While there are dozens of Web sites and projects dedicated to the "citizen science" movement, they tend to fall under one of three categories. The first are computer programs that run on idle computers. These programs use the extra computing power for folding protein structures, looking for extraterrestrial life and everything in between. The second type involves a bit more work on the volunteers part, asking them to map, photograph or identify geographical areas they know well. And, the third and most diverse category is the 'field reporter' category, where volunteers are encouraged to observe birds, insects or plants in their neighborhoods or backyards and contribute data to larger tracking projects.
Foldit, a downloadable puzzle game created by researchers at the University of Washington, asks volunteer gamers to compete online to find new, stable structures for proteins that could help cure diseases. If you don't have the time to fold with all your other "citizen science" experiments bubbling, you can run Rosetta@Home on your idle computer, giving those UW researchers more power to run 3-dimensional-protein calculations. LHC@Home, which used your computer in the same way, helped physicists at the Large Hadron Collider simulate its particle accelerator.
Protein folding Puzzle 48 from Foldit (http://fold.it/portal/info/science)
World Water Monitoring Day encourages global citizen scientists to test local water sources and report the information to a shared Web site. The project is overseen by the Water Environment Federation and the International Water Association, who hope to expand participation from 73,510 people in 70 countries in 2008 to one million people in 100 countries by 2012.
A World Water Monitoring Day test kit, available from the website. (www.citizensci.com)
Butterfly Citizen Science
The Monarch Butterfly in North America Web site has many opportunities for citizen scientists to observe and record the lives of the monarchs, from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project to Project Monarch Health (which requires volunteers to collect parasite spores from live monarchs to help scientists map locations of disease in butterfly populations). Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas, had hoped to increase the number of waystations (for butterfly breeding) in its project from 1,250 in late 2008 to 10,000 in 2011, but economic realities may lead to the project's end.
Monarch Butterfly Watch offers many opportunities to observe and record the lives of Monarchs (Flickr user docentjoyce (by:cc))
Saving the Bees
The bee population is dwindling, which means fewer pollinated flowers and possibly less food for us. Enter citizen science. By recording the bees at sunflowers in your garden, the Great Sunflower Project is mapping the challenges bees face in urban environments so others can develop a plan to save them.
The Great Sunflower Project sends volunteers sunflower plants to attract and monitor bees. (Flickr user robstephaustralia (by:cc))
More than Birdwatching
For the Audubon Society, "at home" means in your backyard, not in front of a glowing screen. They've been running The Christmas Bird Count since 1900 and have teamed with Cornell's Lab of Ornithology on eBird, a project that asks birders to submit a list of birds they've seen. All together, it's become one of the biggest records of biodiversity out there. Cornell's Citizen Science site has a number of birdwatching projects to choose from as well, and their research has lead to the USA National Phenology Network is looking for citizen scientists to monitor plant phenology (the impact of climate change on plants and animals). Anyone can sign up as an observer, contributing flowering and "leaf out" data to a growing list of 200 plant species from across the United States. The project aims to include animal watching in the study by 2010. Listen to Chandler Robbins, who protected the original set of bird-watching cards from another volunteer phenology project, The North American Bird Phenology Program, which continued for almost a century. And, view more photos and hear from Jessica Zelt about the project's digital upgrade.
The NPN is looking for volunteers to monitor over 200 plant species across the US (Flickr user Anika Malone (by:cc))
Open Street Map is an editable map of the world that's also free. The site encourages users to become "neographers" by editing and including parks, hospitals, churches, gardens and museums they know well.
Open Street Map lets users map areas they know well (OpenStreetMap.com)
Photography from the Stratosphere
Four Spanish students sent a camera into space with a helium-filled weather balloon and took pictures 20 miles above ground. They used Google Earth to track its progress. The latex balloon cost the students a reasonable $60, so it's possible that some of the three million visitors the students reported had visited their Web site will also want to become citizen scientists and photograph the sky.
These four Spanish students sent an $80 digital camera up in a makeshift weather balloon to take photos of the stratosphere. (Flickr user meteotek08 (by:cc))
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life
It's easy to collect radio signals from telescopes, but researchers don't have the computing power to analyze that data, which could contain hello messages from intelligent life. Berkeley has been asking you to complete the experiment by processing the data since 1999, when they first turned your PC into an alien finder with the SETI@home (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) screensaver. Since then, about one million PCs have been commandeered for 3 million PC-hours of searching. They've found zero million aliens.
SETI@Home lets users search for extraterrestrial life with their PC's (Flickr user bionicteaching (by:cc))
Galactic Citizen Science
The Galaxy Zoo's database contains nearly a quarter of a million galaxies. Citizen scientists then classify the galaxies by shape. Among the credits of the 200,000 Zoo members is the discovery of Hanny's Voorwerp, a still-mysterious green object picked up by a Spanish telescope. And the number of enthusiasts is growing: The Web site 100 Hours of Astronomy recently challenged international participants to classify one million galaxies in 100 hours — they exceeded the goal, classifying about 1.5 million.
Galaxy Zoo lets users identify features of galaxies taken with a robotic telescope. (Flickr user Jared Smith (by:cc))