Citizen Science essentially involves projects where a professional research facility allows its research tasks to be performed by non-scientists and amateurs. These research tasks may range from making observations, collecting and communicating data to annotating and interpreting information and deriving conclusions. The main reason why professional scientists rely on this form of public-enabled research is simply the enormous amount of data involved in these projects for which the present computing technology is deemed insufficient. Another reason is that most of these investigations require a huge data set that is to be gathered from all over the world and throughout the day. Again, the mammoth logistical constraints leave out the help of citizen volunteers as the only practical option. Citizen Science takes the notions of crowd-sourcing and distributed computing one step further, as now the volunteers are now involved more than just at the level of passive computing machines; their collaboration is much more pro-active as illustrated by some examples below.
A lot of times, such projects also serve as awareness campaigns in addition to contributing to basic research. One such idea is that of Globeatnight. Light pollution is becoming a serious hindrance to the observation of the night sky. It is a result of our inefficient outdoor lighting practices that result in most of the light being scattered into the atmosphere. Not only, does that contribute to energy inefficiencies but is also harmful to wildlife. Observations of the night-sky brightness can give us a measure of how the problem of light pollution manifests itself in various places. For this purpose, Globeatnight points out simple methods for citizen scientists to measure their night skies’ brightness and submit results that are later assimilated.
There are countless other citizen science projects available online ranging from watching frogs to looking for comets. You can find some useful information in the following links and perhaps land on something interesting to do this summer:
Scientific American – Citizen Science
Citizen Science Alliance
Of course, saying that this kind of science can compete with what is done by qualified scientists in their labs and research institutes, would be pushing one’s luck too far. Citizen Science has some inherent limitations because it involves amateurs and therefore the projects have to be carefully selected and scrutinized to see if they warrant active public involvement. Despite that, citizen science is a huge phenomenon in terms of its participation and outcomes. For instance, according to the website of citizen science alliance, in its first six months Galaxy Zoo provided the same number of classifications as would a graduate student working round the clock for 3.5 years.
In light of this immense potential and utility, it is rather unfortunate that not many people are aware of Citizen Science in Pakistan. I do not know of a single local research project that involves collaborative involvement of public of the same nature as pointed above. It would be delightful to have departments at our universities look into the possibility. In fact, organizations such as the Khwarizmi Science Society or the Karachi Astronomers Society that have a reasonable penetration in the educated urban populations, or perhaps the Technology for People Initiative (TPI) at LUMS should explore this fascinating medium of doing research for the public and with the public.