Online citizen science for the holidays

Online citizen science for the holidays

By NASA's Earth Observatory (Flickr: Southern Lights) [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsChristmas: it’s been and gone; the turkey coma is ebbing, but the sandwiches/chili/even more sandwiches are recurring. The weather outside is frightful, so what else to do other than hibernate in front of a screen?

While you’re cooped up with the rest of the family, with only the mall as a destination, why not explore the wonder of science online? We’ve rounded up a number of citizen science projects to check out online, so while you’re browsing and waiting for the turkey to digest, you can also help get some research projects moving along nicely for the new year.

Aurorasaurus is a sweet app and website that help plan aurora sightings in the northern and southern hemispheres. In addition to signing up for notifications for your own viewing pleasure, you can help scientists refine the algorithms that make the predictions here on Earth.

Based on the OVATION prime model drawn from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center data, the viewing map gives a T-minus-30-minutes look at how the solar winds are influencing aurora activity above the poles. Since its creation two years ago, Aurorasaurus has recognized that the viewing area predictions made using OVATION are a little biased; the aurora is a high-altitude event, so the actual viewing limits on Earth are more generous than algorithms predict. This is where user reports and a little bit of citizen science come in. Did you see an aurora? Is that tweeted aurora sighting genuine? If so, log a “Yes” with your account and location.

Signing up is easy, using a number of popular social networks. In return, you can enable notifications to alert you to visible auroras in your neighbourhood…and Rory Aurorasaurus sends a personal “Welcome!” message too!

Mark My Bird
This one’s probably for older kids and for adults without motion sensitivity. There’s a lot of spinning involved. Once signed up, you get to help researchers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom add to a digitized data set of landmarked bird beaks.

The actual landmarking process is moderately complex—placing marker points by manipulating the 3-D scanned images and plotting curves—but it is not impossible. There is a very handy video that shows the process in action and some gallery stills to help you on your way.

By placing these landmark points, users help researchers interpret the different bird beaks, comparing common features with species development and function. Just as evolution is a work-in-progress, so is Mark My Bird as a project to understand bird diversification.

If you like plotting crosshairs on a scanned beak, then check out the league tables; you could be a top-ranking bird beaker by the new year.

However, if motion is not your thing, you can still help—why not transcribe historical ornithological notes instead?

If teaching computers how to fold proteins is your thing, then try Foldit and solve puzzles for science. By downloading the program and solving the puzzles, computer algorithms improve to enable protein scientists to advance their research.

If you remember that most excellent post on proteins, you’ll know that these molecules form shapes and associations dependent on primary amino acid chain structure. By examining the primary sequence, computer algorithms can attempt to predict final molecular configuration…but they are not really that good at it.

However, human gamers are! By solving puzzles online and predicting 3-D structure, players help computers learn more about predicting protein structure. Advances in this type of programming help researchers develop new drugs and examine cellular changes due to disease.

In addition to the satisfaction of gaming online, players can take part in an active community, learn more about protein science, play in teams and see their names advance in the league tables.

The Commons Lab within the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars holds an online database of federal crowdsourcing and citizen science projects and has a number of online activities listed, including these two:

Disk Detective
Disk Detective involves deep space exploration from the comfort of your armchair. Check out the space image data supplied from the NASA WISE mission and help to classify what they show. Maybe you’ll spot a new planetary system amidst the space dust and debris.

Image Detective
Another space exploration project, but this time the lens is turned back to our home planet. This is your chance to gaze over the amazingly beautiful images taken of Earth by astronauts. Each image needs tagging with its geolocation, so you can help improve your geography smarts while earning your Super Space Explorer badge.


Scientific American also lists citizen science projects, including this one for dogs and their owners. If you like the idea of helping shelter dogs finding a new forever home, then this one’s for you. By providing information on how you interact with your dog, the researchers hope eventually to improve the odds for the right family ending up with the right dog to adopt.

The SciStarter blog has a list of citizen science projects, including NASA’s Be A Martian activity and Age Guess, where you can learn how badly you judge a person’s age from the images flashed up in front of you.

According to my reference notes, this one is the motherlode of all online citizen science activities: ZooniverseHow about a spot of African field tracking, identifying animals caught in a camera trap? Or maybe you’d like to hunt a different type of prey? Check out the Higgs Hunters, where you can stalk through data arrays from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider looking for aberrant particle streams resulting from the collisions.

Kitty Biome
Not so much online but a better use of your time. Hey, if you’re scooping poop from litter trays this festive season, why not scoop for science? The Kitty Biome project is collecting…poop to sequence kitty gut flora DNA to make connections between feline age, disease and other factors. Sign up and the team will send a sampling kit for what it describes as the “first kitty-zen science project…” When the results are ready, you and your pussycat can check out the results online.

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