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Collaborating with crowds

Harini Barath

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In the last week of April, hundreds of enthusiasts from all over the country roamed their neighbourhoods, armed with cameras and notepads, chronicling trees. Launched on Earth Day this year, the weeklong Neighbourhood Trees campaign roped in citizen scientists to document tree species across India. While many of them uploaded photographs of trees, some of them proved to be experts in identifying the various species of trees posted online.

This initiative is only one instance of the growing trend of soliciting the active participation of amateurs and nonscientists in science and conservation. Some of them serve as a platform for “public participation in scientific research” and come under the umbrella of Citizen Science (also called crowd science, civic science or networked science). The volunteers are aware and actively engaged in the science and may even be considered collaborators. eBird, which acts as an online log for an international network of birdwatchers, is an example. Others belong in the realm of crowdsourcing, a portmanteau of the words “crowds and “outsourcing”. The project is often designed by researchers to answer a scientific question, but the participants can contribute without knowing much, or any, of the science.


The lines are sometimes blurry and some initiatives like the Trees campaign attract both types of participation. “Citizen Science is, in a way, a sub-area of crowdsourcing,” says Prabhakar Rajagopal, Director of Strand Life Sciences and part of the team that conducted the Neighbourhood Trees campaign. “What we would like, is Citizen Science. We would like volunteers to contribute information and follow it. We do not want citizens to be passive data collectors. We would like them to understand and appreciate the biodiversity around them and its importance”, he added.

Amateur contribution to science is hardly new. Astronomy and ornithology have benefited hugely from public interest for centuries. The Christmas Bird Count, which is curated by the National Audubon Society, is a yearly holiday tradition where people gather together to count birds across US and Canada . It has been around since December 1900. The last few decades have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of Citizen Science projects that have taken wing. Technology, the Internet and social media have greatly influenced how information can be solicited and sourced and have also vastly increased the reach of these projects.

Crowdsourced projects also come in a variety of flavours. ‘Gamification’ is an increasingly popular approach. Researchers design games and puzzles that channel video gamers’ competitive natures and extensive problem-solving skills to tackle long-standing research questions. The Internet has been of vital importance to the success of this approach, making these games readily accessible to millions of people all over the world.

In 2011, Foldit, an online puzzle game, where users wrestle with proteins to find the best way to fold them, made a splash when the players helped scientists unravel the structure of an AIDS-causing monkey virus in just 10 days—the structure had remained unsolved for 15 years. More recently, the most skillful players of “the game to map the brain”, Eyewire, were specially roped in to trace how retinal cells detect motion, a visual science problem that has remained a mystery for 50 years now. The results of the study were published earlier this year in Nature, with more than 2000 gamers acknowledged as co-authors—a resounding endorsement for enthusiastic Citizen Scientists. What these games have cleverly tapped into is the unique human ability for pattern recognition, something that we still find very hard to teach our machines to do.

Other projects call for participation of a different nature. Many ecological, meteorological and conservation-related initiatives employ volunteers to collect data, make observations and monitor resources or populations. A crowd of people can reach and cover a much larger area than a team of researchers. Occasionally, locals have a singular understanding of their environment which such efforts draw on/profit from/are a boon to researchers.

It is this flavor of Citizen Science that is taking root in India—the most well-known initiatives are currently in the field of ecology. In 2007, Indian ecologist Suhel Qader initiated Migrant Watch, a project where observers all over India report the time and location of the first sighting of a migratory bird in a season. Season Watch, that tracks the seasons through fruit and flowering patterns, followed in its wake. Conservation India, Common Bird Monitoring of India and Citizen Sparrow are other similar efforts that have met with some success.

The Neighbourhood Trees initiative was an outreach program of the larger Indian Biodiversity Portal, an open archive of crowdsourced information on biodiversity in India. Member of the portal’s core team, Prabhakar Rajagopal said, “The Indian context is somewhat paradoxical. It is very rich in biodiversity and has been biologically explored for centuries and continues to this day. Yet, there is no easy way to access these vast amounts of information. The Indian Biodiversity Portal is an attempt to create a repository of information, by encouraging people to take this up as a program, as a movement and go out to collect information”.

The group has a whole host of activities and initiatives are in the pipeline. The 7th annual Vembanad Fish Count is currently underway. They also plan to launch an initiative as part of the National Moth Week, which starts on July 17, 2014. “Moths are specialized, not like trees, which are found everywhere. They come out at night and it won’t be easy for people to capture them and put photos up on the portal. So it will be challenge to make this work,” said Prabhakar. Another long-term plan is to map the spread and distribution of invasives in the country, a project that could be a very potent research tool. Looking to take a technological leap forward, the team also has plans to partner with experts to come up with a mobile gaming app. Other groups are working hard to increase local participation in the worldwide Great Backyard Bird Count, which happens in February every year.

Citizen Science is well established in the West, but it is in its infancy in India. Researchers are still learning the ropes—setting up stable platforms for people to upload information to, and using print, digital and social media to solicit participation. The current levels of public participation too leave a lot to be desired. The number of people who volunteer do not yet satisfy researchers’ expectations given the large and diverse population of the country. “The cultural and social milieus need to be considered. What works in the West may not work for us in India”, said Prabhakar. The numbers do show a gradual upward trend, and this augurs well for the future of Citizen Science in India.

The reception towards Citizen Science initiatives by the scientific community is mixed. “I think it is increasingly gaining acceptance,” Prabhakar opined. A lot of researchers are beginning to use Citizen Science as a means of gathering information quickly and across a widespread area. Of course, crowdsourcing and citizen science have their drawbacks. It is very important for researchers analyzing the data to be aware of the biases that could exist in Citizen Science, cautions Prabhakar. “The common cockroach will not be posted on the portal. But the uncommon moth will find its place there. Accessible areas will be better represented than inaccessible ones.”

Scientists are particularly wary—they are concerned (sometimes, rightly so) about the correctness and veracity of the data. “Our greatest critique has been the scientific community, unfortunately”, Prabhakar admitted frankly. He added, “One must be aware of the problems with the data. But, that you cannot identify 25 species if you don’t have a PhD, is not correct. That attitude is breaking down and it will break down completely over time.”