2011-07-02 05:02:24Citizen science?


I've been doing some quick searches on the SS website, and it doesn't look like we have ever done a post on 'citizen science' projects.

There are numerous ways that your average Joe can contribute to science. There are the Climateprediction.net and The Clean Energy projects which use idle computing power to run climate models or calculate new low-cost solar panels, respectively.

There are also more direct approaches like Old Weather, where people read old naval weather logs and digitize them for input into climate models.

I'd imagine there are some similar projects pertaining to global warming (EDIT: I take that back, there are DEFINITELY many projects, as can be found here); I haven't looked into it too closely yet. I think a lot of SS readers would be interested in participating in these kinds of things but may not have any idea that they exist. Would this be a good subject for a brief blog post?

2011-07-02 05:43:31
Michael Searcy


Sounds good.

2011-07-02 06:49:39
Dana Nuccitelli

Sure, sounds like a good idea to me.

2011-07-02 07:55:43


Dawei, there is a post, I know it because I wrote it: Rescue Climate Data (but it focuses only on the projects "Old Weather" and "Data rescue at home"). But of course I think that a overview of the various projects is a good idea!

2011-07-05 06:03:51


Here is a draft for the citizen science post. I tried to keep it short and sweet, so let me if it needs some more explanation in any part. The opening and closing paragraphs in particular seem a bit weak; I'm not feeling too creative today.

You’ll probably notice that I included Surfacestations.org. I think this is a good idea, since the project does fit the definition in that it is citizen science relating to climatology. I am aware that the site is frequently misused by skeptics, and I’m sure that most SS users are aware of this as well. I’m thinking of including it simply because I think it makes for a nice “so there” statement, an example of good faith that shows that we are less biased than the skeptics.

But I realize some might see it as being a bit bold. What do you guys think? 



Climatology for Everyone

With recent posts addressing personal action in the fight to combat global warming, I thought it would be interesting to dedicate a post to ways in which the average citizen can help global warming by directly contributing to our scientific understanding of it. That is, becoming a ‘citizen scientist’.

Citizen science projects date back hundreds of years, with many of the first projects involving citizens keeping track of wildlife populations. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is perhaps the most famous in the United States and dates back to 1900. With help from the internet, and a growing recognition of the value that citizens are capable of contributing, citizen science projects have been rapidly growing.

The range of subjects that are covered by citizen science projects is vast. Here are just a few of them, which directly relate to climate change:

Computational projects

The majority of activities that we use our computers for actually require less than 1% of our computer’s available processing power. Using one of today's new computers to browse the internet is like using a forklift to hang a potted plant. Why not get the most out of that expensive hardware under the hood, by putting it to work to help the planet?

– Using the popular BOINC grid computing software, allows you to harness unused processing power to run global climate models on your home computer.  Several scientific papers have already been published based on results from the project.
The Clean Energy Project – Part of IBM’s World Community Grid, and also running on the BOINC platform, it uses the powerful Q-Chem® quantum chemistry software to explore new molecular structures for use in potential low-cost “organic” solar panels.

Hydrogen@home –  A new project, similar to the Clean Energy Project, but seeks new ways to create and store hydrogen as part of a clean fuel economy.

The projects listed above may be considered 'passive' citizen science, in that they don't require any real effort to carry out. Once you download and get the software running to your preferences, you can essentially ‘set it and forget it’. The software is fully customizable with respect to how much of your processor/memory you want to allocate to the projects, when the computations run, and which projects you would like to contribute to (if climate science isn't your greatest passion, there are several other projects out there ranging from the search for aliens to discovering new protein folding techniques.)

Active Participation

For those who are motivated to do a bit more, there are many 'active' participation projects out there. Some of these can be quite involved, but typically don't require any minimum time commitment--work as often as you like and as hard as you like.  

Old Weather – Read old navy logbooks and digitize their historic weather information, in order to gain a better understanding of past weather and climate patterns and enhance the accuracy of modern day predictions. A talent for reading handwriting is required.
Data rescue at home – Similar to Old Weather but with a wider range of sources, involves digitizing handwritten atmospheric conditions for computational analysis. Currently working on German radiosonde data from WWII.
CoCoRaHS (USA) —Measuring precipitation in “your backyard”, with the goal of creating an ongoing, ultra-high resolution data set of precipitation events, which will contribute to scientific understanding of weather and climate patterns.

Opal Climate Survey (England) – Requests that citizens observe and report several climate factors, such as aircraft contrails and wind speed. Related surveys such as air quality and biodiversity are also featured.

Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line – A NASA program, geared towards kids but with the very important purpose of cross-checking satellite cloud measurements. Students visually classify clouds by altitude, type, cover percentage, and opacity. 

Surfacestations.org (USA) – Seeks volunteers to photographically document the status of official temperature stations throughout the United States.  

ClimateWatch (Australia) – Track populations of an insect, animal or plant species through time within a certain region, to better understand how the biosphere reacts to climate change and other long term trends.  

ClimateWatch is similar in nature to the earliest type of citizen science project discussed above, that of keeping track of species number and behavior in their natural environment (formally known as phenology). While most do not officially take tracking climate change to be their primary goal, there is no doubt that this data will be helpful in tracking how the biosphere is reacting in response to regional or global climate forcings. Knowing how the natural world will react to a rapid climate shift lists among the biggest and most important uncertainties still plaguing climate predictions, and lack of data is a limiting factor. Imagine how much more informed our policy actions could be if we knew exactly how populations and behaviors of all of the key species on earth were trending.

There are hundreds of similar projects involving tracking the natural world; it is almost certain you will be able to find one involving whichever plant, animal, or insect species you may especially hold dear. Many of these projects can be found at the excellent database for citizen science projects scienceforcitizens.net. There are even iPhone apps to let you participate on the go.

So why not start giving scientists a hand? Virtually anyone, including kids, can get involved in these projects and know they are making a real difference. Many feature some kind of participation-based points system for fun and to encourage some friendly competition. And they can also be a great way to meet people—whether your passion lies in developing clean energy to save the world, or simply the intricacies of the swallowtail’s mating cycle, there is no shortage of passionate citizens out there working hard to improve our scientific understanding of the natural world.

2011-07-05 09:07:38
Dana Nuccitelli
I'm in favor of keeping surface stations on there. It's a useful project no doubt, even though it's run by Watts. I think the post is good, though I agree it could probably use a stronger ending. Maybe some encouragement for people to contribute to these projects.
2011-07-05 14:16:33


Just an aside: I actually have BOINC installed on my laptop and had been running SETI@home as well as Climatepredictions for quite some time in the past. I found SETI@home more "rewarding" as it was sending files back and forth a lot more frequently as compared to Climatepredictions which apparently was sifting through lots of data in one sitting and you couldn't really see much progress. In addition, the BOINC-software sometimes used more resources than it should and started to interfere with other tasks. At the moment, I have deactivated the processing in order to not have it running while the laptop is idle and instead just let the screen go to black after a couple of minutes of inactivity. I should perhaps upgrade to the latest version and give it another try, though.

I'm also a bit of two minds how running software like this instead of letting the laptop "idle" should be viewed from an energy-conservation perspective. Anybody have any ideas about that?

2011-07-08 07:58:13


Thanks Dana; I fleshed it out a bit more, and tied it into the recent posts by 'actually thoughtful' and you on ways to combat global warming. (Nice YA plug in that one by the way.)

So I think this article follows nicely from the theme of those two. Let me know what you think of the content/organization.


@BaerbelW: I can agree that sometimes climateprediction can send some lengthy projects. I've had some go well over 800 hours, and frustratingly sometimes the servers will send a message to abort them right before they are complete.

I've actually gone on to focus only on the World Community Grid project, which is sort of a collection of several small projects. The one I'm doing now is Computing for Clean Water, which explores the physics of water traveling through carbon nanotubes with the goal of developing low cost water treatment systems. Another is The Clean Energy Project which I mention in the post. On my processor, the individual runs don't take more than about 4 hours to complete.

I don't consider the extra electricity drain to be a problem from an environmental standpoint, since these simulations will need to be run anyway and since they can have such huge direct benefits to society. Plus, laptops are pretty efficient, not typically using more than about 40 W of power at full load (although idling it's probably closer to 25 W). A worry that I would have, though--and this is why I don't run BOINC on my own laptop, just my desktop--is that laptops typically overheat much faster than desktops. So if you do try to do it, download a free temperature measuring program like RealTemp (good program to have anyway) and make sure the processor isn't getting too warm. As long as it's not pushing above about 65 C at full load you should be fine.

Also note that you should be able to throttle the BOINC client and set it to use, say, 25% of the processor. With most processors, such a low load won't cause it to ramp up to full power and so the energy use (and heating) should be very close to what you get at idling. I would definitely recommend trying the newest version of the software if for some reason you can't see that option on the one you're running now.

2011-07-08 08:06:32
Rob Painting

Nice post Dawei. Ya gonna hyper-link to Actually Thoughtful's post? Thumbs up from me.

2011-07-08 09:01:06


Thanks Rob. Hyperlink has been added.

2011-07-08 09:22:49
Dana Nuccitelli

Looks good, will publish this sometime next week (schedule is crammed right now).  I'll probably add links to the 'climate solutions' posts by myself and Rob P (which will be published soon as well).

2011-07-08 14:37:04
Ari Jokimäki


There's also more direct approach in helping research: doing research and writing a peer-reviewed paper. I have done this myself but on astronomy related subject.

2011-07-08 22:02:20
Steve Brown


I've been participating in the ClimatePrediction.Net project for several years.  All of my PC's at work crunch climate models 24/7.  With BOINC that it runs under, you can set up teams that participating users can join.  This post could maybe be released in conjunction with an invite to join an SKS team, so readers can actively contribute to science under the SKS banner.

2011-07-08 22:59:02
Mark Richardson

Clear Climate Code?

2011-07-09 04:25:36



Sounds like a great idea to have an SS team. How would you like to be the founder? I'm currently the founder of the University of Florida team, but it hasn't been doing too well lately. I'd be fine to switch to an SS team.

Let me know if you make it and I'll mention it in the post.

I also just noticed they have a new, similar program for calculating weather models. Seems interesting. I'll add it to the blog post too.

2011-07-09 06:54:38
Steve Brown


Hi Dawei,

I'd be happy to set up a BOINC team but I reckon John Cook needs to sanction it and open the team account with them.  John?

Great post BTW!

2011-07-16 12:48:16Sorry, late comer to this thread
John Cook


I just published this blog post then belatedly read about the idea of an SkS team. Sounds great to me - I'd launch this as a stand-alone blog post anyway rather than bury it at the end of Dawei's blog post.

2011-07-16 13:37:55


John--I agree, I was also thinking that the mention of an SkS team would do better as a separate post.

I was meaning to add weatherathome to this post, I just forgot to do that. But I guess they can find it if they click on the climateprediction link anyway.

Thanks for publishing.