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Featured TED: Citizen science and innovation



Roll your own citizen science project

English: Tools

Some tools to build your own project  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Previously, I’ve discussed citizen science projects that you can join. Today, I’m going to talk about some tools you can use to create your own citizen science project.


Pybossa bills itself as “the only open source framework for making crowdsourcing projects.” The goal of the software is to allow organizers to complete huge tasks in record time with the help of volunteers.

Programmed in Python and based on the University of California at Berkeley’s Bossa project (the same organization that built BOINC), the framework is good for tasks that require human cognition at scale. This might include things like image classification, transcription, and geocoding. Some projects that are powered by Pybossa include Micropasts and ForestWatchers.

The software comes with a guide to getting started and a few templates to get you going; just using those, you could set up something to transcribe PDF docs, do sound pattern recognition, or phone-based data collection. The full documentation can be found here.


CKAN is data hub software that allows organizations (e.g., national and regional governments, companies, researchers, etc.) to quickly and easily publish datasets. It also allows users to share, find, and use data.

The open source code has a fairly extensive feature set. Publishers can publish data via an API, or by importing their data files. They can add metadata, visualize the data with maps, graphs, and tables, and look at analytics to see how users are making use of the data. There is also version control (so publishers know when there has been a change to a dataset) and custom data hub themes (so publishers can customize the look of their portal).

Data users can comment on datasets, “follow” them and be notified of updates, and share information via Twitter or Facebook.

Two sites already using CKAN include and, published by the UK and EU governments respectively. At the UK site, for example, you can get diet and obesity stats or road safety data. A number of apps that make use of the data have been written and listed on this page.

CKAN stands for Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network, and it is a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation.


Poplus has more to do with civic engagement than citizen science, but the principles behind the software and the tools I’m linking to here are the same. Poplus calls itself “an international movement that promotes the sharing of software for civic and democratic purposes.” The movement is predicated on the belief that citizens have universal basic civic needs, no matter where they live. With that in mind, volunteers with the movement have created “components” that developers can use, modify, and customize, without having to reinvent the wheel.

“Why should every organization have to write their software from scratch?” organizers note on the Poplus website. “By sharing code, we can make things quicker and easier, freeing up time for the important things.”

Current Poplus components include PopIt, a tool to make it easy to make and maintain lists of politicians and their basic biographical information; SayIt, which allows you to present transcripts online so that they are viewable, linkable, searchable, and shareable; and WriteIt, which provides an easy way for users to contact people in power by matching users to their representatives using just one piece of information.


EpiCollect is software that is designed for data collection. For simple projects, EpiCollect allows you to create a project website, design forms for text and photo data collection, load the app into a mobile platform, collect data, and view the data.

For more complex projects, EpiCollect+ allows you to build a project that can do all of the above, collect all types of media (photos, sounds, videos, etc.), download the data, and create forms with logic (e.g., you can skip questions based on user answers).

The software currently supports both Android and iOS.

EpiCollect was developed at Imperial College London and is funded by the Wellcome Trust.


What other tools (software, hardware, other) are there that would allow you to roll your own citizen science project? Post your links in the comments below!


Seeing is bee-lieving

Bee Happy

Bee Happy (Photo credit: Treesha Duncan)

You’ve probably read a lot of articles in the last year about colony collapse disorder—sudden massive bee hive die-offs. There are a number of different theories about the problem (although nothing has been agreed upon yet), including pesticide use, fungal infection, and disease. What many of the stories have failed to note, however, is that bee populations were in trouble before the disorder made headlines.

In the UK, it is estimated that 97% of wildflower meadows have disappeared in the past 60 years and some 20 species of bees have gone extinct. To get a better idea of which bee populations are currently struggling and which ones are thriving, researchers want you to participate in The Great British Bee Count.

Don’t worry, actually poking around in a hive isn’t required. All you need to do is record when and where you see a bee, either using your phone or tablet, with free apps available for either iOS or Android. You’ll be shown a number of bee species, asked to move a slider under the right picture to indicate how many you saw, and then note the habitat (e.g., garden, park), and rough location (e.g., whether you’re in Abderdeenshire or East Sussex). Project organizers are hoping you’ll record bees whenever you see them over the summer. Don’t have a smart phone or tablet? No problem. You can access the “Seen a bee?” link on your desktop computer.

You can also help conserve bees by planting a lavender border, starting a “bee cafe,” (planting a garden for bees), sow wildflower seeds, or build a “bee hotel” for solitary bees and wasps.

As Professor Dave Goulson notes, “The Great British Bee Count is a great excuse to get outside in the sunshine and watch bees going about their business.”