From The Ground Up: Science For The Community

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My last post talked about how ideas get transferred from the laboratory to markets so that they can be used by millions of people. What I’m going to talk about today is the other side of the coin – the way millions of people can use smartphones and today’s tech to help advance scientific research and improve the world.

 

In other words – citizen scientists and how they help the clean tech and big data fields.

One place where the community has been essential in understanding what’s going on in our world is in biodiversity and wildlife monitoring. Collecting data about where the different species are, what’s going on with their habitats has always been something that is hard and expensive to do for scientists. Imagine the effort it takes to distribute sensors and collect enough data about animals like tigers and bears!

 

Scientists and policy makers have always relied to some extent on data collected by enthusiastic amateurs to help round out their data collection efforts in these fields – bird watching societies, indigenous peoples’ observations and school science projects. What’s really interesting is the way tools today, especially the smartphone, are helping to make the citizen science datasets even more useful and valuable.

 

INaturalist is an excellent example of how citizen science, big data and clean tech come together. It’s an app on the phone that can be used to record observations about what animals, plants, bugs and other biota – data which is then sent to the cloud and shared with scientists working on biodiversity issues. As more people in different regions use the app, the data collected becomes larger and more useful – and the scientists can use it to help answer different questions – how species are adapting to a changing climate for example.

 

The exciting part from the data science perspective is the way that an app like this marries data collection, data processing and social networking. Figuring out how to store, manage and process the data that gets uploaded is one of the problems that data scientists in all fields wrestle with every day. Adding a social component where the community of users can discuss and help each other out with the data makes the problem even more interesting – now we can look at questions like which species seem to be the most easily identified, how do people with different expertise and skill levels contribute to the data collection…..?

 

This is one of the fun parts of integrating clean tech and data science – it’s not just about ads or chatting with friends – we get to incorporate all the interesting work on communications, social networks and big data on a really cool problem that helps us understand the world around us.


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