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Cell phone storm infoWhat do an AMBER Alert, earthquakes, birds on Mesa Verde, and red pandas have in common?

On Monday, January 14, 2013, many residents of Pennsylvania received a text message from AMBER Alert, a public alert system that spreads information about child abductions by using the broadcast media and transportation and wireless industries.  The alert stated, “An AMBER Alert has been issued in your area, check local media.”  The message caused many to wonder what had happened.  Subsequently on Tuesday, the local Center Daily Times explained that the source of the alert involved the abduction of a 5-year-old girl from a school near Philadelphia.

Several years ago, my wife and I visited Mesa Verde, a beautiful formation in Colorado.  We stayed at a hotel at the top and joined a tour group early the next morning.  When we joined the group, I announced cheerfully that I had seen several birds outside the hotel, whereupon one member of the group (apparently an amateur ornithologist) declared that he had seen 17 different species and proceeded to name them and describe their characteristics.  The current issue of Scientific American (February, 2013, Vol. 308, # 2), has an article titled, “Data on Wings.” This article describes how a modest website, designed in 2002 by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society to enlist the aid of birdwatchers to help track the migration of some species of birds via an on-line reporting site called “ebird,” has resulted in 110 million data records contributed by over 90,000 people.  The resultant data has provided detailed information on the migration habits of more than 300 species of birds.

Both of these cases illustrate an emerging field that has been termed “citizen science” – the use of amateur observers to collect data in fields such as ecology, astronomy, epidemiology, and many other areas.  Other examples are the efforts by the United States Geological Survey to collect human observations of earthquakes to integrate with seismic data (Google, “Did you feel it”); LiMPETS (http://limpetsmonitoring.org/) , a monitoring program on the California coast that requests students and teachers to gather data to help cleanups after an oil spill or environmental contamination; and Zooniverse (https://www.zooniverse.org/), a site where nearly 800,000 people from around the world have supported the analysis of all types of scientific data.

The rapid spread of smart phones, ubiquitous availability of wireless communication, and the willingness of people to act as observers and collaborative analysts, provides exciting opportunities for a new era of citizen science and improved public safety via an effective global neighborhood watch. But with the enabling technology comes many questions that are the purview of information science: How do we motivate/task people to act as observers? How do we characterize the capability of the observer (e.g., me versus the amateur ornithologist)? How can we represent both the uncertainty of the observations and the relative confidence of the observations? Finally, how do we perform “knowledge elicitation” without unduly influencing the observers?

These are just some of the areas addressed by IST researchers. Examples of current IST research include the use of mobile serious games to motivate observers, exploration of the fusion of information from human observers and physical sensors (so-called “soft” and “hard” sensors), development of human computer interfaces to support reporting and communication, and understanding how to evaluate the truthfulness of Twitter and other postings on the web.

This emerging field of citizen science promises to be very exciting with the potential for seven billion people on earth to act as observers and contributing analysts. But we must be especially mindful of the challenges in tasking humans. A dramatic example is cited by Kaplan and Kaplan (Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human, 2009). They report, “In 1978 the Rotterdam Zoo reported the escape of one of its red pandas; hundreds of helpful people called in, having spotted it in places all over the Netherlands – when in fact it had been run over by a train just a few yards from the zoo fence.”

We have the technology to ask humans throughout the planet to act as observers, reporters, and collective analysts – but we must beware of what we ask for, and how we interpret the results.

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