicator, I have taken more of an interest in opportunities for overlap between scientists and the public.  In the earth sciences, and specifically with regard to earthquake detection, awareness and hazard mitigation, several efforts have begun to make use of the citizen scientist strategy (at times also referred to as community remote sensing) within the last few years.  I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some quick information about a few of these programs:

Quake-Catcher Network: This is an effort run by Stanford University and the University of California – Riverside that makes use of the accelerometers built into modern laptop and desktop computers as strong-motion sensors.  When a high-energy signal is detected by a participating computer, it is recorded via specialized software and communicated to the Quake-Catcher network over the internet.  If many signals are reported simultaneously and from the same geographic vicinity, it’s likely that an earthquake has occurred (as opposed to, for example, a single strong signal reported because someone dropped their laptop at the coffee shop).

Twitter Earthquake Detection Program: Run by the USGS, this is more of a passive participant program that collects tweets containing keywords like “earthquake” (go figure) into a database.  When an earthquake is detected through the Advanced National Seismic System, the database is checked for potentially-related tweets.  The program provides an additional means of recording and reporting when and where earthquakes have struck.  The gathered tweets also provide early, first-hand accounts of resulting damage and hazards to seismologists, emergency responders, and the public.

NetQuakes: Another program initiated by USGS, NetQuakes is a low-cost network of seismometers that have been installed in the basements and garages of residential homes and a few businesses beginning in 2009.  Volunteers provide a few square feet of floor space for the box to be bolted down, a small amount of electricity to power the boxes and minimal bandwidth over their own internet connection.  Numbering over 200 instruments, the seismometers (or “boxes”) are concentrated in a few parts of the country—notably California’s Bay Area and the Puget Sound in Washington. 

NetQuakes boxes supplement the more sophisticated (though also more expensive and sparsely placed) instruments that seismologists traditionally use to locate and study earthquakes.  Data collected through NetQuakes is intended to help scientists, engineers and emergency personnel identify and prepare for future large earthquakes by providing more local-scale information about ground movement and potential damage than has previously been available.  Like the computers used in the Quake-Catcher Network, the NetQuakes instruments record strong-motion data and report it over the internet to the USGS.  The advantage they offer over programs like Quake-Catcher and the USGS’s Twitter effort is that they are “research-grade seismic instruments,” says Jim Luetgert, a USGS seismologist involved with the Bay Area NetQuakes network.  The data they  provide are also more reliable because the instruments are anchored to the ground and their locations are fixed and known.

(The Puget Sound NetQuakes network is run by the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which I have previously highlighted.  Of the 43 boxes currently operating in this area, most are hosted by everyday homeowners who are the subject of a feature piece I am working on.  Keep an eye out.)

Beyond these earthquake-specific efforts, there are numerous other citizen scientist and community remote sensing programs.  Read about some of them in two EARTH Magazine articles (here and here).  Also, check out the many projects like SETI@Home and Einstein@Home that use the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or BOINC, software to make use of otherwise idle computing power on millions of home computers.  (Incidentally, Quake-Catcher is also run through BOINC.)

These programs offer much in the way of opportunity.  There is the obvious benefit, as I mentioned above, of expanding scientists’ ability to collect and analyze larger amounts of data, which serves to both accelerate the pace at which research can be conducted and to make more robust the results of this research. Better public education and outreach is a second benefit of citizen science programs.

A third important benefit is improved communication between scientists and the public.  To enlist the help of “ordinary” individuals on any significant scale, scientists are forced to let go of the technical details and jargon (at least much of it) with which they typically discuss their work, and present their projects in a way that is more meaningful for public.  In other words, why does it matter?  Public participation in research offers the chance for improved understanding of the scientific method and what scientific uncertainty means in different situations.  And, it offers an avenue for more direct feedback from the public back to scientists, a relative rarity when it comes to the ever-expanding complexity of cutting-edge science.


  1. Great post, Tim! I too am excited about the rise of citizen science, especially as I learn more about the public misunderstanding of how science works.

  2. I think involvement in earthquake detection and reporting is a really good way to get people excited about and thinking about science because it has such quantitative, tangible outcomes for those present. I both love and hate the idea of a twitter detection program - but I can see the need, stories spread there ridiculously fast (which can be bad for misinformation!)

  3. This reminds me of Faulk's paper about the role of active learning of science. Do you see yourself leading similar efforts as a science communicator? Interacting with the public was by far my favorite part of my zoo internship a few years back.

  4. Great post. I concur that scientists need to be talking more with the public, and vice versa. I perceive such a divide in this country -- don't know if it's better elsewhere, but hypothesize that here it's a widening gap created at least in part by increasingly specialized subdisciplines and the pitiful state of science and math education in too many U.S. schools. Programs like 'Wednesday Night at the Lab' (by the Wisconsin Laboratory of Hygiene) and university extension programs help share science and agriculture knowledge with the public -- I hope that these can grow, regardless of whether UW-Madison and the rest of the System part ways.

  5. Interesting post, Tim. I completely agree that involving the public in scientific endeavors is a useful practice. In a way it's like moving the lab out of the lab and into the real world. Isn't that what scientists are trying to study anyway? Have you run into any public programs around Madison?

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone! I don't know of any community remote sensing efforts specific to Madison, although there are plenty of programs to engage the community in science--thanks Amy for mentioning a couple. The BOINC projects that I know of aren't location-specific, so Madisonians and just about everyone else with a computer can join in.

  7. Great detail! I knew about netquakes, fantastic stuff. Every time a new disaster occurs these days, there is always a cool science way to track or predict it. We are moving at the speed of innovation. On my way to SF, so don't think this stuff is not on my mind.