Scientific Americans

Who says you need a PhD in ecology or a research grant from NASA to make a scientific breakthrough? Citizen science is a growing movement of thousands of amateurs who collect, enter and classify data that would have taken researchers years to compile and sort through.

Harnessing the eyes and ears of the public is not a new development — the Audubon Christmas bird count has taken an annual census of our feathered friends across the country since 1900. But what was usually done out in the cold, peering into foggy lenses of handheld binoculars, can now be done remotely with a laptop.

Starting this month, the Collaborative Observatory for Natural Environments (CONE), will stream live video from the Welder Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas so that birders can count up different avian species. Multiple viewers will operate the high-definition camera at the same time, snapping digital images of birds and competing to classify them correctly.

“The online birding game becomes addictive,” warned CONE director Ken Goldberg, “Some participants are logging up to 100 hours a week on it.” The database of classified images may eventually provide evidence that global climate change is driving tropical birds farther north.

Ergo is a new project out of Intel Research and UC Berkeley that enables on-the-go data collection. Special gauges attached to cell phones allow users to report local air quality measurements via text messaging. The mobile network provides a better sample distribution for environmental scientists and air-quality activists monitoring pollutants and allergens.

“It’s also a tool for the participant to become more aware of air quality in their area,” said founder Eric Paulos.

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