Exploring a Culture of Health: Building Resilience to Undo the Effects of Childhood Trauma

Bookmark and Share
Working with children to undo the effects of childhood trauma

Working with children to undo the effects of childhood trauma

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Early life experiences lay the foundation for mental development as well as general health and well-being. Having a loving family environment, exposure to healthy habits such as nutritious eating or exercise and socioeconomic stability are good indicators for healthy psychological and physiological development. Not surprising news. The reality, however, is that not all children grow up in an environment that checks all of these boxes. What happens to kids who face difficulties like poverty or neglect early in life?

Unfortunately it is not good. Neurobiological and social research show that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increase the risk of developing mental and physical health issues. ACEs include being abused as a child or exposed to a parent’s   violence or drug abuse, or loss of a parent through divorce, mental illness or incarceration. These “stressful environments impact children’s emotional development, mental health, cognition and their ability to learn,” states Dr. Darcy Lowell of Child First, a Connecticut-based home-visit program that works with at risk children between the prenatal period and the age of five.

“Across the general population, one in four children will experience a significantly a traumatic incident before they are four. Fifty percent of those children will experience that three or four times,” explains Janine Hron C.E.O. of the Crittenton Children’s Center in Kansas City, Missouri, home to the trauma intervention program Head Start-Trauma Smart.

The statistics are staggering. So what can be done?

“When children are exposed to trauma, it stops their brain from progressing along the normal track,” says Hron. “The good news is that science has informed us that the brain is adaptable and is capable of healing.” The challenge is determining how to nurture this healing process. Using different models, Child First and Head Start-Trauma Smart, both Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported programs, are doing just that.

Continue reading »

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: What would Thoreau do?

Bookmark and Share


Last week I was thinking about Matthew Maury, and his historical pursuits in citizen science, because the artist-time traveler Benjamin Andrew brought the father of oceanography as a companion on some trips through history (his exhibit is at the Arlington Art Museum until the end of June). This coincided with Clavero and Revilla, in a correspondence published in the journal Nature last week, making the case for the importance of historical ecology as told by old citizen science data. Old compilations of natural history observations certainly have flaws and omissions, but they are proving to be the closest way that we can travel through time.

What is meant by “old citizen science”?

The answer differs by country.

With the relatively short history of the United States, a first thought of “old citizen science” might be the diaries of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was in touch with Nature’s pulse. When he recorded flowering times, we was like a participant in Project Budburst long before the project existed. Thoreau diligently noticed and recorded the flowering dates for over 500 plant species in Concord between 1852 and 1858. In 2008, researchers used these in analyses of plant phenology and climate change.

Thoreau could not have known that his efforts, combined with observations150 years later, would show that St. John’s wort and high-bush blueberry are highly responsive to changes in climate, or that Concord plants are flowering 3.3. days earlier for each 1 C increase in spring temperatures. He just liked to notice things bloom and felt that, as he put it, “life emits a fragrance like flowers.”

“Old citizen science” is much older if we look at observations in China, at which point the lines between citizen science and historical ecology blur together. For instance, a variety of Chinese historic records contain observations relevant to biodiversity. Some historical accounts that include natural history are The Historical Records (~3000-122 BC), the Chronicles of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 23 AD), Twenty Four Histories (2550 BC to 1644 AD), and Zizhitongjian (403BC to 959 AD).

Earlier this year these sources were used in the longest-term ecological study that I’ve ever seen. Li and colleagues showed range contractions that spanned over two millennia in the distribution of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), and three species of rhinoceroses: the two-horned Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and the one-horned Java rhino (R. sondaicus) (the authors treated the rhinos as one group since these species were not clearly distinguished in the historical records). Li and colleagues concluded that human-dominated landscapes are preventing these species from now expanding their ranges, which would otherwise occur given new weather patterns.

Let’s look more closely between these extremes.  Clavero, Rivella, and their colleagues use “old citizen science” by drawing on observations from the 1500s and 1800s to better understand the historical context of species distributions across contemporary ecosystems and landscapes.

There are two major historic data collection efforts that were citizen-science style that Clavero has used in Spain.

The Relaciones topográficas is a standardized geographic account that covers the years 1574 to 1582. It was created through a citizen science style survey during the reign of Felipe II (1556-1598). The survey was a series of questionnaires (interrogatorios) sent to villages. The instructions specified that the questions should be answered by at least two inhabitants of the village and these individuals should be “intelligent and inquisitive.” (In almost all villages, the survey was answered verbally to scribes sent by Felipe II). The questions were about local history, geography, population, social organization, religion, health, crops, livestock, forests, game animals, and aquatic systems and fish. This resulted in more than 4,500 records of over 100 wild plant and 90 wild animal species from over 600 villages.

cover of Madoz dictionary_ portada tomoII

The 19th Century Dictionarios was edited by Pascual Madoz into 16 volumes based on observations from more than 1,000 contributors between 1845 and 1850. Madoz found contributors who today would likely be participants in iNaturalist. Not claiming a specific research agenda, iNaturalist is a platform to share, and learn from, observations of nature. It is a kind of citizen science that assumes documenting is better than not documenting. As Madoz explained in the prologue to volume 1, he knew that he could not compile all the needed information himself, nor hire people to help, so he decided to “excite the zeal of illustrated people who (…) would like to cooperate, without any selfish interest, guided exclusively by the love to sciences”  (pg. 8). There was no official financial support to publish the Dictionarios. Instead, Madoz accumulated 8,000 pre-publication subscriptions in a crowdfunding-like campaign.

The contemporary source of biodiversity information is the Spanish national biodiversity Inventory, administered by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.

In a 2013 paper, Clavero and Delibes used these data sources to inform conservation priorities related to lynx in Spain. They compiled 151 records between 1572 and 1897. The observations fell clearly in the north or south, which the authors believe correspond to observations of the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) in the south and the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in the north. Since the historical records from South  correspond to Iberian lynx range in the 1950s, this region was likely the core distribution area for centuries. They recommend setting conservation priorities based on 1950s range. Old data have rarely been used in conservation strategies this way.

In a paper earlier this year, Clavero & Villera further argued for the necessity of historical ecology to fully understanding contemporary ecosystems and landscapes, particularly with regard to distinguishing native and non-native species. People have been moving animals around for eons. Without historic data, it is hard to know whether a species native to an area. When we lose information about historical ranges, we may face a conservation problem termed shifting baseline syndrome.

The shifting baseline syndrome is caused by failing to notice that the reference scenario guiding management goals is not a pristine state. As Clavero puts it, “We want ecosystems to be as we have known them recently, not necessarily as they naturally were longer ago. Knowing what to define as “natural” in an ever-changing system is difficult, or perhaps impossible.”

Clavero & Villero used historic citizen science to offer different baseline options for three aquatic species in the Iberian Peninsual since the 16th century: tench, common carp, and white-clawed crayfish.


Earlier this year in Conservation Biology, Clavero looked more critically at the baseline for white-clawed crayfish. The IUNC Red List categorizes the white-clawed crayfish as endangered.  Consequently, the Spanish government has recovery plans based on the reference system of the late 1960s when the range was at its maximum. The white-clawed crayfish started spreading in Spain 2.5 centuries ago. Now their populations are low because other introduced crayfish have brought disease. Are conservation efforts using the best reference system?

Spain has a similar situation with European mink. Globally, they are critically endangered, but neither the European mink nor the feral American mink are native to Spain. Why protect one and try to eradicate the other?

Once species have assimilated, functionally and culturally into the country, should they be the reference system? Given enough time, will all invaders eventually be considered native?

Humans have strongly affected animal distributions, particularly since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Ecosystems are dynamic. Selecting a baseline is a technical and philosophical question. With every generation we lose information, and so rescuing fine-grained and large-scale biodiversity data from the past can help.

Humanity has a long history of making observation of nature — from cave paintings to diaries to protocol-driven projects. As Clavero and others have shown, the next best thing to time travel are historical records. These lessons speak to the unanticipated value of citizen science. There are many instances were well-kept observations, perhaps thousands of years later, are re-purposed for important discoveries.

Photo credit: Thoreau with flowers, Thoreau decides to take a selfie (Derya Akkaynak), me photo-bombing Thoreau’s selfie, white-clawed crayfish (Miguel Clavero)


While appreciating the past, let’s also appreciate new discoveries from citizen science during the past week.  The roundup includes papers on beetles, jellyfish, galaxies, and dragonflies:

(1) Desurmont and Agrawal. Do plant defenses predict damage by an invasive herbivore? A comparative study of the viburnum leaf beetle.  Ecological Applications 24:759-769.

(2) Pikesley et al. Cnidaria in UK coastal waters: description of spatio-temporal patterns and inter-annual variation. J Marine Bio Assoc of UK

(3) Manzer and De Robertis. The effects of local environment on active galactic nuclei. Astro J

(4) Gillingham et al. High abundances of species in protected areas in parts of their geographic distributions colonised during a recent period of climate change. Conservation Letters.


Category: Citizen science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Exploring a Culture of Health: Connecting Patients and Researchers to Enhance Discovery

Bookmark and Share

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Nicholas Volker aged six, from Minona Wisconsin had suffered from a highly inflamed intestine since he could walk 1. The strange disease that his doctors could not diagnose required no less than 100 surgeries. Dr. Alan Meyer, Nic’s doctor and a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin eventually decided to try a radical form of diagnosis—DNA sequencing. What Dr Meyer and his team found was a rare, ‘undiagnosable’ disease—one that could only be treated by a bone marrow transplant from umbilical cord blood.

Though he was eventually treated, Nic, his parents and his doctors had gone through a long and painful ordeal in searching for the cause of his disease. Nic could have experienced a far easier path to his eventual treatment if we had a better understanding of our genome and how it relates to diseases. While many research efforts are focused on deciphering our genome, accelerating basic research and its translation to the clinic requires an integrated effort on a much larger scale. Importantly this effort should involve the participation and more meaningful collaboration of citizens and patients in research.

“People who live with a disease every day are untapped experts. Allowing their data and experience to inform the medical discovery process will increase the likelihood that the resulting discoveries and clinical encounters give them the opportunity to live healthier lives, and will help us build a national Culture of Health,” says Paul Tarini, a Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) which supports transformative ideas through its Culture of Health initiative.

With support from RWJF, several efforts are underway to explore how data, insights, and knowledge contributed by patients can further medical discovery and improve health care.

Partnering on research

BRIDGE, operated by Sage Bionetworks, is an online platform where patients can track their health data and work together with researchers and funders as virtual teams on research. “What this means,” says Thea Norman, director of Strategic Development at BRIDGE, “is that for someone who is interested in becoming more involved in medical research as a patient—someone who has insight into a disease they are suffering from, and who is motivated to understand what they are suffering from—BRIDGE offers significantly more opportunity than the traditional method of research.”

Open Humans: An online platform that connects participants and researchers

Open Humans: An online platform that connects participants and researchers

Whether collected on an app, through survey or via a personal online journal, BRIDGE offers citizens a place to store their data in whatever form they record personally. This allows researchers and other patients to potentially find correlations between some of the data collected and a journal entry that provides critical information.

The added benefit for people who contribute data? “Early insights and perhaps a shorter, faster path to new therapies,” says Tarini.

A number of research projects will be piloted on BRIDGE in the coming year—all of them will engage patients as partners in the process.

Sharing data

Open Humans is an online platform that connects research participants willing to publicly share data about themselves with researchers interested in using and adding to that public data. In the pilot phase, Open Humans will work with the Harvard Personal Genome ProjectAmerican Gut and Flu Near You GoViral—all studies that return data to participants and enable them to share it. Eventually, scientists will be able to work with participants to create additional data.

“When research studies agree to share data with participants, something incredible is possible: people have the ability to aggregate and share that data, to be combined with other data and re-used in powerful new ways,” says Jason Bobe, program director of Open Humans. “More sophisticated research questions and new insights become possible when data can be integrated from multiple research studies: does genetic background impact flu resistance? Does the community of microbes in the gut influence flu susceptibility?”

Improving treatments and clinical practice

PatientsLikeMe’s Open Research Exchange (ORE) is another platform that gives both researchers and patients a space to work together. The goal of the Open Research Exchange is to identify health outcomes that are meaningful to patients and develop measures that assess treatments or clinical practices against these outcomes.

Open Research Exchange: Patients and researchers working together to develop meaningful health outcomes

Open Research Exchange: Patients and researchers working together to develop meaningful health outcomes

Paul Wicks, the Vice President of Innovation at PatientsLikeMe and leader of the ORE initiative explains, “Many health outcomes used today to assess the efficacy of new treatments or clinical practices were developed from the perspective of the health system—what can we measure objectively, such as a blood test, or what costs the most, such as an emergency room visit. But what matters to patients is the impact of living with disease – the symptoms and side effects, the fact that they can’t work, or that they feel stigmatized.”

A classic example of this is Alzheimer’s disease. Many trials use a test called the ‘mini mental state examination,’ which asks patients to remember simple words, or say who the president is, or cite today’s date. As Wicks notes, “Caregivers don’t bring Grandpa to the doctor because he can’t remember who the president is. They bring him because he can’t remember who Grandma is.”

 Are you participating in the Harvard Personal Genome Project or American Gut and thinking about joining the Open Humans network? Interested in sharing your data and collaborating on research through BRIDGE? Want to help make health care more patient-centered through the Open Research Exchange? Start a conversation in the comments below about what would incentivize you to use these platforms and participate in collaborative research to build a culture of health.


If you want to do more, you can always contribute to other health related citizen science projects below that are on SciStarter, an online hotspot for citizen science!

Human Memone Project




1. A story of faith and one tough boy” Dec 25, 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/112397804.html

Image credits

Logos for Open Humans and the projects that contribute to it were obtained from openhumans.org. The Open Research Exchangelogo was obtained from openresearchexchange.org


Category: Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Ahoy, Citizen Scientists!

Bookmark and Share

We’ve waded through our database and come up with a boatload of marine-themed citizen science projects! Dive in!

Also, don’t forget to stop by DISCOVER Magazine and SciStarter’s online Citizen Science Salon; look for our new collaboration in the pages of Discover; or listen to beautifully produced citizen science stories from our partners at WHYY radio!

MyOSD-Ocean Sampling Day
On June 21st, during the summer solstice (the longest day in the northern hemisphere) join a local marine research team to collect data for an open-access data set to be used by marine scientists and others. Get started!


Whether you’re a diver, a fisher, a scientist, a seahorse enthusiast, or just on a beach holiday, you can help improve understanding of these animals by sharing your photos of seahorses!  Get started!


Horseshoe Crabs as Homes
Horseshoe crabs play a key role in coastal ecosystems but they might also serve as substrate for many invertebrate species. Let’s find out what lives on Horseshoe crabs.Take and share pictures when you see them on the beach and aid research in the process!  Get started!


Secchi App
The phytoplankton underpin the marine food chain, so we need to know a lot about them. To participate in this project to advance research about them, you’ll need to build a Secchi Disk, a tool that measures water turbidity, and use the free iPhone or Android ‘Secchi’ application to share data you collect.  Get started!
Digital Fishers
Digital Fisher needs people to help analyze deep-sea videos — 15 seconds at a time. You’ll watch a short video of ocean life and click on simple responses to help identify what you are seeing.  Get started!

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Check out “Exploring a Culture of Health,” a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

Category: Citizen science | Tagged | Leave a comment

Exploring a Culture of Health: Disrupting the Doctor’s Office with Flip the Clinic

Bookmark and Share
Flip the Clinic, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program

Flip the Clinic, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.  Posts in this series will also appear on the Discover Magazine Citizen Science Salon Blog and the SciStarter blog

Healthcare is an imperfect system. Your visit to the physician occurs only once in a while and when it does happen, these visits are often short, impersonal, and a drain on both your time and monetary resources (1). On average, a primary care doctor has more than 2,300 patients and each patient visit lasts for about 15 minutes (1). If you take a step back, you will realize that’s an extremely short time for both you and your physician to discover, process and understand an awful lot of information about your health. Not surprisingly, most of us have experienced an unsatisfactory interaction at the clinic. But, this interaction is at the heart of healthcare and ought to mean a whole lot more, reckons Thomas Goetz who helped start the  Flip the Clinic, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) project that seeks to rethink the physicians’ visit.

Goetz, co-founder of the health technology company Iodine and at the time an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, came up with the  idea for Flip the Clinic (FTC), while listening to  a talk at RWJF by Sal Khan of Khan Academy. In early 2013, Khan spoke at RWJF about how he “flipped the classroom” by making lectures accessible online so students could learn at their own pace and do their homework in class instead, making full use of the teacher’s presence. Khan suggested that for the doctor’s office might be ripe for such that kind of flipping too.  Goetz agreed and almost immediately started the FTC project.

“Pragmatically, the doctor’s visit is a powerful part of modern medicine. The problem is that we are not optimizing this resource; we have not reconsidered and re-evaluated how we might exploit the visit to its full advantage,” says Goetz in a blog post describing the impetus for Flip the Clinic. Flip the Clinic functions as a  hub for addressing challenges, exchanging ideas, and filtering those healthcare practices that work and those that do not. Through its website, everyone from patients to medical experts and healthcare providers can submit ideas or pose ‘flips’ relating to any aspect of the medical encounter. The community is encouraged to engage in a discussion around these potential flips.

An example of a flip on the FTC website (left) and posting and participating in Community Flips (right)

An example of a flip on the FTC website (left) and posting and participating in Community Flips (right)

Flips such as “How do I show patients that I’m invested in their health?”, “How can I encourage patients to learn more about their conditions?” and “How do you redesign the clinic?” have generated interesting conversations with comments from patients, physicians, nurses and researchers. Like me, you will probably find yourself spending time on the site flipping through many thought-provoking questions and the exchange of ideas in the comments. And, perhaps, wondering how the emerging field of citizen science could help reinvent how patients and providers interact.

One way citizen scientists could help ‘flip’ the clinic is by contributing to and using crowd sourced data from Flu Near You (2), a citizen science project. With this data, physicians and patients could alert themselves of an emerging infectious outbreak and prepare accordingly. Have other ideas? Share them. At the heart of the Flip the Clinic initiative is youWhether you are a patient, a physician, a nurse, a hospital administrator or anybody involved in healthcare, your voice matters. Your ideas and your experiences are what will help ‘flip’ the clinic. Ask yourself: as a patient, what has frustrated you about your medical encounters? As a medical provider, what ideas do you have or challenges do you experience? Share your idea for a “flip” or participate in the flips proposed by the Flip the Clinic team or community. Would your organization like to contribute to the effort? Become an organization ally. Flip the Clinic depends on your involvement. So go ahead and be part of the solution. Flip the Clinic! Image Credits: fliptheclinic.org References

  1. http://fliptheclinic.org/faq/ ‘why should a doctor’s visit change?’
  1. SciStarter is a citizen science hotspot and a partner of Discover Magazine. Flu Near You is one of the many citizen science projects on the SciStarter project database


Category: Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Shake it up with the fast pace of citizen science

Bookmark and Share

For the past few weeks, I’ve been highlighting scientific findings made possible by citizen science that appeared in the literature each week. Methods of public engagement in sharing observations are not only useful to science, but also in a wide range of areas that need reliable information, such as urban planning, public health, environmental justice, and disaster relief. Consequently, the practice of citizen science is itself an area of innovation and active inquiry.


As I’ve pointed out before, the inquiry often includes comparisons of experts and amateurs. This weeks was no exception with the following two examples:

(1)  Mining urban deprivation from foursquare: implicit crowdsourcing of city land use. by Quercia and Saez.

Even when people share information for non-scientific reason, that shared information can be useful for investigations. In this example, the authors created maps of land-uses based on data from the social-media users of Foursquare in London. These maps were comparable to proprietary commercial maps. Plus, the maps revealed that well-off neighborhoods were more likely to have amenities that promote health and wellbeing, such as dance studios, hobby shops, pools, tea rooms, movie theaters, and kid stores. The poor areas were more likely to have health threats, such as factories, light rail, airports, strip clubs, and whisky bars. (This paper  was part of a special feature on citizen science in the IEEE journal Pervasive Computing. Other articles from the special feature are summarized in the footnote at the end of this post).

(2) Conducting disaster assessment with Spatial video, experts, and citizens. by Lue et al in Applied Geography 52:46-54.

In this case, Lue et al. compared the effectiveness of laypeople at CrisisMappers and experts at the American Red Cross using video to carrying out damage assessment after a natural disaster. Assessments from experienced and inexperienced people were similar, though assessing damage from video turned out to be a difficult task, irrespective of on-the-ground experience.

The potential for engaging crowds in solving problems related to disasters is widely recognized but there are many obstacles to overcome since the inquiry inherently needs to be quick. Individuals can be quick, but rarely can large crowds be coordinated to accomplish anything quickly. Let’s look at examples where citizen science happens quickly after earthquakes.


Earthquake studies and responses

There are an estimated 500,000 earthquakes annually. About 100,000 release enough energy close to the surface (that is, high magnitude) that the seismic waves produce shaking that people can feel (that is, high intensity). But we cannot anticipate when they will occur.

One great example to illustrate speedy citizen science is a project called Did You Feel It? In 1997 the USGS moved their post-earthquake survey from the mail to online. At first it was called Community Internet Intensity Maps, and more recently adopted the name Did You Feel It?  With the (more than) 2,790,000 responses so far, Did You Feel It? uses an algorithm to quantify earthquake intensity by processing data on where, what was observed and what was experienced by people. Post-quake, people report remarkably similar experiences which leads to quick consensus on intensity, calculated to one decimal point, and detection of quakes even under 2.0 magnitude.

Some projects recruit people to host earthquake sensors. With these fairly effortless contributions, automated systems using low-cost micro-electronic accelerometers provide essential data to scientists. Participatory sensor networks include the Quake-Catcher Network, the Community Seismic Network, SeisMac, and iShake Cal (under development, this project uses iPhones because they already contain motions sensors).

Other projects involve incidental contributions, such as through the Twitter Earthquake Dispatch (@USGSted) algorithm developed by a team at the National Earthquake Information Center. There are 500 million people using Twitter. Cumulatively, these users publically document events. People use twitter to learn about events before those events appear in the news. Since people re-tweet, when a earthquake is mentioned, the word “earthquake” is likely to be amplified quickly – which is an easy signal to detect automatically. The TED algorithm (which looks for increases in use of the word “earthquake” in several languages) can detect a quake within 2 minutes, though it tends to miss small ones.

Using citizen science to advance our understanding of earthquakes is only half of the story. Citizen science can aid response and rescue efforts, even from a distance. Through The Global Earth Observation Catastrophe Assessment Network (GEO-CAN), people can use the Virtual Disaster Viewer (VDV) to view satellite imagery of an area before and after quake, mark differences, add notations of damage grades, and share the information with emergency responders. The Internet and smart phones have been leveraged for citizen science in ways that support the work of first responders to disasters, such as earthquakes in Wenchuan, China in 2008, Haiti in 2010, and Christchurch, NZ in 2011. Non-governmental efforts use citizen science too. The Humanitarian Open Street Map is an online platform for data sharing for humanitarian responses.

Most citizen science does not hinge on speedy reporting. For example, about 15 percent of all bird observations in Project FeederWatch this past winter arrived on paper sheets marked with number 2 pencils, delivered to the Lab of Ornithology by the USPS. It is convenient that people can enter their bird observations online, but it is far from crucial, and even by mail the projects are likely faster than global collaborations in the early, quill-pen-wielding days of citizen science. Earthquakes carry urgency. At such times, information needs to be centralized rapidly. And as the old drug-testing joke goes, the one drug that won’t be found among postal workers is speed. Most extend that joke to other government agencies, all of which can get mired in bureaucracy. Then how is it that, for example, the USGS has been able to carry out speedy citizen science with Did You Feel It?

Citizen Seismology

Last fall, the USGS and the Woodrow Wilson Center released a report on the tools of citizen seismology. The report is intended to provide lessons for other government entities wanting to develop citizen-science projects.

The trick to crafting projects with fast response times is to get all ducks in a row in anticipation of the inevitable events – there are 350 tiny quakes daily for study and invariably the big disasters that require emergency aid. Any entanglement in red tape must be prevented by moving through the obstacle course beforehand. It means navigating practical, legal, technical, policy, and ethical considerations of the whole system well ahead of time. Risk management associated with disasters is serious work: recall that in wake of deaths from after-shocks of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009, Italian courts convicted six scientists for manslaughter, sentencing them to 6 years in prison and $10.2 million in fines. Speedy citizen science means creating a mutually clear environment conducive to government-citizen collaborations.

The report covers two frequent stumbling blocks: the Privacy Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act. Most seismologists don’t have training in working with human subjects or experience with policies on how government entities can interact with citizens. The laws can be particularly cumbersome because they were not enacted with citizen science in mind.

The Federal Privacy Act of 1974 covers policies and procedures for how the government must handle personally identifiable information (name, social security number, finger prints, voice, photographs, and more).  Until an agency begins assembling public data submissions, typically from computers with unique IP addresses, they may not have fully explored the scope of this Act.

The intentions of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 are to reduce the burden of paperwork that the government imposes on citizens. Ironically, the Act puts an overburden of paperwork on agency staff and requests to gain approval for public data collection must be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget. The approval process lasts a minimum of 90 days, which includes 60-day and 30-day public comment periods. In 2009, a Presidential Directive about Open Government resulted in inclusion of social media in the mandates of this Act.

Taken together, the tools of citizen seismology provide rapid detection, information for emergency response, and information dissemination. We need agencies to get prepared. When crises arises, we need government systems in place to quickly draw on crowds to collectively build global maps of rapidly changing conditions, and assist in emergency response.

Yes, despite red tape, agencies can provide tools for crowds to work fast. Do you feel the ground shake? The citizen science possibilities register at 9 on my Richter scale.

Photo credit:  Haiti earthquake damage in UN Photo/Logan Abassi, UN Development Programme, & screen capture of Virtual Disaster Viewer.


More Roundup: other articles in the special feature in Pervasive Computing included:

(1) Stevens et al. Taking participatory citizen science to extremes.

These authors help marginalized communities have a voice by supporting the communities to share their indigenous knowledge. They illustrate ways to structure citizen science to stimulate inclusion, and thereby empower communities. Visit the Extreme Citizen Science group at University College London to learn more.

(2) Bahanamonde et al. Mining private information from public data: the Transantigao case.

They use publicly available information on the smartcards cards that passengers use for daily travel on the public transportation system in Transantiago, Chile. Even though the data were anonymized, the researchers demonstrated how they can hone in on where people live and thus revealed and explored the privacy implications.

(3) Angus et al. Public goods: using pervasive computing to inspire grassroots activism.

The author illustrate how artists and engineers can work together. The artists bring the cultural interventions and the engineers bring the technical solutions. Together they offer creative, low-cost tech air pollution devices to create experiences around local concerns that mobilize communities.



Category: Citizen science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Weekly Roundup

Bookmark and Share

weekly roundup 4

A peek at publications from this week that relied on citizen science covered topics of birds and bears.

1. Ikin K, Barton PS, Stirnemann IA, Stein JR, Michael D, et al. (2014) Multi-Scale Associations between Vegetation Cover and Woodland Bird Communities across a Large Agricultural Region. PLoS ONE 9(5): e97029. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0097029

2. Wilton CM, JL Belant, and J Beringer. 2014. Distribution of American black bear occurrences and human-bear incidents in Missouri. Ursus 25:53-60.

3. Rolland J, F Jiguet, KA Jonsson, FL Condamine, H Morlon. 2014. Settling down of seasonal migrants promotes bird diversification. Proc R Soc B 281.

The authors Ikin and colleagues relied on bird watchers of the Canberra Ornithologists Group and found that birds benefited from mistletoe in woodland patches. The bird community, particularly birds of conservation concern, also benefited from more woody plants in the areas surrounding the patches where they lived.

The authors Wilton, Belant and Beringer relied on data from the Report A Bear Sighting program run by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The public contributed more than 1,000 bear sightings. These reports were challenging to analyze because they were anecdotal and further complicated because public effort over time vary with the amount of media attention the project received. Nevertheless, the authors use the data to make a case that black bears are re-colonizing forests across all of Missouri.

In the paper by Rolland and colleagues, they used the distribution range maps for over 9,000 species that BirdLife International had created from numerous data sources, including citizen science data. Over 80% of bird species are sedentary, which appears to be the ancestral state. The authors found that migratory behavior evolved multiple times during the evolutionary speciation of birds.

Thanks to citizen science, discoveries related to bird habitat, bird evolution, and black bear distribution were possible.

Remember: This is just a sample of citizen science contributions published in journals this week. Help me fill in the blanks by sending links of more papers reporting the results of research that relied on citizen science. Send to me via twitter @CoopSciScoop, to caren@scistarter.com, or put in the comments below.


Photo credit:  Luca Galluzi (bear), JJ Harrison (Gang Gang Cockatoo)


Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Learn How Climate Change Affects Plant Life with AMC Mountain Watch

Bookmark and Share

Track phenology events in Appalachian mountains and contribute to climate change research with Mountain Watch!

Want more spring citizen science? We’ve got you covered through April showers and May flowers.

There is nothing more rewarding than taking in the view from above tree-line. A challenging hike always seems like a distant memory after gazing upon the landscape below, especially if it’s the White Mountains of NH. Now, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is calling on visitors of these Northeastern peaks to help them observe plant life through the Mountain Watch program. This citizen science initiative aims to investigate how the life cycles of alpine plants are affected by climate change.


View from the Franconia Ridge Trail, one of the alpine sites on the Mountain Watch list.

To do this, Mountain Watch asks participants to record plant phenology, which is the study of how plant life cycle events, such as flowering or producing fruit, are affected by changes in environmental conditions, including temperature and precipitation. Plant life cycles are very sensitive to small variations, so even subtle changes across seasons can be observed. For example, a dry summer might cause the leaves on trees to change color earlier in the fall. When recorded over many years, these phenology records can start to uncover long term trends in the climate and help scientists to model the effects of climate change in a certain region.

Diapensia, one of the sensitive alpine flowers being monitored.

Since the AMC is based in the Northeastern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, the focus of Mountain Watch is on alpine plants that are found exclusively at high elevations in the north. The program is targeting these alpine species specifically because they have adapted to survive only in harsh, low temperature conditions and cannot thrive in warmer climates. As such, they are especially sensitive to climate change. Georgia Murray, a scientist a the AMC, describes that the Mountain Watch observations help to make up “really rich mountain data sets” that, paired with temperature observations from the Mt. Washington observatory, help to understand how climate change has affected the environment in the Northeast.

This year, the Mountain Watch program is joining an exciting new collaboration called A.T. Seasons (A.T. for Appalachian Trail), which is working to develop sites for citizen scientists to collect plant phenology data all along the Appalachian Trail. Mountain Watch joined this project to get more people involved, and as Georgia explains, to “utilize the A.T. as a north-south corridor in understanding phenology in climate change.” The goal of A.T. Seasons is to monitor the same type of plants along the whole Appalachian Trail to better understand the interplay of climate and phenology across geographical regions, as well as in relation to climate change. As alpine species only grow on the northern section of the A.T., they will not be included in this portion of the program; however, Georgia notes that Mountain Watch will still maintain the ”alpine focus that is unique to the AMC and our region in the northeast” in addition to the A.T. Seasons plant list.

The incorporation of A.T. Seasons into the Mountain Watch program allows more citizen scientists to be involved, as the new initiative provides options for different levels of commitment – there is an Android app for easily making one-time measurements and more in-depth training courses for people who want to make long-term observations. The alpine flower portion of the Mountain Watch program does require more “dedicated volunteers,” as Georgia says, who can commit to regularly visiting the remote mountain sites, but there are many educational tools on the website for those who just want to learn more.

So grab those hiking boots and get outdoors! Spring and summer are the best times to observe plant phenology, and the sweeping views of the White Mountains await.

Top image: Sean O’Brien via Flickr

Bottom image: AMC Mountain Watch 

Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase, emilyannelewis.com


Category: Citizen science | Leave a comment

Citizen Science for Lovers of Birds and Bees

Bookmark and Share

Let us tell ‘ya about the birds and the bees — for citizen science, that is! Here are just a few buzz-worthy projects to get you started.

Also, don’t forget to stop by DISCOVER Magazine and SciStarter’s online Citizen Science Salon; look for our new collaboration in the pages of Discover starting this month; or listen to beautifully produced citizen science stories from our partners at WHYY radio!



The Great Sunflower Project

Help researchers create a national bee population map to study the decline of bees. Simply plant sunflowers and watch for bee visits a few times a month. Get started!


Celebrate Urban Birds

Help ornithologists learn about 16 key species of urban birds by tracking up to 16 species of birds for just 10 mins in a small area near you. Get started! (Photo: Louise Docker)


Bee Hunt

Use digital photography to help provide a better understanding of pollinators’ importance in growing food and maintaining healthy natural ecosystems. Get started!



North American Bird Phenology Program

Millions of bird migration records have been scanned. Care to illuminate almost a century of migration patterns and population status of birds? Transcribe records so they can be included in an open database for analysis. Get started!


The Zombie Fly has been found parasitizing honey bees in California, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington. Where else in North America are bees infected by Zombie Flies? Help solve the mystery by collecting honey bees and reporting easy-to-spot signs of infection. You’ll know it when you see it! Get started!

On Sunday, 5/18 at 9:26 am ET, the Space X Dragon Cargo will be released from the International Space Station to return to Earth. The Cargo will splash down into the Pacific Ocean returning our very own citizen science research project, Project MERCCURI, to Earth! You can watch this all take place, LIVE, on NASA TV: May 18, Sunday 9 a.m.

Learn more about Project MERCCURI at SpaceMicrobes.org.

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

Category: Citizen science | Leave a comment

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: What citizen science has told us

Bookmark and Share

For this week’s roundup, there are two new papers that used data from Breeding Bird Atlas programs in order to spot trends in bird populations in relation to environmental changes.

One study with Atlas data took place in the Catalonia region of Spain and also involved data from a citizen science project called the Common Bird Survey (bird counts along transect routes),

Herrando, S, M Anton, F Sarda-Palomera, G Bota, RD Gregory, and L Brontons. 2014. Indicators of the impact of land use changes using large-scale bird surveys: Land abandonment in a Mediterranean region. Ecological Indicators 45:235-244.

Another study with Atlas data took place in South Africa and also involved data from a second citizen science project, called Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts, involving bird counts along transects.

Hofmeyr SD, Symes CT, Underhill LG (2014) Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius Population Trends and Ecology: Insights from South African Citizen Science Data. PLoS ONE 9(5): e96772. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096772


Many more countries have Breeding Bird Atlas programs as well as some type of bird census along transects. These volunteer efforts are widespread because people adore birds. People know the common names of birds, their songs, how to attract them to backyards, where to place birdhouses to attract birds to nest, and which will be around for the winter and when to expect the rest to arrive from spring migration. Our intimacy with birds has resulted in avian research being iconic for citizen science. We know which species are in trouble because so many people watch birds and share their observations. Citizen science will also be part of how we figure out how to get the vulnerable species out of trouble.


Across the world, Breeding Bird Atlas programs involve systematic surveys in an area that gets divided into blocks, whether across a country, a state, or a province. Each block is surveyed by volunteers. For example, the entire state of New York was divided into 5,332 blocks, each 5 x 5 km (3 x 3 mi).  Over 1,000 volunteers visit various habitats within their assigned block(s) and record evidence of breeding birds. The New York State Breeding Bird Atlas takes 5 years to complete. It was first done from 1980-1985 and again from 2000-2005. The first Atlas provides a treasure trove of baseline information. The second generation Atlas provides a gold mine of information about population changes.

There are over 10,000 species of birds in the world, over 650 of which breed in the United States. The second Atlases in New York, Ontario and Canadian Maritime Provinces revealed a declining trend among species of swifts, flycatchers, swallows, and nightjars. These birds have one thing in common: they catch insects while flying.

The second generation Atlases provided confirmation of the declines which researchers first spotted in 1993 when analyzing trends in the Breeding Bird Survey. The BBS is a citizen science program that began in 1966, prompted by Silent Spring and awareness of problems from DDT. It is run by the USGS’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service. Every June, thousands follow the protocol that involves sampling along over 4,000 randomly established roadside routes. Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops at 0.5-mile intervals. People carry out a 3-minute point count at each stop and so a route takes about 5 hours to complete. During a point count, volunteers record every bird seen within a 0.25-mile radius and every bird heard.

More recently, in 2010, researchers looked again, in more detail, at BBS trends. They noticed the strongest declines in aerial insectivores have been in the northeast and that the steepest drops began in the mid-1980s.

Citizen science tells us, repeatedly, that aerial insectivorous birds are in trouble.

A common approach to creating good bird habitat involves a 3-prong approach of food, water, and shelter. So, the cause of aerial insectivore declines could be related to food, suggesting there are declines in insects. Or the problem could be more complicated. After all, the 3-prong habitat formula, while sufficient for animals in a zoo, may not be sufficient for wild birds. Wild birds need to communicate, to escape predation, to be in sync with the phenology (timing) of the environment, and to locate the food, water, and shelter. Namely, they need to sense their environment. Human activities that produce light at night and noise create sensory pollution.

Living indoors makes it difficult to appreciate the enormous change that artificial lighting has brought to the planet. Cities and suburbs are hundreds of times brighter than natural night skies. The brightness of cities casts a skyglow that affects surrounding areas. In city centers, you are lucky to see 20 stars, which means the sky is hundreds of times brighter than natural. Because of skyglow, even in the suburbs only 250 stars might be visible, which is still only 1/10th of what would be visible under natural skies. In the past, clouds made the sky darker, but now cloudy nights make the sky brighter because they reflect back the artificial light. We are only beginning to understand how these changes are affecting life on the planet.

Many people are aware that lights at night can be a problem for birds during migration. The lights are disorienting and can cause collisions. But fewer people may know that lights at night can be a problem for all organisms if these lights affect circadian rhythms. All organisms have biological clocks that allows them to tell time. These clocks synchronize (entrain) with day-night cycles. To figure out how light at night affects nesting birds, we need detailed information from across the country on the timing of bird reproduction, such as when they build nests, lay eggs, when chicks hatch, and when chicks fledge. Volunteers are providing this information through a citizen science project called NestWatch, which is administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This year, we are carrying out a pilot study encouraging more people to report observations on one particular aerial insectivore, the Barn Swallow.

Barn Swallow 2 eggs_mirror_5-5-14_Jody_McBeath

Barn swallows typically nest on structures built by people, such as barns and bridges. We know that it can be difficult to look into barn swallow nests. Most are too high, so unless you put a mirror on broom stick (or ceiling as in the photo), you can’t view the contents of the nest. But observant people can figure out a lot about the nesting phase, even from watching from the ground.

Near the structures where barn swallows are nesting, we are also asking people to estimate light pollution through another citizen science project called Globe at Night. The goal is to start getting some baseline data on the reproductive efforts of barn swallows across the country and those patterns in relation to light pollution.

I think we adore birds partly because we envy their abilities. They sing and they fly. Two skills that most people do not have. Aerial insectivores are particularly enviable: they fly and eat at the same time. The observations of bird watchers pooled into the Breeding Bird Atlas and the Breeding Bird Survey have collectively informed us of declines in aerial insectivorous birds. Now through a combination of other citizen science efforts, NestWatch and Globe at Night, we will piece together an understanding of the phenology and pace of the nesting cycle under different amounts of skyglow. This is a first step in understanding a piece of the larger puzzle of aerial insectivore declines.

Photo credits: Secretarybird by Yoky; Barn Swallow chick by Julie Hart; Barn Swallow eggs in mirror by Jody McBeath.


Category: Citizen science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment