Published on Sep 06, 2010
Scientists meeting in the UK this week are crafting a revolutionary new project aimed at transforming their ability to predict meteorological disasters. The goal, as reported by the Guardian, “is to create an international databank that would generate forecasts of unprecedented precision.” To make that happen, the scientists behind the project are contemplating something even more radical: enlisting thousands of ordinary citizens around the world to gather, classify and even help analyze the meteorological data required to build more accurate, real-time models of the Earth’s climate.
Today, the data is too sparse and intermittent to provide reliable long-term weather forecasts, let alone predict a catastrophic weather event. But if a global climate databank could be built, scientists could better anticipate events like the floods in Pakistan that have killed about 2,000 and left millions homeless. Many scientists believe that catastrophic events of this nature will occur more frequently as the climate further destabilizes in the decades to come. The ability to give vulnerable areas accurate warnings about potential catastrophes could save millions of lives.
So where does the citizen science come in? It turns out that climate researchers have been inspired by projects like Galaxy Zoo, where scientists have dramatically increased the person power available to code and analyze satellite imagery by inviting ordinary citizens to participate in their research. At galaxyzoo.org some 250,000 “citizen scientists” are helping astronomers at Yale, Oxford and other institutions classify galaxies using simple classification tools on the Web. The results so far have been impressive. Galaxy Zoo members have made nearly 75 million classifications of one million different images — far beyond the researcher’s original goal of getting the public to help classify a set of 50,000 galaxies. If the researchers were still laboring on their own, it would have taken them roughly 124 years to classify that many images!
What impressed the researchers the most, however, was the surprising ability of the community to contribute genuine scientific insights. Bill Keel, an astronomy professor at the University of Alabama who studies overlapping galaxies, decided to ask Galaxy Zoo users to contact him if they came across an example of this rare phenomenon. Throughout his career, Keel had studied the dozen or so overlapping galaxies then known to astronomers. Within a day of posting his question on the Galaxy Zoo forum, he had more than 100 responses from users who had indeed found such objects. Today, thousands have been identified.
Now climate scientists are contemplating something similar. As part of the project, climate scientists want to create a global network of weather stations that would provide daily temperature readings for any spot on the planet — a vast improvement over the monthly averages scientists currently get for data about temperatures, wind, precipitation and other variables in North America and Europe. The problem is that many countries outside these regions keep their data proprietary — preferring to sell it commercial enterprises and news organizations. So the big challenge initially will be to convince national governments to open up their weather station data for the betterment of climate research.
The rearview perspective on the Earth’s shifting climate will be key too. The scientists envision a role for citizen scientists in digitizing old sea logs (including daily temperature readings) from British naval records that date back to the 19th Century. Such historical data — newly digitized — would provide a welcome boost to researchers trying to more accurately model historical weather patterns. But if the Galaxy Zoo experience proves anything it’s that merely digitizing old sea logs is probably too narrow a role for the public.
To capture the imagination of citizen scientists, the researchers should invent broader roles for contributors in collecting and analyzing data. Perhaps one day soon, volunteers could upload data directly from their mobile devices. Scientists could also host climate modelling competitions for grad students and amateur enthusiasts. Like the astronomers mentioned earlier, they could be surprised at what comes of it. As one Galaxy Zoo researcher put it to me: “Mass collaboration in the Internet is a powerful multiplier. It makes research possible that just wasn’t possible before.”