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Magazines > Information Today > September 2016

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Information Today
Vol. 33 No. 7 — September 2016
DATABASE REVIEW
Penguin Watch Snares Citizen Scientists
By Mick O'Leary


Penguin Watch (penguinwatch.org) is a “citizen science” project. It works like this:

The University of Oxford has a research project to study penguins in the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic archipelago.

The project uses automatic cameras, taking pictures continually at more than 100 locations. This has been going on for 3 years and has created an enormous database of photographs.

The photos are posted on Penguin Watch, which is hosted by Zooniverse (zooniverse.org). There’s a simple program for counting and classifying the penguins, chicks, and eggs in each photo.

Ordinary, scientifically untrained folks (citizen scientists) are enticed to do the actual photo analyses.

This is the model, and, at first, it sounds good. But what actually happens is that my wife, with rare breaks for minimal sustenance and sleep, is huddled over her laptop, clicking on a seemingly endless series of penguin pictures. Click, click, click.

Confronting Citizen Science

How was I to help my dear spouse? First, I needed to understand how this devious addiction works. The Penguin Watch site beguilingly pulls you in. There’s no registration required. After a simple five-screen tutorial, you’re turned loose on the photos—no vetting, no proficiency tests, and no resumes.

I counted penguins in several dozen pictures, which are grainy and poorly focused. Many have hundreds of penguins, often obscured in distant vistas. Is it a penguin or a rock? Is it an egg or a stone? There’s no way to be sure, but Penguin Watch takes your input anyway. How can this be science?

I was further startled to discover that my wife is not a solitary sufferer. Penguin Watch claims that it has nearly 37,000 participants. It’s an epidemic, and what’s even worse is that Penguin Watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

The aforementioned Zooniverse is the web platform for dozens of other citizen science efforts. It claims to be “home to the internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.” Zooniverse notes that 1 million people have participated, so the citizen science addiction exists on a frightening scale.

Zooniverse started in 2007. It’s governed by the Citizen Science Alliance (citizensciencealliance.org), which is a collaboration between universities and museums, including the University of Oxford and the Adler Planetarium. Its first project, initiated by Oxford, was Galaxy Zoo, which classifies astronomical data. Zooniverse is funded by its governing body members; by grants, especially from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and by its science partners.

Zooniverse has mass addiction down to—well—a science. All of its projects have the same basic system as Penguin Watch. Some scientific research group has a very large database of digital content, but lacks the wherewithal to analyze it. The group connects with Zooniverse, whose software creates an analysis protocol—basically, a very simple, yes/no decision tree—that can be used online by completely untrained volunteer participants.

The Zooniverse software readily adapts to the specs of the content. For Penguin Watch and the majority of other Zooniverse projects, it’s classifying images in a photograph. But it’s not limited to that. Several projects transcribe a variety of historical and scientific texts. Chimp & See analyzes videos. Bat Detective analyzes bat audio clips.

The Citizen Science Game

It’s a great racket for the scientists. This is the era of Big Data, and they’ve got themselves into a Big Data bind. They use technology to amass enormous quantities of digital data, but they don’t have the time or the money to analyze it. The solution? Citizen science apps such as Penguin Watch, in which eager scientist wannabes do the grunt work.

It sounds too good to be true. Scientists often look down on the rest of us as ignorant boobs, but now they trust us to analyze their precious data? Their claim is that it works. The narrative is that humans have pattern recognition skills that often exceed those of computers, and—under the controlled Zooniverse system—citizen scientists can equal the analytical performance of trained scientists. Zooniverse also states that every artifact in a project is classified by several volunteers, to control for errors on the part of any one person.

Zooniverse has posted dozens of studies on the research that’s come out of its projects, and many of them show that citizen science can indeed be a legitimate methodology. But what else would you expect them to find? Zooniverse’s projects would crash without armies of addicted zombies endlessly clicking on blurry pictures.

Pick Your Poison on Zooniverse

After a couple of weeks on Penguin Watch (remember, I have to understand the problem if I’m to solve it), I felt it necessary to study the Zooniverse addiction machine more broadly. There are 44 projects, most of them covering science, but with other disciplines represented. Galaxy Zoo continues, and there are several other astronomy projects for counting planets, comets, and stars.

The largest number of projects focuses on biology and natural science, for counting whales, chimpanzees, lions, condors, orchids, cyclones, etc. These projects are attractive because of their appealing subjects, but others are mind-numbingly boring, such as Plankton Portal, in which you classify indeterminate squiggles as types of plankton. After checking out Plankton Portal for a while, I concluded that anyone who spends several hours on a site such as this is a junkie. And yet, even now, there are dozens or hundreds of poor, entrapped victims, staring at fuzzy images that they think are plankton.

Click, Click, Click

And there’s Worm Watch Lab, in which you view little videos of the egg-laying behavior of nematodes. You might think that no one in their right mind would do this, but you would be wrong. Worm Watch Lab is closed for now, after 11,956 volunteers classified 674,486 worms in 74,032 videos.

Another type of project involves analyzing texts in document collections of scientific and historical importance. The volunteers study photographs of the texts, often handwritten and obscure, and transcribe them. Old Weather has old ships’ logs, which provide data on weather. Shakespeare’s World has thousands of documents from Elizabethan times. Emigrant City has 19th- and early 20th-century real estate records from Emigrant Savings Bank in New York.

I wish I could report that I have successfully weaned my wife from Penguin Watch, but to do so, I must understand this complex and entangling phenomenon even better. To get there, I’m spending several hours a day on Penguin Watch, and I’ve added Old Weather and Plankton Portal. And, yes, I really am getting closer to the intervention. But for now, gotta go. Click, click, click.

Mick O’Leary has been reviewing databases and websites for Information Today since 1987. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.