Crowdsourcing the Future: How Citizen Scientists and Mobile Technology are Changing the Face of Science

The possibilities of what can be done with “the internet” seem to grow exponentially with each passing year. We often think of what the internet can do for us, but what about what we can do for the internet? In the past few years, we’ve learned how to harness the immense power of all those connected minds online through crowdsourcing. If you aren’t familiar with the term crowdsourcing, it refers to leveraging the brainpower or manpower of large groups of people through the internet for services, ideas, or content. Think games and apps are a waste of time – think again! Scientists have cleverly designed apps, games, and websites which engage average citizens in scientific research. By gaming from your laptop on your couch or using an app on your smartphone on the bus, you could actually help find a cure for AIDS, save an endangered species, or help prevent a flu epidemic. Essentially, this is citizen science at its best.

It all started with a team of stumped scientists who had been working tirelessly to find the correct protein structure of an AIDS-like virus. In this historic publication, they reported how gamers solved the problem in just 3 weeks through a game called Foldit. The scientists attribute this victory to the creative and collaborative nature of gaming. This was the first known example of a major scientific contribution through crowdsourcing. For more games with a social purpose check out this list.

Thanks to modern cameras photography of wildlife is possible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in a technique called “camera trapping” which biologists use to remotely determine the abundance and distribution of threatened species. While effective, this method isn’t very efficient since it requires manual review of thousands of photos translating into costly and time-consuming labor.  The Zoological Society of London solved this problem by crowdsourcing animal identification while simultaneously engaging the public in wildlife conservation. InstantWILD is accessible as an app or on the web. This clever program allows the average person to “help identify some of the rarest and threatened species on the planet” by viewing photos captured in real time and identifying the animal from a list of possible species. Learn more here.


This month scientists are applying the same idea to a problem right here in North America, tracking the bumblebee. There are more than 50 species of bumblebees in North America but little is known about their current status and scientists fear they are declining. Leveraging the help of the public makes possible what would otherwise be an insurmountable task of surveying all of the bees in North America. So far, it’s working.

“Within a week of‘s launch, more than 500 people from 37 states and seven Canadian provinces had swarmed the site, submitting some 350 photos, some of which were taken several years ago” – Rich Hatfield, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

In the UK, public health officials are encouraging people to self-report cases of the flu, tracking the movement of potentially serious outbreaks faster and more accurately than hospital reporting. Now researchers at the University of California in San Diego are hoping to take this technology one step further by collecting vital signs via smartphones resulting in a crowdsourced map of human health.  Imagine the utility of a real-time picture of global infectious disease and environmental pollution?!

Timely reporting and sharing of information are fundamental issues which have historically plagued scientific fields. With mobile technology all of that is changing. Mobile technology is enabling citizen science to achieve a level of ease and functionality never before possible because access to the internet is always at our fingertips via smartphone or tablet. In 2013, worldwide the number of smartphone sales finally outpaced basic feature phones. We are able to collect and share information over internet-enabled personal devices faster than ever imagined. The future of global health (human, animal, and environmental) is, quite literally, in the palm of our hands.

As a company rooted in collaborative principles, Rural System embraces the potential of citizen science and mobile technology. We are actively designing mobile and web-based applications which can deliver and collect information which will be beneficial for land managers.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.


  1. Laurel Sindewald says:

    This is so neat! Thanks for writing this post, Risa.

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