Making citizen scientists

While talking recently with my QS fellows (thanks Alex, Eri, Seth, and Rajiv) I realized I’ve been using the term “citizen science” rather loosely. Expanding on my short section in Wandering minds, self-tracking, and citizen science, I’d like to use this post to explore how the expression is used, sketch a little vision of where it could go, and get your thoughts on what it means to you.

Current usage: Citizen-as-helper

In looking around the net I’ve found that the general meaning of “citizen science” is that of individuals who help with scientific research by contributing time and resources to projects organized and run by professional scientists. Here’s a how it’s defined at Citizen scientist: Helping scientists help themselves:

Citizen science is a form of organisation design for collaborative scientific research involving scientists and volunteers, for which internet-based modes of participation enable massive virtual collaboration by thousands of members of the public.

Some cool examples include:

This kind of work is groundbreaking (literally) and important for many reasons. The site Science for Citizens (which lists projects you can sign up for) has a fine summary of benefits:

  • Enable and encourage people to learn about, participate in, and contribute to science through both informal recreational activities and formal research efforts.
  • Inspire greater appreciation and promote a better understanding of science and technology among the general public.
  • Create a shared space where scientists can talk with citizens interested in working on or learning about their research projects.
  • Satisfy the popular urge to tinker, build, and explore by making it simple and fun for people-singles, parents, grandparents, kids-to jump in and get their hands dirty with science.

With ubiquitous mobile technology, this kind of science is even more empowering. For example, iNaturalist.org is working on an iPhone App. (I love their tagline – “Explore, Learn, Record!”)

(An aside: I was pleased to read Analysing data is the future for journalists, says Tim Berners-Lee where he suggests that citizen scientists need to be Personal Citizen Journalists too, which is especially relevant this week given the protests in Egypt and corresponding guerrilla reporting.)

Greater potential: Citizen-as-scientist

As exciting as this movement is (I launched Space Shuttles for NASA, so I’m a fan of big science), I think the expression is misleading and needs to be distinguished from what we do here in the QS community – a different, yet still valid, form of inquiry. The problem is that, as it stands, the current usage pigeonholes the role of individuals in performing science. I found three categories of ways people help: observing (wielding binoculars), labeling (identifying patterns), and computing (contributing CPUs). This puts control squarely under the authority of professional scientists, with citizens as assistants. There are good reasons some projects should work this way, but it ignores the prospect of our taking control of our lives through self-experimentation.

Here’s my proposal: Let’s hijack the language a bit and frame it to mean “what citizen scientists do,” i.e., to move the conversation about our role from helpers to researchers. Maybe a way to look at it is that citizen scientists are people who get genuinely curious about something and decide to test things out for themselves, ideally inviting in like-minded explorers to join and enrich the results. You’ll know them when you hear them ask “I wonder why X is happening?”, “What if I tried changing Y?”, or when someone wonders “Oh really?” when she hears a health claim or recommendation. The recent buttermind experiment is an exciting example (see Seth’s analysis here).

Put another way, how about defining it as the intersection of three things:

DIY science + Crowdsourcing + Statistics

Fortunately, I think the timing is right, and momentum is building. Take the upcoming Quantified Self Conference 2011, for example. Or look at how Eri says it at 5 Citizen Science Ideas for 2011 from BioCurious:

  • There will be a change in the locus of control- to the individual- when “N,” the participants in a health study, goes from n=They to n=Me to n=We.
  • When citizen scientists can go from postulating theories to creating studies in which participant created data provides insight into their questions.

In my own Edison project, my hope is that two forthcoming features (group experiments and a quantitative data layer) will provide us self-experimenters with a platform for getting answers to our personal burning questions, and getting ideas, data, support from others along the way.

I’m curious

What do you think?

  • What is the role of citizen-as-scientist?
  • What kinds of projects should be left to the professionals, and which to the amateur explorer?
  • What collaborative self-experiments have you done?
  • What ones would you love to see happen and participate in?
  • Finally, what tools do you know that support the “DIY science + Crowdsourcing + Statistics” junction?

[Image from shades of vintage]

(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter’s journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org)

About Matthew Cornell

Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org
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19 Responses to Making citizen scientists

  1. Justin Wehr says:

    I think there is tremendous potential for QS to be the meeting place for collaborative “amateur” experimentation, and I am glad to see Matthew here lobbying for more of it.

    What I can envision is a simple directory where anyone can input a hypothesis. People can respond with alternative hypotheses or other relevant info, and, if they are so inclined, they can do self-experimentation and post their results.

    I think something like this desperately needs done. (Sorry but scienceforcitizens.net is simply not going to cut it—at least not the current version.) I think it is worthy enough that I would personally volunteer my time (and maybe money) to help make it happen. Email me if I can help.

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  3. Maybe our science is too sanctified, even though many break-throughs come via trial and error?

    This is a round-about way of saying, to your first question about the role of citizen-as-scientist, we as non-trained citizen scientists should adopt a very basic framework like “Observe, Monitor, Improve” or “Explore, Learn, Record”, and then go out and start DIYing. As long as we record things, experts can come along later and make sense of it all. Or, if we get lucky, maybe we’ll make sense of it all ourselves!

  4. Gary Wolf says:

    Thank you again for a really intelligent, important post.

    Justin, I think your idea is very good. (This is one of those endeavors, like Open Street Map, that turn out to be a life’s work for more than one person!)

    The citizen AS scientist: I’ve spent some time with academic work on the sociology of science, and am fascinated by the question of what defines scientific practice. One of the key ideas is peer-review, and by redefining WHO counts as a scientist, science itself is changed. The implications of this are quite big.

  5. Mark says:

    There is definitely a place in science for citizen scientists. Dr. Karl, an Australian scientist and science communicator, regularly refers to callers as scientists on his radio show. Just to be clear, those callers are regular people listening to JJJ, Australia’s #1 non-commercial radio station.

    Collaboration is important for finding discoveries which are important for everyone (or groups of people), but of course individual experimentation is just as important for personal growth.

    In either case, individually or in collaboration, as *scientists* we are beholden to the requirements and ideals of science. So a major responsibility we have is to be as rigourous and detailed as possible (incidentally, this is why I find the QS community so appealing; it’s self-improvement without the vagueness of the majority of the self-help community).

    However, as *citizens* (as opposed to professionals/academics), we are doing this because we enjoy it. In that sense it’s also a hobby. So the requirements of rigour and detail should never overshadow our enjoyment (though I think that should apply professionally as well). We’re not likely to forget this for ourselves, but others, particularly professional scientists, may criticise citizen scientists on those grounds. Of course any lack of rigour/detail in a citizens’ experiment can be improved upon, in much the same way professional experiments often need to be. But I think it’s important to emphasise the enjoyment (as you’ve done with the Edison project, Matt).

    There are some projects which should be left to the professionals. In particular, ones which are ethically sensitive or ambiguous. For example, something similar to the Milgram experiments or the Standford Prison experiment should definitely *not* be conducted without the oversight of an ethical review board.

    As for other kinds of projects, I think that as long as one has the skills & equipment, an amateur has as much right to do it as a professional (speaking as a PhD student).

  6. Rajiv Mehta says:

    Excellent post. I would push even more for the legitimacy of “citizen science” as “citizen-as-scientist”.

    Peer-review, professional affiliations, collaboration, or even the use of statistics … none of these are necessary requirements for good science. Alfred Russell Wallace’s theories on evolution would have been good science even if Darwin hadn’t seconded them. Vladimir Nabokov’s theories on butterfly migration was good science even though it took the formal experts a few decades to accept them.

    Given our mutual ex-NASA experience, I don’t wish to minimize the expertise of professional scientists (especially the really good ones), but rather want to stress that thoughtful experimentation and analysis by an individual working alone can be very good science. Which also means I wouldn’t want to automatically rule out anything as being “for professionals” only.

  7. Matthew Cornell says:

    Thanks for the great thinking, everyone. Replies follow in line.

    @Justin

    > What I can envision is a simple directory where anyone can input a hypothesis .. respond with alternative hypotheses .. and .. do self-experimentation and post their results.

    > I think something like this desperately needs done .. I would personally volunteer my time (and maybe money) to help make it happen

    We definitely need to talk, Jusin. Part of my Think, Try, Learn platform vision is just what you’re talking about. I call it DaVinci ( http://thinktrylearn.com/index.php/DaVinci ), and I think of it as both 1) an authoritative level where volunteer experts make sense of a topic’s challenges and experiments, and 2) the definitive repository of self-help experiments-to-try. I’ll email you.

    @Misha

    > we as non-trained citizen scientists should adopt a very basic framework like “Observe, Monitor, Improve” or “Explore, Learn, Record”, and then go out and start DIYing.

    Excellent idea. I’m partial to “Think, Try, Learn” :-) http://thinktrylearn.com/

    > As long as we record things, experts can come along later and make sense of it all. Or, if we get lucky, maybe we’ll make sense of it all ourselves!

    A very good point. If the experiments are set up well, and we record quality (and trustworthy data) then anyone who is interested should have access for research and analysis. In this way it combines the best of citizen science the way it’s currently used along with new experiments by citizen scientISTS.

    @Gary

    > Thank you again for a really intelligent, important post.

    Thanks! I’m grateful for your having me here, Gary.

    > The citizen AS scientist: .. One of the key ideas is peer-review, and by redefining WHO counts as a scientist, science itself is changed. The implications of this are quite big.

    Exactly – you’ve really nailed the point – who counts as scientists. I think we can adapt peer review by inviting a diverse community to participate in experiments, which is what I’m aiming for with Edison. There are roles like experiment designers with academic backgrounds, data surfers who want to do research on what’s been done (as Misha points out above), and of course self-experimenters themselves.

    I’m happy to take this further if you have more you want to share, Gary.

    @Mark

    > Dr. Karl, an Australian scientist and science communicator, regularly refers to callers as scientists on his radio show. Just to be clear, those callers are regular people listening to JJJ, Australia’s #1 non-commercial radio station.

    Thanks so much for introducing me to Karl Kruszelnicki, Mark. I love the attitude you describe. A find! (More links, FYI: http://www.drkarl.com/blog/karls-blog and http://www.abc.net.au/science/drkarl/default.htm ).

    > Collaboration is important for finding discoveries which are important for everyone (or groups of people), but of course individual experimentation is just as important for personal growth.

    Yes! The former has not served individuals who have specialized (i.e., non profitable) conditions, and the latter have not been served at all until now.

    > So a major responsibility we have is to be as rigourous and detailed as possible (incidentally, this is why I find the QS community so appealing; it’s self-improvement without the vagueness of the majority of the self-help community).

    I agree that it’s an important goal for some kinds of work, and at the same time I believe there’s a role for citizens to adopt a life-as-experiment mindset that doesn’t necessarily require quantification. In my case I’ve received tremendous benefit from this, including managing anxiety and being bolder and happier. It’s what my in-process book is about.

    > However, as *citizens* (as opposed to professionals/academics), we are doing this because we enjoy it…

    Excellent points. I have a “Why do we experiment?” post in the queue, which includes enjoyment, along with others.

    > some projects should be left to professionals .. ones ethically sensitive or ambiguous

    Absolutely.

    > As for other kinds of projects, I think that as long as one has the skills & equipment, an amateur has as much right to do it as a professional (speaking as a PhD student).

    Yes – I think we all agree. Well said.

    @Rajiv

    > Excellent post. I would push even more for the legitimacy of “citizen science” as “citizen-as-scientist”.

    Thanks, Rajiv. You’re out ahead of the pack on this one, as we’ve discussed.

    > Peer-review, professional affiliations, collaboration, or even the use of statistics … none of these are necessary requirements for good science. Alfred Russell Wallace’s theories on evolution would have been good science even if Darwin hadn’t seconded them. Vladimir Nabokov’s theories on butterfly migration was good science even though it took the formal experts a few decades to accept them.

    Yes. Another example that comes to mind is the recent publishing in the Royal Society of an paper by “a group of 8- to 10-year-olds from an English elementary school investigating the way bumblebees see colors and patterns” ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/22/biology-letters-science-j_n_800134.html ). The culture and media absolutely do not promote this. It’s funny because just think how many breakthroughs we depend on daily that were discovered by amateur scientists. The example I give in talks is lobsters and medicine – who was the first person who saw a lobster and thought, “Lunuch!” Or think of all the people who bravely tried herbs (and got sick) before they found willow bark ( http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/willow-bark-000281.htm )? We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and not just professional ones.

    > Given our mutual ex-NASA experience, I don’t wish to minimize the expertise of professional scientists (especially the really good ones), but rather want to stress that thoughtful experimentation and analysis by an individual working alone can be very good science. Which also means I wouldn’t want to automatically rule out anything as being “for professionals” only.

    Extremely well put, Rajiv. Thanks for the contribution.

  8. Jscott says:

    I am obsessed with self-tracking and the possibilities of it to deepen the human existence. Enough so that my personal and professional life will be centered around tracking this year and beyond.

    Like most passionate/obsessive pursuits tracking, for me, was born out of frustration and pain. I needed answers and I was the best bet when it came to digging deep and seriously.

    I now have data. More importantly, I have personal buy-in with my data. You bring up an issue that crosses my data and I am going to want to share. Perhaps Justin or Gary will want to share too.

    This touches on what it means to be human. Connecting and wanting to live a deeper life.

    So, I believe no area should be left to a professional group isolated from questioning. Personal data gathered via self-tracking spawns questions. Those that hold a professional status should not feel threatened but energized.

    Trackers, in the purist form, want exploration and answers. This aids the scientist and all those involved seeking resolution.

    We are walking into a big unexplored world. I would say it is much akin to the net itself.

    This is one wave I do not want to miss.

  9. Matthew Cornell says:

    Thanks for your excellent insights, Jscott. If you want to share your results, you’ll find a supportive and active community at Edison ( http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/ ). I invite you to stop by.

    > Personal data gathered via self-tracking spawns questions.

    Perfect timing – I’m thinking a lot about questions because they’re essential to our work. We start with them, have new ones come up while experimenting, or change ours and start over as the result. They’re an excuse to understand each other.

    > Those that hold a professional status should not feel threatened but energized.

    Yes. Seth addresses the underlying motivations behind professional research, and they’re not necessarily about getting to the truth. Attachment not only leads to suffering, it leads to bad science. This means questions can be threatening if they challenge the status quo.

    > We are walking into a big unexplored world. I would say it is much akin to the net itself. .. This is one wave I do not want to miss.

    You’re already on board :-) Great comment!

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  11. I love this post. And I agree it is just a startingpoint in what people see today. The potential is tremendous. I am working on bringing Swedish expenditure on healthcare down to half :-)

    We have a small venture going on here in Sweden where a group of CF patients will start collecting spirometry and infection data. The fun part is that we will use the same platform that the scientists are just investing in to create a national quality registry in CF healthcare. Eventually, the idea is that we will from our own patients’ innovation system offer scientifically useful data to the healthcare innovation system.

    And once we have this first example, we will find a way to do the same for rheumatoid arthritis patients (35.000 people already well-defined in the quality registries), MS (12.000) and emerging projects in parkinson’s disease, COPD and asthma. All starting with citizen scientists.

    http://andreashager.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/personal-observation-leads-to-shared-care/

  12. Matthew Cornell says:

    Thanks for sharing the good work you’re doing, Andreas. Revolutionizing health care is a big win, I think. I’m curious what “patients’ innovation system” means.

  13. One main idea is to link our public health care system with freely self-organised inhabitant initiatives. Patient’s health care processes meet health care processes. I am focusing on long term illness and complex self care.

    When looking at a project we are doing within the rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis community, Christina Keller, one of the researchers of our group following and describing the development, illuminated “the patient innovation facet” of the thing: “The leading idea … is that the patients are able to introduce, spread and develop innovations for development of quality assured knowledge, while simultaneously improving their health. When patients are offered to use knowledge about their disease and support to manage their own health care processes, an innovation system owned by patients is created in parallel and in collaboration with health care.”

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