In gathering big data, citizens lend a helping hand

Ethan Nelson

When scientists reach out to community members to do their work for them, it turns out they can get results on a massive scale.
 
A University of Minnesota paper published earlier this month showed that two-thirds of research papers published since 2000 about monarch butterflies used volunteers to help collect data — a trend experts say is growing among scientists in both academia and public offices.
 
Karen Oberhauser, a University conservation biology professor who co-authored the study, said her research found that volunteers spent more than 35,000 hours collecting data for monarch programs in 2011. Volunteers’ contributions have allowed monarch researchers to track many more population patterns than they normally could, she said.
 
Research projects use the untraditional method to address problems computers can’t solve, said University physics professor Lucy Fortson.
 
Fortson works on a project called Galaxy Zoo, a website that asks volunteers to classify different types of galaxies. She said working with huge amounts of data is difficult and tedious for small research teams.
 
“Trying to find nuggets of gold in data is harder and harder to do,” she said.
 
Galaxy Zoo takes information from dozens of contributors and checks it against other submissions to create the most accurate guess.
 
Oberhauser said crowdsourcing research has received unwarranted skepticism, but researchers are beginning to see its value.
 
“I’ve really seen a change in the scientific community,” she said.
 
The nature of citizen science and its methodology also makes it possible to take on large projects that require gathering results over time.
 
Despite the amount of data citizen science can gather, Oberhauser said, scientists underuse the method because they typically aren’t aware of how much information is available, and much of it is difficult to access.
 
City officials have also begun to embrace the practice. 
 
In 2013, Minneapolis started a volunteer air quality monitoring program where officials asked residents to place canisters in their yards to measure pollutants in their neighborhood.
 
Jennifer Lansing, a city environmental inspector who coordinated the project, said her eight-person unit was too small to do the study without the 
public’s help.
 
“There’s no way we could have done it on the scale we were doing,” Lansing said. “It just wouldn’t be feasible.”
 
Oberhauser said researchers now have a better understanding of monarch butterflies than any other non-pest insect thanks to citizen research.
 
Community members involved with environment-based research are more likely to involve themselves and engage with conservation efforts as well, according to Oberhauser’s study.
 
Fortson said the huge amount of data researchers are increasingly interested in makes citizen science more relevant than ever.
 
“We’re drowning in data,” she said. “We’re falling behind in our capacity to analyze all that data.”