The RIFFLE Effect: Public Lab’s New Pilot Water Monitoring Sensor Tool

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RIFFLE cartoon/courtesy of Public Lab

Public Lab announces RIFFLE, a new pilot program and open sensor tool to monitor water quality of Mystic River in Massachusetts.

By definition, a riffle is a “short, relatively shallow and coarse-bedded length of stream over which the stream flows at higher velocity and higher turbulence than it normally does in comparison to a pool.” Similarly, Public Lab is making waves in the DIY and hacker community when it comes to creating tools for environmental exploration and investigation.

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Ben Gamari of Public Lab demonstrates the RIFFLE sensor

Last weekend, I attended a Public Lab “toolshed raising” event in Somerville, MA, wherein local community members come to learn more about the organization, get a demo of their current tools, and work together on projects. There, the Public Lab team announced RIFFLE (Remote Independent Friendly Field-Logger Electronics) (support it here), a new pilot program and tool to monitor the water quality in Mystic River. I’m constantly impressed by the tools they develop (including a DIY spectrometry kit, balloon mapping kit, and modified infrared camera), which all follow the same credo: they are low cost, open source, and easy to build/maintain. At the event, Ben Gamari, one of the RIFFLE developers, expressed the core philosophy of making these tools accessible: “It has to just work.”

The Mystic River in Massachusetts flows from the Mystic Lakes in Winchester and Arlington, through Medford, Somerville (where I live!), Everett, Charlestown and Chelsea, and into Boston Harbor. Though it’s gorgeous to look at and take long runs next to, the Mystic faces serious water quality problems: pollution from leaky sewer pipes, waste disposal sites; excessive nutrients and discharges of raw sewage; fuel hydrocarbons; and road salt. Its Alewife Brook subwatershed is reportedly one of the most contaminated water bodies in Boston, failing to meet state bacteria standards for swimming and boating. Beyond that, the Mystic River watershed received a ‘D’ from the US EPA on its 2012 water quality report card.

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Don Blair showcases RIFFLE’s open source 3D-printed cap

Here’s the challenge. Although several organizations monitor the Mystic, the data are not widely available to the public, nor is current technology available or affordable enough for people to take part in the process. 

The main focus of RIFFLE is developing open hardware alternatives–sensors that you can build at home and use to measure trends (and deviations from them) in temperature, conductivity, and water depth. Ideally, this will enable the local community near the Mystic to assess threats to water quality like industrial pollution, coliform bacteria, road salt, and agriculture runoff. 

RIFFLE is still in its prototype phase, so some more testing and calibration are in its immediate future as well as a distribution strategy; some possible telemetry mods; even considerations to adapt it for STE(A)M–science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

In addition to the actual sensor, Public Lab is developing free, open-source software (accessible offline) for downloading the sensor data to a laptop, as well an open, online platform onto which citizen scientists can upload and share the water quality data that they collect. The plan is for the online platform itself to multitask as a field log, data repository, and community forum.

Imagine–if the water source that you lived by seemed dangerous, and if you and your neighbors had more awareness of the water quality trend in your backyard (whether figuratively or literally), you or they might take action, change your routines, petition for better water quality monitoring, or even move. Using RIFFLE to monitor water quality along the Mystic exemplifies how the citizen science community can rally together in reaction to a local concern. This DIY, crowdsourced approach benefits researchers, water resource managers, and citizen scientists alike.

If you’re in Massachusetts anywhere near the Mystic, get involved. If you’re not in the area, there are other ways to support the project, not mention many other opportunities to participate in water monitoring projects.

Let’s make waves–together.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Images: Public Lab (top), Lily Bui

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Homebrew Sensing Project: DIY Environmental Monitoring

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[This post was originally published on SciStarter on February 3rd, 2014]

The non-profit Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) previously won a Knight News Challenge in 2011 and received $500,000 to fund a tool kit and online community for citizen-based, grassroots data gathering and research. The second Knight News Challenge the group won, a $350,000 Knight award focused on health data, will allow the group to build and deploy inexpensive technologies for monitoring.

Connections between the hacker culture of the 1970s and emerging DIY science continue with the funding of the Homebrew Sensing Project. Born of Public Lab, this project aims to create low-cost sensor technologies for environmental research and monitoring. Following its namesake’s (the homebrew computer club) lead, this project’s participant composition complicates distinctions between expert and hobbyist or amateur.

The three individuals leading up the project are Shannon Dosemagen, Jeffrey Warren, and Mathew Lippincott. I was able to chat with Dosemagen, also a co-Founder of Public Lab, via email. Situating the Homebrew Sensing Project within the Public Lab’s effort tells us a lot about the motivations behind the project. “Public lab,” Dosemagen writes, “isn’t just a nonprofit that creates tools, we’re interested in creating a community.” Connecting with community organizations, NGOs, and research institutions they have created an extensive network that helps connect with a community and connect communities.

Connecting communities and providing a space for them to interact, Public Lab provides what Dosemagen describes as “a space where people with different expertise can interact.” This is a particularly important interaction among different kinds of expertise, including specialized technical as well as local knowledge, and reflects the efforts of Public Lab, Dosemagen tells us, to “recognize that not only researchers linked to academic institutions bring value and expertise to projects such as this, but that everyone can bring something to the table through the experience and knowledge sets that they have.”

Engagement among experts is demonstrated through the “barn raising” activities, events where members of the community come together to create something (be it tool or tutorials), Public Lab undertakes. Winning a another Knight Challenge means that the group can continue such efforts with the Homebrew Sensing Project. This project aims to address growing concerns about exposure to various human-made hazards and the associated risks, including health risks. To do this, the group wants to create inexpensive tools that can be used with mobile devices, allowing community members to take readings and analyze the information without the high costs associated with traditional lab testing. The group will undertake these efforts by refining their hardware and software platforms and developing new ones. As well, Dosemagen writes that a “portion of this grant will go towards supporting an outreach role and community partners,” which means that further community building and crossing of boundaries between communities will be part of this important initiative. If you’re interested in learning more about Public Lab or following this project you can find more information about the project in their news release.

Public Lab’s Homebrew Sensing Project extends their work on a DIY spectrometry project. The initial project, Dosemagen noted, began a few years ago and publicly “launched in 2012 with a Kickstarter” and the results have been impressive. To date, she tells us, Public Lab has ”over 2,000 accounts on SpectralWorkbench.org, over 14,000 spectral samples uploaded, [and] 750 members in the spectrometry Google Group.” In addition to all of this work, the group has “shipped 3,500 spectrometers worldwide that range between a price point of $10 and $70,” with the price point being a particularly notable feature in how accessible that is when compared with traditional spectrometers that typically begin at several thousand dollars.

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Liberty and Science for All: Project MERCCURI [UPDATE]

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by Darlene Cavalier

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, swabs the Liberty Bell for microbes in Philadelphia.

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, swabs the Liberty Bell for microbes in Philadelphia.

Thanks to the Independence National Historical Park for giving me access to the Liberty Bell. I had a lot of fun collecting microbes from this national treasure in my hometown!

Happy to announce that the microbes from the Liberty Bell have been selected to fly on the International Space Station where their growth rates will be analyzed and compared to their counterparts back at the UC Davis lab! We will be announcing each selected microbe over the course of the next two weeks, with Philly first. This research is part of Project MERCCURI, a citizen science project from UC Davis, Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, to examine the diversity of microbes on Earth and on the International Space Station.

Check out this particular microbe’s very own trading card! Here’s an excerpt:

Where we found it: On the Liberty Bell (Philadelphia, PA)

Why it’s awesome: This is an important industrial organism, used for the production of penicillin, vitamins, various drugs, and numerous enzymes

Fun fact: The species name of this microbe means “big beast” and it is among the largest bacteria ever discovered

In addition to the microbes from the Liberty Bell, six other microbes from Philadelphia were selected by UC Davis researchers to blast into space for research at the International Space Station. Here are links to images and more information about the microbes collected from the following sites in Philadelphia and selected to fly on the International Space Station:

Chemical Heritage Foundation
Philadelphia Phillies
Philadelphia 76ers
The Franklin Institute
The Academy of Natural Sciences (microbes collected by St. Peter’s School students)
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School
WHYY studio

A total of 48 samples were selected from across the country.

Here’s more information about this project:

Davis, CA. (Jan. 30, 2014) — Microbes collected from Philadelphia landmarks will soon blast into orbit for research and a microgravity growth competition on the International Space Station (ISS). This citizen science project, known as Project MERCCURI, investigates how microbes from different places on Earth compare to each other and to those found on the International Space Station.

Led by the Science Cheerleaders (current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and technology careers), thousands of people across the United States participated in the project. Several Pop Warner cheer teams swabbed practice fields, shoes, and cell phones for microbes. Other people collected microbial samples at NFL, NBA, and MLB stadiums; from schools; from landmarks like the Liberty Bell, Sue the T-Rex, the statue of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; and during events including Yuri’s Nights, a series of gatherings across the country to commemorate the first human in space.

The microbes they gathered were examined by the “microbiology team” in the laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Eisen at the University of California at Davis. The team selected 48 microbes (SEVEN of which are from Philadelphia!), which, with approval from NASA, are to ride the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the Space Station for further research. The rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in early March.

The public will be able to follow Project MERCCURI as it continues over the next several months via the web site SpaceMicrobes.org. The site will include updates from the research on the Space Station including results of the “microbial playoffs” growth competition. The site also features free interactive visualization tools, lesson plans for teachers, and even trading cards that include photos and the details of each microbe selected for the project, as well as their importance.

In addition to the research in space, thousands of additional samples collected by the public are being analyzed further at UC Davis and by the lab of Dr. Jack Gilbert at Argonne National Laboratory. The microbes found in these samples are being assayed using DNA sequencing technology, and the resulting data will be made available to the public and also integrated with results of the Earth Microbiome Project. Scientists hope to gain insights into what is living at the ISS, how microbes vary between different places on Earth and in space, and to compare growth of microbes on Earth and in microgravity. Philadelphia 76ers fans will have the opportunity to participate in this part of the research during Science at the Sixers night on 2/18 when the 76ers host the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We are in the midst of a revolution in our ability to study the hidden world of microbes found throughout the planet,” said Jonathan Eisen, Professor at UC Davis and leader of the microBEnet (microbiology of the built environment network) team doing the microbiology side of Project MERCCURI. “One area of growing interest is in studying the microbes living right around us – in our buildings – on our phones – and elsewhere. The Science Cheerleader group has allowed us to get thousands of people to not only think more about the microbes among us, but to also participate in a microbial diversity research project. And those people have helped us get more samples than we have been able to obtain previously.”

“A lot of people ask us *why* we’re sending microbes into space,” said Dr. David Coil, a microbiologist at UC Davis. “Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term manned spaceflight but also has the possibility of giving us new insight into how these microbes behave in built environments on Earth.”

“This initiative is not just about significant research,” said Darlene Cavalier, a former 76ers cheerleader and Founder of Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, both based in Philadelphia. “It’s about engaging the public in that research. Microbes that were collected at Georgia Tech are taking a ride on the International Space Station. They’re the subject of research by microbiologists and astronauts. We hope that inspires youngsters as well as adults to become more aware of and involved in science.”

Project MERCCURI is coordinated by Science Cheerleader, SciStarter.com, and UC Davis, in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory. The Project is made possible by Space Florida, NanoRacks, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Note to editors: To arrange interviews with the research team at UC Davis, members of the Science Cheerleader or SciStarter teams, or with local groups that participated in collecting the microbes, please email Claire LaBeaux, claire@prclaire.com.

Image: Courtey of Darlene Cavalier

This post originally appeared on the Science Cheerleader blog.

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The Science of Words: Citizen Science Projects About Words and Language

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We’re shuffling science into the language department as we explore citizen science projects about words. Explore the science of words by checking out these projects, fit for lovers of literature and armchair museum curators!

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Investigating Word Modalities

Help determine whether certain words are associated with sight and sound. Complete an online questionnaire, assessing the “sensory modality” of the words. Get started!

 

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The VerbCorner Project

Dictionaries have existed for centuries, but creating exact meanings of many words still needs help. These researchers have broken the problem into a series of microtasks in need of your input. Get started!

 

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Notes from Nature

Help museum staff transcribe scanned copies of labels and ledgers that have been meticulously recorded and stored with species over the past century. In many cases these are the only historical records of species distribution available. Putting them online can help accelerate research. Get started!

 

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Ancient Lives

Ancient Lives wants you to help transcribe ancient papyri texts from Greco-Roman Egypt. The data gathered will help scholars reveal new knowledge of the literature, culture, and lives of Greco-Romans in ancient Egypt. Get started!

 

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Ignore That!

How well are you able to ignore unnecessary information? To study this, researchers ask you to look at words and simple figures and answer questions about them online. Get started!

 

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.


If you’d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email jenna@scistarter.com

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Keeping the Kids Involved: A Look at COPPA and Citizen Science

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This is a guest post by Anne Bowser, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland College of Library and Information Science, and a Research Assistant with the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


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Project GLOBE students share their research at a virtual conference.

Citizen science allows anyone and everyone to experience the thrill of scientific discovery. Children, who love being outside and prefer doing things to simply reading about them, can be especially enthusiastic volunteers. In schools, citizen science can be a powerful experience that nurtures curiosity through experiential learning. Some citizen science projects—like Project Globe—even provide tools such as learning objectives or assessment tools to help teachers bring citizen science into their classrooms. Children also experience citizen science through clubs like 4-H, which partners with NASA in the Adopt a Landsat Pixel project, and with parents or family friends.

Technology is a key component to citizen science for many young volunteers. Children can upload data through mobile apps, play games for citizen science, and communicate with their peers through discussion forums. But for children under 13, many online activities are regulated by COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. COPPA was passed in 1998 to protect the safety of children by limiting the types of information that websites or mobile aps can collect and share. Many citizen science projects value openness, allowing a range of people to participate, and making data available for the public to access and use. Unfortunately, openness sometimes conflicts with privacy. Well-meaning projects can violate COPPA without realizing they are doing so.

This blog post examines COPPA in the context of citizen science with the goal of helping projects and volunteers make informed decisions about contending with child volunteers. Please note that the author is a PhD student, not a lawyer; the claims below represent legal research, not legal advice.

 

Getting oriented: The basics of COPPA

COPPA is a United States Law that was passed in October of 1998 and amended on July 1st, 2013. COPPA was written for “commercial websites,” but may impact other projects as well (see below). The law addresses provisions for “the online collection of personal information from children under 13.”

According to COPPA, “personal information” includes:

  • First and last name
  • Home or physical address
  • E-mail address
  • Telephone number
  • Social security number
  • Any other identifier that allows children to be contacted in person, or online
  • Any information collected about a child combined with one of the identifies described above

The 2013 amendment designates additional types of “personal information”:

  • Geolocation information
  • Photos, videos, and audio that contain an image or voice of the child

A website that collects any type of personal information from children must take steps in order to be “COPPA compliant.” The most relevant portions of COPPA explain that a website must:

  • Explain what types of information are collected, how this information is used, and how this information is shared with others
  • Obtain verifiable parental consent before knowingly collecting personal information from children (except contact information used to answer a child’s question)
  • Maintain “reasonable procedures” to protect the confidentiality of personal information
  • Upon request, tell parents what types of information the website has about a child, share information collected about a child, or stop collecting or maintaining personal information about a child

 

COPPA and citizen science

The connection between citizen science and COPPA may not be clear, but consider the following:

  • Projects typically collect demographic information including the name and age of volunteers during registration
  • Many projects collect contact information such as email address, phone number, and mailing address during registration
  • Many location-based projects ask a volunteer to submit the location of their observation; this data also includes the location of a volunteer
  • Data collected through smartphones includes metadata with geolocation
  • Projects that collect photos or audio files may accidentally collect images or voices of volunteers
  • Projects that make raw data publicly available often include data that COPPA considers “personal information”
  • Some projects recognize contributors by thanking volunteers by name

 

Who needs to comply with COPPA?

Any one operating a commercial website directed at children, or a general purpose website that knowingly collects data from children, needs to be COPPA compliant. To break this down further:

  • A “commercial” website includes one run for profit, or a website where the parent company is run for profit (including some museums)
  • Additionally, all projects operated in whole or part by federal agencies are required to be COPPA compliant
  • The FTC determines whether a website is directed at children by considering “several factors, including the subject matter; visual or audio content; the age of models on the site; language; whether advertising on the Web site is directed to children… and whether a site uses animated characters.”
  • General purpose websites that collect demographic information must comply with COPPA if even a single user is under 13.

 

What about recipients of federal grants from agencies like NSF?

Because NSF is a federal agency and COPPA applies to federal agencies and federal contractors alike, some projects with NSF funding express concern about COPPA. Fortunately, none of the sources consulted for this piece believe that non-profit federal grantees must be COPPA compliant.

According to one NSF employee, “COPPA is not mentioned in our award terms and conditions or anywhere in our policy documents. Therefore, my take is that it does not apply to NSF awardees.” Furthermore, a representative from the University of Maryland’s legal office believes that: “Traditional private universities and many public universities are non-profits. Other public universities, such as UMD, are tax-exempt state agencies; for federal regulatory purposes, they are typically treated as non-profits.” The FTC’s COPPA hotline agrees. As one representative writes, “if the grantee is a nonprofit entity it is not covered by COPPA–though we still recommend COPPA protections as a best practice.  If a federal grantee is a for profit entity providing a site or service directed to children, it is covered by COPPA.”

Still not sure whether COPPA matters for your project? Please see the flowchart below.

 coppa flow chart

 

What is COPPA compliance?

In recognition that the law can be confusing, the FTC published a guide to COPPA compliance that can be found online here. This guide covers two main areas: a privacy notice, and direct notice to parents in order to obtain consent before data collection.

  • Privacy notice: An operator must post a “clear and prominent” link to a notice of its information policies on the home page of it’s website, and on any page that collects personal information from children. This must include:
    • The name and contact information of everyone who collects and maintains children’s personal information
    • A description of how the operator uses personal information
    • Whether personal information is disclosed to third parties, and under what conditions
    • That all information collected is “reasonably necessary”
    • That a parent can dictate how information is maintained and used
  • Direct notice to parents: Before collecting information from a child, an operator must make reasonable effort to notify and receive consent from the child’s parents.
    • “Reasonable effort” is evaluated on a sliding scale, where projects that disclose information to others are held to stricter standards
    • If personal information is disclosed to third parties, a reliable form of consent such as “getting a signed form…via postal mail,” “accepting and verifying a credit card number in connection with a transaction,” and “email accompanied by digital signature” is required

 

How do citizen science projects deal with COPPA?

There are three options for approaching COPPA compliance. Some projects simply refuse to let children under 13 participate. This decision may be based on limited resources (obtaining “verifiable parental consent” is not an easy task), or because some aspect of a project makes COPPA compliance impossible. Most projects that make this decision inform potential volunteers that people under 13 may register through a parent or guardian.

Other projects implement a strict registration process where parents give consent through paper forms. This model makes sense when training or data collection must be done in person, or when the project is run through a school. For example, The Hudson River Eel Project coordinates with teachers to get consent for student volunteers.

Still other projects implement strict protocols to comply with COPPA. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is run out of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, and receives support from federal agencies such as NOAA. CoCoRaHS provides a privacy notice by including a link to their data policies in the footer of every website, including their homepage and volunteer registration form. During registration, volunteers are asked to supply their age and (if under 18) the name of a parent or guardian; for volunteers under 13, CoCoRaHS contacts parents to obtain consent if it appears that the email address belongs to their child and not their parent or guardian.

CoCoRaHS makes raw data publically available through a number of reports, including daily participation reports and water year summary reports broken down by state or Canadian province. These reports are stripped of any personal information prior to release. For example, CoCoRaHS collects full mailing addresses from volunteers but only makes data available at the granularity of city and state (or county and state). These data can be sorted by the unique identifiers Station Number, (a combination of letters and numbers such as LA-LY-6), and Station Names (which represents an abbreviated and imprecise location, i.e., Scott 1.0 N). CoCoRaHS assigns a Station Number and a Station Name to each volunteer who applies to be an observer. This ensures that no personal information is unwittingly submitted (i.e., users cannot choose a station name like JoeSmithsHouse).

Understanding COPPA is a difficult task; complying with it, even more so. Resources such as the FTC’s guide to COPPA compliance can help those who wish to gather data from children under 13. Still, compliance may not be possible for small projects, or for projects that lack physical access to volunteers and their families. Ultimately, each project must decide whether COPPA compliance is worth the cost in staff time and resources, balancing the needs of children, their families, and key project goals. 

 

Additional Reading

The full text of COPPA with a compliance guide written by the FTC is available here.

The FTC publishes a website of Frequently Asked Questions relating to COPPA. Additional questions can be directed to the FTC hotline, found at CoppaHotLine@ftc.gov.

The OMB Memorandum 00-13, Privacy Policies and Data Collection on Federal Websites, explains “it is federal policy that all Federal web sites and contractors when operating on behalf of agencies shall comply with the standards set forth in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) publishes a list of Federal-Wide Research Terms and Conditions. Appendix C describes National Policy Requirements that grantees must adhere to. COPPA is not listed (although NSF disclaims that this list is not exhaustive).

 

This post originally appeared on SciStarter.

Images: Project GLOBE, Anne Bowser

Note from the author: Thanks to Nolan Doesken from CoCoRaHS, and Chris Bowser from the Hudson River Eels Project for sharing their privacy policies; thanks to Kevin Crowston of the National Science Foundation, Jen Gartner of UMD’s office of legal affairs, and contributors to the FTC’s COPPA hotline, for advice on COPPA and federal grantees. 

Category: Citizen science | 1 Comment

Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards All Birds

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by Kenn Kaufman

by Kenn Kaufman

Bird watching has been popular for a long time. It goes back at least as far as the 1780 bird-listing song so popular with carolers, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Certainly only birders would count 7 swans (a-swimming), 6 geese (a-laying), 5 golden rings (evidence of historic bird-banding practices), 4 colly birds (blackbirds), 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves, and 1 partridge (in a pear tree).

Even further back, roughly in the year 0AD, odds are pretty good that at least one of the three wise men in the manger was a birder. It was exactly 1,900 years later in the United States when Frank Chapman turned a traditional Christmas Side Hunt into an event for counting birds and pooling their numbers instead of their carcasses. In so doing, he cultivated Christmas spirit towards sharing knowledge instead of consuming resources. Even more, he anticipated that the shared knowledge would be put to use towards conserving our feathery companions. The Christmas Bird Count, now run by the Audubon Society, is an iconic example of citizen science. To this day, many say “bah-humbug” to their holiday shopping list in order to make time for their species checklist.

And for many bird lovers, one annual tradition is not enough. People extend the Christmas spirit of the Audubon event by sharing their observations in other programs. These include Project FeederWatch (November through early April) run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, and the Breeding Bird Survey (summer) run by the US Geological Service’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Several years ago, I realized that data from the Christmas Bird Count might shed light on a fundamental issue in ecology: competition between species in the wild. With enthusiastic colleagues, we analyzed trends of two very common species in Christmas Bird Counts for a research paper in the journal Ecology.

The Contestants

The hypothesized competitors were House Sparrows and House Finches. If you watch a bird feeder, you may even see these two common birds interact in ways that generated this initial hypothesis of competition. These two species fight for the same food.

by goosie~gander on Flickr

by goosie~gander on Flickr

House Finches are small, brown streaked birds, and the males, when on the right diet, have lipstick red feathers on their heads and upper bodies. They are native to the western US and were introduced to the eastern US in the 1940s. House Sparrows are native to Europe and only introduced to the US in the late 1800s. You are probably familiar with them as they hop around to eat crumbs in parking lots or under tables at any outdoor café. These are rough-and-tumble little birds that don’t just challenge birds their own size: they also can out-compete their much larger cousin, the Eastern Bluebird, in battles over nestboxes.

We confined the study to the Midwestern US, where neither House Finches nor House Sparrows were in their native range, neither holding a home-field advantage.

The Match

For ecologists, seeing two species fight doesn’t qualify as sufficient evidence for competition; we need to see a population-level response. In captivity, researchers can see when two species of fruit flies cannot coexist, but how relevant is that to how competition influences wild populations? In field studies, when similar species are able to co-exist, the differences in their niches are often interpreted as evidence of past competition. Ongoing competition is hard to show in the wild because it requires experimentally altering one population and looking for a response in the other and then vice versa to validate. Thus, only through field experiments that manipulate populations can we find reliable evidence of competition. After the introduction of House Finches to the eastern US, researchers began to make a case for competition by noting subsequent declines in House Sparrows. But the vice versa was needed to confirm.

Opportunity for this confirmation presented itself when House Finches declined dramatically in 1994-96 in the mid-western US due to the spread of a conjunctivitis eye disease. The spread of the disease was tracked through citizen science efforts in the House Finch Disease Survey, and continues to be tracked directly through Project FeederWatch. The rise and fall of House Finch populations from invasion and then disease, in areas with House Sparrows, created a natural experimental test of competition. There are few opportunities to look for evidence of competition among wild birds, especially at such large scales. We couldn’t have taken advantage of this opportunity without citizen science.

The Winner

The long-term monitoring in the Christmas Bird Count revealed the vice versa: House Sparrows increased soon after House Finch declined from disease. And we found the same support from observations contributed to Project FeederWatch and the Breeding Bird Survey. This means that House Finches are the competitive winners, giving House Sparrows their come-uppance, except when other factors, like eye disease, turn the tables and decrease the House Finch populations.

Science is based on observation, as is bird watching. No wonder science and birding have been united by citizen science for over a century. Over 70,000 people participated in the Christmas Bird Count last year. I’m sure there will be even more this year. Let’s celebrate the holiday season with good will towards all birds.

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Monarch Monitoring – Help Count These Magnificent Migrators to Aid Conservation Efforts

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This is a guest post by Emily Lewis, who is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes catalysts for synthetic fuels 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.


Monarch3 The monarch butterfly is a remarkable species. Each year these insects migrate in a similar pattern to birds from colder to warmer climates as the seasons change, often returning to the same overwintering sites every year. Unlike birds, however, no single monarch lives long enough to make the whole migration, so the journey occurs across multiple generations, adding to the complexity and incredible nature of the phenomenon. There are two main groups of monarchs in North America that are distinguished by their migration routes: the eastern group spends its spring and summer in eastern or central U.S and overwinters in Mexico, while the western group lives in central California and surrounding states for most of the year, overwintering on the California coast. Although these two groups are the same species, they are studied independently, as different factors affect their life cycles and migrations.

The Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates including insects, has been studying the western monarch population for nearly two decades through a citizen science project called the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. The project asks volunteers to travel to monarch overwintering sites on the California coast and count the butterflies that are present. Sarina Jepsen from the Xerces society describes that the project is “really an extraordinary effort” because of the sheer number of monarchs and their broad distribution across the California coastline. She notes that the project provides “the primary information” the society has to understand annual changes in the monarch population.

Monarch1

A monarch butterfly on its primary food supply, milkweed.

So far, the count has provided scientists with two important pieces of information. The first is that the monarch population has declined dramatically over the last 15 years – on average, only 10% of monarchs are returning to their overwintering sites compared to 1997. A recent study has linked this decline in part to climate change, which affects the monarch’s primary food source and mating ground, the milkweed plant. The second piece of information from the count, as Jepsen describes, is a “spatial picture of how the monarchs are doing and areas that can be prioritized for conservation projects.” Another factor in the monarch decline is the loss or degradation of over wintering sites, so a detailed picture of their distribution in the winter is critical to maintaining the remaining sites that these butterflies use.

Although many of the people participating in the project have been dedicated for a number of years, the Xerces Society is always looking for new volunteers to join in the count. Jepsen asserts that for new participants helping out, “It’s our hope that they’ll develop an appreciation of monarch butterflies and a desire to work towards their conservation.” The count takes place for three weeks around the Thanksgiving holiday, so it’s a great activity to burn off some of those extra holiday calories while aiding in the conservation of these incredible insects.

Reference: Xerces Society

Images: Top – wikipedia via california photo scout; Bottom – Xerces Society

This post originally appeared on SciStarter.

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Smithsonian Science, a Thought Experiment, and a Citizen Science Challenge

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This is a guest post by Karen McDonald. When not writing her blog The Infinite Spider, Karen is a guest blogger, curriculum developer, science content editor, and outdoor educator with over thirteen years in informal science education. She has an MS in Biology and a BS in Environmental Science and Philosophy. Currently she works for Smithsonian and contracts for Discovery Channel.


Rock vomit new zealand usgs

When you consider the field of citizen science you probably think of it as something you do by collecting data, taking pictures, finding plants or animals, or uploading sightings. There’s a new form of citizen science emerging called a “thought experiment.” You may be familiar with thought experiments like that of “Schrödinger’s Cat” or Einstein’s “Chasing a Beam of Light” which use theoretical reasoning to solve a problem. However, thought experiments may also be applied to biological science because you are considering a hypothesis, principle, or theory and its consequences as it applies to a scientific application. This theory may or may not be implemented. The big difference between traditional citizen science and a thought experiment is that thought experiments do not use direct observation or experiments, they rely completely on theory. Thought experiments also have the advantage that they can be done from anywhere, which make them accessible to anyone who might be interested in trying them out. You can do them in a classroom, on the metro, or on an exercise bike.

A Bit of Background for This Thought Experiment

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Marine Invasions Research Lab, located in Edgewater, MD, along with a field branch in Tiburon California have teamed up with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Alaska Southeast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and San Francisco State University to monitor a creatively named species of invasive brackish water tunicate called “rock vomit,” or Didemnum vexillum. It’s thought that D. vexillum originated in Japan, but now it’s found all over the world and it’s an aggressive invader. SERC scientists first found it growing in the bay of Sitka Alaska in 2010 during a bioblitz.

Rock vomit is a big problem for native habitats and commercial fishermen because it grows in mats (in quickly moving water) and long strands (with low water movement) and covers everything in sight. This includes fishing nets, lines, docks, ship hulls, and all living sessile (non-moving) creatures on the bottom. Rock vomit literally blankets sponges, anemones, bryozoans, scallops, oysters, and mussels. Here is the USGS official page with images and descriptions.

Rock vomit BC USGS

How Does This Citizen Science Thought Project Work?

SERC scientists have been trying to determine how rock vomit spreads and what factors might influence its demise. You can read more about their work using treatments of fresh water, extremely salty water, lack of oxygen, acetic acid, and bleach in a controlled field setting as they try to find out what might work to control it. These researchers are asking you, as citizen scientists, to participate in a thought experiment project to help come up with a way to control rock vomit based on their findings. On the page listed above they give you some factors to consider such as treatment area, containment, limiting mortality of other species and outside the area, wind, waves, and tides. Your job is to think about these variables and to design a theoretical solution to the problem of this invasive species. Remember, the solution may or may not be implemented but your thoughts and theories could help solve a major invasive species problem!

If you would like to submit an idea please send your proposal to Monaca Noble (Noblem@si.edu) by December 16th. The lab will choose the best solution and post the winner on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center website for Invasive Species.

This post originally appeared on SciStarter.

Images: USGS.gov

If you’re looking for some scientific inspiration, try this paper:

McCann, LD, K Holzer, IC Davidson, GV Ashton, and GM Ruiz. 2013. Promoting invasive species control and eradication in the sea: options for managing the tunicate invader Didemnum vexillum in Sitka, Alaska. Marine Pollution Bulletin. Available online.

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Citizen Cyberscience Summit 2014: Call for Workshops, Papers and Participation

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This is an announcement from the Citizen Cyberscience Summit.


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Following the successful Citizen Cyberscience Summits in 2010 and 2012, we are pleased to announce a third meeting in London on 20-22 February 2014.

By citizen cyberscience, we refer to the wide range of activities that enable people from all walks of life to join in scientific projects through internet-based applications such as contributing the unused processing power of their computers to help scientific computing, classifying information, using their smartphones to collect nature observations or building their own Internet-enabled sensors to collect environmental information.

The summit will be structured as a 3-day event that offers scientists, practitioners, enthusiasts, policy makers and citizen scientists the unique opportunity to meet and discuss citizen science and citizen cyberscience, participate in activities, and develop prototypes for new projects.

The first day (Thursday, 20th February 2014) will focus on the wide range of citizen science activities, exploring the engagement, creativity and participation, outreach of citizen science to the developing world, and the undertaking of citizen science projects in challenging environments (e.g. in a rainforest or the Arctic). We also welcome talks that deal with the growing policy and environmental management implications of citizen science.

For the second day (Friday, 21st February 2014) we are calling for presentations on the technical aspects of citizen science, such as: the need for suitable hardware and software; or panels discussing with citizen scientists about their perceptions, participation and engagement; or a showcase of citizen science projects. Based upon the success of this event in 2012, we will launch a ‘think camp’/’hackfest’, which will carry on to the next day and is aimed at developing demonstrations of hardware and software that can be used in citizen science projects or simply a concentrated discussion on a specific topic of interest.

The final day (Saturday, 22nd February 2014) will include further conference sessions, workshops and development of prototypes, with an afternoon talk, presentations and awards for the best prototypes.

Overall, we hope to cover a range of topics of relevance to citizen science research, including: technical aspects of citizen science such as use of sensors; applications of smartphones for data collection or in combination with external sensors; linking the Internet of Things (IoT) and citizen science – sensor networks to human sensors; motivations, incentives and engagement patterns; citizen science with indigenous and low-literacy communities; social science, ethnographic and anthropological aspects of citizen science and creativity and learning in citizen science.

During the summit, there will be an opportunity to present short papers, run panels, organise workshops or provide showcase demonstrations. We would like to invite anyone interested in participating in this way to submit brief proposals of up to 750 words using the form: http://bit.ly/15SWBnw

Proposals should be submitted by 31st December 2013.

Registration will open in mid-December; full details will be available on our website soon.

We look forward to hearing from you and hope that you’ll be able to join us at the summit.

Best regards,
The Citizen Cyberscience Summit Organising Committee

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The Value of Citizen Science

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This is a guest post from Bob Perciasepe. Appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the U.S. EPA’s Deputy Administrator, Bob Perciasepe continues a career spanning nearly four decades as one of the nation’s leading environmental and public policy figures. An expert on environmental stewardship, advocacy, public policy, and national resource and organizational management, Perciasepe is widely respected within both the environmental and U.S. business communities. Perciasepe holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources from Cornell University and a master’s degree in planning and public administration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

Find out more about today’s event at the Wilson Center  in Washington, D.C.


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Some time ago, observers and scientists noticing declining bird populations began to worry. One of those concerned was ornithologist Frank Chapman—an officer at the Audubon Society—who proposed something he thought would help: a new holiday tradition he called a “Christmas Bird Census.” That was in the year 1900.

For more than a hundred years, moms, dads, sons, and daughters have braved the elements and traveled to nearby conservation land or refuges and eagerly watched backyard feeders to participate in the Christmas Bird Count—and to contribute to conservation. To this day, the data collected by these citizen scientists inform researchers of the health of bird populations.

Citizen science isn’t a fresh idea. It’s tried and proven, and we’ve been at it for generations. But times have changed. Cell phones are equipped with high-resolution cameras. Low-cost sensors and GPS are readily available. And the internet sits at our fingertips in an increasingly interconnected world. These technologies have widened the boundaries and increased the value of citizen science in the 21st century.

That’s why today at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., I’ll join fellow federal agencies and partners to discuss how to continue moving forward on citizen science.

From crowdsourcing to mobile apps and more, we should take full advantage of the contemporary tools at our disposal. For example, NOAA recently launched mPing—a mobile app aimed at collecting weather observations from people like you. Those observations help scientists verify models, validate methods, and better serve families who rely on accurate weather information.

Citizen science, or public participation in scientific research, accomplishes two main goals.

First and foremost, it involves and empowers a participating public. We know that citizen science, when properly characterized and properly managed, can be a powerful tool, supporting the complexity and expertise of the scientific process agencies like EPA employ.

That’s how, secondly, data provided through a variety of citizen science activities contributes to our scientific knowledge base. From NGOs like the Audubon Society to government agencies like NOAA and EPA, citizen science can help organizations prioritize action and investment—so rulemakings and clean-up efforts reflect the realities folks are dealing with in their backyards.

Ongoing efforts at EPA are tapping into citizen science in a variety of ways.Volunteer water monitoring has helped protect streams, lakes and estuaries for decades, and continues to today. The EPA regional office in New Jersey/New York has worked with community partners to host workshops and events that support citizen science efforts in the region.

Through citizen science, millions of willing volunteers have the means to do their part to keep our environment safe and healthy. If you, your friends, or your families are already avid citizen scientists, comment below to tell us about your contributions. And I hope you’ll join us this afternoon, or tune in online, as we discuss New Visions for Citizen Science.

Image: WikiMedia

This post originally appeared on the EPA Connect Blog.

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