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Crowdsource Your Data Collection?

What can you do when you need data from all over the world in a short amount of time?  Many scientists, including ones at JPL/NASA, are crowdsourcing their data collection.

data collection

Projects range from ground truthing NASA satellite data, to spotting migration patterns, to collecting microbes.

Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University is the founder of SciStarter, a website where scientists make data collection requests to a community of volunteers who are interested in collecting and analyzing data for scientific research.

Who Collects the Data?

SciStarter was an outgrowth of Cavalier’s University of Pennsylvania graduate school project where she sought to connect people who didn’t have formal science degrees with scientists who needed their help.  She says, “We know from various National Science Foundation reports that many people without science degrees are interested in participating in and learning about science. The challenge was that there was no easy way to find those opportunities.”

data collection

One project invites UK citizens to find and take pictures of orchids.

Cavalier started SciStarter, in part, to create a “one-stop shop” resource where people could easily search and find projects best suited to their locations and interests.  She says, “We have over 1,600 projects and events.  Projects range from ground truthing NASA satellite data, to spotting migration patterns, to collecting microbes.”  One project, sponsored by the National History Museum in London, invites UK citizens to find and take pictures of orchids with their smartphones, so scientists can study the effect of climate change on UK flowering times.

How Are Volunteers Recruited?

Volunteers are recruited through SciStarter’s partnerships with the National Science Teachers Association, Discover Magazine, the United Nations, PBS and more. One of the most visible ways that volunteers are enlisted is through an organization Cavalier started called Science Cheerleader.  The organization consists of 300 current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are scientists and engineers.  These role models visit youth sports groups, go to science festivals, and talk in schools.  During their appearances they engage people of all ages in actual citizen science projects. Darlene says, “This is our way of casting a wide net and making new audiences aware of these opportunities.”

data collection

Science cheerleader consists of 300 current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are now scientists and engineers.

What’s the Ultimate Goal?

Cavalier is determined to create pathways between citizen science and citizen science policy. She says, “The hope is after people engage in citizen science projects, they will want to participate in deliberations around related science policy. Or perhaps policy decision makers will want to be part of the discovery process by contributing or analyzing scientific data.”  Darlene has partnered with Arizona State University and other organizers to form a very active network called Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST).  This group seeks to unite citizens, scientific experts, and government decision makers in discussions evaluating science policy. Cavaliers says, “The process allows us to discover ethical and societal issues that may not come up if there were only scientists and policy makers in a room.  It’s a network which allows us to take these conversations out of Washington D.C.  The conversations may originate and ultimately circle back there, but the actual public deliberations are held across the country, so we get a cross-section of input from different Americans.” ECAST has been contracted by NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and others to explore specific policy questions that would benefit from the public’s input.

data collection

ECAST is a network which allows us to take science policy conversations out of Washington D.C.

Overcoming Obstacles

Cavalier says the SciStarter team constantly works to remove challenges and impediments to public participation. She explains, “We’ve found it can be difficult to articulate the geographic bounds of a project because when a researcher says, “this project can be done in a watershed,” it doesn’t mean anything to most people.  So SciStarter spent time developing a system of “Open Streetmap and USGS databases that show land-type coverage.”

Another obstacle to some types of research is access to instrumentation.  Darlene comments, “The NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) project really opened our eyes to how many obstacles can exist between the spectrum of recruiting, training, equipping, and fully engaging a participant.”  This year, SciStarter is building a database of citizen science tools and instruments and will begin to create the digital infrastructure to map tools to people and projects through a “Build, Borrow, Buy” function on project pages.

data collection

“The NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) project really opened our eyes to how many obstacles can exist to full engagement.”

What’s Next?

Darlene says that sometimes scientists who want accurate data without knowing about or identifying a particular sensor for participants to use often create room for data errors.   To address this problem, SciStarter and Arizona State University will be hosting a summit this fall where scientists, citizen scientists, and commercial developers of instrumentation will meet to determine if it’s possible to fill gaps to develop and scale access to inexpensive, modular instruments that could be used in different types of research.  You can learn more about crowdsourcing your data collection with SciStarter here.

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