Community science – also known as citizen science – has huge appeal for researchers who want to collect larger data sets and engage the public in their work. But is the data collected in this way useful?
Supported by technology, community science allows researchers to harness the power of the public interest by using their voluntary contributions to collect data. In this way, scientists can collect and analyze more information faster than they otherwise could, and potentially save on research costs as well.
But a key principle in scientific data collection is accuracy and consistency. What community science offers over traditional research methods is only as good as the quality of the data the participants produce. In a new study, researchers put this quality to the test.
Herbarium collections in museums around the world – of which there are over 3,000, with an estimated 350 million specimens – are in the process of being digitized, allowing the public to “get close” to the specimens without affecting their preservation. But despite digitization, researchers say, museum specimens are still underutilized.
Study author and botanist Matt von Konrath, head of plant collections at the Chicago Field Museum, says public science can change that.
“Crowd data projects … have the potential to greatly accelerate the discovery and documentation of biodiversity from digital images of scientific specimens,” he notes.
Public interest can speed up the process of manual tasks such as measuring herbarium specimens. For a museum with thousands of specimens, leveraging foot traffic from avid visitors makes a lot of sense.
To test this approach, the researchers used data from a touchscreen kiosk in a museum exhibit. The pavilion offered attendees an animated tutorial on how to measure the lobules (leaf-like structures) of liverworts, a type of plant related to moss.
After viewing the tutorial, participants were shown a randomly selected image of a liverwort specimen from the museum’s collection and asked to make their own measurement of its lobules.
Patrons were instructed to create two intersecting lines through each lobule, each representing latitude and longitude. They were asked to create lines that intersect at right angles and record a measurement for each line in pixels. The images were scaled so that 1 pixel equals 1.05 microns, as liverworts – one of the earliest known land plants – are quite small.
The researchers also attempted to collect data on the age of the participants, roughly summarized as children (ages 10 and under), teens (ages 10 to 18), and adults (18+).
To test how “good” each input from the science community is, researchers compare it to that of an expert using the same methods to see if there is a statistically significant difference. The results exceeded their expectations.
The researchers predicted that about 50 percent of the measurements would pass the data cleaning process and that older age groups would be able to provide much better data than children.
“We didn’t know if there would be children who would draw pictures on the touch screen instead of measuring leaves, or if they would be able to follow the lesson as well as adults,” says lead researcher Melanie Pivarski, a mathematician at Roosevelt University.
But after cleaning and analyzing the community scientists’ data (which included nearly 6,700 measured lobules), the study found that 60 percent of all records matched the experts’ measurements.
“All age groups from toddlers, families, youth and adults were able to generate high-quality taxonomic data sets, making observations and preparing measurements, and at the same time empowering community scientists through authentic contributions to science,” says von Konrath.
Pivarski said they were particularly amazed at how well the kids did the task.
In 2017, the pavilion is part of Patterns: Unlocking the Secrets of Life in the Field Museum. In 2018, he was featured in the Grainger Science Hub, Field Museum member dinners, and other events.
IN Specimens demonstration, 41 percent of data entered by children (who were not assisted by older friends or relatives) were statistically similar enough to the expert’s measurement to be used for research.
At the Science Hub, 50 percent of the data from the youngest age group—children under 10—made the cut.
“This means that the children did a remarkable job of following instructions and taking . . . measurements seriously,” the researchers noted in their paper.
While other studies have found that budding citizen scientists can overestimate species diversity, the new findings really give credit to community science projects, suggesting that they can indeed be used to both engage the public in scientific research and collect of some good data.
This article was published in Research ideas and results.