Archive for the ‘Guest post’ Category

[GUEST POST] UK Flooding – And What You Can Do About It

By April 8th, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Comment


Thames Valley Sewer System overwhelmed and instrumentation destroyed, how you can contribute to water monitoring with citizen science.

Flooding is not just a problem for residents and local businesses; it is also a major issue for the UK’s water companies. Throughout the closing months of 2013 and the start of the current year, England was hit with torrential rain and areas of serious flooding; especially in the southern regions. The amount of flood water entering the sewage pipe network caused companies like Thames Water to lose all of their instrumentation and monitoring equipment. Floodwater effectively drowned the devices put in place by the company, meaning they had to replace them all.

This procedure involved turning water supplies off as engineers installed new monitoring equipment, costing millions of pounds to implement. The exact amount of money this cost Thames Water is uncertain and is hard to specify; it all very much depends on the type of monitoring equipment and the scale of repair. Whatever the cost, it is an expense Thames Water could have done without! So why didn’t the instrumentation in place warn Thames Water of the flood risk before it actually happened? What can the company do to avoid this problem in the future? This article aims to answer these questions.

Flood Management – Who is Responsible?

Nationally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for flood policies and coastal erosion risk management. This organisation also provides funding for flood risk management authorities via grants from the Environmental Agency and other local authorities. There are other societies and authorities that share responsibility of flood management including:

  • The Environment Agency – Operational responsibility for overseeing the risk of flooding from main reservoirs, rivers, estuaries and the sea. This association is also a coastal erosion rick management authority.
  • Lead Local Flood Authorities – Responsible for creating, maintaining and applying strategies for local flood risk management and also keeping a register of flood risk assets. These authorities analyse the risk of flooding from surface water and groundwater.
  • District Councils – Working alongside Lead Local Flood Authorities and other organisations, these are important partners in planning local flood risk management schemes and carrying out operations on minor watercourses.
  • Highway Authorities – Responsible for supplying and maintaining highway drainage and roadside ditches. These must ensure road projects to not interfere with or increase the risk of flooding.
  • Water and Sewerage Companies – These companies are also responsible for managing flood risks, from both water and foul or combined sewer systems.

All of these mentioned authorities have a duty to co-operate with each other and to share information, under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. This act ensures all flood risk management authorities work together to provide the best possible flood risk management for the benefit of the relevant communities.

What Causes Flooding?

Aside from the obvious, there are quite a few possible causes of flooding. Terrible weather with relentless rainfall is of course the main cause of most floods, but there are other contributory factors too.  Climate change, deforestation, population growth and paving over natural drainage areas are all putting increasing pressure on the UK’s sewerage network. This can be made even worse by individuals putting inappropriate substances and products into the drains, such as wet-wipes and food products.

But what caused such major flooding in the Thames Valley area? How did the company lose all of its instrumentation and why was this area affected so badly by the weather? Well, the majority of areas within England have divided sewers to take rainwater and foul waste separately; but in many areas of London the sewer system is combined. This means foul waste and rainwater is combined in one sewer system. During a heavy storm this can cause the sewer flow to be much greater than usual and can often reach maximum capacity; causing the system to overflow and destroy the monitoring equipment installed.

Citizen Science – Weather@home 2014

As UK water companies identify and implement a definitive sustainable solution to flooding, what can normal citizens do to help in the meantime? Well first and foremost, information on recent flooding events in your area will help experts further understand the processes and how best to avoid the risk. So photographs, measurements and any other kind of recorded information you can obtain will help towards this.

The University of Oxford currently have a team of scientists who are working on a new citizen science project, Weather@home 2014, designed to help better understand the 2013-14 floods within the UK. There are many arguments as to what causes flooding; including inundated drainage systems, inadequate flood defences and increased urbanisation of land. But perhaps the most consistent debate lies with the connection between climate change and extreme weather changes. Weather@home 2014 investigates how much effect climate change had on the UK winter storms and aims to answer this question via the use of climate models.

Running climate models can be extremely time-consuming, but more runs mean more comparisons and ultimately stronger trends.  With this in mind, scientists are asking anybody who is interested in helping out to sign up and help complete up to 30,000 climate model reruns of winter 2013-14. Each rerun will have different assumptions about the influences of climate change on weather patterns. This is an innovative approach as it uses citizens as contributors to scientific analysis, rather than simple data collectors. Results are still pouring in and live outcomes are being posted on the project website almost every single day.

Citizen Science – Doing Flood Risk Science Differently

Flood scientist Stuart Lane and a group of researchers have been participating in another citizen science project; taking a completely different approach. The published paper, Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific method, details the work of an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists attempting an experiment in flood management within the Pickering area. The project involves scientific experts and citizens with experience in flooding, without providing them with pre-defined roles.

Each group worked in unison to generate new knowledge about a particular flooding event and to negotiate the different assumptions and commitments of each group. Participants in each group were seen to have relevant knowledge and understandings and efforts were made to expand collective perceptions, which were not set apart between academics and non-academics.

This particular project supported scientific understandings of flood hydrology via the creation of fresh models and the compilation of qualitative insights and experiences of flooding. In addition to this, the project also helped to overcome an impasse in the management of floods in Pickering by reconfiguring the relationship between scientific experts and local residents. Previously, no decision had been made to combat the appropriate use of resources for flood risk management. Both of these opposing citizen science projects help to showcase the wide variety of methods in which non-scientists can involve themselves in important research projects.

[Find more weather-related citizen science projects using SciStarter's Project Finder.]

Thames Water Solution

In order to reduce the risk of sewer flooding in the future, water companies need to reduce the amount of rainwater entering the sewer network. Additional capacity and some new sewer systems would also largely help the situation too. Thames Water has already put some processes in place in many areas, such as installing new sensing devices to record water flow. This equipment has already proved helpful and allows the company to respond quickly to changes in weather and ground conditions. Thames Water also aims to spend up to £350million on a major programme of improvements before the year 2015, which includes:

  • A new storm relief sewer to be installed across the catchment area;
  • Enhancements to be made to the existing network;
  • A sustainable drainage system (SuDS) scheme;
  • Targeted installation of more anti-flood (FLIP) devices.

These plans were submitted to their regulator, Ofwat, with the aim of enhancing the sewerage network in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. All decisions and improvements made must be based on accurate data and balanced against the need for new investment, careful management and community education. Accurate instrumentation and monitoring can help to achieve this data; so I suppose the saying should go: if you look after your monitors, they will look after you!

Image: Wikimedia (Thames flood level markers at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich. The marker on the right is for 1928)

Hayden Hill is an environmental expert and an editorial coordinator for ATi-UK. He believes that before the torrential flooding in 2012, monitoring devices were not being instrumented or managed properly. With the introduction of newer, more efficient systems, Ian believes that UK water companies will have a clearer indication of potential flood risks before they actually materialise. 

[GUEST POST] Citizen Science, Mobile Technology, and the Next Generation Science Standards

By March 20th, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Comment

How one science educator used SciStarter to inform pre-service teachers how to use citizen science in the classroom and in curricula.

See the Citizen Science App Matrix, which aligns citizen science projects found on SciStarter to teaching standards!

This is my first attempt to enter the blogosphere, so please bear with me. As part of my duties of assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, I teach science education methods to elementary education majors (preservice teachers) in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education. Beginning in 2012, my college launched an iPad initiative where every undergraduate education major would receive their very own iPad for use in their university and field experience classrooms.

Upon receiving my own iPad, I immediately began searching the internet for viable iPad applications (apps) that were specific to science education. It was through this searching that I came across the concept of “Citizen Science” and the SciStarter website. Citizen Science, as a formal concept, has been prevalent in our society for more than 30 years. As the internet and subsequent technologies continue to develop over this period, so do the opportunities for amateur “scientists” to get involved in these types of research-based projects. These mobile smart technologies allow teachers and their students to collect and analyze data, as well as to contribute these data for the dissemination of the findings related to these projects.

Seeing the vast potential of the citizen science projects listed in the SciStarter database for my elementary school science methods course, I utilized the SciStarter Project Finder’s “Advanced Search” option to identify those citizen science projects that specifically require an iPad. After reading each summary posted on SciStarter, I then visited each project’s website to examine thoroughly the project task. To justify using these projects in the elementary school classroom and for my own edification, I aligned each citizen science project with the scientific practices, disciplinary core ideas, and related performance expectations in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Once I gained proficiency in this task, I assigned the citizen science project to my preservice teachers. My students were responsible for visiting SciStarter and selecting one citizen science project that required the use of an iPad. They were then instructed to determine the research question that guided their particular project and to prepare instructions for data collection and an appropriate data organizer. Students were expected to collect and submit data pertinent to the project and analyze the current and existing data by generating or reproducing graphs that best represented these data. After experiencing these projects, students then aligned the scientific practices that best aligned with the project and determined the disciplinary core idea(s) and performance expectations inherent in the project.

Most of my students thoroughly enjoyed this assignment and related experiences. Many of these students incorporated their chosen project in their field experience placement during the semester. Through this assignment, I have observed the value of citizen science apps and their relevance to elementary education majors and their field experience students. Thank you, SciStarter, for providing this database for my students and me.

Image: Wikimedia

Timothy A. Laubach is an assistant professor in science education at the University of Oklahoma. He holds a BS in earth science education and a MEd and PhD in science education. Tim has 20 years of combined teaching experience at the elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels. He has published 12 peer-reviewed journal articles and one book chapter and presented 40 papers at national/international to state-level science education conferences. Tim has also lead extensive professional development for science and mathematics teachers across the state of Oklahoma. He will occasionally be advising SciStarter on aligning citizen science projects to Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and the basic scientific practices.

Measuring Environmental Stewardship

By March 19th, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Comment

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Environmental Behaviors Project seeks help in sorting and ranking environmental stewardship.


Many citizen science projects have been very successful in collecting high-quality scientific data through the participation of citizen scientists. However, less emphasis has been placed on documenting changes to citizen scientists themselves. In particular, many projects hope participants will increase their environmental stewardship practices, but few, if any projects, have been able to accurately measure or detect behavior change as a result of participation.

Beginning in 2010, our team of researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology set out to create a toolkit of resources for helping project leaders measure participant outcomes. This project, titled DEVISE (Developing, Validating, and Implementing Situated Evaluation Instruments), is the parent of the Environmental Behaviors Project. In fact, the EBP is one of the final elements of the toolkit to be developed. So far, the DEVISE team has created and tested valid tools to measure interest, motivation, self-efficacy, and skills related to both science and environmental action.

When completed, the Environmental Behaviors Project will result in a tool for measuring environmental stewardship behaviors in citizen science participants. We are looking for about 75 participants to sort a variety of stewardship activities into categories, and then rank those same activities by ease and importance. What makes this tool unique is that it will have input from a variety of people and be a weighted scale, informed by the degree of ease and importance that people assign to each item.

The environmental behaviors tool will be an exciting conclusion to the DEVISE project. It is very common for citizen science projects to list behavioral change and increased stewardship as main goals – but these can be very difficult to measure accurately! Hopefully, by making this, and the other DEVISE tools available to project leaders, we can go beyond anecdotal accounts of the power of citizen science and provide evidence-based outcomes of the importance of citizen science to the people who make it possible.

Image: Glacier NPS


Tina Phillips
Evaluation Program Manager
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Marion Ferguson
DEVISE Project Assistant
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Genetics of Taste: A Bitter Story

By February 11th, 2014 at 9:40 am | Comment

The Genetics of Taste citizen science project from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science set out to understand the link between genetics and TAS2R38 gene, responsible for the “bitter” taste receptor.

Come to your senses! SciStarter has curated a list of citizen science projects for all five senses.

Guest post by Michelle Murphy-Niedziela.

Don’t like brussels sprouts? Hate IPA beers? Prefer your cream with a bit of coffee? You might be a supertaster. So, what’s your super power as a supertaster?

tasteBeing a supertaster means that you have an increased taste sensitivity, particularly for bitter foods, due to the presence of the TAS2R38 gene and an increased number of fungiform papillae (or taste buds). Those taste buds have receptors that sense sweet, salty, bitter and sour. TAS2R38 is the gene responsible for a certain type of bitter taste receptor, sensitive to the bitter chemicals PROP and PTC. So more taste buds + more bitter receptors = SUPERTASTER!

The citizen science efforts from the community-based Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, led by curator Dr. Nicole Garneau, set out to replicate the academic data and prove that non-scientists can do genetics work.  By recruiting members of the community to participate, they collected 3000 samples, analyzed for age, gender and genetics.

After a rocky start while figuring out and learning the techniques, they completed the study in early August 2013 with 1800 genetic samples and 500 tongue photographs.  While they weren’t able to replicate all the findings found in academic labs (they did find differences in TAS2R38 expression in males versus females as well as age differences), they were not able to find a connection between the number of taste buds and genetics.

Separate from Garneau’s study, scientists studying taste genetics have found that supertasters may have better control of their appetite and may avoid sweet and fatty foods leading to better health and a less occurrence of metabolic syndrome and obesity (Shafaie et al., 2013Turner-McGrievy et al., 2013).  Further, supertaster patients are less likely to need surgical intervention for chronic rhinosinusitis (Adappa et al., 2013). Women are more likely to be supertasters, 35% of women and 15% of men (Bartoshuk et al., 1994). It turns out, about 25% of people are supertasters; 25% are non-tasters; and the other 50% are somewhere in the middle (medium tasters carry only one copy of the TAS2R38 gene, so fewer of those special bitter receptors and fewer taste buds than supertasters). But have no fear, being a supertaster or nontaster represents normal variation in the human population like eye or hair color.

Garneau and her team will be presenting their work at the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) and have even submitted their work for publication in the academic journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Want to find out if you are a taster or a non taster? Here are two more fun things you can do at home.

1. Count your taste buds – Dye your tongue using blue food coloring and count the number of bumps on your tongue, compare with your friends!

2. Taste test at home – Order PTC or PROP taste strips online (can be found on Amazon); place them on your tongue; and tell us the results! If you taste nothing, then you are a non-taster. If you taste bitter, then you are a taster!

Image: The Creative Panic

Dr. Michelle Murphy Niedziela is a behavioral neuroscience expert in neuropsychology, psychology and consumer science with a focus on flavor and fragrance technologies. Michelle obtained a PhD and masters in neuroscience and biopsychology from Purdue University and a BS in psychology from Florida State University. In the past she’s worked at Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate and is now a neuromarketing Scientific Director at HCD Research. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys cooking, blogging and traveling. Follow her on Twitter @nerdoscientism and her blog.

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

By January 6th, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Comment 1

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.

project globe

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

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).


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.