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Bring out your inner iNaturalist

What will you discover? (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grand Teton National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)
What will you discover? (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grand Teton National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Project: iNaturalist.org

When we were children, we naturally spent a great deal of time exploring the world around us. Everything was a delight. The robins in our backyard were new to us; the spiders in the houseplants were fascinating; the squirrels at the park were endlessly entertaining.

Over time, of course, we became accustomed to such sights, and other things distracted us. Luckily, there is now a way to recapture the wonder of our youth and contribute to the scientific understanding of our planet to boot: we can become amateur naturalists.

iNaturalist.org bills itself as a global community for naturalists. Think of it as Facebook meets the BBC’s Planet Earth series (the latter, incidentally, I highly recommend!). It’s a website where you can you can upload your observations in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn more about the natural world.

You can begin your journey by registering here using your email or any social media account. You can then dive right in by adding observations from where you live, or get an informal education by browsing the Learn! section. Want to see what people near you have observed? You can do that too by browsing the observations section.

If you want something more structured, there’s an entire area of the site devoted to specific projects. For example, National Geographic is running a Great Nature Project, while AfriBats focuses on bats in Africa. Texan naturalists are particularly active on the site, with a Herps project and a bird project. Of course, you can always start your own project, perhaps to track the biodiversity in your own area.

Finally, computer geeks and web developers can get in on the act, as the software running iNaturalist is open source.

According to the site’s founders, Nate Agrin, Jessica Kline, and Ken-ichi Ueda, “if enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature. That’s the vision behind iNaturalist.org.”

Build Your Own Robot Submarine

What will you discover underwater? (Photo Credit: Gunter Küchler, via Wikimedia Commons)
What will you discover underwater? (Photo Credit: Gunter Küchler, via Wikimedia Commons)

Project: OpenROV

It’s a project that would make MacGyver proud: a do-it-yourself underwater exploration vehicle.

OpenROV stands for Open Remotely Operated Vehicle, and it is an open-source, underwater robot. Founded by Eric Stackpole, David Lang, and Matteo Borri, OpenROV was originally designed to explore an underwater cave. Following a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the project is now a large community of exploration enthusiasts, makers, DIY experts, and tinkerers who are using the bitty submarine to explore waterways around the world.

The OpenROV can dive to a depth of 75 meters (246 feet), and has a run time of about two hours. Currently at version 2.7, you can drive it using a simple gamepad. The brains of the submarine are located in a Beaglebone onboard computer.

You can buy a kit to build your own robot submarine for around $800 USD. If you’re all thumbs in the some-assembly-required department, no problem: you can also buy a fully assembled version for roughly $1500.

Once you start exploring, you can join a community of OpenROV enthusiasts from 50 countries around the world to talk about your discoveries, your hacks, and your upgrades. Have fun!

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.