Citizen Science Projects To Soothe And Distract

7:53 minutes

a poster that says 'zooniverse' with many pictures of space and natureThis year’s Citizen Science Month may be winding down at the end of April, but you can help researchers collect and analyze their data all year long. 

This week, citizen science platform Zooniverse has not one, but four projects you can help with: data analysis tasks that will hopefully calm, soothe, distract, and divert you from life in a pandemic. Whether it’s identifying cute raccoons in camera trap photos, looking for seasonal wind on Mars, identifying how antibiotics kills tuberculosis in petri dishes, or even transcribing the cursive of old letters from anti-slavery activists—Zooniverse wants to help you find diversion in data.

Ira talks about these projects—and how to get involved with Zooniverse—with co-lead Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

Learn more about Zooniverse and other SciFri Citizen Science Month partners at sciencefriday.com/citizenscience. And join our citizen science newsletter for all the latest updates on our online events here!

Further Reading

  • Science Friday is hosting four days of livestreams with Adler Zooniverse. Every day from April 27-30, join us as we dive deep with a new citizen science project! Join here!

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Segment Guests

Laura Trouille

Laura Trouille is Director of Citizen Science and Co-Investigator for Zooniverse. She’s based at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: April is Citizen Science Month, and this year in particular, it’s been the gift that keeps on giving. We have featured projects for all ages and interests, letting you tell scientists everything from what Spring looks like in your neighborhood to what kinds of spiders are living in your yard to what kind of pipes you have in your home.

But citizen science isn’t just about collecting data. Researchers also need you to help them analyze it, and a citizen science platform Zooniverse has an array of projects just begging for your eyes and brains. It’s got pictures of raccoons, handwritten letters, tuberculosis bacteria in petri dishes, also the windswept poles of Mars. They’re all hand-picked to help distract and soothe you during what is for everyone a difficult time.

Here to explain is Zooniverse co-leader and Vice President of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Dr. Laura Trouille. Welcome back, Laura.

LAURA TROUILLE: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: One of the projects you’ve got for people to work on is called Bash the Bug. First, what’s the bug? And how do you bash it?

LAURA TROUILLE: So tuberculosis is an ancient disease. It kills more people worldwide today than any other infectious disease. It’s 1.5 million people per year. And so Bash the Bug is this Zooniverse project in partnership with the University of Oxford’s CRyPTIC biomedical research team working alongside this community of Zooniverse participants around the world to map antibiotics’ effectiveness against different strains of TB. The goal is, then, that hospitals around the world will be able to routinely and accurately predict which antibiotics will be most effective for a given patient.

IRA FLATOW: So how do I participate in this? How do I bash a bug?

LAURA TROUILLE: Yeah. So the team collected 20,000 samples from 15 labs around the world, including the CDC. And each sample has 14 different antibiotics at different dosage levels being tested. They then uploaded these images of these samples into the Zooniverse to crowdsource the classification. So what you do as a participant is you indicate the first well in which the antibiotic concentration level is effective at killing the bacteria, and while the crowd is helping to unlock the data, in parallel the team is sequencing the whole gene for all 20,000 samples and looking for variants, and then they’re mapping out the genetic variations and associating those statistically whether they confer resistance.

IRA FLATOW: Our past citizen science projects have been about people sending data to researchers, but Zooniverse is a bit different. Tell us about that.

LAURA TROUILLE: So it’s the world’s largest platform for online citizen science, or we like to call it people-powered research, with two million people around the world contributing to over 100 active projects, and all you need is the internet. It’s all about engaging the public in meaningful ways and real research and harnessing the power of the crowd to enable research that would otherwise not be practical or possible because of the huge data sets that really characterize modern science.

So just this past week, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of people contribute over five million classifications, and that’s the equivalent of a researcher working full time for 49 years straight– in just one week.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about engaging in some space science. You have a project about Mars this month? My kind of stuff.

LAURA TROUILLE: So in Planet Four– planet4.org– the Zooniverse project has you working alongside NASA and astronomers around the world in exploring the surface and weather of Mars’ polar regions. So it’s a welcome escape to these other worlds during this period of limited real person travel.

So the project has run for a few years, and it just relaunched on our newer platform. It’s already led to several publications and really a major impact on our understanding of Mars from learning about seasons on Mars to recording activity below its dry ice polar caps to understanding the winds in the atmosphere and more.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with Dr. Laura Trouille, who is here to help us explain what Zooniverse is and how you can participate in it. You will also have something that’s dear to my heart, which is history. I’m a history buff, and you have something where we are transcribing letters. I want to know more about that.

LAURA TROUILLE: There are currently over 20 different digital humanities projects on Zooniverse. And many of them are about transcribing handwritten documents. So antislavery manuscripts is one of the projects. It’s in partnership with the Boston Public Library. What you do is you’re helping transcribe the handwritten letters between William Lloyd Garrison and his network of 19th century abolitionists. So by digitizing these texts, historians, students, and amateurs can then really dig into the research and the big data applications.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what I was going to ask. How does history become a citizen science? Is that we’re big data is involved?

LAURA TROUILLE: It is. In the humanities, now that we’re able to scan in images of all sorts of interesting historical documents, it’s one thing to have the scanned image but then another to actually have that data be searchable. And so part of the magic of Zooniverse is that the lessons learned from one project or one discipline can then be applied to all the other disciplines because it’s on this one shared platform.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t want to miss this other topic you have, for something completely different. You want us to identify raccoons.

LAURA TROUILLE: Yes, or trash pandas, as we refer to them. So raccoons have demonstrated an incredible ability to adapt to new environments. And so there’s a team based at the University of Wyoming with colleagues at the University of Minnesota that are really studying the cognitive abilities of this extremely intelligent animal. But because raccoons are nocturnal, they’ve been really hard to track and study.

So what this team has done is collected years of video data from night trials around raccoons interacting with puzzle boxes in the wild. And the team has way more data than they can analyze on their own, which is sort of a characteristic of many Zooniverse projects. So they really need the crowd, the power of the crowd to build up the training sets so that then, machine learning algorithms can efficiently process through the rest of the data, knowing which raccoons are doing which behaviors over those years.

IRA FLATOW: Terrific. So there you have it. And there’s just one more project that I want to talk about. If people want more information about these projects, we’re holding some citizen science parties on Zoom next week.

LAURA TROUILLE: Yeah. So Monday through Thursday of next week, a different universe project research team will lead the Science Friday Facebook and Zoom live event. On Monday, it’ll be the Planet Four team; on Tuesday, the antislavery manuscripts team; on Wednesday, the raccoon project; and on Thursday, the Bash the Bug biomedical research project.

And what they’ll do is they’ll share about themselves, their research. You’ll engage in real-time classifications and some interactive games and talk about some of the unusual and weird discoveries that have been made possible with so many eyes on the data. It’s just going to be a lot of fun. Definitely join in.

IRA FLATOW: And we’re out of time. I want to thank Laura Trouille, Vice President of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and co-lead of the Zooniverse Citizen Science platform. And if you want to know more about how to participate in these and other citizen science projects we’ve partnered with, go to our website at ScienceFriday.com/citizenscience.

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