Bored? These citizen science games will keep the family entertained
On Christmas Day in 1900, the ornithologist Frank M Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition – a “Christmas bird count”. This involved counting birds during the holidays rather than hunting them. The project continued year after year, in what is thought to be one of the longest running citizen science projects ever. Tens of thousands of volunteers continue to take part across North America, united by their passion for wildlife and conservation.
In the 21st century, the internet has revolutionised citizen science, leading to many new projects that were not possible before. Yet volunteers’ motivations are still similar to those of the people who took part in the very first Christmas bird count. People get involved because they want to help with research, feel passionate about a topic, or simply just enjoy the task. But, as our latest research project interviewing citizen scientists shows, there are some rather unexpected benefits, too.
The Zooniverse is one of the largest volunteer research platforms, hosting a variety of different projects that involve analysing data. Research topics and tasks vary, from classifying images of galaxies to transcribing weather data and annotating photos of animals. So far, they have received over 85m classifications from 1.6m registered volunteers around the world.
BOINC is another popular platform, where volunteers donate their computer’s idle time to a variety of research projects, such as particle physics simulations and climate change modelling. So far, there are 4.5m users from 277 countries, accumulating more than 34 billion “credits” (BOINC’s measure for how much work your computer has done).
Sea Hero Quest
There are also many citizen science games. For example, you can contribute to dementia research by playing the game Sea Hero Quest on your phone. Almost 3m people have played it so far, providing scientists with 139 centuries’ worth of research data.
Citizen science has resulted in scientific breakthroughs that have changed our understanding of the world. A famous example is Foldit – a citizen science game that involves solving protein-folding puzzles. In 2011, a group of Foldit players solved a puzzle in three weeks that had previously stumped researchers for over a decade. This particular enzyme was critical for the reproduction of the AIDS virus. Now that its structure was understood, researchers could start to identify targets for drugs to neutralise to it.
Another famous example is Galaxy Zoo – a Zooniverse project that involves classifying galaxies in space telescope images. In 2007, Hanny Van Arkel spotted a strange blue blob in one of the images and emailed the researchers about it. They looked into it and realised it was a new class of astronomical object – a huge cloud of hot gas with no stars in it, which became known as “Hanny’s Voorwerp”.
So if you’re looking for something to do this Christmas, why not give citizen science a try? It is a Christmas tradition after all. And with so many online projects to choose from, you’re bound to find a project to suit you.
Charlene Jennett is researcher of Human-Computer Interaction at UCL. Anna L Cox is professor of Human-Computer Interaction at UCL. This article was originally published in full on The Conversation.