There are plenty of half-decent ways to waste time on the internet. Cat videos, instant messaging and unsatisfying online quizzes are always just a click away. And while no one can really be blamed for indulging in some mindless instant gratification every now and then, there are also ways to spend time on the internet that have actual scientific benefits.
Just last week we saw the launch of PenguinWatch, a research program wherein members of the public can help track penguin populations by counting the animals in images taken across Antarctic regions.
If penguins fail to win you over (monster!), but you still fancy yourself a citizen scientist, there are hundreds of projects you could participate in. Here are just a few.
The Planet Four project is not dissimilar to PenguinWatch - volunteers can assist researchers by tagging huge depositories of images taken of the southern hemisphere. One major difference for you to take note of is that the southern hemisphere in question is that of Mars, and therefore there are no penguins.
The images are taken using the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Equipment) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Throughout the seasons on Mars, huge deposits of carbon dioxide ice freeze and sublimate - turn directly from a solid to a gas.
The gas erupts from under the solid surface of the ice, and can form a fan-shaped shadow in the presence of wind, or a more rounded shadow (technical name: blotch) in the absence of wind. The annotated images will eventually be used to piece together the first large scale measurement of the winds on the surface of Mars.
The rise of the smart phone has simplified the process of GPS-tagging and photo-sharing, which are common features of many citizen science projects. For example, the CloudSpotter app allows users to upload images of clouds to share with other cloud appreciators.
Users can attempt to classify each cloud they upload – this information is verified by a moderator (who can be a meteorologist or other well-versed cloud-spotter), so uploaders can improve on their cloud classification skills. GPS-tagged data from the app is also shared with NASA, who can use it to calibrate their satellite equipment and research how clouds affect weather conditions on the ground.
If these projects still don’t sound interesting enough to lure you away from your cat videos, why not try science that’s a little more feline oriented. The University of South Australia’s Cat Tracker project has been inviting pet owners to conduct kitty personality tests and monitor their cat’s movements by fitting them with GPS trackers.
Researchers are investigating how to best optimise conditions for animals in captivity. The data are also being used to assess whether keeping cats indoors – something which is increasingly encouraged amid growing feral cat populations and fears for the safety of local wildlife – has an impact on kitty wellbeing.
If none of these ideas tickle your fancy but you’re interested in helping out some scientists, check out Zooniverse, a web portal which hosts a number of research projects requiring the assistance of everyday people as volunteers.