Despite the lockdown, the world of science has got to work. In fact, three ongoing projects need your help. They involve penguins, space and guano. What’s not to love?

 

 

Despite all the uncertainty accompanying these strange times, we can count on at least three things: penguins are still pooping across Antarctica, telescopes are still studying distant galaxies, and birds still exist. If streaming sites and video calls are getting old, perhaps you can spend your time helping scientist studying these phenomena.

Citizen science is by no means anything new. It is, however, a particularly appealing option as COVID-19 prompts social isolation around the world. If you’d like to forget about current events for a while, consider chipping in on a research project.

“I think where we can tap into people’s enthusiasm through their computer, that kind of captures the zeitgeist of coronavirus: what can we do when we’re all trapped at home,” Heather Lynch, a statistical ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told Space.com.

One of the penguin-based citizen-science projects Lynch is involved with is Penguin Watch which enlists people to identify the birds in photographs taken automatically near their colonies.

Biologists tend to rely on combing through satellite imagery looking for swaths of penguin poop (also known as ‘guano’) to find the birds. “We can map out how much area is covered in guano, and that gives us a really good estimate of how many penguins were actually at the colony at that particular location,” Lynch said.

“The citizen science part of this comes in because there’s just so much of Antarctica,” Lynch said. “The way that we find penguin colonies is by and large through manual searching of imagery: image after image, foot by foot, scanning the coastline for evidence of penguin guano.”

 

One of the penguin-based citizen-science projects Lynch is involved with is Penguin Watch which enlists people to identify the birds in photographs taken automatically near their colonies.

 

If penguin poop isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d rather check out some odd-looking galaxies. You can do so by participating in the citizen-science project called Galaxy Zoo.

The program has been around for more than a decade, putting volunteers to work classifying the shapes of galaxies. 

“You don’t even need to know what a galaxy is,” says Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford. Even if determining the shape isn’t difficult, it is valuable information to have. Recently, identifications made by Galaxy Zoo volunteers have allowed scientists to determine that black holes at the centre of galaxies grow steadily, not through collisions of the structures around them. According to Lintott, having humans involved in the process is valuable because of their willingness to notice things an algorithm can’t.

“The shape of a galaxy tells you about its history: it tells you about when it accreted material, when it collided with other galaxies, when it formed stars and all sorts of other things,” Lintott said. “But astronomers are quite good at getting images of galaxies and less good at sorting through the data.” Hence, turning to the public. After a brief training session, volunteers are turned loose on the scientists’ supply of images.

“We don’t need people to spend hours contemplating a particular system unless they want to, just a guess and you get another galaxy,” Lintott said. “Many people describe it as a bit like eating a packet of chips. You take one, you take another, you take another, and you can surf your way through the universe that way.”

Alternatively, if you find yourself picking up birdwatching as a hobby, consider downloading Cornell University’s eBird app to not only enhance and track your experience but to contribute to science as well. 

eBird allows birders to manage lists, photos, and audio recordings which can then be archived, shared, and used to power data-driven approaches to bird science and conservation.

Birdwatching is one of the more common forms of citizen science; last month saw the end of a 5-year effort from 1000 volunteers participating in what is believed to be Asia’s largest citizen science bird project, the Kerala Bird Atlas.

 

“You don’t even need to know what a galaxy is,” says Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford. Even if determining the shape isn’t difficult, it is valuable information to have.

 

“We have annual gatherings in many places and when we met in 2014, the idea of committing to a bird atlas was put forward. Our confidence in attempting the project was due to two reasons: the active birdwatching community in the state and the development of the app eBird,” Dr PO Nameer, special officer at the Academy of Climate Change Education and Research at Kerala University and a state-level coordinator of the atlas project, was quoted as saying by the media.

The eBird app helped simplify the process of recording bird sightings into their database. In addition, it also helped detect errors while manually inputting the data.

“For example, if I happen to record an unusual species in a certain area and if that bird is not commonly seen in that area, then the district-level reviewers will receive a notification of the entry on eBird. They will then cross-check the entry made by the volunteer and send him/her a query asking for more details. The checking is done not only for the characteristics of the species, but also for the number of individuals of the species recorded through the app,” explained Nameer.

 

 

 

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