Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category

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

Surveying Seabirds of the Puget Sound this Holiday Season.

By December 25th, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Comment

If you’re looking for more projects for the holiday season, we’ve got 12 Days of Citizen Science for you!

Counting seabirds on the Puget Sound

Counting seabirds on the Puget Sound

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” birds! Partridges, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds, golden rings (pheasants), geese and swans inhabit this festival folk classic celebrating food and merriment. Seabirds, cousins of our dinner table counterparts, enjoy a winter migration to good eats and family too. Yet changes in climate and their relationship with man are driving population declines. Can citizen scientists help conserve our feathered friends?

The Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS), in association with the Seattle Audubon Society, is enlisting citizen scientists to catalog the diversity of coastal birds along three square miles of Puget Sound saltwater habitat.

During seabird’s annual migrations, near shore saltwater habitats, such as the Puget Sound, provide valuable food and mating sites. Nearly all species of coastal birds including geese, ducks, swans, loons, grebes, cormorants, gulls, terns and alcids have experienced population declines since the late 1970s due to ecosystem changes caused by human development. Stopping to watch these graceful birds on your way to Grandma’s house can provide important population clues for local scientists.

Now in its sixth season, PSSS is the only land-based study of seabirds in the central and south Puget Sound. (Previous studies relied on aerial and marine data.) “PSSS is a scalable program that engages citizen scientists to collect significant data on valuable environmental indicators” explains Adam Sedgley, former science manager of the Seattle Audubon Society.

Identifying grebes of Puget Sound

Identifying grebes of Puget Sound

On the first Saturday of each month from October to April, citizen scientists are paired with experienced bird watchers and seabird scientists to identify all species of wintering coastal seabirds. Armed with your keen powers of observation, binoculars, compass and rulers; teams survey one of 82 sites along the Puget Sound using a method known as distance sampling. Directly counting each bird can be a challenge to new birders – species are hard to see and identify at a distance, poor weather conditions obscure views, and birds are often underwater. In distance sampling, citizen scientists simply line up a ruler with the horizon then measure the distance to the each bird in millimeters. Record the birds you’ve seen, their distance from the horizon, and compass bearing on PSSS’s interactive website. Using this data, scientists accurately estimate population size and health creating a snapshot of seabird natural history for more than 2400 acres of Puget Sound. This snapshot helps to inform conservation and oil spill clean up efforts.

Being a birder has never been easier. PSSS and the Seattle Audubon Society have developed excellent resources for citizen scientists including the stunning photographs by local photographer David Gluckman and an interactive website with information on all species of seabirds found in the Puget Sound region as well as their habitat and life histories. They also have an interactive map for you to explore each of the survey sites based on the most birds observed or most diverse areas.

Why not take a stop while you’re venturing “over the river and through the woods” this holiday season to watch the birdies?

Images: PSSS and David Gluckman

Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.