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23/11/2014

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Citizen science

Science is no longer the preserve of academics in stuffy laboratories and remote fieldwork sites.

The birth of the internet fundamentally changed the options that researchers had available to them, if they wanted to gather or analyse a large sample of data. For the first time, they had an easy way to connect with members of the public, and platforms for anyone and everyone to get involved in real scientific research began to evolve. Although amateur naturalists have contributed to science for hundreds of years, the internet provided a quick and easy way for enthusiasts to collaborate and share their findings en masse, for the first time.

Dubbed ‘citizen science’ there are now many platforms which allow anyone who wants it, the opportunity to engage in the process of scientific investigations: asking questions, collecting data, or interpreting results.

Early iterations, such as SETI@home – encouraged members of the public to download software that allowed their computers to analyse scientific data. This programme quietly searched for evidence of extraterrestrial life, by analysing radio telescope data, in the computers’ idle periods. These early programmes didn’t need any further input from the computer user  - but did allow them to passively contribute to the research.

The birth of truly participative citizen science is best exemplified by sites such as Galaxy Zoo. Launched in 2007, the website hosted a million images gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. These images would take thousands of hours to classify if this work was done by a small team of scientists.  The purpose of the site was to allow any interested member of the public to view the images, and submit their own classifications, by answering a series of simple questions about the image.

Each image was viewed and classified by multiple users, to help ensure accuracy. The galaxies that a high proportion of contributors agreed fell in to certain classifications regarded as interesting, could then be studied in greater detail by the researchers.

A testament to the enormous potential of these sites is the fact that within 24 hours of launch Galaxy Zoo were racking up 70,000 classifications an hour. In its first year, over 150,000 people contributed more than 50 million classifications. What’s more, the results were shown to be both useful and high quality – with findings from the research being picked up by academic journals.

Taking citizen science a step further are a new generation of projects, which call on the public not only to analyse data, but to be part of the team of researchers gathering data. Often focusing on nature and biological recording, there have been some hugely successful examples of the public contributing data on everything from ash dieback, to ladybirds – assisting real research, by providing a quantity of data that would not otherwise have been achievable.

Citizen science projects also offer another major advantage to the scientists searching for data –speed. Data that it would take many years for a single researcher to collect can be gathered in days, by citizen scientists around the country. This is continually improving and the evolution of technology from dial up internet and desktops, to smartphones and tablets, has also moved citizen science forward leaps and bounds. Data can now be accessed, recorded and shared instantly, even from remote locations.

We believe that taking part in this kind of project can be hugely enjoyable as well giving a unique insight in to the world of working in science for younger participants. Much of what the Association does is focused on encouraging young people to get involved with science outside the classroom, and we’ve long supported citizen science as a fantastic way to do this.

For this reason we’ve teamed up with EDF Energy and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, to bring a brand new citizen science project to schools and families around the UK. You can find out more about this on our page, the Big Bumblebee Discovery.