People Power: The new data source for Biology

Claire Lewis

Most people think you need to have a PhD to make a major scientific breakthrough, but that has changed thanks to citizen science. Citizen science can be loosely defined as the involvement of volunteers in science, and this involvement can take place in many different stages of experimentation and in many different fields. Thanks to one particular citizen science project we are now a step closer to understanding and curing the AIDS virus. The users of Foldit (see end for links to mentioned projects), an online gaming program whose users resolve folding in proteins, accurately determined the structure of a retroviral protease. This problem had stumped researchers for years but the public resolved it in under three weeks [1]. This particular example came from Structural Biology but citizen science is now used across many different disciplines in science and beyond. This blog post will discuss the rapidly expanding area of citizen science in the ecological/ environmental fields of Biology. Such is the importance and relevance of this new and exciting field that a conference was recently held at the ZSL and a review that came out just last month reviewing more than 230 projects [2].

There are many different citizen science projects that involve volunteers in different ways and for different purposes. Some use citizens to monitor and record observations, these can be targeted (looking for something specific and at a particular time and place) or more general and on-going. Specific targeted projects include TagatinyTuna which asks recreational fishers to record, measure and release juvenile tuna caught in the Atlantic to better understand their migratory patterns. More general projects include Plant Tracker which asks users to monitor many invasive plant species across the UK. Some projects ask volunteers to analyse data that has already been collected such as: Zooniverse Sea Floor Explore. This project involves volunteers recording which species and groundcover are present in images of the seafloor. Other projects aim to get the wider public interested in and learning about nature, whilst hopefully encouraging their support for conservation in the process.

Sebastes semicinctus

Initial thoughts on citizen science will lead many scientists to question the reliability and accuracy of information provided by such projects. Scientists spend years studying and refining their skills so that they can produce publishable works, how can a lay-person with no formal training make a meaningful contribution? Well it appears that the data collected by citizen science projects such as these is useful and largely accurate [2]. The earlier report into citizen science concluded that these projects provide a useful, reliable source of information; and volunteers can accurately analyse data [2]. There are a number of ways projects can test their volunteer’s performance such as: providing a photo if identifying something in the wild which an expert can then check; or requiring the user to take part in a tutorial or test and only being allowed to contribute when they have achieved a certain value; by accumulating reputation so the more accurate information they provide the higher their “score”; and finally by repeated testing so that when something has been identified five separate times then that identification is assumed to be correct.

Citizen science is trying to improve itself and become more usable not only to volunteers but also in the information it provides, a citizen science project, CitizenSort has been created to not only provide data but also to try and improve citizen science by understanding the motivation of volunteers. The continued motivation and participation of volunteers is one of the biggest difficulties of citizen science, and many projects in the report cite continued interest as one of their biggest hurdles. Ashtag founders were able to quickly design and produce a suitable app to monitor the spread of ash dieback in the UK using volunteers . This immediate response to the issue meant they were able to capitalise on the intense media interest in the disease as soon as it was detected on UK shores and able to generate interest in many volunteers. It would appear that the public demand for and interest in science is high: many projects having spectacularly high user levels one project recording weather (WOW) has 165,000 users across 152 countries.

Ash trees just south of the Milky Way - geograph.org.uk - 524599

Citizen science is of great importance to the ecology/environmental fields of Biology as it has the potential to provide and analyse huge amounts of data which are otherwise lacking in these disciplines. Collecting equivalent amounts of data from paid scientists would be completely unfeasible and could never occur across the spatial and temporal scales that citizen science makes possible. Some of these projects have very similar aims and user interactions such as iSpot, iNaturalist and Project Noah; there is a concern that these projects could be seen as competing with one another and not collaborating and sharing information. This seems to be against the fundamental spirit of the field which is based on co-operation and shared contribution and improvement, and hopefully these projects can recognise the benefits of working with one another.
The future for citizen science looks very bright: it has the potential to involve the wider public in not only their understanding of science but its progress as well.

Projects
Foldit: http://fold.it/portal/
Tag a Tiny Tuna:
Zooniverse SeaFloor Explorer: https://www.zooniverse.org/project/seafloorexplorer?lang=en
CitizenSort: http://www.citizensort.org/
AshTag: http://ashtag.org/
Weather Observations Website (WOW): http://wow.metoffice.gov.uk/
iSpot: http://www.ispot.org.uk/
iNaturalist: http://www.inaturalist.org/
Project Noah: http://www.projectnoah.org/

[1]Khatib, F., Cooper, S., Tyka, M. D., Xu, K., Makedon, I., Popović, Z., Baker,D & Foldit Players. (2011). Algorithm discovery by protein folding game players. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(47), 18949-18953.
[2]Roy, H.E., Pocock, M.J.O., Preston, C.D., Roy, D.B., Savage, J., Tweddle, J.C. & Robinson, L.D. (2012) Understanding Citizen Science & Environmental Monitoring. Final Report. NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Natural History Museum on behalf of UK-EOF. 175pp

Feature image taken from: http://wow.metoffice.gov.uk/

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