SciStarter Blog http://scistarter.com/blog Covering the people, projects, and phenomena of citizen science Tue, 22 Jul 2014 01:43:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Citizen Science is a Shore Thing!http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/summertime-citizen-science/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/summertime-citizen-science/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 01:43:55 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9982 Share jellyfish sightings, track stars during evening beach strolls, count fireflies, or report dragonfly swarms while you’re at the beach this summer. Or participate in dozens of other summertime citizen science projects and advance fields of research in the process! Why not do them all? Hey! If you’re involved in more than one project, we’d […]

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Share jellyfish sightings, track stars during evening beach strolls, count fireflies, or report dragonfly swarms while you’re at the beach this summer. Or participate in dozens of other summertime citizen science projects and advance fields of research in the process! Why not do them all?

Hey! If you’re involved in more than one project, we’d like to hear from you. Email carolyn@scistarter.com to find out why.

 

Globe at Night
Because of light pollution, six out of 10 people in the US have never seen our Milky Way Galaxy arch across their night sky from where they live. Now you can measure the night sky from the beach and contribute to important research. Get started!

 

Dragonfly Swarm Project
Ever see a dragonfly swarm? Magical, aren’t they? Share your observations to help researchers understand where and how these aerial predators swarm. Get started!

 

Jellywatch
Have you seen a jellyfish? Report it to Jellywatch — a public database documenting ocean conditions. They are especially interested in jellyfish washing up, but also track red tides, squid and mammal strandings, as indicators of ocean health. Get started!

 

Marine Metre Squared
MM2 is an easy way to survey the intertidal community in New Zealand. Monitor a 1m x 1m square patch of your local rocky shore once every season by recording the animals and plants that live there. Get started!

 

COASST
Monitor marine resources and ecosystem health at 300 beaches across northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Survey your beach every month and COASST will put the data together and decipher the patterns across the entire survey range. Get started!

 

SEANET
Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) volunteers conduct beached bird surveys along the east coast of the United States in order to identify and record information about bird deaths. Help identify where bird carcass are found, and how this varies across time. Get started!

 

BEACH
The Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication, and Health project participants monitor high-risk Washington state beaches for the bacteria called “enterococci” to reduce the risk of disease for people who play in saltwater. Get started!

 

 

 


Check out “Exploring a Culture of Health,” a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

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Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Patients Who Were Research Subjects and the Doctors Who Listened – the Citizen Science of HIV/AIDS Researchhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/coops-citizen-sci-scoop-hiv-aids-research/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/coops-citizen-sci-scoop-hiv-aids-research/#comments Mon, 21 Jul 2014 02:21:35 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9977 Editor’s Note: Flight MH17 was a horrible tragedy, with many lives lost, including HIV/AIDS researchers en route to a conference.   In Caren Cooper’s latest Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop, she explains how citizen science assisted with AIDS research, and how AIDS activists were able to become participatory members of the medical and scientific process.  Here, in full, […]

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Editor’s Note: Flight MH17 was a horrible tragedy, with many lives lost, including HIV/AIDS researchers en route to a conference.   In Caren Cooper’s latest Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop, she explains how citizen science assisted with AIDS research, and how AIDS activists were able to become participatory members of the medical and scientific process.  Here, in full, is Caren’s post.

Many prominent people involved in HIV/AIDS research lost their lives when Malaysian plane MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. HIV/AIDS researchers exemplify how scientists serve the public good. A key to HIV/AIDS research has involved embracing a certain type of citizen science.

The rapid advances in HIV/AIDS treatment in the late 1980s and early 1990s occurred because of major changes in medical research brought about by the lay public. In part, AIDS activists were eager to reform clinical trials in the United States. But equally important, the biomedical research community was (ultimately) receptive to this change.

The term citizen science in this blog is used to describe projects where the public engages in scientific research. It is usually through collecting and sharing observations or by coding data online. Citizen science can also be used more broadly to describe ways that the lay public participates in and influences the practice of science. (Indeed, the term “citizen science” was initially coined by Alan Irwin in 1995 to mean just that).

Oraquick_HIVtest_by_Marcello_Casal_Jr

Oraquick HIV test, photo by Marcello Casal Jr

A colleague recently sent me a 1995 journal article by Steven Epstein. Now a prominent sociologist, his article is a condensed version of Epstein’s dissertation research about the social movement of AIDS activists. (For further reading, see his book).

I summarize Epstein’s research in this post. He examined how AIDS activists became seen as credible agents of the scientific community and developed into important partners to AIDS researchers and government officials in the United States.

In 1981, AIDS was recognized as an epidemic. In 1985, the HIV antibody test became available to the public. People, mostly in their twenties and thirties, were learning that they were infected long before they showed any symptoms. But this was long before any effective treatments were discovered. A positive test result was a like a death prophecy. Some accepted their fate; many others became activists searching for a cure.

In the United States, the group primarily seen as affected by the disease were already seasoned activists in making the public aware of gay identity. The homophile movement of the 1950s was followed by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. The gay and lesbian community had already “demedicalized” gayness. They had redefined their social status, becoming a legitimate “interest group” in the pursuit of civil rights. They had resources, people of influence, funding, a strong public relations arm, lobby groups, and community-based organizations.

This group understood that the future of their health required a close working relationship with scientists. Anything less would be group suicide. AIDS research involved all types of scientists who had strong credentials, such as immunologists, virologists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, and physicians. How could the lay public improve their research?

The answer was speed. Initially, AIDS activism focused on the FDA and the desire for more rapid approval of experimental drugs and the ability to obtain unproven treatments from other countries. When none of the existing drugs were working, activists focused on the NIH, seeking more drugs to test. It was in this way that treatment activists influenced not only the design, conduct, and interpretation of clinical trials, but also the speed in which they were carried out. The timeframe for testing the safety and efficacy of AIDS drugs was reduced, counted in months, rather than years. 

Treatment delayed was treatment denied. By 1987, more than 46,000 Americans were infected with HIV and over 13,000 had died from AIDS.

Storm_NIH_die-in_1990_National_Institutes_of_Health_Library_Branson_Collection

Storm the NIH “die-in” in 1990, National Institutes of Health Library, Branson Collection

To take one example, Mark Harrington, a script writer with no scientific background, epitomizes the involvement of AIDS activists in science. Like other activists, Harrington helped ACT UP to organize demonstrations. In 1988, it was “Seize Control of the FDA.” On May 21, 1990, it was “Storm the NIH.” These protests drew attention, but a more nuanced discussion of scientific practices was needed. Activists did not want to be victims, or be powerless or oppressed. They wanted to help discover treatments, even if that meant trying lots of drugs that did not work. Harrington responded by learning the technical details of AIDS, until he could participate knowledgeably in scientific discussions. By 1992, Mark delivered his first plenary at the Eight International AIDS conference.  He began co-authoring peer-reviewed papers, and continued to publish for years (including, for example, a 2006 paper in PLOS Medicine).

How did Harrington go from street demonstrator to scientific collaborator? AIDS activists like Harrington took a four-pronged strategy to gain credibility and authority.

Abacavir_(Ziagen)_300mg_by_Bastique

Activists learned medical language: Abacavir, now used to treat HIV and AIDS, is a nucleoside analog reverse transcriptase inhibitor; photo by Bastique

First, influencing drug testing required a working knowledge of pharmaceutical companies and government. To be successful, the activists had to learn to speak the language of the researchers and learn the culture of medical science. Activists learning about biomedical research found it similar to learning a foreign language and entering another country. Immersion was best. This meant attending scientific conferences, critiquing research projects, even being tutored by scientists. They would read a protocol, learn as much as possible about how the drug is known to work, learn about virology, immune systems, statistics, as well become familiar with the regulations just like an informed patient. Harrington prepared a 50-page dictionary of the vocabulary. Soon activists could talk about viral assays, reverse transcription, cytokine regulation, epitope mapping. Once activists spoke the language, scientists were receptive to discussions.

Second, activists presented themselves as informed, knowledgeable representatives – voices of people who were suffering with AIDS/HIV. Researchers wanted to work with activists too because then they could better ensure that enough people would enroll in their treatment trials and comply with protocols. Activists brokered the relationship between researchers and patients.

Third, activists linked arguments about scientific methodological to moral arguments. For example, early trials were of middle-class white men, but affected populations included injection drug users, people with hemophilia, women, minorities, and heterosexuals. Activists conceived of experimental treatments as a social good to which everyone should have equal access. The history of clinical trials in the United States is full of stories of abuse, lack of informed consent, and people unknowingly exposed to risk and harm. Activists shifted discourse to emphasize the right of human subjects to assume the risks of experimental therapies and to be informed partners in scientific methods. They wanted policy that was credible both morally and scientifically.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, activists were taking sides in debates about clinical trials. Before activists took sides, most researchers performed only randomized, controlled, clinical trials with particular methods that did not allow research subjects to have access to potentially helpful treatment.

People who already tried one treatment would be excluded from tests of a new treatment in the name of “clean data.” But not all researchers believed in clean data. The world, after all, is messy and many researchers thought drugs should be tested in real-world situations.  Activists favored the pragmatic “messy” practice. They feared the “fastidious” practice of clean data from homogenous groups because it prevented terminally-ill patients from trying new treatments.  Activists argued that the only way to obtain clean data in a messy world was to unfairly manipulate and control people. But you could, they and scientist-allies argued, get reliable answers quickly in the real-world if there was a change in clinical trials.

Underlying the four-prong strategy is the basic premise that AIDS clinical trials function simultaneously as research and medical care.

After constant efforts, AIDS activists gained authority, which usually only comes from academic degrees and institutional affiliations. They went from diseased victims to activist-experts. They became citizen scientists.

Today such activists are voting members of NIH committees that oversee drug development.

They are representatives at FDA advisory committee meetings where drugs are considered for approval.

They serve on institutional review boards of hospitals and research centers.

And, like many of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight 17, they fly to global conventions on AIDS research.

Find more posts like Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Patients Who Were Research Subjects and the Doctors Who Listened – the Citizen Science of HIV/AIDS Research by Caren Cooper on the SciStarter Blog. Your source for citizen science and other science you can do.

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Waiting for a butterfly to flutter by with the Los Angeles Butterfly Surveyhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/waiting-butterfly-flutter-los-angeles-butterfly-survey/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/waiting-butterfly-flutter-los-angeles-butterfly-survey/#comments Sun, 20 Jul 2014 15:01:31 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9944 Live in Los Angeles county? Photograph butterflies and moths, and help scientists study climate change. Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects?  We’ve got you covered! “Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one…” [2] In the heat of summer monsoons, butterflies accompany the paddling […]

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Live in Los Angeles county? Photograph butterflies and moths, and help scientists study climate change.

Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects?  We’ve got you covered!

Hyalophora_cecropia-Maro

Hyalophora cecropia [1]

Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one…” [2]

In the heat of summer monsoons, butterflies accompany the paddling turtles in the lake outside my window… butterfly? Wait a minute; I remember dragonflies, not butterflies, from childhood. Nightly news reports every evening that our fragile blue marble is undergoing significant changes. Could butterflies and moths help scientists understand how living organisms adapt to climate change?

More than 174,000 species of butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, or scaly-winged insects, have been cataloged, making them some of the most successful insects to flutter across our planet. Vital to local ecosystems, butterflies and moths are important food sources and pollinators, only differing in their coloration (bold colors vs. drab monochrome) and diurnal/nocturnal range. Yet, only 236 species of butterfly have been observed in Los Angeles County.

Citizen scientists monitoring monarchs on milkweek in Los Angeles. [3]

Citizen scientists monitoring monarchs on milkweek in Los Angeles. [3]

The Los Angeles Butterfly Survey, a partnership between the all-volunteer Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is working with citizen scientists to count and photographically catalogue the butterflies, and moths, found between the urban skyscrapers of southern California.

Becoming a butterfly, or moth, hunter has never been easier. Citizen scientists simply photograph, noting the date, time, and location, of their winged sighting. The photo and observations are then uploaded to the BAMONA website, where experts identify/verify the species before adding the find to their database. The data is used to develop a visual database and life history page for each species including stunning, user-submitted, photographs and maps reflecting recent sightings.

Kelly Lotts, co-founder of BAMONA, notes, “It is very easy for kids to grab cameras and to take photographs of species found where they live or at their school… Kids really enjoy being able to point to their dot on the map, to their actual photograph.”

Hyalophora cecropia, normally found east of the Rocky Mountains, spotted in California.[4]

Hyalophora cecropia, normally found east of the Rocky Mountains, spotted in California.[4]

Since its launch in 2011, the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey has become an invaluable tool encouraging city dwellers to become scientists for the day. Over 628,000 butterfly and moth sightings have been recorded across all of North America; 1320 for southern California. Lotts goes on to explain, “We get a lot of data requests from scientists looking at butterflies as indicators of climate change… in 2011 and 2012, in California, there was a sighting of Hyalophora cecropia each year. This is very unusual as the Cecropia is found in the east of the Rocky Mountains.”

Citizen scientists benefit from their involvement as well. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, they are mapping local species in order to inform planting in the pollinator garden. New projects are sprouting up including the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. According to Lila Higgins, Manager of Citizen Science for the museum, “Citizen scientist are already getting so much out of their experience. They are thinking like scientists – making predictions about what they are going to find in the coming weeks. Talk about science in action.”

Why not grab a camera and enjoy the summer sun while waiting for a butterfly to flutter by?

References and Resources:

[1] Image courtesy Tony Maro (BAMONA submission).
[2] Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail
[3] Image courtesy Wendy Caldwell (Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles).
[4] Data courtesy BAMONA website.


Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of life science and helping the general public explore their world. She holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh for research into how antibiotics kill bacteria, was a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and is a published photographer. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science.  Not content to stay in one place for very long, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, plotting her next epic adventure, or training for the next half marathon.

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UK’s Big Butterfly Count is on!http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/uks-big-butterfly-count/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/uks-big-butterfly-count/#comments Sat, 19 Jul 2014 12:38:00 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9961 Count butterflies to find out about the state of nature. Interested in butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered! From next Saturday 19 July until Sunday 10 August 2014, the Big Butterfly Count will take place in the UK. This citizen science project is organized by Butterfly Conservation UK and can boast being the […]

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Count butterflies to find out about the state of nature.

Interested in butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Small White (Pieris rapae) butterfly feeding on a marigold flower.

Small White (Pieris rapae) butterfly feeding on a marigold flower.

From next Saturday 19 July until Sunday 10 August 2014, the Big Butterfly Count will take place in the UK. This citizen science project is organized by Butterfly Conservation UK and can boast being the largest butterfly count in the world.

The Big Butterfly Count was born in 2010, as Butterfly Conservation UK was keen to attract a wider audience of “butterfly newbies” to participate in one of their projects. For many years, this organization has been staging multiple projects to observe butterflies in the UK, but participation requires not only a deep knowledge of different butterfly species and understanding of their behavior, but also the commitment to go out and count butterflies on a regular basis.

As explained by Richard Fox, from Butterfly Conservation UK, the team felt the need to develop a project more suited to a one-off observation that could be done as a family or by schools, and didn’t assume any background knowledge about butterflies – in essence, a citizen science project! All participants have to do is go out on a sunny day to count and identify the butterflies they see during 15 minutes, then log their results online or via an app. The project focuses on 21 common species of butterflies and moths, and participants can download an easy to follow identification chart to help them work out the species they’ve spotted.

Since it started, the number of participants has been steadily increasing and over 46,000 people spotted 833,000 butterflies and moths in 2013, representing a four-fold increase compared to the previous year. Last year’s bright and sunny days meant considerably more butterflies were detected than in 2012, when bad weather had a strong negative impact on numbers. The “whites” (large white and small white butterflies) managed to dethrone the “browns” from being the most spotted types of butterflies, but the overall trend for virtually all species was up.

The fact that weather affects butterfly numbers is not surprising; many observations going back many years – not only through the Big Butterfly Count but through other projects as well – allows researchers to analyze tendencies and understand the impact of climate change on wildlife. Results showed that 2013, despite being considerably better than 2012, was merely an average year when compared to data from the 70s and 80s.  Butterflies in the UK have been on a downward path for the last 10 years, both in terms of abundance and distribution across the country.

To assess the long-term impact on butterfly and moth numbers, Butterfly Conservation UK is keen to continue with the Big Butterfly Count, to find out whether butterflies are able to go back to those record-breaking days or if, even with a good summer, numbers will never the same due to their changing habitat. The organization emphasizes the importance of assessing butterfly population, describing it as “taking the pulse of nature”. As these insects are able to respond very quickly to changes in the environment, even a small drop in numbers can be seen as an early warning sign for further biodiversity losses.

While working side-by-side with the general public, Fox found the experience very rewarding, receiving many positive comments from participants so far. Butterfly Conservation UK hopes this project can work as a stepping stone for some of the most dedicated participants, motivating them to progress to more detailed projects and become regular contributors.

So, if you happen to be in the UK during the counting period, why not go for a bit of butterfly spotting? You can do it sitting down in a park (just make sure you don’t count the same butterfly twice!) or going for a walk in the woods, whichever you prefer.

Looking for ways to count butterflies? Check out the SciStarter project finder.

Resources:
Big Butterfly Count 
Butterfly Conservation UK

Image: Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons


Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

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Kestrels in the Cityhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/kestrels-city/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/kestrels-city/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 13:04:57 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9924 With the help of the public, researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, have found out that the Eurasian kestrel can be “seduced” by the city lights, but this decision comes at a cost, with lower reproductive success and a poorer diet. Urbanization is a global event that is invading natural habitats, inevitably leading to […]

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Common kestrel falco tinnunculus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Common kestrel falco tinnunculus
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

With the help of the public, researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, have found out that the Eurasian kestrel can be “seduced” by the city lights, but this decision comes at a cost, with lower reproductive success and a poorer diet.

Urbanization is a global event that is invading natural habitats, inevitably leading to a decrease in biodiversity. However, rather surprisingly, this is actually creating new habitats for some species. “Most city dwelling birds are exploiting human resources, like garbage dumps (for example gulls), feeders (granivore birds), or artificial nest sites/nest boxes for cavity breeders”, said Petra Sumasgutner, lead author in the study. “If a species can exploit the urban environment is therefore very much connected to what it needs in its natural habitat”.

In particular, the Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) is frequently associated with urban landscapes, and Vienna seems to be a popular destination for these birds. For years, Sumasgutner observed kestrels building their nests in small cavities, abundant in old historic buildings, and her scientific curiosity led to further questions about how this is affecting the species.

To find these much wanted answers, her team decided to investigate occupied nest sites in and around Vienna, along a gradient of urbanization from least covered to most covered by buildings. Since coverage of the entire city of Vienna looking for kestrels required many watchful eyes, researchers enlisted the help of volunteers to help them in this search over 3 years. “It was a lot of effort to work with the media and the general public, but it was also a lot of fun. Especially the collaboration with the chimney sweepers and the firefighters was the best”, said Sumasgutner.

It turned out that, although the availability of breeding cavities attracts many birds to highly urbanized areas, city life is not all that’s cracked up to be for kestrels. Birds nesting in the city were more likely to abandon the nest, resulting in lower hatching rates and smaller fledged broods than those breeding in the outskirts. The authors suggest this effect may be a consequence of a forced change in the bird’s diets while staying in the city, as their natural ability to hunt rodents on the ground needed to shift to find small birds instead.

At first, it may seem these city-dwelling raptors are exploiting the urban environment, but a closer look reveals what the authors called an “ecological trap”, with unexpected costs both in terms of reproductive success and prey availability. When asked about the future of kestrels in the city, Sumasgutner’s answer is clear: “not at all in the inner-city”. After observing how kestrels can also nest in purpose-built nest boxes, the author suggested using “the same mechanism which attracts kestrels to breed in highly urbanized areas to actually lure them in a more suitable habitat, like buildings around larger city parks or also the suburban area of Vienna”.

Maybe this could be their next citizen science project, again enrolling the help of the public to save the kestrel. After all, “I would work again in a citizen science project”, concluded Sumasgutner.

Interested in kestrel citizen science projects?  Monitor American kestrels with the American Kestrel Partnership or the Massachusetts Audubon American Kestrel Monitoring Project.


Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

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Exploring a Culture of Health: How Can We Visualize Health Data for Better Communication?http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/exploring-culture-health-can-visualize-health-data-better-communication/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/exploring-culture-health-can-visualize-health-data-better-communication/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 20:53:59 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9934 This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come. There is a […]

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vizhealth front image

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

There is a seemingly endless stream of health data. Visit the doctor and you get a report listing various bits of data such as your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Listen to the news and you hear statistics on risk factors, medication side effects or mortality rates. All potentially useful information, but without background or context, the numbers are likely confusing, meaningless and eventually forgotten. “For health data to be meaningful, the person needs to see themselves in that data. To make this happen, we need to understand how to present data so that it conveys a complete message, not just a number,” says Andrea Ducas, program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

A team of scientists from the University of Michigan team set out to solve this problem, creating Visualizing Health, with support from RWJF, to explore ways to visualize health data. When designed well, visuals can be powerful tools for conveying information. “What we lack is data on how best to present data,” says Thomas Goetz, former RWJF Entrepreneur-in-Residence and collaborator on Visualizing Health.

LATIGRE_IR15BTo test how best to visualize health data, the Michigan team created a list of 16 common risk communication problems – scenarios in which an individual would need to understand

health-related information to assess a particular risk. Example scenarios include assessing tradeoffs between different medications or treatment options, or relating personal biomarkers such as cholesterol levels to various health risks. The team presented the list to graphic designers who purposefully did not have a background in health communication. “We wanted them to think outside the box,” says  Ducas. The graphic designers created multiple images for each scenario, each one addressing the problem of risk communication in a different way. Finally, each visualization was tested and compared with the others for clarity through surveys with everyday consumers and citizens.

“The main takeaway from the study is that there is no one way to present data. It really depends on your communication goal,” explains Dr. Brian Zikmund-Fisher, assistant professor of Health Behavior and Health Education and the lead researcher of the University of Michigan team. “While the visualization needs to represent the data truthfully, it also needs to be purpose-driven. But one should also be aware that changing how the data is presented can drastically change its message. Depending on how the data is formatted, the same number can increase alarm or allay fears. It is a critical consideration, and as communicators, we have a responsibility to take ownership of how we present data.”

Visualizing Health’s website provides a gallery of all the images tested and a relative ranking of how each fared in comprehension and clarity scores. “The gallery has a wizard that guides the visitor through the gallery and reinforces the point of identifying one’s communication goals,” explains Zikmund-Fisher. “By asking a few questions upfront — like ‘are you communicating a specific fact or a relative relationship?’ — it helps the visitor clarify his or her purpose. Then the wizard provides a collection of images. This allows the visitor to compare and contrast the impact of subtle design differences and illustrates that there are different ways to achieve the same goal.” To make it easier for end users to understand how to use the site, the team even created a comic illustrating two real-world scenarios in which an educator uses Visualizing Health.

All the images are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they are free to download, reproduce and adapt. “We want the project and its website to be a platform to spur discussion on how researchers and the design community can collaborate on health communication,” says Ducas. “We want health educators, journalists, and anyone in the position of communicating health data to be able to use and learn from the project. And we are already thinking about how the website can be used to create customizable images.”

A secondary goal of this project was to create a model for “lean science,” continues Ducas. “We purposefully conducted our surveys through online tools, which are relatively affordable and accessible, showing you don’t need a huge budget to conduct well-crafted research. This type of lean science promotes more democratized access to research by lowering barriers and increasing inclusiveness.” The complete report of the project’s study, including the team’s methodology, is available here.

This project is just the beginning of the research that can be done. Zikmund-Fisher sees lots of opportunities for individuals to help test and gather data about data visualization and communication. “Say a journalist is writing about cancer risks and wanted to include a risk chart. Instead of creating one chart, create two charts and test which one communicates the data better. The difference might be small, but we could still learn a lot. Instead of guessing that we are successful in communication, let’s gather the data to show it and learn from it.”

Visualizing Health is designed to greatly benefit from your input. What design ideas do you have? What data gathering techniques can you think of? Visit the project and tell us in the comments below what recommendations you have for making Visualizing Health a more valuable resource for designers and health care providers.

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Interested in contributing to health-related citizen science projects? Here are other ways to help researchers generate and visualize health related data:

GoViral is a project run through the Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital which generates real-time data on flu infections and symptoms within a geographical area.  Participants report symptoms using a mobile app or through their website. Check out their map to see the status of flu symptoms in the Boston area.

The Kinsey Reporter is a project exploring how to generate behavioral data while protecting user identities. Using a mobile-based survey, the project gathers and visualizes anonymous data about sexual behaviors and sexual practices around the world. The collected data is accessible online and downloadable for offline analysis.

Both GoViral and Kinsey Reporter are part of a database of more than 800 citizen science projects created and managed by SciStarter, an online citizen science hotspot.

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Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Does citizen science get lost in translation?http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/citizen-science-in-other-languages/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/citizen-science-in-other-languages/#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 01:35:28 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9916 Every week, Caren Cooper’s Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop delves into relevant citizen science topics.  During a recent trip to Italy for a citizen science summer course, Caren discovered the challenges of communicating about citizen science.  While the definition itself is open to interpretation, the word “citizen science” is also not a universally-known term.  In the […]

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every week, Caren Cooper’s Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop delves into relevant citizen science topics.  During a recent trip to Italy for a citizen science summer course, Caren discovered the challenges of communicating about citizen science.  While the definition itself is open to interpretation, the word “citizen science” is also not a universally-known term.  In the spirit of citizen science, Twitter was crowdsourced for translations, and nine different ways to say citizen science were summarized.

Caren ended the blog with the following question:

Do you know of the use of the term citizen science in other languages? In which languages does it translate? Where does it not translate?

You can share your responses in the comments section of her blog, or in the comments below.

Find more posts like Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Does citizen science get lost in translation? by Rae Moore on the SciStarter Blog. Your source for citizen science and other science you can do.

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Our Daily Moth: Celebrate National Moth Week with Mothinghttp://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/our-daily-moth-national-moth-week-mothing/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/our-daily-moth-national-moth-week-mothing/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 03:18:45 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9904 Celebrate National Moth Week by photographing moths to help scientists predict and manage moth populations. Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects?  We’ve got you covered! In 1991 John Pickering (everyone calls him Pick) switched from doing agriculture and health work to the one thing that had been his original motivation for pursuing […]

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Celebrate National Moth Week by photographing moths to help scientists predict and manage moth populations.

Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects?  We’ve got you covered!

John Pickering, aka Pick, photographing moths.

Dr. John Pickering (aka Pick) photographs a moth at his home.

In 1991 John Pickering (everyone calls him Pick) switched from doing agriculture and health work to the one thing that had been his original motivation for pursuing a PhD in Biology at Harvard University—biodiversity. Born in the UK, he grew up in the English countryside, and was drawn to nature. By the age of six, he had built an insect zoo for wooly bears and ballbugs, and a few years later he had been converted to the collectors’ “culture of death”: catch it, kill it, pin it, put it in a museum. Before long he was running Malaise insect traps from Canada to Panama, which is an efficient way of filling collection cabinets and freezers full of dead insects. The first step in this process was to throw away the by-catch—moths. Little did John know that his love for nature would ultimately lead him to develop something as unusual as the Moth Party.

Natural Experiments
“I got really interested in these Malaise traps,” says Pick. “We had them in Maryland, Tennesse, North Carolina, and Georgia amongst others, and at the time we published a paper about something called the natural experiment.” A natural experiment has multiple sites, and if some sites get a rainstorm and other sites don’t, scientists can use that to tease out what they are monitoring. Understanding the potential of large-scale impacts, such as a polar vortex or climate change, on biological systems is not easily accomplished. It’s just not pragmatic to perform random experiments at the state or national level, and then also replicate them to either confirm or remove certain influences. Scientists will often perform what they call ‘pseudo-replication’ to take care of this. Mothing, in contrast uses natural field experiments—taking advantage of droughts or urban heat islands for example, to study such occurrences. And it’s very simple.

A moth party at Dr. Pickering's home.

A moth party at Dr. Pickering’s home.

Pick says, “We photograph moths at lights before dawn every night—I have been doing this with only one interruption, when I suffered a heart attack I was out for four days—to identify species, document how communities change seasonally, and what happens over, say a twenty year period in response to changes in weather patterns, land-use, air quality, and other variables.” When three polar vortexes came through last winter for example, two-thirds of the moth population was destroyed. If the team had enough sites they could have confirmed if it was the vortex that killed the moths—only the sites affected by the weather would have demonstrated the same level of deaths.

Mothing participants can rapidly collect and share phenomenal quantities of high-quality data from numerous study sites with modern digital photography and online tools.  A regular camera or DSLR is more suitable than a cellphone, although you will be able to photograph what Pick calls macro moths, or the big moths, with a phone camera. By collectively monitoring moth communities, this magic ‘Moth Team’ can take advantage of natural experiments to better understand, predict and manage moth populations and their interactions with other species.

Data in Exchange for Education

Moth statistics.

Moth statistics.

Mothing has a long list of scientific goals on their website but Nancy Lowe, the outreach coordinator for Discover Life (the parent organization for Mothing) says, “I am as excited about our education and outreach opportunities as I am about our research results. Mothing’s educational objective is to involve the public in all aspects of the project from hypothesis generation, data collection, identification, analysis, and presentation of results.” Pick says, “You give us data, and we’ll give you an education!” As the next step, Pick, Nancy and the team are currently developing Moth Math to teach students how to analyze real-time moth data. That will lump math, science, natural history and more into one exciting project. In partnership with the Moth Photographers Group that provided 40,000 diagnostic photographs, Discover Life now provides online identification guides to 12,000 moth species customized by U.S. state or by Canadian province or territory. Pick says they hope to work this down to the county level. Together the team has close to 400,000 photographs in their database.

“Moths are exciting,” says Nancy. “They are charismatic creatures, highly diverse, economically important as herbivores in larval stage, as pollinators in adult stage, and as important source of food for migratory songbirds in all stages. Anyone can set up a mothing site without having to travel through a tick-infested field site, they don’t bite, and they come to you!” Their identification using photos is fairly easy, with the exception of a few species. In short, they are a great way to teach natural history and share science with the public.

There is a staggering amount of diversity within the moth family. “The excitement and wonder of the diversity of moths across our study sites is enormous,” says Pick. “At my house we’ve now photographed over 1,100 moth species and counting [1]. This is more species than birds ever recorded in North America!” Most folks, even in urban areas, should expect at least a couple of hundred species to come to their porch lights.

To highlight the importance of moths, National Moth Week was created to engage citizen scientists. This includes summer mothing parties, gardens especially designed to attract moths, and even an effort to light up a white wall at every nature center in the country. Mothing is now encouraging everyone including natural history museums and Audubon chapters to sign up their location as a study site.

References:
[1] Data for moth species

Resources:
The Night Stalkers slideshow (Audubon Magazine)
Nancy Lowe, nancy@discoverlife.org

Image Credits:
Top center: Rainey Gregg
Right: Tori Staples
Bottom left: John Pickering


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. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.

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Get Ready for CitSci.org’s July Feature Fridayhttp://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/get-ready-citsci-orgs-july-feature-friday/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/get-ready-citsci-orgs-july-feature-friday/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 20:35:50 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9898 Want to learn about downloading data and data management in citizen science?  Take part in CitSci.org’s Feature Friday! What: This Feature Friday is focusing on downloading data from CitSci.org. Who: Any one who has an interest in data management in a Citizen Science setting. Come voice your valuable input to improve CitSci.org and discuss citizen science with […]

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Want to learn about downloading data and data management in citizen science?  Take part in CitSci.org’s Feature Friday!

What: This Feature Friday is focusing on downloading data from CitSci.org.
Who: Any one who has an interest in data management in a Citizen Science setting. Come voice your valuable input to improve CitSci.org and discuss citizen science with researchers, volunteers, and project leaders.
WhenJuly 11, 2014 (1-2 pm MST)
How to join:
1. Join the meeting at : https://global.gotomeeting.com/meeting/join/234907677
2. Use either your microphone and speakers (VoIP) – a headset is recommended – Or, call in using your telephone:

Dial: +1 (646) 749-3131
Access Code: 234-907-677
Meeting ID: 234-907-677
Audio PIN: Shown after joining the meeting

Learn about CitSci.org.

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Citizen Science Essay Contest – Deadline July 13 at 11:59pm CT!http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/citizen-science-essay-contest/ http://scistarter.com/blog/2014/07/citizen-science-essay-contest/#comments Wed, 09 Jul 2014 15:33:26 +0000 http://scistarter.com/blog/?p=9893 Do you have a citizen science story? Tell us in this essay contest — your story could end up in Discover Magazine! Science is all around us – and now anyone can be a scientist! Citizen scientists study everything from distant galaxies to firefly populations, helping researchers collect valuable data. We want to hear about […]

Find more posts like Citizen Science Essay Contest – Deadline July 13 at 11:59pm CT! by Lily Bui - Executive Editor on the SciStarter Blog. Your source for citizen science and other science you can do.

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Do you have a citizen science story? Tell us in this essay contest — your story could end up in Discover Magazine!

Science is all around us – and now anyone can be a scientist! Citizen scientists study everything from distant galaxies to firefly populations, helping researchers collect valuable data.

We want to hear about your experiences as a citizen scientist. Tell us, in 250 words or less, your story of participating in crowdsourced science – what you did, what you thought about it, or maybe a funny thing that happened on your way to the field.

We’ll choose our favorite essays to run in our October print issue, and five lucky winners will receive a free one-year subscription to Discover.

But hurry! The contest ends July 13 at 11:59pm CT.

SciStarter and Discover have partnered up to help you find out more about citizen science opportunities. Keep an eye out for the Citizen Science Alert in Discover’s print editions!

Image: USGS.gov

This post originally appeared on DiscoverMagazine.com’s Citizen Science Salon.

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