How Citizen Science Is Changing The World

We are now in a golden age of scientific projects that involve the general public.


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Alfredo (he/him) has a PhD in Astrophysics on galaxy evolution and a Master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces.

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

drawing of three people in a virtual space pointing at different planets
We are not at the point of cyberspace citizen science, but maybe one day soon. Sensvector/

Non-formally-trained scientists have been playing an increasingly revolutionary role over the last 15 years. The rise of Citizen Science has had impacts on every discipline, and every month new projects are launched to involve, inform, and ask the public for help in tackling mysteries at the cutting edge of human knowledge.

By any metric, involving ordinary citizens in research has been massively beneficial – from new discoveries to data analyses to new ways to deliver public engagement. Science is supposed to be a common heritage for humankind but too often has kept the public at a distance. But no more. If you want to get involved, there are literally hundreds of different ways to do so. You can help cancer research by playing a mobile game, or even take part in one of the most stringent tests of a cornerstone of quantum mechanics.


Looking For New Worlds And Protecting Earth

Having citizen scientists classify huge data sets has certainly revolutionized astronomy. If you have hundreds of thousands of images, you need either one very single-minded PhD student or many people who can help out. That was the starting point of Galaxy Zoo. Asking people on the internet to lend a few minutes of their time and classify a handful of galaxies. Thanks to thousands of volunteers, they not only got the original job done but now the "Zooniverse" has expanded into a huge variety of fields with projects from medicine to literature.

Astronomy is a fertile ground for citizen science, and company Unistellar had that in mind in the development of its telescopes. Their devices allow the observations of very faint objects by accumulating light, they can be used even in cities thanks to dedicated software, and they automatically realize what are they looking at in the sky.

By connecting hundreds of people with these telescopes around the world, Unistellar has been able to conduct some pretty impressive scientific campaigns, from confirming the existence of exoplanets around other stars to determining the properties of Near-Earth asteroids that might one day threaten our planet.

“Unistellar was created to democratize astronomy. And democratizing astronomy can be done by building telescopes but also by transforming people into astronomers,” Dr Franck Marchis, Chief Scientific Officer at Unistellar told IFLScience. “We are democratizing astronomy by making scientific investigation accessible to everybody.”

The blue and red rings of the ring nebula are visible among a field of stars
The Ring Nebula as seen with a Unistellar telescope from central London. Image Credit: Alfredo Carpineti courtesy of Unistellar

The company is working with NASA on several projects, some related to exoplanets as well as one related to the Lucy mission launched last year. Marchis noted how some members of the community are now running their own observations of exoplanets.

“I like the diversity as well. Those people don't know each other, but they talk to each other. They're from different countries, they don't speak the same language. It's kind of a terrestrial network, what we do. All humans observing together and contributing to Science."

Influencers Of The Jungle

Camera traps are an incredible tool to study animals in their natural environment without the cumbersome presence of humans. They can tell scientists the size of an animal population, their movement, their habits, and more. Sometimes they reveal species we didn’t know were even in that habitat.

Teams working on this approach are usually very small and camera traps take thousands of photos, the amount of data to sift through can be unmanageable for a few people. And that’s where Instant Wild comes in. The project from the Zoological Society of London aims to bring these images to the people, allowing the classification of species in these images to happen a lot faster.


“One of my favorite things about Instant Wild is that you don't need to be an expert to take part," Kate Moses, ZSL’s project manager for Instant Wild, told IFLScience.  

"We use a consensus algorithm in the background of the app, which means that basically until ten users have tagged an image with the same species – for example, there are ten tags of a wolf in one image – until that happens, a result isn't generated.” 

This approach guarantees that mistakes don’t actually matter as when hundreds of identifications are made, they are the minority. This makes it easier for people to join, knowing that getting things wrong is not a big deal.

A hedgehog spotted walking at night.
Not all camera traps are located in jungles. Image credit: Hogwatch/Instant Wild/ZLS

There are currently 18 projects going on the platform. In the beginning, the project ran exclusively on live feeds from the field but has since expanded to include pre-recorded images. The growth of the platform speaks for the success of the approach.  


“I would say what has been really successful is that we've developed a really fantastic community of users," Moses says. "I would say that they are the kindest, friendliest, most helpful and welcoming bunch of people that you'll ever meet. They're great, they're always happy to help out!”

Making Art Out Of Astronomy

You might not know the name Judy Schmidt, but we are certain you have seen her creations – particularly in the last few months. She is one of the many people that process astrophysical images from spacecraft, telescopes, and robotic missions, using raw data and images to produce an accurate yet more recognizable image. Her work with JWST's results in particular has been featured by both NASA and the European Space Agency. From peculiar shells around a star to distant galaxies via a breathtaking view of Jupiter, her work is exquisite. 

NASA’s data is public, and the agency actually encourages people to process it. That is how Schmidt got involved. More and more missions and projects have pages dedicated to their raw images and encourage members of the public to polish them up. There just aren't enough NASA staff to process the enormity of the data, so in this case, thousands of eyes are better than a few.

“The people who do the outreach, who are actually employed in doing it, they don't have time to process all the data. And so I do it, I try to encourage other people to do it because there's just so much out there and there are so many different ways to actually interpret the data. I just figured the more the merrier,” Schmidt told IFLScience.

An infrared image of jupiter were differnet portions of the planet's atmosphere and its aurorae are visible
JWST view of Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / Jupiter ERS Team / Judy Schmidt

The robotic explorers we sent out into space don’t see the universe as we would with the naked eye, so the way citizen scientists combine the images from different filters is not just an artistic endeavor. They bring to light details that were significant to them – and often enough, are also scientifically significant. A splendid example of science and art coming together and creating something much greater than the sum of its parts.

“Why is it important to do this? It gives my life meaning. And I love to explore things. And this is a way of exploring without even leaving my house. You don't have to even have a car or anything. I’m exploring space,” Schmidt told IFLScience.


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