Citizen-Science in the Age of Alternative Facts

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

There are signs that the internet and global technology are reviving the role of citizens in documenting how the world around us is changing by using technology to build collective insight–millions of little observations about the now-warming climate, the now-shrinking numbers of species of animals and plants, the chemistry of air and oceans and minerals–that might just help us survive and adapt to the next century.

For nearly three decades, industry front groups like the Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute, and the Institute for Energy Research have paid miscellaneous ideologues and hacks to pose as experts and use media coverage to discredit the work of reputable scientists. Understandably, the spread of misinformation has left the public confused on whom to trust, who was the expert, or what they should do. NASA’s GLOBE program, a citizen science project has existed for more than twenty years but it has taken off since the agency launched the app in August. About 15,000 people have used it to snap more than 55,000 photos of cloud and sky. Clouds are especially difficult to model; satellites can spot only their tops but not their underbellies. For that, NASA needs people on the ground, snapping pictures and making notes. It’s part of a kind of citizen science renaissance, driven partly by affordable computer technology: The smartphone puts cameras and a GPS into the hands of millions of people, and the internet makes crowdsourcing simple. This lets scientists draft huge numbers of volunteers to assist in documenting how the world is transforming.

Crowdsourced projects are proliferating throughout the scientific world like mushrooms. In the fall of 2016, researchers at the University of Arizona launched an app called Kidenga to crowdsource observations about mosquito populations and outbreaks of the mosquito-borne diseases Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. Crowdsourcing even supports scientists who help us understand how to read the signs of a changing Earth – this information shapes our society’s life-and-death decisions – about water and agriculture disease outbreaks, biodiversity loss, and changes in weather, ice, seasons and maintaining a livable planet.

Source: Madeline Ostrander, “Science Isn’t Just for Scientist – We Can All Take Part,” YES! Magazine, Spring 2017, posted February 14, 2017 at

Student Researcher: Audrey Shannon Johnson (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)