You can do science too! Learn how you can make a difference by doing real science to help solve our planet's most pressing problems.

Is there a doctor in the house?

Photo Credit: Opensource Handbook of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology
Photo Credit: Opensource Handbook of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology

Project: NanoDoc

Some video games want you to kill invaders from space. Others want you to blow up gems or fruit. NanoDoc wants you to help kill tumors.

As the name implies, NanoDoc is a game designed to have members of the public help design new “nanoparticle” strategies to treat cancer. A nanoparticle is a teeny-tiny particle, anywhere from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, and a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Nanomedicine is a newer branch of medicine that focuses on using nanotechnology to deliver drugs in a super-targeted way. A very rough analogy for nanomedicine might be this: instead of spraying your entire lawn with gallons of weedkiller and hoping for the best, you would use microscopic devices to seek out and individually destroy weed seeds.

NanoDoc is a nanoparticle simulator. In the first few levels of the game, you earn your “nanodoc licence”; that is, you get trained on how to play. After that, you’ll be given specific challenges to try. Current challenges include detecting a rare event and working on tumor imaging.

According to Sangeeta Bhatia, who runs a lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, “we don’t know what the best treatments are for these challenges, or even if there are any good solutions at all! We hope your drive to help in the fight against cancer and learn about nanomedicine will empower you to discover original, creative and efficient nanoparticle strategies we haven’t thought of in the lab.”

To get started, you can register at the site using your email, Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ account. You’ll then be able to take the training and have a go at the game. You can also learn more about nanomedicine and follow the new NanoDoc blog.


Some Citizen Science Predictions

I’ve been covering the citizen science movement for a very long time now; indeed, I’ve been writing about citizen science in one form or another since before it was really a movement.

Recently, I sat down and had a think about what I had seen in the past, as well as some of trends that I’ve been noticing. Today, I’m going to review some of those and also go out on a limb with some predictions as to where I see citizen science heading.

It’s Definitely a Thing, Now

In the last three or so years, I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the amount of mainstream interest in citizen science. Where it was once just the province of a smaller group of hardcore geeks (think: early adopters of the SETI@Home client), it now seems like everyone is talking about citizen science. Anecdotally, I’ve been interviewed by a fairly wide range of media outlets — everything from CBC Radio to Woman’s World. On the hard data side, this screen shot of the Google Trends entry on citizen science bears this out:

Source: Google Trends
Source: Google Trends


There’s More Variety Than Ever

Citizen science projects are busting out all over, so there’s now a really impressive range of both topics and types of projects. Whereas once your choice was between the Christmas Bird Count, deploying BOINC, or playing with images from Mars, now you can do everything from raising Monarch butterflies to being a paleontologist in your kitchen.

Citizen Science is Converging with Other Movements

Open source, participatory civics, activism, maker spaces, crowdfunding: citizen science is part of an even broader shift across many segments of society, and in some cases it’s increasingly hard to see where one movement begins and another ends.

For example, Pybossa is open source software that will allow you to create your own citizen science project; meanwhile the Open Space Agency is open sourcing the plans for pro-astronomy grade telescope. Projects like Skywarn or Safecast are civic applications that want you to help your fellow citizens. Extreme citizen science tries to take the concept to developing countries for an empowering approach, while the DIY and maker crowds dive into all sorts of aspects of science, including biology.

Gaming is Here to Stay

There are an increasing number of citizen science games, some with the data processing and manipulation right out front like EteRNA, and some not quite so much, like Reverse the Odds. This not to be confused with the gamification of citizen science projects: that is, the addition of game elements like leaderboards, badges, scoring, etc., to an otherwise non-game-based project. (The jury is still out as to how effective gamification is at improving user retention.)

Point and Click Projects Are Here to Stay… For a While

Zooniverse has pretty much perfected the model of citizen science projects wherein users are presented with a bit of data (most often an image) and are asked to perform a simple task (usually identify and locate a specific feature). As more and more people get interested in citizen science in general, the platform (and others like it) will likely continue to register new users faster than it ‘loses’ them. This is a good thing, because the participation dropoff curves appear to be pretty steep. Eventually, however, as more interesting ways to do citizen science continue to proliferate, and if we ever see a ‘peak citizen science’ (i.e., the most number of people likely to do citizen science are already doing it), this will no longer be the case.

On the flip side, I think that image processing technology will replace the need for human participation here sooner, rather than later, in part because mega-companies like Google and Baidu are throwing boatloads of money at the problem, and because technology improvement curves are much steeper than we realize.

But Apps are Where It’s At

The number of citizen science apps — and by this I mean the programs that run on tablets or smartphones — is going up, and that has opened up a whole new frontier in citizen science. Whereas before, most citizen science has been about data processing, apps allow for more data collection. Apps like Sound Around You or Loss of the Night are good examples.

However, I think we’ve only just barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with current mobile technology. The average smart phone now comes with an accelerometer, a camera, a video camera, a magnetometer, an ambient light detector, GPS, and obviously, a speaker and a microphone, all as standard equipment. Considering how creative people are getting with simple GoPro cameras and their special mounts, or cameras attached to drones just for fun, there’s clearly a lot of scope for some much more interesting citizen science apps than what we’re currently doing.

That Internet of Things We Keep Hearing About

As sensors become cheaper and cheaper, and the Internet becomes even more ubiquitous, the average citizen, with or without connection to an official citizen science project, will soon be able to measure and track pretty much anything. (Seriously, check out those links to see what’s coming, especially if you’re looking for ideas.) Anyone will be able to deploy sensors, and this will in turn generate huge amounts of highly granular data. Indeed, most of us will deploy sensors, even if not entirely deliberately, because they’re going to be embedded in the products we use.

In some ways, we’re just beginning to build a massive nervous system for ourselves and our planet, and it’s going to teach us all sorts of amazing things. We don’t yet know what we don’t know.

But it’s going to be very interesting. Stay tuned.



Can You Spot a City?

320px-Earth_at_NightThe researchers at the Extragalactic Astrophysics and Astronomical Instrumentation Group at the Universidad Coplutense de Madrid need your help to georeference the position of cities that appear in ISS images.

According to Jose Gomez Castano, the “Lost at Night” project is part of a study of light pollution and the energy consumption derived from it.

“We use images taken from the International Space Station as part of our investigations, provided by Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center,” says Castano. “To compare the images with the different light sources on the earth, we need to know the city’s location. Due to the large number of images, we need your help. Some of these pictures are from unknown locations for us, and it is very difficult to identify them in the pictures. However, a lot of people around the world will know the cities. We need you to identify the cities and connect them with their position point on the map.”

When you participate, the ISS image will be loaded in the left panel, and a map will appear at the right. You will be able to zoom in and out, drag, and rotate the image if that helps you identify what you’re seeing. If you think you know the city, click on the map to identify its position. You can then save and move on. If the picture stumps you, you can simply click on “Don’t Know.”

You can also get more information by reviewing the ISS picture data provided, or call on your friends by sharing the image on Twitter.




Are you up for a challenge?

challengeMany of the citizen science projects covered on this site are designed to allow anyone to participate. This week, I have one that is designed to pique the interest of those of you in IT: the computer scientists, the developers, and the people who like to think in terms of big data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

In the Climate Resilience Data Challenge, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) want to know how you want to access the boat-loads of data they have available. They are offering cash prizes in this challenge.

“We need tools that utilize big data to help our local communities improve climate resilience, save our ecosystems, and prepare for climate change,” say challenge organizers. “We have climate data that is free and accessible, but much of it is not available through web services.”

In this “ideation” phase, the agencies involved want to know what data infrastructure you need and how you would use it infrastructure to create services and apps. What would you do if you didn’t need to download code or data? Which data sources would you use?

“With growing climate risk, it is evermore necessary to grow innovative capacity for resilience and adaptation. Using open climate data, imagine the possibilities of new applications that could fuel climate resilience efforts for communities and ecosystems as well as empower people to make smart decisions for the future. NASA and USGS invite you to take a step toward resilience by imagining solutions to our planet’s complex climate risks.”

Registration opens on Monday, December 15th. You can learn more about the individual parts of the challenge by clicking the links at the bottom of the Challenge page. Meanwhile, take a moment to check out some of the other open innovation challenges at the TopCoder site.