Month: November 2010

NSF Funding Citizen Science from Gulf Oil Spill

Recently, Dynamic Patterns Research featured an article on how new federal money — funneled through the NOAA — is being directed to citizen science efforts (read more). Now, additional research dollars from the National Science Foundation have been awarded to an associate professor in the Department of Sociology from Washington State University.

Prof. Scott Frickel, Washington State University

Prof. Scott Frickel received nearly $57,000 to direct his innovative research on the use of citizen science in the response to the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In particular, Prof. Frickel will study how the “experts” involved in the disaster worked directly with members of the affected communities to produce meaningful scientific results in the environmental outcomes of the event. Working mostly with fisherman along the coastline, the ultimate goal of this research will be to analyze a real-world example of a citizen science collaboration to better understand how it functioned and how successful citizen science can be performed.

Certainly, the dollar amount awarded for this project is only a trickle in the United States government’s FY 2009 $3.52 trillion budget: Prof. Frickel is receiving only 0.00000162% of the total allocations. Nonetheless, this represents an important expansion of the recognition of the importance of how citizen science contributes to our society. In fact, the federal government is heading into another session of juggling severe budget cuts against calls for increased scientific funding (when is the US government not juggling… everything?) with new demands for focusing efforts on research, in particular in the area of sustainable energy (read more from American Public Media’s Marketplace broadcast on November 29, 2010).

Although government funding of scientific research can begin with only a best guess of what will be the most important scientific advancement of tomorrow, the funding agencies must do just that. Think: the computer, lasers, the Internet, GPS navigational systems, and even Google… all came from an essentially random grant that slipped through a governmental funding agency. And, today, nearly every person in the entire world is affected on a daily basis by these important developments.

The United States’ funding efforts toward scientific, technological, and medical research have proven critical and invaluable time and time again. So, it is exciting to see a growth now in citizen science funding because there is a strong chance that efforts from the amateur will once again some day be a cultural game-changer. And, maybe the United States government will actually be there to seed the next great revolution in science–from the citizen scientist.

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“NSF grant funds ‘citizen science’ collaboration” :: WSU Today :: November 29, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

Volunteers Send Messages in Bottles Around the World

Global ocean currents represent one of the most complex fluid dynamics problem a scientist can tackle. However, an understanding of how things float around and through our planet’s waterways is not only crucial for transportation vessels, commercial fishing, and water safety (read more), but also for tracking and managing less controlled events such as oil spills or migration of aquatic life.

Measuring the local ocean current — as a captain heads into harbor or simply tries to stay on course — has been performed by mariners since boats began to float. Simple techniques using a floating object, an observer and a timing device can provide very localized and crude measurements for current flow velocities. In the 1700s, mathematicians Joseph Louis Lagrange and Leonhard Euler developed models for describing and measuring fluid flows, and sophisticated techniques of today are designed from their work. From sophisticated drifters with on-board transmitters, acoustic Doppler shift measuring devices, to on-shore high-frequency radar antennas, much more detailed views of the flowing ocean can be visualized.

Drift Bottle Project leader, Eddy Carmack

Taking a more simplistic approach, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada organization lead by scientist Eddy Carmack has harnessed the power of citizen scientists, students, and other interested volunteers from around the world to discover new complexities in the oceans’ currents. Considered to be a final hope effort for the unfortunate stranded island visitor, the classic “message in a bottle” can potentially drift far and wide around the globe until an unsuspecting beach comer discovers the washed up SOS.

Since 2000, The Drift Bottle Project has tossed nearly 4,500 bottles into the waters off of British Columbia all the way to the shores of Greenland. Contained inside are messages describing the drop time and place, and a request to contact Carmack’s research team if found. Most of the bottles don’t make it very far… they either drift to a local shoreline or are damaged and lost to the ocean’s depths. However, some have made quite the journey. One reported bottle started from Baffin Island and drifted four years until being found some 9,300 miles away in Puerto Rico.

This great and inexpensive project, although not sophisticated enough to provide a high level of detail mapping of ocean currents, is perfect for communities and students to get involved in thinking about our oceans and our environment. Hundreds of people have been involved up north, and it would be a relatively straightforward program for any coastal community, classroom or science organization to develop and implement. If you would be interested in creating a new drift bottle program for your area, please contact DPR and we’ll help connect you with resources and information to begin planning and development.

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“Ocean bottle drop expected to reveal mysteries of currents” :: Calgary Herald :: October 1, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

Learn more about how ocean currents are measured:
NOAA’s Ocean Currents Tutorial :: [ DOWNLOAD PDF or READ ONLINE ]

Community Mapping Brings a Revolution to Geographic Information Science

A recent National Science Foundation Distinguished Lecture series featured Michael Goodchild, a world-renowned geographer and director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Center for Spatial Studies. On November 17, Prof. Goodchild presented his evolving views on the development and distribution of geographic information, and how these are being significantly influenced not only by new technologies, but, in particular, by the volunteer efforts of interested non-professionals connected in with the new technologies.

For the past five hundred years there has been a distinction between the professional experts who generate and distribute “official” or authoritative geographic information, and the amateur consumer of said geographic information. Maps, for example, were developed by professional “explorers” and distributed, often at high costs still today, by governments and other official organizations. Before this current era, however, the broader community was involved in communicating the details of the local and regional geographies. It seems, however, that with the advent of new social and connecting technologies, we are once again returning to these by-gone days of community mapping.

Prof. Goodchild discusses his more recent studies into how social networks and crowdsourcing activities by volunteers from around the world are successfully creating useful and new geographic information that rivals, if not routinely excels, what is generated by authoritative sources. What can be accomplished by a social network of individuals in terms of identifying geographic structures and other elements over broad distances or even over real-time scales cannot be reasonably completed by a lone researcher or by automated computers. This crowdsourcing efficiency from scale is one of the powers of citizen science and is why volunteers are beginning to be recognized and utilized by professional communities to help advance scientific work.

For example, with geotagging features on Flickr, valuable image data of geographic structures can be visualized into a comprehensive review of a region that may also contain direct textual accounts written by the volunteer photographer. Wikimapia is another example of a growing crowdsourced map that overlays detailed location information and stories onto the latest Google map. Volunteers zoom around the map and draw location outlines to identify the specific geographic content, and include additional information, stories, and photographs. With the extreme accessibility of geographic information, the role of the geographer is evolving into less of an analyzer of information and more of a synthesizer of geographic details from many sources.

A key issue arises during the synthesizing of volunteered information through the verification of its accuracy against authoritative information. False details will always be a prevalent feature of volunteered sources, but dealing with this feature is not necessarily an unreasonable task. Typically, just as content is being provided by the crowdsourced masses, so to will the filtering for accuracy be accomplished by the crowdsourced masses. And, the more popular a bit of volunteered information is, the more eyes will be reviewing the submitted data and chances of corrections as needed significantly increase.

In particular, Prof. Goodchild is trying to understand how useful crowdsourced geographical information is during emergency management issues, such as wild fires infiltrating residential areas in Santa Barbara, or damage reports post-earthquake in Haiti. With specific experiences of wild fires in California over the past several years, it was found that volunteered information about location and direction of raging fires were provided with near real-time resolution compared to crashed servers and severely delayed reports from “official” sources. Although the volunteered information contained false positives of wild fire location, and corrections may or may not have occurred on the short time frame, it is certainly better to think the fire is near your back door and make a decision to evacuate than otherwise.

Watch Prof. Goodchild’s 50-minute lecture and learn more about how the average, non-professional citizen is changing the field of geography. And, with the technology at your fingertips, you might be able to find ways to participate in useful geographic information development in your region of the world.

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“From Community Mapping to Critical Spatial Thinking” :: NSF’s Distinguished Lecture series :: November 17, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

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Do you use or contribute to a particular geographic information online resource? If so, please tell us about your experiences here and share the resource for others to discover.

Citizen Science and the Age of Knowledge Generosity

On the eve of Thanksgiving, we tend to start our annual pondering about how we might give more to our friends and family, and maybe even to the world. Citizen scientists–whether they consciously realize it or not–are behaving in a uniquely giving mood with every bird they count, PC time they donate, comet they spot, or galaxy structure they visually identify (among so many more important activities!). The efforts of citizen scientists are a pure form of generosity through the free distribution of knowledge.

Scientific advancement through the professional academic universe certainly has developed an entrenched hierarchy of those who know the “truth,” those who are learning the “truth,” and … everyone else. Having personally experienced the educational opportunities inside advanced scientific learning, it would seem nearly impossible or impractical for an at-home, informal learner of any age to tap into meaningful research or scientific discovery. The notion of the average citizen directly contributing to actual scientific advancement would seem counter intuitive–to the professional academic community.

But, with the advancement of communication technologies in the 21st Century, from Internet technologies to hand-held computing devices, the power of real scientific participation is being delegated to the masses. And, the masses are taking part. Profoundly, they are volunteering their time, skills, and general enthusiasm to explore nature and the universe to not only help with the advancement of scientific understanding, but to increase their personal appreciation for that elusive “truth.”

Roger Highfield, former Telegraph science editor and current editor of New Scientist, recently realized this profound volunteer effort of the crowd and how their contributions have been dramatically influencing scientific advancements, and will certainly continue to do so.

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“Crowdsourcing and open source: knowledge is a gift” :: The Telegraph by Roger Highfield :: November 23, 2010 :: [ READ ]

New Federal Money Pouring into Science Education and Citizen Science

Earlier this month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that $8 million worth of new grant money has been awarded to educational and non-profit institutions across the United States to support programs that connect the public to science appreciation and interactivity.

The NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Grant program focuses to enhance informal educational opportunities at museums and through family and teen programs, as well as expand citizen science networks. The funded projects will work to increase the understanding and appreciation of environmental issues of the oceans, coastlines, Great Lakes, and the climate around the globe.

Thirteen projects across the United States were selected to be funded from a national competition. The largest funding amount–$1.25 million–was given to Colorado State University’s “CoCoRaHS” project (or, the Capitalizing on Technological Advancements to Expand Environmental Literacy through a successful Citizen Science Network; Read More). This program brings together volunteers to take direct measurements of precipitation quantity, intensity, duration and patterns, all from their own backyards. To take part in the project, visit the program online to learn more (visit CoCoRaHS).

This year’s funding round from the NOAA is so significant because it continues to legitimize the efforts of citizen science and the critical influence of informal education in our culture. Much can be learned in the classroom, but so much more can be experienced with science education and appreciation at home, with friends and family, and with national and international connections and networks of other active amateur scientists.

The NOAA, a federal agency, is providing real money to support these programs as its administration understands the importance of fostering increased scientific awareness across our cultures. Through this funding, NOAA also appreciates that not only can these sorts of citizen science programs heighten a broader population’s appreciation of our world, but their collective scientific efforts from the masses can provide critical research data that will help professional scientists better understand the universe–from our backyard all the way out into the cosmos–in ways that the professionals cannot manage on their own.

A complete list of awards has been included below, courtesy of the NOAA press release. Take a close look at all of the exciting programs, and explore which opportunity you might be able to take part. If you have had any experiences with any of these programs, or are planning on taking part in any way, please report and share with us here on Dynamic Patterns Research.

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“NOAA Announces Environmental Literacy Grants for Science Education” :: NOAA’s Office of Education Press Release :: November 2, 2010 :: [ READ ]

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Update, December 3, 2010: NOAA published a more detailed overview of each project funded [ VIEW ]

    November 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

    Although it’s getting a little chilly outside for the citizen scientists in the Northern Hemisphere, there are always plenty of astounding stars and planets to view in the dark of night. Jupiter is glowing brightly, and is sitting very near the Moon right now at the middle of the month. The Leonid Meteor Shower will peak on November 17 (read more), which is all thanks to debris that fell from Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

    To plan your November nighttime viewing, download this month’s Sky Map, courtesy of Whether you are looking with your eyes, binoculars, or a telescope, let us know what you find particular interesting and beautiful this month!

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    November 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

    Last updated April 5, 2020