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Uncle Sam Wants You…To Crowdsource Science

Some in the U.S. government are eager for citizens to crowdsource more data. First, it needs a roadmap.

Uncle Sam Wants You…To Crowdsource Science
[Photo: Flickr user mark sebastian]

It’s not just for the private sector anymore: Government scientists are embracing crowdsourcing. At a White House-sponsored workshop in late November, representatives from more than 20 different federal agencies gathered to figure out how to integrate crowdsourcing and citizen scientists into various government efforts. The workshop is part of a bigger effort with a lofty goal: Building a set of best practices for the thousands of citizens who are helping federal agencies gather data, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to NASA.

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“Crowdsourcing produces accurate results quickly,” NASA’s Lea Shanley told Co.Labs. “The level of enthusiasm for crowdsourcing in different agencies is high, and we’re working on a tool kit that shows people how to do this in the federal government.” Jay Benforado of the Environmental Protection Agency, who also took part in the workshop, added that “we’ve been working in agencies and across agencies on citizen science and crowdsourcing.”


Officials in the White House are searching for the best possible set of standards for working with the general public on scientific research. It’s not just a question of good citizenship and area experts who would get a kick out of collaborating on government initiatives: In an era where science agencies can never be sure of funding, working with citizen scientists means added reassurance that projects won’t be delayed or researchers will suddenly be defunded.

Perhaps the best known federal government crowdsourcing project is Nature’s Notebook, a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service which asks ordinary citizens to take notes on plant and animal species during different times of year. These notes are then cleansed and collated into a massive database on animal and plant phenology that’s used for decision-making by national and local governments. The bulk of the observations, recorded through smartphone apps, are made by ordinary people who spend a lot of time outdoors.

The Nature’s Notebook app

Shanley pointed out Old Weather as another interesting example of government crowdsourcing. The game, created by a set of partners including the National Archives, has players transcribe logs from 19th-century ships in exchange for points. The logs are then used to help improve historical data for contemporary climate model projections.

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Dozens of government agencies are now asking the public for help. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs a student-oriented, Mechanical Turk-style “micro-volunteering” service called CDCology, the VA crowdsources design of apps for homeless veterans, while the National Weather Service distributes a mobile app called mPING that asks ordinary citizens to help fine-tune public weather reports by giving information on local conditions. The Federal Communication Commission’s Measuring Broadband America app, meanwhile, allows citizens to volunteer information on their Internet broadband speeds, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Sensor Toolbox asks users to track local air pollution.

Other examples of government crowdsourcing apps include, according to the White House:

  • The Citizen Archivist Dashboard (NARA), which coordinates crowdsourcing of archival record tagging and document transcription. Recently, more than 170,000 volunteers indexed 132 million names of the 1940 Census in only five months, which NARA could not have done alone.
  • Did You Feel It? (USGS) has enabled more than 3 million people worldwide to share their experiences during and immediately after earthquakes. This information facilitates rapid damage assessments and scientific research, particularly in areas without dense sensor networks.
  • The mPING (NOAA) mobile app has collected more than 600,000 ground-based observations that help verify weather models.
  • USAID anonymized and opened its loan guarantee data to volunteer mappers. Volunteers mapped 10,000 data points in only 16 hours, compared to the 60 hours officials expected.

A wide swath of government agencies are also relying on internal crowdsourcing projects to generate creative approaches to problems. The VA recently launched a program called the VA Idea House, which holds employee-only competitions that collect ideas for improving the organization on their internal intranet. Similar inward-facing government crowdsourcing projects also take place in the Department of State and the General Services Administration (GSA) among others.

A government crowdsourcing workshop in November asked participants to rehearse launching a citizen science project. Image via OSTP

The Need For Standards

As of now, however, when it comes to crowdsourcing data for government scientific research, there’s no unified set of standards or best practices. This can lead to wild variations in how various agencies collect data and use it. For officials hoping to implement citizen science projects within government, the roadblocks to crowdsourcing include factors that crowdsourcing is intended to avoid: limited budgets, heavy bureaucracy, and superiors who are skeptical about the value of relying on the crowd for data.

Benforado and Shanley also pointed out that government agencies are subject to additional regulations, such as the Paperwork Reduction Act, which can make implementation of crowdsourcing projects more challenging than they would be in academia or the private sector.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy expects to finish a crowdsourcing tool kit in early 2015, based on lessons learned in part during its Nov. 21 design workshop. “Indeed,” a group of officials wrote on a White House blog post, “the development of the Toolkit is a collaborative and community-building activity in and of itself.”

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