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Ding-dong, NASA calling! Citizen science basics


Clear instructions, sense of purpose power the best citizen science websites.

Those of us who missed our chance to attend Space Camp and possibly take an accidental trip to space (YouTube link) still have the opportunity to discover new worlds. Just this year, two exoplanets a whopping 352 lightyears away were discovered – not by astronomers manning a large-scale telescope, but by citizen scientists participating from their homes. What cold be better than participating in extraterrestrial discovery without ever having to ride in a human centrifuge?

One unremittingly positive fact about 2021 is that there has never been a better time for citizen science

Many of us have more powerful computers in our pockets than those which sent spacecraft to the moon. Not only that – these devices have better cameras capable of better resolution than even those used in Hollywood productions not so long ago. At the same time, there is nothing new about the concept of citizen science itself – it’s been hopping in the world of cicada research since at least 1840.

What is new: the massive amounts of data that can now be collected within ever shorter periods of time. That also translates into massive amounts of data that must be sifted through in order to find the meaning within it. While projects which include millions of lines of code or complex modeling rely on computing devices, the human component of research and analysis remains vital. In these cases, it makes sense for scientists – often feeling a budget crunch – to utilize the skills of people eager to help.

When done well, citizen science is a win-win for everyone involved.

When SETI@home launched in 1999, the creators expected maybe 1,000 people to sign up. Their single desktop machine and server quickly crashed when one million people attempted to sign up. The desire and willingness is there and, when done well, citizen science is a win-win for everyone involved – from laypeople to researchers to funding organizations.

But, as always, the key is doing it well. Even the best intentions can’t keep things on track without a solid plan. If your project is suffering from low participation or high drop-offs in engagement – but you lack the budget or resources to start over – walking a mile in your user’s shoes can reveal which steps are missing and how you can mitigate them.

What your citizen scientists need to know

  1. First and foremost, people want to know if they are qualified to participate. “Anyone can do it!” sounds great, but is a bit too broad to be really useful. Does “anyone” include a classroom of fourth-graders? Is it adults with strong interest in science, regardless of their day jobs? Do they need a computer with the newest OS or can they use an older phone? Define those various users internally so that you can answer their questions immediately.
  2. Tell your citizen scientists what their tasks are and what tools are required. If they need to download software or apps, provide links then and there. Participation could be as simple as downloading and running a program in the background (SETI). Or it could be more interactive and hands-on, like visually identifying wildlife captured on trail cams for Snapshot Wisconsin or helping NASA NemoNet identify coral reefs.
  3. Orient your citizen scientist by placing them in context of the overall project. Do they identify lifeforms spotted by cameras on a ship deep in the NorthWest Passage? Explain what happens to the data after they interact with it. Is it used in computer modeling of behaviors? Are they building a database of local lifeforms?
  4. Tell users know early on how much time the activity takes. Can they do it on their phone during a break, or should they plan to devote an hour a time?. State early on the timeframe for the project as a whole, along with deadlines relevant to your citizen scientists (project start and end dates, etc).
  5. Explain clearly and plainly why your amateur researchers should donate their valuable personal time and resources and how much you appreciate it. Acknowledge their contributions and make sure they know when and where they can view the end results, or continue watching the work in progress. Provide links or contact information to the larger citizen science community for those who’d like to continue participating (link opens PDF in new window) after the current project closes.

If you are interested in exploring the world of citizen science yourself, here are a few links to get you started:

  •– an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government.
  • NASA Citizen Science – The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is an organization where discoveries in one scientific discipline have a direct route to other areas of study.
  • Zooniverse – The Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.
  • Planet Hunters TESS – Join the Search for Undiscovered Worlds.