Citizen science helps with big data: Bob McDonald

Volunteer citizen scientists can help researchers collect and analyze tons of data on many topics.

From hunting planets to capturing the spruce budworm, ordinary people are assisting scientists

Penguins are the latest group to be added to the list of things that citizen scientists can count, monitor, classify or discover. (Ben Tubby - CC BY 2.0)

Helping scientists track the whereabouts of penguins, Antarctica's iconic inhabitants, is the latest idea to be added to an international project carried out by citizens and school groups. And you, too, can participate.

A program called PenguinWatch 2.0 has been added to the Zooniverse, a collection of web-based citizen science projects — what they call "people-powered research" — designed to help scientists deal with the flood of data they are faced with.

Subjects range from planet hunting in deep space to watching animals migrate across the Serengeti plains, to spotting new subatomic particles in the Large Hadron Collider.

Scientific research involves a lot of observation, usually over long periods, to record changes in ecosystems, animal behaviour, predator-prey relationships or, in the case of space, just to survey what's out there among billions of stars and galaxies.

But all these observations produce hours of videos, millions of images and so much data that it's very time-consuming for scientists to plow through it to extract the relevant information.

That's why citizen science has become an important tool to help scientists deal with big data and to allow ordinary citizens to participate in real scientific research.

In addition, it is a valuable teaching tool where students learn about a topic and become involved in the the scientific process to study it.

The penguin project, run by the University of Oxford in England, involves 50 cameras in the Southern Ocean and around the Antarctic Peninsula that overlook colonies of gentoo, adelie, chinstrap and king penguins.The cameras take images year-round to keep track of numbers, newborns, and any novel behaviours.
You can receive a trap to capture the menacing spruce budworm. (CBC)

As the Antarctic Peninsula warms at an unprecedented rate, the scientists want to know what effect the loss of ice and changing landscape are having on penguin populations.

That means observations spanning years and mountains of data to deal with. And that's where the volunteer citizen scientists come in. The interactive web site asks people to look at pictures, and mark them to help classify the species.

If penguins are not for you, other sites offer the chance to search for black holes in the centres of galaxies, using data from radio telescopes, or map out gas clouds and stars in our Milky Way galaxy, using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Or you could investigate any of a hundred other sites covering every subject in science.

If you are more the outdoor type, you can report your sightings of bats suffering from white-nose syndrome; receive a trap to capture the menacing spruce budworm in New Brunswick; count amphibians and reptiles in Manitoba; or participate in any number of citizen science projects in your area.

Science is our eye on the world, and that world is changing rapidly in so many ways, there are not enough scientific eyes to keep track of it. That's why scientists need your eyes to help them.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.