Citizens are helping government reach its ambitious scientific goals

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The government is looking for everyday people to help collect, study or parse information related to various scientific projects.

From the outside, the federal government is sometimes viewed like a giant machine or even an unknowable entity. It works extremely effectively but can also seem like a black box, operating out of sight and away from the eyes of non-government employees. While that can be true, there are also places where the government touches everyday citizens and sometimes even actively asks for help in accomplishing important projects.

Some of the best examples of the public working hand-in-hand with government to accomplish important tasks are the Citizen Science Projects sponsored by NASA. There are 36 projects currently available, where the government is looking for everyday people to help collect, study or parse information related to various scientific projects. Some of those efforts, like the Lake Observations project, ask people to set up monitoring stations and collect information about the changing water levels in various lakes around the world. That is particularly important for smaller lakes that aren’t easily monitored by satellites, and for which almost no data is currently being collected. Other projects, like GLOBE Observer, invite people to use an app to monitor cloud cover and standing water, and then relate that to mosquito populations.

But not every project requires that users don mosquito netting or get their feet wet. Other efforts like the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics — or MAPPPD — project only need helpers to pour over satellite images looking for penguin poop to help identify possible undiscovered colonies of those birds in their snowy habitats. Along the same lines, the Floating Forests project asks people to identify masses of kelp plants around the world by looking at colorful satellite images.

And the projects have seen some real successes, with 410 citizen scientists — what NASA calls its cadre of volunteers — being named as co-authors on referenced scientific publications, thanks to their hard work in the field or their efforts pouring over maps and other data.

One of the oldest and most successful of the Citizen Science efforts is the cutely named Aurorasaurus project — which, yes, sounds like a dinosaur. It was started in 2014 to allow people around the world to help NASA capture and document auroras, which are caused by an intricate dance of particles and magnetism occurring between the Earth and the Sun. The most famous aurora is probably the Northern Lights, but according to NASA, smaller auroras happen all the time, and are sometimes so dim that they are difficult to see without the aid of a camera using special settings. The Aurorasaurus project’s website shows people how to capture auroras and geolocate them on a map of the world.

The project is run by NASA Goddard Space Scientist and Aurorasaurus Principal Investigator Elizabeth MacDonald. And she says that working with the public is a big key to the success of the project so far.

“The public are truly keen and agile, and with auroras they have advantages over fixed professional-grade cameras stemming from their mobility, which allows them to be in the right place with clear skies at the right time, with the right equipment,” MacDonald said. “They are also highly skilled, and people are better than machines at noticing truly unusual features.”

And, because of the public, NASA was able to record a special aurora event for the first time in human history.

“Working with the public has been incredibly helpful, and the partnerships have been both professionally and personally rewarding,” MacDonald said. “But the most notable out-of-this-world result has been the incredible STEVE discovery.”

STEVE, which is short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, looks like a thin purple ribbon of light. Scientists have now learned that STEVE events may be a critical clue when looking at how Earth's magnetic fields function and interact with charged particles in space. And it was recorded first by citizen scientists.

But MacDonald and others are not resting on past achievements. In fact, they are hoping to recruit even more citizen scientists, because they will have a lot for them to do in the near future as we reach a new solar maximum — the point in the traditional 11-year cycle when the Sun’s activity is at its highest.

“At Aurorasaurus we are gearing up for the solar maximum, which will be the first where most people's cell phones can take a great aurora photo,” she said. “We are also participating in a new innovative initiative called the Heliophysics Big Year tying together the upcoming eclipses, solar maximum, Heliophysics missions and participatory sciences. So we are very excited about that!”

And if some potential citizen scientists are better with their ears than their eyes, they can join the newly-launched HARP — Heliophysics Audified: Resonance in Plasmas — project. That clever new initiative converts data collected in space into sound files, and then asks people to listen for anomalies.

“This project began in the UK where a DJ turned space physicist named Dr. Martin Archer worked with high school students listening to data,” MacDonald said, “And they discovered a new kind of wave in outer space.”

So, there is plenty to do for people who want to become official citizen scientists, and maybe help discover something new that has never been seen or heard before. And if the space-based projects like HARP and Aurorasaurus are not what interests someone, there are plenty of other great government projects that could use a little help, including some that are specifically aimed at younger students or even children.

I’ve personally decided to join the MAPPPD project because I love the idea of helping out penguins, while my musician wife is going to be using her trained ear to assist with HARP. Join us on these or any other citizen scientist projects if you too want to assist with advancing science, and maybe you can even contribute to a brighter future for our world.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys