Citizen Science and the Power of the Crowd

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Imagine if a scientist spent a year – every hour of every day – on a single task. The person would account for 8,760 hours of work and need one serious nap.

Now imagine if the scientist put out a compelling request for help, and volunteers interested in the problem answered the call. I grew up in a town of about 9,000 people. Everyone in my hometown could work for one hour and collectively match the annual output of the tired scientist. No naps required.

That’s the power of citizen science – multiplier effects that efficiently and cost-effectively help solve problems.

An innovator’s kit includes a collection of tools that empower the public to help with government problems: crowdsourcing, prize competitions, and citizen science, among others. Citizen science, also called public participation in research, builds on the passion of people who don’t work in the government.

Volunteers partner with technical experts to answer real-world scientific questions, and citizen science projects can fill critical information gaps through collaborative knowledge discovery:

  • identifying research questions
  • collecting new data
  • recording observations via mobile apps
  • analyzing data sets produced by traditional scientific research

Citizen science relies on people giving their time, but the initiatives are not free. Experts need to provide project participants with some basic training and resources. Similarly, data collection and analysis require quality control mechanisms because different applications of the data require different levels of rigor. The term of art is “fit for purpose,” which means matching the quality control to how the data will be used.

The energy invested by the government can scale by orders of magnitude to deliver results through distributed tasks.

For example, more than 170,000 volunteers indexed 132 million names of the 1940 Census in five months. That’s something the National Archives and Records Administration would never have been able to accomplish so quickly with staff time.

Current EPA activities include the Local Environmental Observer Network, the air sensors toolbox for citizen scientists, and workshops and trainings. Many of these efforts tap into technologies that have sparked a resurgence of citizen science across government – smartphone cameras, affordable sensors, mobile internet, mobile apps, and social media.

At all levels of government, citizen science programs represent opportunities to engage the public as energized, passionate participants in the country’s heartbeat of innovation.

  • Have you heard of citizen science? Have you participated in a citizen science project?
  • Has your organization implemented any projects that involve the public?
  • How could you apply the principles of citizen science to other fields?

Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Dustin Renwick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Love this concept. Former White House Deputy CTO Beth Noveck called this extra energy “citizen surplus” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alexander-howard/harnessing-the-civic-surp_b_734928.html), building upon Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus” idea.

I’d love to institutionalize citizen science or citizen surplus by inviting / urging / incentivizing college professors to leverage real problems like the ones you cite above as class projects. It’s really a win-win:

1) Government leverages distributed energy to address actual needs
2) Students learn more about science and gain real-world experience / exposure to government

Rather than working on theoretical case studies or projects, our rising talent could have immediate impact through their course work.

Profile Photo Dustin Renwick

Great points, Andrew. Incorporating students also taps into the STEM / education side of citizen science. Aside from data collection / analysis, the educational component can be a strong foundation for citizen science projects.