Like the proverbial needle in a haystack, sometimes the answer to a scientific question might be hidden inside a collection of evidence so colossal that picking through it all to find the answer just would not be possible: There isn’t enough time.
But imagine if thousands of people lined up at the haystack to help dig for the needle. Each person in the giant crowd could grab just a handful of hay and report whether the needle was in it. The massive task could be completed in no time.
For instance, take a potentially unwieldy project from the U-M Biological Station (UMBS) that involves more than a century of student papers. In the days before digital—way back at the turn of last century, around when UMBS first opened in 1909—students wrote up their summer experiments by hand, stapled the reports, and filed them in drawers at the field station. Some would call the student observations in those reports “dark data” that need to be rescued from obscurity and made available to other researchers.
The “Unearthing Michigan Ecological Data” project aims to do just that: bring dark data to light by digitizing the paper reports, seeing what’s in them, and making them searchable online. And the web interface Zooniverse is helping UMBS unearth all those data with the help of the U-M Library and citizen scientists who have an interest in the project, an internet connection, and some time to spare.
Zooniverse, a digital platform for people-powered research, uses the crowdsourcing idea to sift through too-huge amounts of data and help scientists find what they’re looking for. Assisted by volunteers from around the world, Zooniverse expedites projects that would otherwise take forever, like identifying the shapes of galaxies in tens of thousands of observations; searching for mentions of plant species amid decades of letters handwritten in more than five different languages; or cataloguing animals captured in thousands of movement-triggered photos, like those produced in LSA Professor Nyeema Harris’s research.
That’s where Zooniverse volunteers come in. “You can think of it as an engagement and education opportunity,” says Justin Schell, who runs the Shapiro Design Lab at the U-M Library and has had a hand in building projects like these for the web. “Volunteers are more than just a labor force.”
“In the back of my head, there’s always been this idea that there’s just tons of unlocked potential in these student papers,” says Jason Tallant, the data manager at UMBS, who has been working with Schell and others at the U-M Library to get the UMBS Zooniverse project online.
Tallant loves how data collected by students from various points in history, recorded well, and accessible to researchers decades into the future, can lead to long-term projects with major impact. As an example, he offers a UMBS experiment from the 1930s, in which the camp director supervised students who cut and deliberately burned plots of wooded land so they could watch how the forest bounced back after the different types of disturbance. In the 1950s, researchers stumbled upon those early student papers and continued the same experiment, which has been picked up by contemporary researchers at UMBS through to today. Now, those old data can continue to inform experiments in the same plots that no one ever would have thought about back then—relating to what we now know as climate change, for example.
“I mean, if the students in 1938 hadn’t done a good job of documenting what they’d done, then it probably wouldn’t have been remeasured in the 1950s and so on,” says Tallant.
The UMBS Zooniverse project might help unearth data that will be similarly useful. “My hope is that we’ll have a better understanding of what exists in the student archive,” Tallant says. “I get frustrated when people talk about student-collected data as if it’s just sort of an exercise and not of value. Collecting data in the field can be done by lots of different kinds of people, and there are lots of kinds of data worth archiving and putting time and effort into.”
It’s All Coming Together
Amazingly, Zooniverse volunteers have made good headway in sorting through the data. Schell and Tallant had the help of U-M librarians to digitize 100+ summer seasons of UMBS student papers and load the pages into the Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform. In the mere several months since the project began on the digital platform, more than 1,000 volunteers have made nearly 150,000 data classifications in about 75,000 pages covered in typewriter text, handwriting, and freehand sketches, noting when they see data such as maps, calculations, species names, figures, and photos. That’s the first step—to record where in the student reports data show up, and what kind of data they are.
In some of these reports, students have documented the onomatopoeia of birdcalls: “zeezeezeezeezeezeezeezeezeezeezeezee,” “whiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhiwhi,” “cheeeeeeeeeoooooooo.” Wouldn’t it be interesting, Schell thinks, to identify those bird species and record when and where they were heard in something like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a 500-billion-record database of species occurrences around the world? Then, someone using a statistics program could load up the data about that “zeezee”-ing bird to see how early it’s been arriving in northern Michigan over the years and whether its migration patterns relate to climate adaptation.
And what if the UMBS data could improve climate model estimates with records of how temperatures and rainfall have changed at that single site in northern Michigan over a span of 100+ years?
Those are the kinds of applications that Schell and Tallant get excited about when they watch the progress of the UMBS Zooniverse project online. Schell points out that anyone can help—not just “experts.” And every Zooniverse volunteer has their own different motivation for getting involved. Schell insists, “You don’t need to have a certain skill, knowledge, age, or expertise—anyone can do this project.”
“My 12-year-old likes to do it,” says Tallant, who takes his family to UMBS when he works there during the summers. “I think she feels a sense of ownership, because she’s a camp kid, and she’s somehow contributing to the station.”