Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category

Loss of the Night: Stargazing and Citizen Science

By February 28th, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Comment

Contribute to light pollution research with the Loss of the Night Android app!

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.

Effects of Skyglow due to artificial light on star visibility

Effects of skyglow on star visibility (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

I’m going to take a quick bet and guess that every one who is reading this post has at least once gazed up at a clear sky and been fascinated by all the stars out there. If you’re out walking in the night with your friends or family, stargazing is probably the cheapest way to entertain yourself for hours on end.

Now, what if you could have all that fun, learn about constellations and contribute to science at the same time? There’s an app for that.

The science that we are talking about here is research on light pollution. Light pollution is the excessive artificial light that is added by sources such as poorly designed street lighting and over-illumination (imagine Times Square, Las Vegas or empty offices with the lights on all night).

Though we associate the increased availability of artificial lighting as a measure of human progress, it has unintended consequences. Birds misdirected by illuminated structures often suffer fatal collisions and freshly hatched turtles die because they wrongly migrate towards illuminated lands instead of the sea. Light pollution also significantly affects the diurnal or nocturnal nature of animals. As humans, our internal body clocks are also very tightly linked to the rhythmic changes in light between day and night. Artificial lighting can disrupt this rhythm leading to consequences to our health such as disorders associated with poor sleep patterns. So more light is not always good. Now that I’ve made you sufficiently concerned about this issue, I’m going to tell you how you can help!

Identifying stars in the night sky is one way by which we can measure light pollution. In a setting with lots of artificial lighting, the number of stars that are visible will be less. By gathering large amounts of information on star visibility from different locations around the world, citizen scientists can contribute extremely valuable data to the research effort on light pollution. Since not all of us are adept at identifying stars and constellations, several initiatives have come forward to help citizen scientists participate. One if them is the Loss of the Night (official site) (Verlust der Nacht in German) research network funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The app was built in partnership with Cosalux. It investigates the causes and consequences of light pollution with the goal of developing improved and sustainable lighting concepts.

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

The data collected is sent to a larger international citizen science project called ‘GLOBE at Night’ which has been collecting and mapping this data since 2006. Over the past 8 years, more than 100,000 data points have been collected by Globe at Night from citizen scientists in 115 countries. Around 10,000 (and counting) of these data points have been contributed by the Loss of the night app. For 2014, the Globe at Night project plans to collect data about specific constellations at defined windows every month of the year. To start adding your own observations to this effort, I’ve come up with a simple guide below.

[Note - This month's Globe at Night campaign is ending on 2/28! Send in your measurements whenever you can! Don't worry, you can still participate outside of the campaign dates.]

A how-to guide for Loss of the Night

  1. Be safe, and be aware of your surroundings. Find level ground with room to move around. Always have a companion with you to watch out for potential hazards when you are walking around with your eyes to the sky. Wear appropriate clothing to protect yourself from the elements.
  2. Download Loss of the night on your Android phone. When using the app for the first time, you may optionally choose to enter information about yourself such as your age, whether you wear glasses and your email address. You can also create a username if you wish to track your observations on the GLOBE at night map. (Don’t have an Android phone? Check out the Dark Sky Meter iOS project or Globe at Night project for other ways to contribute!)
  3. Go out on a night when the sky is clear. If you’re in North America use the Clear Sky Chart to find out sky conditions close to where you are. Alternatively if you’re just out at night with friends, family or a significant other and see a clear night sky get cracking!
  4. Whip out your smartphone, fire up the app and point the camera at the night sky. You will see a red circle with an arrow. Note: If it’s not dark enough outside, the app will prompt you to measure at a different time.
  5. Move your phone in the general direction of the arrow. The app uses the electronic compass in your phone to identify your direction. When you are in the right position to identify a star, the screen will freeze and the circle will enlarge.
  6. If you can see the star identified on your screen in the sky select ‘Star is visible’. If you cannot or youre not sure, select ‘Not visible or unsure’.  Congratulations! You’ve made a measurement!
  7. In order to get a reliable reading of how dark the night sky is, you will need to take at least 7 measurements. If you’re feeling particularly curious, you can always keep going and take more than 7. The success of the project depends upon getting as many readings as possible so keep measuring!
  8. (Optional but definitely recommended!) If Scistarter helped you get started, tell us how it worked out. Give us a shout out on Twitter or Facebook! If you haven’t already, sign up to learn about cool projects in the future.

Check out the detailed guide for more information and help using the app.

Images: Courtesy of Loss of the Night

Arvind Suresh graduated with his MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn or at his Website.


Any Old Photo: The Field Photo Library Project

By February 9th, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Comment

The Field Photo Library project helps scientists document changes in landscape by sharing crowdsourced and archived field photos from all over the world.

Find more citizen science projects for all five senses on SciStarter.

Field Photo

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what value does “any old geo-tagged photo” hold for a scientist? Field Photo Library (official site) is an app that captures images. It is also a partner project of CoCoRaHS, a project that crowdsources weather data to meteorologists to measure rain, hail, and snow. Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist for Colorado at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University says, “It is a fun collaborative effort with many potential applications—drought, inter-annual variability, growing season and phenology, land use change, and, over much longer periods of time, climate change. But it will require establishing a baseline and growing the photo archive from there.”

The project encapsulates the meaning of crowdsourced data collection as well as just how broadly  images captured with an iPhone app be used. The University of Oklahoma website which offers a link to the app says, “Every day, researchers, students and citizens use GPS cameras and smartphones to take photos in the field as part of their efforts to document their observations of landscapes, agriculture, forests, natural disasters, and wildlife.”

It would seem intuitive that a landscape photo can tell scientists about land use change over time, and about a sudden catastrophe such as a tornado where there exists a very clear ‘before’ and ‘after,’ but what can a field photo tell a researcher about wildlife for example? In part, the answer to that is ‘ground-truth.’ Mark Shafer, the Director of the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program and an Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma agreed that a landscape photograph can assist his biology colleagues when they match research findings to actual landscape photographs, for example as part of a comparative habitat study between wet and dry years.

Having everyone taking pictures at approximately the same time allows us to see a landscape as it relates to the things we measure—how it corresponds to the amount of rain that has fallen, or if it looks like something we might expect according to US Drought Monitor. It seems the real benefit now, is to be able to answer questions such as, “Is the land around you as green as the satellite seems to say?”

Shafer says, “We see a lot of data, but there was no consistent baseline. So that was one of the reasons for starting this project—to create a baseline for drought monitoring, and for seasonal changes.”

With Santa Barbara currently experiencing a drought, I scooped up my phone, downloaded the app, and headed out to test-drive Field Photo. This PDF explains how to position yourself in your landscape of choice, which is what I did, before capturing a series of images of a nearby valley. And that was that—done and dusted. All I had to do was email the photos in. Instructions for submitting images are provided on this page.

Until now, the app has only been used by a local Oklahoma audience, often as part of an organized Field Photo Weekend, but as Doesken says, “It is now ready to be promoted to a much wider public audience.” Shafer says it would be remarkable if it went global, but for now they are hosting another Field Photo Weekend that will coincide with Presidents Day on February 15. “It would be wonderful if all 19,000 Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow volunteers took a photo for the database this weekend!”

More about Field Photo Weekend:

Submitted images will appear here:

Download the app:

Email photos to

Image: Courtesy of Ian Vorster, looking west across a drought-stricken grassland/open shrubland landscape from a vantage point on the western edge of Santa Barbara, California.

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles.

Notes from Nature: Citizen Science Meets Museum Collections and The Trouble With Transcriptions

By January 29th, 2014 at 11:58 am | Comment

This is a guest post from Andrea Thomer and Rob Guralnick from Notes From Nature. See more about the authors below. Find more citizen science projects about words.

Notes From Nature (official site) is a citizen science transcription project that launched in April 2013 and is part of the Zooniverse stable of projects.  The goal behind Notes from Nature is to make a dent in a major endeavor – digitizing the information contained in biocollections scattered over the nation and world.  More information about the project can be found here. Conservative estimates  place the number of biology and paleontology museum specimens at over a billion in the United States alone.  The task of digitizing these records cannot be completed without help, and Notes from Nature is one place where we can ask for that help.  Because we know some specimen labels are hard to read, we don’t simply ask for one transcription per record.  Instead, each record is seen by at least four pairs of eyes.  This has its own challenges; how do we take those 4+ transcriptions and get a reconciled or ‘canonical’ version?

In a previous post on our blog “So You Think You Can Digitize,” we went through the mechanics of how to find consensus from a set of independently created transcriptions by citizen scientists — this involved a mash-up of bioinformatics tools for sequence alignment (repurposed for use with text strings) and natural language processing tools to find tokens and perform some word synonymizing.  In the end, the informatics blender did indeed churn out a consensus —  but this attempt at automation led us to realize that there’s more than one kind of consensus.  In this post we want to to explore that issue a bit more.

So, lets return to our example text:

Some volunteers spelled out abbreviations (changing “SE” to “Southeast”) or corrected errors on the original label (changing “Biv” to “River”); but others did their best to transcribe each label verbatim – typos and all.

These differences in transcription style led us to ask — when we build “consensus,” what kind do we want? Do we want a verbatim transcription of each label (thus preserving a more accurate, historical record)?  Or do we want to take advantage of our volunteers’ clever human brains, and preserve the far more legible, more georeferenceable strings that they (and the text clean-up algorithms described in our last post) were able to produce? Which string is more ‘canonical’?

 Others have asked these questions before us — in fact, after doing a bit of research (read: googling and reading wikipedia), we realized we were essentially reinventing the wheel that is textual criticism, “the branch ofliterary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts” (thanks, wikipedia!).  Remember, before there were printing presses there were scribes: individuals tasked with transcribing sometimes messy, sometimes error-ridden texts by hand — sometimes introducing new errors in the process.  Scholars studying these older, hand-duplicated texts often must resolve discrepancies across different copies of a manuscripts (or “witnesses”) in order to create either:

  • a “critical edition” of the text, one which “most closely approximates the original”, or
  • a “copy-text” edition, which “the critic examines the base text and makes corrections (called emendations) in places where the base text appears wrong” (thanks again, wikipedia).

Granted, the distinction between a “critical edition” and a “copy-text edition” may be a little unwieldy when applied to something like a specimen label as opposed to a manuscript.  And while existing biodiversity data standards developers have recognized the issue — Darwin Core, for example,  has “verbatim” and “interpreted” fields (e.g. dwc:verbatimLatitude) — those existing terms don’t necessarily capture the complexity of multiple interpretations, done multiple times, by multiple people and algorithms and then a further interpretation to compute some final “copy text”.   Citizen science approaches place us right between existing standards-oriented thinking in biodiversity informatics and edition-oriented thinking in the humanities.  This middle spot is a challenging but fascinating one  – and another confirmation of the clear, and increasing, interdisciplinarity of fields like biodiversity informatics and the digital humanities.

In prior posts, we’ve talked about finding links between the sciences and humanities — what better example of cross-discipline-pollination than this?  Before, we mentioned we’re not the first to meditate on the meaning of “consensus” — we’re also not the first to repurpose tools originally designed for phylogenetic analysis for use with general text; linguists and others in the field of phylomemetics (h/t to Nic Weber for the linked paper) have been doing the same for years.  While the sciences and humanities may still have very different research questions and epistemologies, our informatics tools have much in common.  Being aware of, if not making use of, one another’s conceptual frameworks may be a first step to sharing informatics tools, and building towards new, interesting collaborations.

Finally, back to our question about what we mean by “consensus”: we can now see that our volunteers and algorithms are currently better suited to creating “copy-text” editions, or interpreted versions of the specimen labels — which makes sense, given the many levels of human and machine interpretation that each label goes through.  Changes to the NfN transcription workflow would need to be made if museums want a “critical edition,” or verbatim version of each label as well.  Whether this is necessary is up for debate, however — would the preserved image, on which transcriptions were based be enough for museum curators’ and collection managers’ purposes? Could that be our most “canonical” representation of the label, to which we link later interpretations? More (interdisciplinary) work and discussion is clearly necessary — but we hope this first attempt to link a few disparate fields and methods will help open the door for future exchange of ideas and methods.

Image: Notes From Nature

References and links of potential interest:

If you’re interested in learning more about DH tools relevant to this kind of work, check out Juxta, an open source software package designed to support collation and comparison of different “witnesses” (or texts).

Howe, C. J., & Windram, H. F. (2011). Phylomemetics–evolutionary analysis beyond the gene. PLoS biology, 9(5), e1001069. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001069

Robert Guralnick is the Curator of Zoology at the CU Museum of Natural History and Associate Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Andrea Thomer is a Ph.D. student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is supported by the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship. Her research interests include text mining; scholarly communication; data curation; biodiversity, phylogenetic and natural history museum informatics; and mining and making available undiscovered public knowledge. She is particularly interested in information extraction from natural history field notes and texts, and improving methods of digitizing and publishing data about the world’s 3–4 billion museum specimen records so they can be used to better model evolutionary and ecological processes.


Citizen Science on the Radio: IceWatch USA on WHYY’s the Pulse

By January 18th, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Comment


IceWatch USA volunteer Bob Berke prepares to measure ice in Delaware County. (Kimberly Haas/for The Pulse)

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas talks to IceWatch USA and Nature’s Notebook (a project of the National Phenology Network) to explore what local bodies of water can tell us about climate change.

Listen here! Here’s an excerpt from WHYY’s related blog post:

“Concerns about climate change often focus on melting ice: glaciers are receding, polar bears are losing their frosty habitats, and our winters seem to be getting warmer, the recent cold snaps notwithstanding. IceWatch USA, a national project enlisting citizen science volunteers to measure ice over the course of the winter, is collecting data to quantify those changes.

Volunteer ice watchers first select a body of water that’s accessible to them during the winter. It could be a lake, a pond, or a stream. They collect data at that site, which is then crunched and analyzed by scientists who study climate change and other environmental issues.”

Learn more about how this is done and how this all contributes to a larger picture!

The Pulse is WHYY’s weekly one-hour radio program focused on health, science and innovation in the Philadelphia region. The show will explore the personal stories of illness and recovery, discovery, health and science trends and much more. Working with SciStarter’s founder, Darlene Cavalier, the show will also take a close look at citizen science initiatives in the PA, NJ, DE region and report out on which projects are gaining the most traction and yielding effective results. WHYY’s Behavioral Health Reporter, Maiken Scott, will host the program every Friday at 9 a.m. with a rebroadcast on Sunday mornings. Here’s where to listen:

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to


WHYY (90.9FM in Philadelphia) Friday on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse rebroadcast

The Science of Words

By January 18th, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Comment

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!



We’re taking citizen science to the NBA! Meet us at the 76ers NBA game on 2/18. It’s Science at the 76ers night! SciStarter is organizing a series of citizen science activities on the concourse. During the game, microbe collection kits will be shot from the 76ers’ T-shirt bazooka right into the stands so fans can swab microbes from their shoes and cellphones for Project MERCCURI! If you are involved in or run a citizen science project available to people in the Philly area, contact to see how you can participate!

Have you joined more than one citizen science project? Take a 5-10 minute survey and tell us about your experience in this survey

If you’d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email