Dan MacLean knew a fungus was killing off ash trees in the U.K. by the thousands.
He also knew, through his work at Norwich’s Sainsbury Laboratory, that some trees had shown resistance to the fungus, Chalara fraxinea, and if he and his fellow scientists could just identify which gene was responsible for the resistance, they could potentially cross-breed a strand of fungus-tolerant trees. But computer programs provided only limited help, and human scientists didn’t have the time or resources to sift through thousands of ash genes.
So MacLean and his colleagues did what any serious scientist in search of answers would do when faced with a dilemma: they took the problem to Facebook.
MacLean and his fellow researchers developed Fraxinus, a free Facebook game that, they hope, can help identify which ash genes hold the key to fungus resistance. The game is set up as a puzzle, with users finding matches to patterns of different colored leaves — patterns which represent sequences of ash DNA. The game has only been around since August, but so far, more than 40,000 people from 126 countries have played, and all the puzzles currently in the game have been solved.
“The response has been overwhelming and everyone who has played has really helped out,” MacLean, head of bioinformatics at the Sainsbury Lab, told ThinkProgress in an email. “We are looking at switching in brand new data from other samples very soon.”
Fraxinus, which MacLean thinks is the first Facebook game created to help solve a scientific problem, is just one of a range of projects using regular citizens to gather data or help find solutions to climate and environmental problems, a technique known as citizen science.
Citizen science is not a new practice; many of the world’s original naturalists weren’t trained scientists, but regular people with an interest in the outdoors. Gilbert White, regarded as England’s first ecologist, was a priest who kept detailed records of the plants and animals in his neighborhood in the 1700s. Those notes were then turned into The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, which is considered one of the earliest texts to record phenology.
But these days, the trend of using citizen science to solve scientific problems is growing, says Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and principle investigator at a crowdsourcing project called Climate CoLab.
“We now have a way of solving big, hard, complicated problems that wasn’t even possible 15 years ago,” Malone said. “If you think of examples of things like Wikipedia and Google, it’s clear that it’s now possible to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people all over the world at a scale, and with a degree of collaboration, that wasn’t ever possible before.”
It’s not just the increased connectivity that’s making citizen science more and more appealing. Using regular citizens to gather data or develop ideas is a lot cheaper than using a trained, paid scientist, and studies have shown that employing volunteers to gather data for scientific research projects can work just as well as looking to professionals. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, more than 100 studies have been published in recent years that have relied on citizen scientists for data gathering.
The Cornell Lab also points out that citizen scientists tend to stick around longer than paid technicians, who are often college students who leave after a summer or a few years — meaning that citizen science projects have the potential for more longevity and less variability of the data-gathers. And with large projects, like the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which has tracked birds’ response to warming temperatures over time, citizen scientists can be a huge help to scientists, who don’t have the manpower to go out and watch for different bird species day after day, year after year, monitoring changes in their ranges.
“We as scientific ornithologists could not possibly marshal all the effort that is required to gather so much information over such a long time. Really, it needs to be lots and lots of people out in many, many areas over decades worth of time, and that’s not something that most scientific researchers have the time or financial ability to do.” said Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count. “By pooling the efforts with citizen science data and getting interested observers out there doing the project, we can analyze those data and get a much larger data set that’s possible than with a constrained scientific analysis.”
The Christmas Bird Count isn’t new; it’s one of the oldest ongoing citizen science projects in North America, with the first one occurring in 1900. Each year, more than 50,000 birders gather for a few weeks in December and January at designated areas around the U.S. and make note of the birds they see.
But in recent years, this data helped Audubon scientists track changes in bird ranges, discovering that nearly 60 percent of the 305 North American bird species tracked by the annual count had moved their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles, a shift largely due to increasing early-winter temperatures
LeBaron says part of what makes the Christmas Bird Count so successful is that the citizen volunteers are already passionate about birds, so even if they’re beginners, they put care into their work. That’s how it is with most citizen science projects, he says — whether it be studies involving birds, butterflies, tropical fish, or the weather.
“A lot of the people who are passionate about something, they’re out there anyway,” LeBaron said. “Giving them someplace to submit their sightings, it’s meaningful to them — to the observers — because they not only can play with their data, but they can look at what other people are seeing and see how their data contributes to the big picture.”
When it comes to a problem as huge and far-reaching as climate change, the ability to tap into that level of energy already available in the public sphere is especially crucial. And it doesn’t always mean using citizen science for data gathering. Malone’s Climate CoLab, for instance, is an online forum where users can submit proposals for solutions to help the world alleviate and adapt to climate change. The proposals are reviewed by experts, who each year choose a number of the most practical and effective proposals, which the public then votes on. The Climate CoLab users whose proposals get the most votes, along with those who are named the experts’ choice, present their proposals to the United Nations and U.S. Congress.
Malone said one of the main goals of the project is to have the winning proposals influence climate change policy.
“I think we’ve made quite a bit of progress in the time we’ve been working on the project,” Malone said. “We’re very happy with the range of diversity of ideas. We’ve had people develop proposals on things ranging from eating vegetarian diets to helping cities adapt to sea level rise.”
The users are, on average, highly educated and are a mix of students and people working in various fields. One of the people who’s had winning proposals in all the CoLab contests so far is a software developer in North Carolina with no climate change background. Despite his lack of formal climate education, Malone said his ideas have been some of the most ingenious.
Using regular citizens who may not have any training in science to gather data and develop ideas about climate change is not without its risks. Malone said in the first year of the Climate CoLab project, a proposal got through the voting process whose entire premise relied on the presumption that the world would be able to decrease its carbon usage by 99 percent in just 10 years. That assumption was entirely implausible, Malone said, and since then, the program has made changes to its proposal system, making sure the top proposals are thoroughly vetted by experts and computer models before being put to the public’s vote, for instance, and providing experts to advise the people developing proposals throughout the development process.
“There are some things that experts actually know that the crowd can’t be assumed to know,” Malone said.
And tools like ebird, which allows birders to submit sightings of birds they see to an online database, can result in some noisy data. If a rare bird is sighted at a certain location, LeBaron explained, and that sighting is uploaded to ebird, hundreds of other birders in the area are likely to flock to that location as well, uploading their sightings of the bird. So it will look like there are hundreds of that bird in the area when really, it’s just hundreds of birders seeing one bird.
But when proper precautions are taken, a well organized citizen science project can have huge potential. Local experts review sightings on ebird that the program’s filter flags as unusual, to ensure people aren’t uploading sightings of birds they didn’t actually see. On the Christmas Bird Count, a seasoned birder serves as a leader at every designated site and that birder submits the regional data to an online database, where experts review it before publishing. Since CBC volunteers go out to monitor the same locations at the same time every year, and since the count is focused on getting an estimate of each species seen — not pointing out rare birds — LeBaron said the CBC is very effective at tracking the trends of birds’ ranges over time.
The use of citizen science has rippled throughout the environmental science community. The Catlin Seaview Survey, which has taken hundreds of thousands of photos of coral reefs around the world, is planning on enlisting the public to help scientists count species that show up in the photos, as a way of cataloging the state of coral reefs today. NOAA has a database of citizen science projects on its website, which range from projects that track spring bud bursts throughout the U.S. to an app that allows people to report precipitation levels to the agency. LeBaron says the U.S. Geological Survey has partnered with Audubon to take the premise of the Christmas Bird Count and adapt it to other scientific projects. And MacLean says he thinks Fraxinus could be used as a basis to create other games that could answer scientific questions.
“Using citizens is not a panacea; it doesn’t solve all scientific problems any more than using microscopes solves all scientific problems,” Malone said. “But I think you could say on a high level that citizen science provides a way of harnessing the energy, and in our case the creativity and the knowledge and insights of far more people than would ordinarily be involved in a scientific research project.”
Andrew Breiner contributed the graphics to this piece.