Last week I visited Carnegie Mellon University’s website for the first time as an alumnus. The front page, often dedicated to highlighting faculty work, had a picture of an iPhone screen displaying brightly colored data visualizations. I didn’t have to look past the first two words of the title — “Citizen Scientists” — before I knew that it would be worth my time to keep reading.
The article described how Eric Paulos, an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, is equipping “everyday mobile devices” with sensors used to collect reliable scientific data. The point of all this effort is to create “a new generation of ‘citizen scientists,’ connected both to the environment and each other.” Just in case that quote isn’t clear enough: the study might as well have been funded by The Knight Foundation.
What’s interesting about this project is that members of the scientific community, a professional group that arguably maintains higher standards for verification than journalism, are trying to harness the crowd in the same way that we are. In fact, they are actually going out of their way to do it. This demands an explanation!
But First, Outer Space
At the end of July, an amateur astronomer found a giant hole on Jupiter. Some people were surprised that the ocean-sized crater was discovered by a hobbyist instead of a professional. I, however, wasn’t shocked. My reaction could be the result of a personal perception that astronomy is relatively accessible to “the common man.” Or maybe it’s because looking to the sky is such a primal thing to do. Either way, the subsequent media dialogue exposed me to several new spins on the “amateur vs. professional” debate.
A few days later, I saw a follow-up story on Digg about another amateur observation. This time someone found a bright spot on Venus. It was admittedly less interesting than the news from earlier in the week. I scanned the comments anyway and saw a highly rated one that asked, “Why is everything first discovered by amateur astronomers? What the heck are we paying the professional astronomers for?”
Using my recently gained knowledge of the issue, I replied and pointed out that professionals have bigger and better things to do; it doesn’t make sense for a PhD to use a million-dollar telescope to look at something that a hobbyist could view using a thousand-dollar one, especially when there is so much of the universe left to unlock.
Once again, there seems to be a lesson here for journalism.
The Three Classes of Scientists
It’s important to know where amateur and citizen scientists fit in relation to professional ones. Here’s how I define these three broad classes of scientist:
- Professional Scientists – These people make a living from science. They have the expertise, the patience, and the resources to handle the big stuff.
- Amateur Scientists – Folks who tackle science as a hobby. They enjoy participating and have varied levels of knowledge. They also have the capacity to make direct contributions to the scientific community because they’re exploring the same reality as everyone else (regardless of what quantum physicists and philosophers might say).
- Citizen Scientists – These individuals are equipped to contribute to science when they are empowered by tools and networks. They aren’t out conducting experiments or learning methods, but they are generally willing, with the help of professionals, to provide crowd power and reap the benefits of the resulting information.
Here’s the interesting part: between the story of the amateur astronomers and the vision of Eric Paulos, all three types of scientist have beautifully compatible relationships.
Professionals can safely focus on daunting tasks, knowing that amateurs are ready and willing to take on the smaller stuff (like keeping tabs on Jupiter). The community standards are clear and ultimately bound by cold hard observable fact, so amateurs can make meaningful contributions without diluting the knowledge base. Meanwhile, citizens are being empowered by professionals to help the scientific cause in a way that informs individuals and improves their lives.
Takeaways for Journalism
Now it’s time to take the leap back into the land of journalism. If you buy my claim that scientists and journalists all care about informational integrity and the quest for truth, then several things can be extrapolated:
- If professional journalists take the lead by clearly defining expectations, explaining best practices, and implementing an accessible infrastructure, then amateurs can contribute without disrupting the industry.
- If amateur journalists do a good job of covering a smaller scope of topics or areas (e.g. the hyperlocal), then professionals can focus on the deeper, otherwise inaccessible issues.
- Professional journalists are responsible for creating and maintaining the citizen network if they want it to meet their standards.
- Citizen networks need more than a host. In order to reach full potential, they need to be explicitly empowered through tools and guidance.
- A symbiotic relationship between the professional, the amateur, and the crowd is not just possible, it’s socially optimal.
And there we have it: If the journalism industry can create an infrastructure that allows amateurs to contribute reliable information, then professionals will be able to dedicate more resources to epic reporting. If local papers can find the capacity to set up and empower meaningful citizen networks, they will establish a major foothold in the evolving domains of community and information. Man, science is useful.
Now we just need to define the standards (and explain how to meet them), create that infrastructure, and set up those networks.
iPhone image via Carnegie Mellon University.