Keep watching the skies! March 19, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , trackback
Citizen science is an approach to science in which some of the labor is crowdsourced. That is, volunteers from the community at large are recruited and asked to perform some task that advances a scientific project. Some recent examples would be eBird, in which birdwatchers can offer a list of their sightings in order to help construct a survey of birds in a given area and time. Another would be Whale.fm, in which people can compare recorded whale songs in order to classify the source of the song. (Is it a pilot whale or a killer whale?) Whale.fm has been discussed in Wired recently.
A new entry in the citizen science category is SetiLive, a project that hopes to locate signals emanating from alien civilizations. Volunteers can log in, look at plots of data just gathered from the Allen Telescope Array, and identify signals hidden amid the noise.
“We are aliens and we approve this message.”
One way in which this effort differs from the others is that it occurs in real time. That is, volunteers are presented with data hot from the antennas of the array. The idea is that if some signal looks particularly promising, then it can be investigated straight away, before it disappears.
Like many citizen science efforts, SetiLive is gamified. That is, the activity of examining data for signals is presented to the volunteer as a kind of game. You earn badges for signing up, and for each body of signals that you examine. This is good as the simple act of looking at a bunch of white dots on a black background, although suitably astronomical, is not very compelling of itself. Still, I suspect that only a few die-hards will log in more than once. It might be more effective in its purpose if users could battle the aliens they are looking for. However, I guess that this setup would run counter to the peaceful aims of the program itself. (See Fold-it for an example of a successfully gamified piece of citizen science.)
Citizen science is a very cool idea. It could help to provide volunteer resources to worthy projects that would otherwise be under-resourced. Also, it could help to interest the general public in what scientists do. Of course, it might also tend to steer some scientific work into areas that are more easily crowdsourced and gamified, leaving otherwise worthy research unexplored. Astronomy has always enjoyed strong amateur support, and SetiLive continues this tradition into the 21st Century. I look forward to eavesdropping on ET.