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You Can Help Make Maps for Science (No Experience Needed!)

This animated map shows the Blue-winged Teal’s predicted distribution and relative abundance across all 52 weeks of the year. The brighter the color, the higher the expected count of the species on a standardized eBird count.
This animated map shows the Blue-winged Teal’s predicted distribution and relative abundance across all 52 weeks of the year. The brighter the color, the higher the expected count of the species on a standardized eBird count.

With no scientific training, and no clue about cartography, you can help map stuff for science. Lately the opportunities to lend a lay-hand with research seem to be everywhere, and more and more of them involve a mapping component.

This year the results of several citizen-aided science projects hit the news. In May, the researchers behind the Evolutionary Map of the Universe, a project to create a census of galaxies, announced that two Russian citizen scientists had discovered a new cluster of galaxies. In Spain, scientists released a preliminary oral-microbiome map based on participation of more than 4,000 Spanish teens.

The idea of asking the masses for help with science has been around a long time. For some research, humans are the best, or the only option, because computers, algorithms, and AI still can’t beat human brains or global coverage at many tasks. People have been identifying the birds in their backyards every year for almost two decades as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count. The strategy got a boost from a project started in 2006 called Stardust@home that asks people to help search images for the tiny tracks left behind by bits of interstellar dust picked up by a spacecraft. In 2007 the hugely popular Galaxy Zoo project, which involves classifying galaxies according to shape, showed the real promise of involving the public in big labor-intensive projects. Importantly, it revealed that people, lots of people, were excited to pitch in.

These days it’s hard to keep track of all the ways a person can get involved, and more and more of them have geographic or cartographic elements. From tracing neurons to spotting crabs, here are some of our favorite mappy science projects that need your help. (If you have favorites that we left out, please add them in the comments!)

This occurrence map shows the probability of encountering a white-throated sparrow (maximum 50% probability) on a 1-hour birding walk starting at 7:00 a.m. for 5 January, 3 May, and 7 June 2009.
This map shows the probability of encountering a white-throated sparrow on a 1-hour birding walk starting at 7:00 a.m. for 5 January, 3 May, and 7 June 2009.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Help Track More than 10,000 of the World’s Bird Species (Global)
In addition to the Great Backyard Bird Count, which occurs in February every year, another project called eBird tracks citizen bird sightings all year long, all over the world. This project, started in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, collects a huge amount of data. In May, for example, bird watchers recorded almost 11.8 million observations, and in June, the grand total surpassed a third of a billion records. The trove of sighting data is made available to any scientists or citizens that want to use it, and has resulted in over 100 publications. The graphic to the right is from a 2011 study based on eBird data that showed how climate change is affecting some birds’ migration routes in North America.

Even if you aren’t an avid bird watcher, or don’t want to record observations, you can enjoy a bunch of maps that have been made with the data, including animated occurrence maps for individual species (like the one at the top of the post), global species distribution maps, hotspot maps, or a real-time map of submissions around the globe.

Help With Earthquake Recovery (Global)
After a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Ecuador on April 16, citizens around the world began analyzing satellite imagery of the region to help with the recovery effort. Calling themselves the Planetary Response Network, a group of institutions led by the European Space Agency asked the public for help through the crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse. More than 2,800 people responded, poring over fresh satellite data provided by Planet Labs (like the image below), and helping to identify where relief on the ground was needed most, and how best to get it there. When the next disaster hits somewhere in the world, you can help too.

And if the earthquake is in your area, you can help the US Geological Survey map the shaking intensity by recording your experience.

Portoviejo, Ecuador captured by a RapidEye satellite on April 19, 2016
A RapidEye satellite captured this image of Portoviejo, Ecuador on April 19, 2016.
Planet Labs CC BY-SA

The Tea Bag Index (Global)
The rate at which leaves and other organic litter decays seems like a rather boring and esoteric thing to study, but it’s actually important for climate change modeling, because decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere. But leaf decomposition isn’t easy to study because gathering enough comparable data is tough. So researchers at Utrecht University in The Netherlands developed the Tea Bag Index project. To participate, all you need to do is buy some tea bags, weight them, bury them for 90 days, weigh them again and send in the results.

The European Green Crab
The European Green Crab.

Join the Crab Team (Pacific Northwest)
The European green crab’s native habitat is the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, but this little crab has spread to Australia, South Africa, South America, and both coasts of the United States. The crabs can cause considerable problems when they arrive, competing with native fish and shorebirds for food, and threatening the local bivalve populations they prey upon. In Maine, the crab contributed to the destruction of the local soft-shell clam industry, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, the native Manila clam populations have taken a huge hit.

Washington state is understandably concerned as the crab encroaches on its shores. In an attempt to protect the Puget Sound area, which hasn’t yet been invaded, the University of Washington is asking citizens to keep an eye out for any signs of the troublesome crabs, so they can fight back before the critters gain a foothold. If you live in the area, join the Crab Team.

Scientist Kate Brandis collecting feathers in Barmah Forest, Victoria, Australia.
Scientist Kate Brandis collecting feathers in Barmah Forest, Victoria, Australia.

The Feather Map (Australia)
Australia’s wetlands, critical habitat for its waterbirds, is increasingly under threat from a long list of pressures, including land reclamation, climate change, drought and flooding. Now scientists want the public’s help to track where the birds move and which of the remaining wetlands are being used by which species, so they can better plan how to protect the birds. By collecting feathers in wetland areas and sending them in for analysis, people can help build The Feather Map.

Play a Game to Map the Brain (Global)
The Eyewire game involves tracing neurons (see video below) through chunks of brain matter that have been scanned by microscopes in 3D. Apparently it’s much more fun that it sounds — more than 200,000 people from 145 countries have played the game. This incredible participation has given the game’s inventor, Princeton neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, hope that a map of the brain’s connections, known as the connectome, could be completed in two or three decades. As you trace neurons, you aren’t just creating data, you’re also helping to create AI that can map the connectome too.

–Betsy Mason

One thought on “You Can Help Make Maps for Science (No Experience Needed!)

  1. Is there some thing like this for mapping Rodents (rats, mice and bandicoots) ? Their habitats and changes in it are related to large number of diseases including Leptospirosis (my area of interest), Hanta viruses, Typhus, etc.

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