Archive for the ‘Computers & Technology’ Category
Public Lab has launched Spectral Challenge, a two-part crowd funded project to improve the use of open source spectrometers. A spectrometer is a common research tool which uses light to identify an unknown substance’s chemical composition.
Last year, members of the PLOTS community successfully developed a versatile and user friendly $40 spectrometer. While more accessible, the difficulty is making such open source technology reliable. That is where this new project comes in.
Spectral Challenge Stage 1 “Collaboration” ask participants to develop methodology which will improve and standardize the use of open-source spectrometers. Techniques need to be documented and submitted by May 31. The winning team will receive $1000 from the crowd funded prize pool.
Stage 2 “Real World Use” applies these improved methods for research on environmental pollutants such as petroleum or toxic heavy metals. Stage 2 starts June 5 and more details of the competition will follow. Winners will receive 80% of the prize pool money and the remaining 20% will be used to promote future open source technology through the Public Lab nonprofit.
Public Lab emerged from a collaboration between the Grassroots Mapping Community and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade following the 2010 BP oil spill. Its mission is to foster civic science by developing various open-source tools to further environmental research. These tools could be used by formal researchers and citizen scientists alike. Back in September 2012, SciStarter joined with Public Lab to help promote their tools as they related to citizen science projects in the SciStarter Project Finder.
Imagine something more mysterious than the trenches of the deep sea, more convoluted than the intricacies of the human genetic code, possibly even more infinite than the vastness of outer space. Meet the human brain.
Memories, mental disorders, language capability, motor skills, and so much more are encoded in this singular organ. Yet, neuroscientists don’t even know precisely how many different types of cells are in the brain. It is truly a modern mystery. (See all the currently unsolved questions in neuroscience.) There are numerous plausible theories about how the brain works, but solid evidence is sorely lacking.
“The brain is probably the most complex biological structure on the planet,” says Joy Hirsch, professor of functional neuroradiology, neuropsychology, and psychology at Columbia University. Hirsch’s research includes the development of brain mapping procedures for neurosurgical planning. “A complete understanding of the brain and its function is an ambitious goal that requires our best combined technologies, computational facilities, and neuroscientists.”
The Obama administration announced a decade-long scientific effort to examine the human brain and build a map of its activity, a project that seeks “to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project (begun in 1990) did for genetics.” This $3 million undertaking comes from the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project spearheaded by the Kavli Foundation. As science journalist John Rennie shares here, some in the neuroscience community harbor doubts about whether the time is right for a high-profile, inevitably politicized project like this one. Science takes time, and data analysis on this scale would certainly not happen overnight. Some say that the Human Genome Project left us realizing there is still so much more to learn. Will the Brain Activity Map and projects like it encounter the same challenges upon completion, whenever that may be?
The Challenges of Brain Mapping
The tricky part is that scientists have yet to find a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons simultaneously without invasive physical probes. New technology enables us to provide the right kinds of images to “map” the brain, but the volume of images that come through would be so overwhelming that it would take an insurmountable amount of time to process the data. Even today’s leading technology, from neuro-nanotech to optobiology to synthetic biology sensors, is limited when it comes to such a large undertaking.
Here’s where projects like EyeWire come in.
EyeWire is an online community of “citizen neuroscientists” who map the retinal connectome (neurons in the retina) by playing an online game. Because the feat of mapping the human brain solo (or even as a small team) would be infinitely large, EyeWire has made use of crowdsourcing strategies to collect data.
“Researchers have calculated that with today’s technology it would take one person 100,000 years to map one cubic millimeter of the brain without the aid of artificial intelligence,” says Amy Robinson, who works on the EyeWire team. (Just to give you a scale, an entire human brain is roughly 1,000,000 cubic millimeters.) “It takes a researcher at our lab…upwards of 50 hours to map an entire cell, depending on its size…and there are over 80 billion neurons in the brain.”
Rules of the Game
For EyeWire, over a time span of seven days, teams on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Google+, and a formidable-sounding Team X (veterans) competed in the games. Each day, the EyeWire team gives updates on the project’s progress via their blog. “Players” who participate in the game trace neurons based on images of the retina acquired at the Max Planck Institute of Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany (see below). The data directly contribute to neuroscience research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
It’s competitive, accessible to the masses, and even–for lack of a better word–fun. No game would be complete without a prize, however, so EyeWire has that covered too. The team that maps the most 3D neuron volume in this time frame receives neuron naming rights.
The genius of this project is in the gamification of the scientific process. By tacking on a time limit, assigning teams, and offering a prize, EyeWire spurs competition in potential “players.” Not only are players contributing to scientific research in the long run, but they can also see their contributions directly in front of them in the game in more-or-less tangible form. The gaming aspect of this citizen science project is what sets it apart from many others like it. Projects like the Human Connectome and Blue Brain have similar objectives but very different plans for execution. “When gamified, crowdsourced science is more than expediting data collection and analysis–it helps communicate science with the world,” states Robinson.
The EyeWire team comprises of members hailing from notably impressive backgrounds–game design, software development, community outreach, artificial intelligence, data structures, in addition to neuroscience. This notable cross-disciplinary approach has resulted in a project that brings the best of these worlds to the citizen science constituency.
Benefits of Crowdsourcing
Robinson goes on to explain why crowdsourcing is an ideal strategy for the future of scientific research: “Labs can no longer continue to work in academic isolation. If we hope to expedite our progress, we need to find ways to invite the world to help make discoveries…Not to mention crowdsourcing brings citizens into the heart of the scientific process.”
If nascent neuro-mapping projects like EyeWire fare well in the long run, it could mean that crowdsourcing will play an even more significant role in larger scientific research projects. Joy Hirsch adds, “We need to think outside the box. Outsourcing part of the task to individuals who may not be card-carrying scientists, but [who are] capable and willing to do some parts of the project, could become a major component of the success of [projects like this].”
Amy Robinson humbly quotes Sebastian Seung, the creator and director of EyeWire: “To understand how our knowledge machine works is more than just meta–it’s epic.” The EyeWire Games are simply a precursor to larger crowdsourced scientific research projects to come. If the greater scientific community chooses to participate, the odds just may be in our favor.
Sebastian Seung’s TEDTalk:
Lily Bui is a senior contributor at SciStarter. Although she holds dual bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works in public media at WGBH Boston and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). Tweets @dangerbui.
Calling all music enthusiasts–the Bodleian Libraries are enlisting the help of the public in order to improve access to their music collections. About sixty-four boxes filled with unbound, uncatalogued sheet music from the mid-Victorian period has been digitized for public access. Although this particular genre of music was considered to have little academic value in the past, it has recently come into new light as a window of insight into amateur music making as well as social practices during the Victorian era.
For instance, the “Cleopatra Galop,” written by dance-master Charles d’Albert, was advertised as “new dance music” in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay Herald in September 1878. Archival gems like these are not uncommon in the Bodleian collection. What’s even more fascinating is that the Bodleian team has partnered with the University of Oxford to make recordings of some of these works available so that users can aurally experience the pieces that they’re helping to describe. Listen to the “Cleopatra Galop” in the extensive recordings collection.
In order to help with the project, participants simply submit descriptions of the music scores by transcribing the information they see. There’s no pre-requisite of being able to read sheet music to take part, and the Library provides a superb step-by-step guide on how to do it.
The metadata collected from this project will eventually feed into a database, making the music collection ultimately more searchable online once it’s made available. By participating in this project, you’ll gain access to tons (all right, maybe pounds or kilos) of sheet music that has never been released to the public. Not only that, but the artful covers are worthy of a study in themselves.
Most importantly, the Bodleian Library has partnered with Zooniverse, a world leader in crowdsourced technology and a platform for various citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo, Planet Hunters, and Bat Detective (many of which are searchable in SciStarter’s Project Finder).
Music enthusiasts, history buffs, archive divers, or those simply curious are all invited to take part in this sonically stimulating citizen science project. Help the Bodleian keep score!
Image: Musical Notes, NSF
Image: Bodleian tutorial, whats-the-score.org
Remember those old diagrams in your grade school science text books? I used to flip through each chapter trying to find the coolest images, but was continually disappointed when I was forced to squint at tiny illustrations. As I continued through school, however, I found myself drawn to large illustrations that conveyed information effectively and in plain language. I read The Way Things Work every night before bed. The blend of science, art, design, and communication, was intriguing, and I suppose part of why I entered the field of GIS and mapping.
From subway maps to government information pamphlets and all across digital and print media, illustrations are an engaging way to convey information.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) agrees, and their new citizen science project, JPL Infographics, calls on you to be the scientist-artist in charge of communicating their cutting edge science. NASA provides a huge library of amazing high-resolution space images, 3-D models, and lists of interesting facts for you to piece together into your very own Infographic. You can browse other user submissions for inspiration and then upload your finished image easily online.
Head to the JPL Infographics project to learn more. It is free to join, and registration is easy! This is a really fun and challenging project, and your work will be used to educate and inform others about cutting-edge space exploration.
Fire up both sides of your brain and create some educational space art!
Photo: NASA JPL
If you see a landslide, a swirling mass of unmoored dirt and rock and debris tumbling downhill at speeds of several tens of meters per second, run away as fast as you can. If it doesn’t bring you down, grab your computer and report it to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program through their recently launched Did You See It? website.
The USGS will use your information to build a crowd sourced, national landslide database, a valuable resource for both scientists and citizens. The data will not only help researchers identify the areas of the country where landslides are most prevalent and better understand the conditions that most often lead to their occurrence, but also serve as a way for people to learn about risks to their persons or property.
“In the United States, more people have a chance of experiencing a landslide than any other natural disaster,” said Peter Lyttle, coordinator of the Landslide Hazards Program and a 36-year veteran of the USGS. “It’s kind of a stealth hazard.”
Thousands of landslides occur every year, claiming upwards of 25 lives and resulting in billions of dollars in damages and lost productivity, but unlike, say, earthquakes, there are relatively few scientists (perhaps 50, according to Lyttle) tracking and studying them in the United States. Lyttle hopes that Did You See It?, an homage to the enormously successful Did You Feel It? earthquake survey, will provide researchers with the vast amount of data his small staff could never collect on their own.
“The science is still in its very early days,” said Lyttle. “We’re still using a very broad brush.”
Knowing the exact location and time of a landslide will help the USGS pinpoint the areas at risk when other hazards–heavy rainfall in the East, sweeping wildfires in the West–threaten to undermine the underground. The need for awareness grows with us, as our population swells and communities demand development into vulnerable hillside areas.
“We’re putting ourselves at risk by expanding into these areas,” said Lyttle. “It takes a lot of manpower to make predictions and give early warning. We’re not capable of doing that for the whole country, so we want people to educate themselves if they’re in danger and learn what they can do to protect their homes.”
Enter on the side of the building. Look carefully, or else you’ll miss the sign. Walk down the stairs and turn right. Never mind the lack of windows, dim lighting, and pungent smell of coffee grinds. You have now entered FreeGeek, an underground lair of a nonprofit that harnesses the power of local volunteers to recycle, rebuild, and re-sell used computers. Welcome.
I recently volunteered at the Chicago chapter of FreeGeek, a national movement that began in Portland, Oregon, as a simple idea. The organization aims to recycle computer technology and provide low-and no-cost computing to the economically disadvantaged as well as not-for-profit social change organizations.
Not only that – FreeGeek’s most unique asset is that they are entirely run by volunteers (even some staff members are volunteers)! Each week, they provide comprehensive training to educate anyone and everyone about computers: how to strip them down, build them, recycle them, etc. You can show up with zero knowledge of computers and end the day knowing exactly what PCI, RAM, and BIOS stand for (and walk away with a slew of other tech acronyms under your belt to boot!).
What may come as a comfort to those of you with no formal background in science is the fact that some of the most devoted volunteers of FreeGeek Chicago come from professional paths such as museum curation, social sciences, and business administration. These are individuals who just happen to be knowledgeable and passionate about educating the public about computer technology.
There’s something in FreeGeek for everyone interested in contributing to the citizen science movement. Volunteers run the show, so anyone can join in. FreeGeek provides all the necessary training. The end product benefits the economically disadvantaged. If you ask me, it’s a win-win-win situation.
Whether you are passionate about technology, curious about computers, need to log community service hours, or all of the above, FreeGeek’s lair doors are open to anyone and everyone. Check to see if there is a chapter near you!
SciStarter also has plenty of other computer- and technology-related projects you can browse!
Calling all hackers and techies! Science and technology have gone hand in hand for so long. Why not bring them even closer by organizing or participating in a Science Hack Day?
First off, what is a hack day? (I assure you that there is no dismemberment involved.) Hack days are usually 48- to 52-hour events that bring together designers, programmers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and creative minds alike in the same physical space for brief but intense collaboration. Some hack days have a specific focus (say, for example, science). There have been successful Music Hack Days and even Government Hack Days.
The aim of a Science Hack Day is to come up with creative technological solutions to identified scientific problems. Other than the incredible opportunity to meet people who share a passion for science from different career and life paths, hack days can lead to manifold innovations for science that might never have happened, had this intersection of the minds not occurred.
Here’s a video of San Francisco’s Science Hack Day:
Recently at the Over the Air hack event in Bletchley Park, UK, physicist Francois Grey called for more SmartPhone-based citizen science. If you participated in the Transit of Venus citizen science experiment by downloading the SmartPhone app for it, you’ll have a sense of what Grey means by this. With this app, observers of the transit could record the times of contact between the sun and Venus. This data was sent to a server that combined various contact times from all over the world to measure the distance between the earth and the sun.
We need new ways for citizen scientists to participate in research projects, and researchers with limited resources need ways to connect with and employ the network of eager citizen scientists in the world. By thinking of ways we can bridge this gap with the technology we currently have, the more cohesively researchers and citizen scientists can work together.
Cities already organizing a Science Hack Day are listed at this site.
By Nick Fordes
2,083 citizens and scientists representing 111 different organizations collaborating on 71 challenges to produce over 100 innovative solutions to issues at home on earth and in space!
Wow! Citizen science was really in full gear during last month’s International Space App Challenge. The NASA-lead project was a huge success and created a considerable media buzz, landing a spot on the BBC News homepage.
The 71 challenges ranged in scope from creating an app to visualize the cosmos from the perspective of an alien planet to developing an oven that can bake in space using low energy. These challenges resulted in over 100 solutions, 50 of which are nominated for open judging through Tuesday, May 15th.
That’s right, you can still have a part in this incredible initiative by voting for the solutions you like best! You can go the main voting page to get started, or check out a blog post with descriptions and videos of each project on open.nasa.gov (which, by the way, is the great newly revamped blog about NASA and it’s community involvement).
In December 2010, as people on Earth celebrated the holidays and prepared to ring in the New Year, a European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA spacecraft quietly reached its own milestone: on December 26, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) discovered its 2000th comet.
Drawing on help from citizen scientists around the world, SOHO has become the single greatest comet finder of all time. This is all the more impressive since SOHO was not designed to find comets, but to monitor the Sun.
“Since it launched on December 2, 1995, to observe the Sun, SOHO has more than doubled the number of comets for which orbits have been determined over the last three hundred years,” says Joe Gurman, the U.S. project scientist for SOHO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Of course, it is not SOHO itself that discovers the comets — that is the province of the dozens of amateur astronomer volunteers who daily pore over the images produced by SOHO’s LASCO (or Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph) cameras. More than 70 people representing 18 different countries have helped spot comets over the last 15 years by searching through the publicly available SOHO/LASCO images online. The 1999th and 2000th comets were both discovered by an astronomy student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.
“There’s an ever-growing community of amateur astronomers who contribute to this project,” says Karl Battams, who has been in charge of running the SOHO comet-sighting web site since 2003 for the Naval Research Laboratory, where he does software development, data processing, and visualization work for NRL’s solar physics missions. “These volunteers are absolutely fundamental to the success of this program. Without them, most of this tremendously valuable astronomical data would never see the light of day.”
As summer comes to a close, a young person’s fancy may turn to fretting at the thought of being cooped up in a classroom. But for fans of science and nature—and by that we mean kids who like to watch clouds, hunt mushrooms, prowl around graveyards, and check out what gets squashed on the side of the road—fall need not signal the end of fun.
To keep young minds entertained as well as enlightened, we recommend the following 10 back-to-school projects for student citizen scientists. Teachers and parents, please note: Many of these programs provide materials around which you can build lessons. And there are lots more where these came from. Visit our Project Finder for a full list of citizen science projects for primary and secondary school students.
World Water Monitoring Day: World Water Monitoring Day is an international program that encourages citizen volunteers to monitor their local water bodies. An easy-to-use test kit enables everyone from children to adults to sample local water bodies for basic water quality parameters: temperature, acidity (pH), clarity (turbidity), and dissolved oxygen. Though World Water Monitoring Day is officially celebrated on September 18, the monitoring window is extended to cover the period from March 22 (World Water Day) until December 31. Check out what one of our members said about the project.
School of Ants: Join North Carolina State University researchers in a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Collection kits are available to anyone interested in participating. Teachers, students, parents, kids, junior-scientists, senior citizens and enthusiasts of all stripes are involved in collecting ants in schoolyards and backyards using a standardized protocol so that project coordinators can make detailed maps of the wildlife that lives just outside their doorsteps.
The Albedo Project: Wherever you are – anywhere in the world – on September 23th, contribute to science by taking a photo of a blank white piece of paper, outside in the sun, between 4:00 and 7:00 pm local time. Your photo will used to to help students measure how much of the sun’s energy is reflected back from the Earth — our planet’s “albedo.” It’s one way scientists can monitor how much energy – and heat – is being absorbed by our planet.
Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line (S’COOL): Report your observations of clouds—their shapes, height, coverage, and related conditions—so that NASA scientists can compare them with data from weather satellites passing over your area. Tutorials and observing guides are available for students. For teachers, the program provides lesson plans, charts, and advice on related educational standards.
Physics Songs: Physics Songs aims to be the world’s premier website devoted to collecting and organizing all songs about physics. It is managed by Walter F. Smith, Professor of Physics at Haverford College. Songs about physics can help students to remember critical concepts and formulas, but perhaps more importantly they communicate the lesson that physics can be fun.