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The Sciences

Science For the People, By the People

Citizen science projects tackle everything from weather data to brain mapping.


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Citizen science became a driving force for serious results in 2013, with an exponential increase in the number of mentions in published research: from fewer than 50 citations in 2009 to nearly 600 in 2013.

Increasingly, scientists are seeing potential in people power.

Wollertz / Shutterstock

“It would have taken our researchers 18 months to do what citizen scientists did in just three months,” says Amy Carton, citizen science lead at Cancer Research UK. Volunteers helped her team identify cancerous cells by looking at slides from drug trials in the online collaboration Cell Slider, results of which were presented in November at the National Cancer Research Institute’s annual conference.

Federal agencies including NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as well as nongovernment platforms such as the new open-source site CrowdCrafting, substantially expanded the number and diversity of citizen science programs available in 2013.

At CrowdCrafting, for example, researchers can now create their own “micro-tasking” projects such as FrackFinder, launched in August. Volunteers pored over 9,000 online aerial images to identify and classify well locations used for fracking in Pennsylvania. In just 29 days, they made 90,000 classifications — each categorized by 10 different volunteers to reduce errors — and identified 1,420 well locations. The project’s next phase will be to track visible surface impacts of fracking.

Another sign of citizen science’s growing importance is a boom in products, many of them developed collaboratively, to help volunteers in the field.

“There is a $37-billion-dollar-a-year industry for scientific research equipment that never saw individual users, like citizen scientists, as a market,” says Shannon Dosemagen, co-founder of DIY community Public Lab, which creates and sells tools, such as $10 mini-spectrometers, to collect and analyze data.

Researchers are also creating more citizen science projects with high entertainment value, such as EyeWire, a new online brain-mapping game where players compete to build 3-D neuron structures, and GeneGame, the successor to Cell Slider.

“Millions of people like to spend time playing games on their mobile devices,” says Cell Slider’s Carton. “We want to tap into that huge amount of human effort and direct it toward medical research.”

Darlene Cavalier is the founder of citizen science online hotspot, a Discover partner.

[This article originally appeared in print as "Science for the People, by the People."]

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