Cooped Up At Home? Try These Citizen Science Projects

16:55 minutes

water pump pipe
Credit: Shutterstock

logo that says 'crowd the tap'April is Citizen Science Month! It’s a chance for everyone to contribute to the scientific process—including collecting data, taking observations, or helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating. 

Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference, joins Ira to talk about what makes a good citizen science project, how to get involved, and suggestions for projects in all fields of science. 

Cooper is also the project leader for the citizen science project Crowd The Tap, looking at mapping water infrastructure and the prevalence of lead pipes throughout the country. For more projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month and beyond, head over to sciencefriday.com/citizenscience.

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Segment Guests

Caren Cooper

Caren Cooper is an associate professor of Forestry and Environmental Resources and in the Leadership in Public Science Program at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She’s also co-author of A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference (Timber Press, 2020).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Wishing you and yours the very happiest and healthy of Citizen Science Month. Did you know that? Are you not on board with citizen science? It’s a great chance for you to contribute to the scientific process by collecting data, taking observations, helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating these days.

Here to help walk us through what citizen science is and point us to some noteworthy projects you might want to participate in during the Citizen Science Month and beyond is Caren Cooper. She’s an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book, A Field Guide to Citizen Science– How you can contribute to scientific research and make a difference, published by Timber Press. Welcome back to Science Friday.

CAREN COOPER: Thanks. Thanks for having me on today.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. I just want to let our listeners know that we are also personally isolating this week. So we really can’t take your calls. Let’s start right at the beginning. Tell us the definition of citizen science.

CAREN COOPER: Citizen science refers to a whole bunch of different activities that people can do in their everyday life that really contribute to scientific research. It’s a very broad definition. And I guess there’s different ways you could visualize it. You could imagine birdwatchers sharing their checklists of birds to a central database where scientists can use those data.

You could imagine people using air quality sensors, or taking measurements of the rainfall, measuring stream water quality, all those kinds of things. Science, at its core, is fairly based on observation. And scientists can’t be everywhere. So volunteers, these citizen scientists, are the eyes, the ears, the noses, the photographers gathering observations just at a magnitude and a speed that makes more discoveries possible.

IRA FLATOW: And unfortunately, this seems like a prime time for people looking for projects to do from home.

CAREN COOPER: Yes, indeed. It is super relevant right now. It’s very timely, as everyone is being socially distant. It’s really a way to move the world forward, right? People are home, looking for meaningful things to do for themselves and, in many cases, looking for meaningful things to do with their kids who are home from school. And it’s a way to connect, like in a collective action sense, being unified toward a common goal, but physically separate in our data collection. That’s how– citizen science is often referred to as crowdsourcing. And it’s not a physical crowd. It’s a crowd that’s really highly dispersed. It’s a way to do something good that matters.

IRA FLATOW: When you ask people to be citizen scientists– and you write about this in your book, Field Guide to Citizen Science. America has a long history of citizen scientists, going back to Benjamin Franklin and scientists along the way who did important science that changed the course of the country.

CAREN COOPER: So yeah, we do write about that in the field guide. In the Field Guide to Citizen Science, it covers some of those basics. It’s meant to be read, but it’s even more meant to be used. It’s like a totally useful step-by-step guide. Earlier, I wrote another book called Citizen Science– How ordinary people are changing the face of discovery, which goes into more details, especially about the history of citizen science, about Thomas Jefferson and his weather data collecting, and his efforts to create a statewide system of people that would collect weather data, which really wasn’t realized until well past his time.

Right after the Civil War was when it finally came about. But anyway, so yes, there’s a very actually super rich history of even large scale citizen science projects, I mean of thousands of people collecting data, like in the 1830s, on the tide levels, right? 650 different stations on both sides of the Atlantic, people collecting the tide marks every 15 minutes day and night for two weeks straight at exactly the same points in time, right?

That was when people were starting to– all of our studies of the field of oceanography came from citizen science, from sailors, merchant mariners, whatnot collecting data. These things that are so big. And now, obviously all these things I’m mentioning were before the time of computers and smartphone. And it’s actually amazing how connected people could be and how people handle these really big data sets that resulted.

IRA FLATOW: I think I’ll anticipate what a lot of people are thinking. I don’t have any particular skill or training as a scientist to participate. I’m not a biologist. What do I need? Can I can I will contribute to a, let’s say, biology project?

CAREN COOPER: And that was one of the things that we want to convey in this new book, is to really get people comfortable and demystify some of the doubts they might have about citizen science and science in general, in that there are ways to contribute that really don’t require a lot of innate skills that have required years of training that it would for a professional scientist. There’s very simple ways that people can contribute, just based on their local knowledge and experience, things that you might be able to observe in your own backyard.

You might find some special bug, or a frog, or whatever it might be that you might can take a picture of, right? And you might not even be able to identify it. You might not have those natural history skills. But because you have a smartphone and you can take a picture that has a timestamp and a geolocation, and someone else can identify it from that picture, it could be a useful observation. Maybe not even by itself, it might not look like a discovery of some magnitude by itself. But with thousands of others, similar observations, we can start to see patterns that we couldn’t see before.

IRA FLATOW: I know you’re part of a group called SciStarter. What is that?

CAREN COOPER: SciStarter is a website that has a searchable database of over 3,000 citizen science projects and events. Many of these projects have lesson plans. They’re useful for teachers or other kinds of educators. And people can join SciStarter to keep track of the projects that they do and the contributions that they make, get recognition for all of that those efforts.

And really, it’s a place, just like the name implies, to get started. I mean, what is amazing about these citizen science projects is that they really– no matter what your interests are, I guarantee you there’s a project for you, whether it’s butterflies, birds, spiders, fish, air, water, whether you like the beach, the forest.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about that. You have a whole bunch of them in your book, A Field Guide to Citizen Science. Give me a top something that everybody can do.

CAREN COOPER: Yeah, something that everyone can do. iNaturalist is an app project that involves taking a photograph of something that you observe. And you could observe it– it could be in your house. It could be a spider that you find in your house. It could be something you find in your backyard, like a particular flower blooming, an interesting plant, a bug. And it’s as simple as photographing it and uploading it to the site, where other people can see it, comment on it, help identify it, all those kinds of things.

Globe at Night is a fun project that’s done, like it says, at night. It’s about light pollution. And it combines interest in astronomy with concerns about light pollution and how that affects not just our view of the stars, but also just how it affects our quality of life in general. And in Globe at Night, what you do is go outside, you let your eyes dark adapt, getting used to those hopefully lower light levels.

And then each month, there’s a different constellation that’s the focal point. And you find that constellation. And you rate how much of that constellation you can see. And so that’s an index of– basically, if you can see all of it, then there’s very little light pollution. And if you can only see part of it, then you have a lot of light pollution where you are. So that’s an example of the kinds of projects.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ve been sending our listeners to all of these kinds of projects. But I’m wondering how many of them wonder– should they be concerned about how good they are at doing it? I mean, the data that they collect, the quality that’s being collected, is it high quality enough stuff for scientists to be able to make use of?

CAREN COOPER: So citizen science projects are designed in ways that really address issues of data quality. So it can really vary. It’s all about the data that’s being gathered being fit for the scientific purposes. So there’s a lot of different things in place. Like, if it’s a project that does require a particular expertise on a subject, then that project is likely to provide some kind of training, maybe even some kind of quizzes, some kind of tests that people need to demonstrate their skills at before they’re able to participate.

Other projects have consensus tools built around it. So if it’s an online project, like looking at photographs of different wildlife, and there’s photos and you say, oh well, that’s clearly a wildebeest or something. It’s not just you looking at that one photo. There’s probably 20 other people who are also shown that photo. And if they all say it’s a wildebeest, then the scientists can have a higher– can feel assured that it was identified correctly. So there’s a consensus process in many of the projects. There’s a lot of different ways that scientists handle the data quality. And a lot of it is through the volume, just through the massive amount of participants that can contribute observations on a given topic or a given subject.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we have we had scientists come on who have giant databases of things. They’ve got star catalogs. They’ve got genomics. And they’re looking for a citizen scientists to just basically help them look through the data to find stuff. Do you have stuff like that also?

CAREN COOPER: So I would say citizen science projects typically fall into two categories. There’s ones that you can do online at home sitting on your couch. And these are ones like that where there is just a data deluge. Like you said, scientists have heaps of information, whether it’s like photos from an automated telescope or from automated wildlife cams or whatever it might be. Yeah, genetic data, all kinds of things.

Really, computers actually aren’t smarter than people, right? So there’s not computer algorithms that can process the information. It takes a human mind to identify what’s in a picture, to transcribe certain text that’s handwritten, all these kinds of things. And so that’s the kind of citizen science people can do online on their computer. And there’s many projects like that. And they’re from all kinds of topics from astronomy to disease. There’s ones where you help with Alzheimer’s research and other kinds of health projects. Some of them are gamified even, where you’re solving different puzzles and earning points.

And then there’s a whole class of projects that really are done outside in nature. Sometimes, that’s backyard nature that involves collecting new observations of things that people observe, because scientists can’t be everywhere. And there’s people who can collect data from all kinds of places and reveal patterns that were not visible before.

IRA FLATOW: You’re listening to Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I know that you’re the project leader of an effort called Crowd the Tap. It sounds like a very, very important project. Please tell us about that.

CAREN COOPER: Crowd the Tap is a project focused on safe drinking water in the United States. And so it’s focused on our system of pipes that bring water to homes, right? So the material of our infrastructure affects the safety of our water. So a lot of our focus is on lead pipes, right? Because consuming lead is hazardous to human health.

And even though lead pipes were banned in 1986, we have a whole lot of water infrastructure that was built before then. And it was built underground. And it’s out of view. But we still use it. And there’s still a lot of water systems in the United States that contain lead. But there really aren’t sufficient records as to where.

And so the US Environmental Protection Agency funded researchers at Virginia Tech, at NC State, Northeastern, and Louisiana State University to address this problem of lead in drinking water. And Crowd the Tap is a citizen science project that’s part of that initiative.

So crowd the cap kind of has two main parts. The main thing with Crowd the Tap is that it’s an inventory to find out where are the lead pipes in the privately owned parts of the water system, which means people’s homes. There’s a fair amount of attention about schools, because kids are highly vulnerable, and also to the public part of the water system. But there’s not that much attention on homes. What kind of pipes are in people’s homes? What types of pipes are buried underground, bringing the water into the homes?

And that’s what Crowd the Tap is focused on uncovering. And there’s a second part to Crowd the Tap, which is, until we have reliable at-home tests to test for lead in water, for now testing whether water has lead involves sending water samples to a lab. And that involves time. It involves money. It involves access, things that are not equal. So not everyone can or will do that.

So we want to build a model that can reliably estimate a home’s risk of lead in water based on just a few variables. And those variables will include things like the types of pipes, and the age of the home, and then some very simple water chemistry parameters that people can do at home, like with a litmus paper kind of test strip. And so for that part of the project, we’re looking for 1,000 homes to help us build this model.

So that means that volunteers would do this core part of Crowd the Tap. They’ll report on their pipes in their home and that kind of stuff. They’ll do that at home water chemistry test strip. And they’ll send their water to a lab for testing. So then we can look at all those data. And then when other people just report on their pipes and their home chemistry, we can estimate for them their risk of lead in water through this validated statistical model. So for anyone wanting to contribute to Crowd the Tap, simply visit crowdthetap.org.

IRA FLATOW: That sounds like a great project and something that’s well needed. You’ve got a tutorial live stream and some activities to do around crowd the tap scheduled for next week?

CAREN COOPER: That’s right. On Tuesday, April 7 with Science Friday’s live stream event, we’ll be talking about Crowd the Tap. We’ll have Mark Edwards from Virginia Tech, who’s part of the project. We’ll have Brian Mallow, my neighbor science comedian who is a citizen scientist in this project. And he’s learned to correctly identify his service line, his home plumbing materials. So he’ll show us how to do that.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if everybody wants to know the details, we can help them out, because we have up on our website a link for the event. It’s sciencefriday.com/citizenscience. And it has all the details in there when this is going to happen. I think it’s a Tuesday. This is a great book for people really wanting to get involved and learn the history of citizen science and find projects for them to do. And I thank you for writing it, Caren.

CAREN COOPER: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you for letting me speak about it and for featuring it on Science Friday.

IRA FLATOW: Caren Cooper, associate professor in the Leadership in Public Science program at NC State University in Raleigh, co-author of the new book, A Field Guide to Citizen Science– How you can contribute to science research and make a difference, and project leader for the citizen science project Crowd the Tap looking at water infrastructure. And if you missed the links we mentioned today or want some other projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month, head over to our sciencefriday.com/citizenscience page for more information.

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