Geospatial Technology and the Citizen Scientist

“The purpose of the GIS and Science blog is to provide news, resources, commentary, and interviews on the use of GIS technology by the scientific community and for scientific applications.” When I originally wrote that, it was very carefully worded for a reason: scientists are not the only people doing science.

There are a lot of different ways to slice and dice the demographic makeup of the GIS and Science blog audience. Here’s one:

• Scientists: People doing science as a full-time job.
• Professionals Doing Science: Science is not their job, but it’s a component of their job.
• Citizen Scientists: People who have an interest in strong interest in science, but it’s not part of their job.

Looking at the citizen scientist in particular, words that come to mind are hobby; entertainment; volunteer; and amateur. The word “amateur” should really be taken with a grain of salt: citizen scientists can and do make important contributions to various fields of study.

Some citizen scientists work just fine all alone. These self-directed types might very well be in their garages developing “the next big thing.” But more often they are networked, working together with fellow citizen scientists. And this is where they become a powerful force to be taken seriously within the scientific community. Scientists, and “professionals doing science,” often are the ones organizing these networks; they realize the great value a group of eager volunteers can bring to a project.

A good, although somewhat controversial (depending on your belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life) example of a mass of volunteers carefully organized to work on an overwhelmingly humongous project is SETI@home.  As a volunteer, you download some software that utilizes the “idle time” on your home computer to scan through reams of radio telescope data and search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. If nothing else, it has served as a model for bringing large numbers of volunteers (more than five million participants worldwide) together to work collectively on a massive task.

Closer to home, CPDN and APS@home are two distributed computing projects with an earth science spin. CPDN is investigating how small changes affect climate models. APS@home is looking at atmospheric components of climate change. Although public participation in both CPDN and APS@home is not nearly at the same scale as SET@home, the potential is certainly there.

Is there an opportunity for the citizen scientist to leverage geospatial technologies in their quest for knowledge, entertainment, and contributing to society? Absolutely. With the relatively recent arrival of powerful (and free!) geospatial visualization tools such as Google Earth, ArcGIS Explorer, and NASA World Wind, it’s easier than ever for the citizen scientist to have some fun with maps while making a potentially important scientific contribution.

Amassing large numbers of volunteers to work on geospatial problems such as climate change is already taking place as shown by the CPDN and APS@home examples. What is needed next is something at a much larger scale, where not just physical, but also biological, social, cultural, economic, and political data and models are integrated to give a more accurate depiction of the complexities inherent in the anthropogenic Earth.

First we need to create an environment that successfully brings together a plethora of data sources and modeling systems—a noble vision for GIS, but not something to be tackled by citizen scientists. Once the data and technology is in place, and a clear framework is established, then comes the opportunity to organize a large group of volunteers who would do the “grunt work” of tackling one of the biggest challenges facing us.

Imagine a framework where tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists log in to a web site and download geospatial data sets and work task lists, then using a focused desktop geospatial application they also downloaded, they run different analysis and modeling scenarios as defined in the task list…then upload the results of their analysis back to the main data repository.

If properly structured and managed, such a project could significantly advance our understanding of the planet. At this scale, it would be difficult if not impossible to pull off without the participation of citizen scientists. They are out there, anxious to help… just waiting for us to create the framework.