Science in Society: making the most of the enthusiasm

One element of New Zealand’s Science in Society (née Science and Society) project that has impressed me is creating a framework for large citizen science projects.

One idea that’s been suggested in a few meetings I’ve attended has been gathering to collect temperature and humidity data from everyone’s home. Neat idea, but…

…in my view using ‘citizen scientists’ as data sources only, either as sensors or worker bees only (e.g. Galaxy Zoo), reinforces a divide between the participant and the scientist. The citizen scientists are not able to participate as peers through the scientific process. They’re just inputs. The science comes later.

Some suggestions to ensure that everyone is genuinely involved:

  • Ensure that the datasets produced are openly licenced (CC-0) and freely accessible. Everything else flows from this.
  • Get students working directly with the raw data. We want students to learn the issues that come from a) poor data provenance and b) needing to release your data openly
  • Create open hardware sensors. Students from around the country will iterate to create the best. Exposes students to a) variability of sensor readings, e.g. margins of error, b) electronics, c) software
  • Explore developing open format(s) for these sensors. This gets students: a) learning the difficulty in representing information, b) usability/efficiency trade offs - managing limited bandwidth, c) persuasion in distributed teams - navigating management by committee to create the standard
  • Get students to create the repository. Don’t hand them a website/analytics portal. Student will learn a) requirements gathering, b) building tech for a wide audience, c) benefits of open source and collaboration
  • Create a hashtag for project write-ups etc (in previous centuries, this would have been read ‘establish a journal’)

If you’re worried about the students that just want to engage in part of the process - that’s totally fine, they’re not disadvantaged. The trick is making sure that there is no ceiling for opportunities that could arise from this data.

Sidenote: We already have these sensors in many people’s home. All we need to do is convince HRV and others to open up their API to their devices.

Where to find good science writing on the Internet

Most science articles are written like breaking news. Everything is worded to sound like an Earth-shattering discovery. This can come across as insincere and over-hyped. Where are the good articles?

Long form

  • Aeon tells you how long each article is up-front. They’re often in-depth, personal pieces that touch an area of culture, science or technology. What I like about Aeon is that as you begin an article, you know you’re in for a long, fascinating journey. Perhaps that’s what travelling overseas for a guided safari feels like. You have an understanding of what you’re expecting, but you don’t know until you get there.

  • Nautilus takes its own approach to science writing. Each issue focuses on a single topic, such as . with perspectives coming in from across the humanities and the sciences, building a lovely thematic serendipity.

What I like about these two is that they have taken the time to understand the medium that they’re publishing in. I love the distraction-free reading experience and the well edited, yet unabridged, articles. The content has a primacy that’s unavailable in the page-constrained world of print.

Short form

Looking for the latest discoveries?
/r/science is the place to visit. The two most distinctive characteristic of Reddit is its commentary. It’s often very rich and you’re bound to have people rip apart flaws. New to Reddit? It takes a few visits to understand what’s going on. Each sub-reddit has its own culture. In the case of /r/science, each submitted article is reviewed by a team of moderators against pretty strict rules.

Interested in the voice of researchers themselves?
In New Zealand, Sciblogs aggregates content from several members of New Zealand’s science communities, providing a very personal voice on topical issues. There are bound to be similar sites closer to you.

And one last thing
Don’t forget the web versions of traditional science magazines such as New Scientist and the (Scientific American]( They’re well-written, business-like articles. I see their point of difference being resources to develop very effective imagery and graphics to support their prose.

Tim McNamara

I connect scientists to supercomputers. I’m responsible for communications and outreach at the New Zealand eScience Infrastructure.

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