The hairball of citizen science

The hairball is jargon for data scientists. It means a special graphic that illustrates intersections.

When I visited the Citizen Science Association’s first conference in San Jose, Calif., in February, it felt like a living hairball. Every one of the 600 people was already a networker, an accelerator, or somehow a person forced by curiosity to ask other people to help assemble science answers.

There were birders (Loon counters from Maine), microbiologists, physicists and policy wonks.  If some of you don’t know the delicious explosion of citizen science, please detour now to read about games of proteins, games of neuron-mapping, games of whale song matching and thousands of other projects here.

But like catching lightning bugs and magic in a bottle, there were people who thought the very labeling and defining of citizen science might break its tender wings. This first-ever conference tried to find the most common ground between projects and hoped that sharing best practices (and sharing conference rooms) would save some people time and trouble finding the right methods.

I don’t have answers for any of the wonderfully provocative questions I heard in San Jose. But I came home from #citsci2015 (as tagged on Twitter) newly impressed with the collective power of citizens. My own panel about microbiology included two projects where I donated samples: The Wild Life of Our Homes and Ubiome.

Our panel included California high-school science teacher, Bethany Dixon, DIY biology volunteer Patrik d’Haeseleer, David Coil and  Jenna Lang, both of the Eisen Lab at the University of California at Davis, Adam Robbins-Pianka of American Gut and Holly Menninger of Your Wild Life at  North Carolina State University.  Collectively, we bonded most over what  is not known about microbial ecosystems rather than what is known.

Studying the ecosystems that microbes create has been compared to discovering a new Amazon rain forest. It is tantalizing to find out that obese people and diabetic people have different microbes in their guts, but we are far from understanding why.  The microbiomes of individual houses differ, as my panel member Menninger is studying, but we may be years from understanding how and why. We were a panel of people at peace with puzzling complexity.

Imagine every one of the thousands of different microscopic creatures living in your gut playing an unknown and changing role in your life and your health. That’s quite a hairball, and untangling it will take years. I’m very glad to have met the people at #citsci2015 as passengers with me on this journey.

If you are pursuing citizen science in some way, please let me know. I will continue writing about it here.

Small words = big ideas

Explaining science is a tricky business. You have to use the right words to be accurate, and you have to assume that your audience may never have heard those words. Recently, I was invited by the nonprofit Science on Tap to talk about simplifying language for an audience at the Pub at Third Place in Seattle. I also will give a talk at the Seattle Aquarium on some of the same ideas.

Maybe you are a newcomer to the idea of the Up Goer language, created by Randall Munroe. But I’ve written about it before, and so you can get some background on that language and why scientists use it by reading an earlier post of mine about Hair-Having animals and a later discussion based on a talk at Town Hall.

What I’d like to share here are some links for exploration on your own of Up Goer, as well as other ways that people have used to try to simplify science communication.

Here is an especially wonderful comment from Chris Rowan’s article linked below:

“Some might not see this as anything more than a gimmick, and argue that the constraints you are forced to work under are too severe; that by replacing jargon with a dense thicket of ‘simple’ words, you are just replacing one sort of linguistic complexity with another.” But, as he says, that’s missing the point.  Rewriting in Up Goer can bring something “quite profound.”

Scientific American magazine article

Text editor to use upgoer yourself

Original cartoon about Saturn V rocket

Blog from Forum on Science Ethics and Policy that sponsors UW contest. This contains excerpts from some of the wonderful entries by contestants who described their research using Up Goer.

Different gizmo for simplifying text

Alternate text editor – By Theo Sanderson who created Upgoer5, Upgoer6

In Theo’s version Six, your text gets analyzed so that you can use more than the 1,000 most common words in English, but the words are sorted by color according to where they fall on the most-common to least-common continuum.


Social + citizen science meets my porch

The envelope arrived a few days ago. Happy to see that my data loggers from the North Carolina State project known as Your Wild Life arrived. They are tiny metal cylinders, but powerful in their own way. For those of you who don’t know much about citizen science, I’m a volunteer helping gather data for a lab run by Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer. I was lucky enough to meet Rob and hear a lecture from him during the NASW conference in 2012.

Meeting Rob and hearing him discuss the microbiomes of our homes made me sign up for one of his lab projects called “The Wild Life of our Homes.” Rob’s team is collecting data from about 1,000 houses across the United States. When I write “data” you should picture a giant Q-tip.

To help Rob’s project, I had to swipe this giant Q-tip across a few surfaces in my house. The microbes captured by these swabs will be analyzed in a laboratory in Colorado. (Wild Life has promised me photos of this lab.) Just to return to the data loggers – some of us who sampled our homes are gathering additional information on temperature and humidity. (That’s what the two loggers at my home will be doing.)

But my participation in Rob’s project is honestly just part of an evolving interest of mine in what some people call big data. For someone like myself, who writes mostly about medicine and health, big data might have seemed more the territory of computer scientists. But believe me, big data is a part of all of our health lives. Carl Zimmer has written eloquently about this in this story.

Collecting information on the thousands of microbes (and their genetic footprints) in my house may turn out – years from now – to yield some useful information about health. As you may know, there are already people studying the internal (gut) microbiomes of people for clues to how that data may be mined for useful patterns. One of these research groups is also using citizen volunteers – Ubiome.

You can follow both Wild Life and Ubiome on Twitter at @yourwild_life and @ubiome

In Seattle, I meet scientists who are working at this intersection all the time. The Institute for Systems Biology is just one example. ISB has held conferences about the microbiome for several years, and you can listen to archives from 2012 at that link.  On the campus of the University of Washington, there are dozens of people I know who use algorithms to analyze giant data sets related to human health. There is much more to come on all of this.