Citizen Science Citizens create Knowledge

The citizen science project “Loss of the Night” is assessing the illumination of the night sky.
The citizen science project “Loss of the Night” is assessing the illumination of the night sky. | © kentauros/Fotolia

The idea behind citizen science is that ordinary people help contribute to research projects or develop their own projects – a trend that is becoming widespread in Germany, too.

Citizen scientists observe butterflies, catch flies or use a smartphone app to monitor their own health, gathering important data or supporting scientific projects in some other way. In the USA and Great Britain, it has long been recognized that collaboration between laypersons and scientists can be of benefit not only to research but also in business, politics and not least in everyday life.

Nowadays there is a growing number of citizen science projects in Germany, too. One of these is Loss of the Night, a research project run by the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries. The idea is that amateur astronomers are guided by a smartphone app to particular stars and asked how bright they are. The citizen scientists also state how many stars they can see in all and which star is the least bright. Through this support of lay researchers around the world, the objective is to assess the illumination of the night sky.

An overview of citizen science projects can be found on the Buergerschaffenwissen.de and Citizen-science-germany.de websites. The concept, essentially, is by no means new: as long ago as in 1900, the National Audubon Society called upon Americans to take part in a nationwide Christmas Bird Count, a project that has been run annually ever since.

It’s a question of mass

For art historian Hubertus Kohle, involving laypersons in science is likewise nothing new. What has changed, however, is the fact that some projects “can be much better organized” thanks to digital media, and that far more potential participants can be reached via the Internet. As he explains, this is precisely what makes all the difference in most citizen science projects. After all, it’s rarely a question of finding a new theory of everything, but first and foremost a question of mass – in other words of gathering as much data as possible that can then serve as the basis for further research or application.

This applies equally to the Artigo project headed by Hubertus Kohle at Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität Munich, one of the few German citizen science projects in the field of the humanities. Artigo is what is known as a “game with a purpose”, in which the aim is to describe artworks using key words. Academically, the advantage of Artigo is that any key word that is used by at least two different players will end up as a search term in the Artemis art history database. And the advantage for players is that they are entertained while at the same time being educated in art history – by the end of each session, the player will have learnt an artwork’s title, its artist and other important information.

Of course, a team of academics could also be assigned the task of identifying key words. Given that Artemis contains around 50,000 artworks, however, this would doubtless take decades. What inspired Hubertus Kohle to “delegate the work to the crowd” was James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds”. In it, the author postulates that groups are often cleverer than individuals. “A great idea”, says the art historian, and one that has now helped him and his team identify more than eight million key words.

Developed in a laundry room

Another citizen science project illustrates just how much can be achieved by one person with a good idea: the One Dollar Glasses. These are easy to manufacture glasses designed for the estimated 150 million people around the world who need glasses but cannot afford them.

The glasses were developed by Martin Aufmuth, a maths and physics teacher from Erlangen. It was also a book that gave him the idea: “Out of Poverty” by Paul Polak, who writes that there needs to be glasses that even a “one-dollar worker” can afford. When Aufmuth discovered glasses in a one-euro shop shortly afterwards, he asked himself why such things were not also available in Africa. He then started experimenting in his laundry room with bicycle brake cables and other materials, and finally came up with a robust and easily assembled model made of spring steel wire.

The clever part is not actually the glasses themselves but the bending machine designed to make them. It contains all the materials and tools – including a variety of lenses – needed to manufacture a pair of glasses in ten to 30 minutes. The real goal that Aufmuth and his 30 or so voluntary staff members at the association EinDollarBrille are pursuing is to teach people in Africa and South America how to make the glasses themselves, thereby turning them into “one dollar glasses opticians”. A simple idea that has already helped more than 1,000 people – and another great example of citizen science at work.