Rebirth of Citizen Science – Patterns and Complexity – Seeing Afresh

Social Media will change all parts of our life – In Science, complex issues need many people to see the new patterns. This is already happening in astronomy where the amateurs are using their collective “eye” to see things that the pros cannot. Here is my first post on this new Science – Science 2.0?

Many of the great discoveries in science have involved “seeing” patterns when no one else can.

cholerasnowmap

This map is one of the most important of these “seeing” moments. The time is 1854 and the place is London. There is a cholera outbreak. At the time Germ Theory did not exist. No one knew how Cholera was transmitted. We don’t actually know today how Flu is transmitted either.

Dr John Snow took an extraordinary step – he mapped the deaths. He had no idea what would appear.

If you look at the map, you will see that the dots representing the deaths have a pattern. They concentrate around one well.

When the well was dug up, it was found that a sewer had contaminated the water. No one knew about germs yet. But the link between fecal matter and water had been made. The result – a massive public health response – the building of the London Sewers.

I bring this up in the context of a new way of “seeing” that is now THE coming thing in Science. Data Intensive Science. Until now, this field was restricted to those with access to huge and expensive data bases.

For much of DIS today is based on the power of computers to take on vast amounts of data and then offer back patterns.

But just as blogging and the 2.0 Tool set is changing media, this approach is being applied to DIS. The new easy to use and inexpensive tools that will allow this type of inquiry to take place in the hands of you and I are being built right now (I am involved in such a project) These tools use Open Source and a 2.0 interface but with exceptionally robust data collection, storage and presentation engines.

What this is going to do is to open up research on complex issues that can only be explored by the use of patterns

200px-Cynefin

For traditional science can only deal with the simple and the complicated. We can only make our way through the complex and chaotic by the use of pattern. Just as Dr Snow did back in the day. He and no one else knew what caused cholera. Only a pattern could show the way.

Dr Snow was not a Scientist either. Of course neither were Galileo or Newton. Even Einstein was a lowly patent clerk. You can now see where I am going.

This process is in turn driving the same kind of revolution in science that we are seeing in Media – the rebirth of Citizen Science.

The tools that can be used for Data Intensive Science are the same that are used in media. The same empowerment of the individual is beginning in science as we have seen in media.

All the same questions about who is a real scientist/journalist are on the table.

At the heart of the revolution is a tool set that enables the small to do the work that only the large could have done before. So issues of credentials, trust, value etc will all come to the surface in science as they are in media today.

As I get my feet wet in the new field for me, I will be able to tell you more about the new 2.0 world of Science.

Here is Steven Johnson the author of the Ghost Map talking about the big lessons of amateurism and citizen involvement
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