At-home crowdsourcing and citizen science for mapping enthusiasts

May 13, 2020  - By

The world so close has never seemed so far away. Locked up and adrift, somewhere between the comfort of the past and the anxiety of the future, the present slowly passes by in a procession of nameless days. The living room has become a sundial. Shadows pass from one wall in the morning to the far side by day’s end. Outside, spring has sprung, but inside, winter lingers on.

Alone, we can do so little. Together, we can do so much.
—Helen Keller


Times like these, detached and disruptive, are opportunities in disguise. Ironically, while the world is confined and socially distanced from one another, humanity is more connected than it has ever been. Hard to believe, but smart mobile devices began just over a decade ago; and we are in the midst of a growing tsunami of connected devices, cloud computing, big data and open source. These events, coinciding with the exponential growth of geographic information systems and data analytics, have set the stage for crowdsourcing and citizen science. The era of empowering individual contributors has begun.

It has probably gone unnoticed due to all the political wrangling in Washington, D.C., but over the last two administrations, with bi-partisan support, without recognition or renown, a monument to American ingenuity was christened. Beginning in 2010, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act was passed. Then, in 2014, the White House elevated homegrown inventors and creators calling it the Maker Movement and hosted the first-ever National Maker Faire. In 2015, the STEM Education Act became law and in the same year the Senate introduced The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act. In 2017, the American Innovation Competitiveness Act became law formally coining the term, crowdsourcing. In 2019, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) delivered the first-ever comprehensive report to Congress about federal agencies activities involving crowdsourcing and citizen science (FedCCS). Also in 2019, OSTP along with the General Services Administration (GSA) hosted the U.S. Government Open Innovation Summit.

The OSTP FedCCS report to Congress titled, “Implementation of Federal Prize and Citizen Science Authority,” cites 169 FedCCS prize competitions conducted by 18 federal agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). However, the number of FedCCS projects is much greater than what is covered in the report. On the amount of competitions rose from 744 in 2016 to 875 in 2018, and the prize awards ranged from $0 to $20 million with an average payout of $75,000 in FY2018. The next report is due in 2021.

Governments tapping into the resources of its citizens for innovation is not new, but it has never been on this scale and granted such authority. One of the first official attempts was the United Kingdom’s Longitude Prize in 1719 offering a King’s ransom of £20,000 [see article: From the Pyramids to GIS/GPS] to solve positioning at sea. Great Britain still honors the original Longitude Prize using the name for their national grand crowdsource competition. Similarly, in the United States the grand challenge is the X-Prize, the most famous one being the Ansari X prize. You may not know the prize by its name, but as NASA’s Space Shuttle Program phased down, the Ansari X-Prize kicked-off the space race among private companies. Scaled Composites won the $10 million prize in 2004 reaching space in a reusable craft, which became Virgin Galactic.

The term “crowdsourcing” means a method to obtain needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting voluntary contributions from a group of individuals or organizations, especially from an online community.
—15 USC Chapter 63 §3724 (2): Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

The U.S. Federal Government already relies on the public for information to help improve and maintain its products and better serve the country. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has had an ongoing cooperative with the U.S. Power Squadrons since 1963 to report safety hazards to navigation and help maintain the information on maritime nautical charts. The agreement to support NOAA was renewed in 2013 for another 50 years.

Image: U.S. Geological Survey

Image: U.S. Geological Survey

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) accepts reports from the general public, especially aircraft pilots regarding the accuracy of information in the products it publishes which can affect changes to aeronautical charts and flight operations.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has The National Map Corps (TNMCorps), which began in 1994 with the Earth Science Corps and the Adopt-a-Quad program. These two programs consolidated into a single online crowdsourcing effort to support USGS in 2013. TNM Corps helps maintain USGS’s maps and allows private citizens to do feature collection activities. It is easy to join and simple to use making it a way for all ages to join the crowdsource movement. What is also significant about USGS is that Dr. Sophia Liu, Co-Chair of the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science resides there. Dr. Liu helped stand-up FEMA’s crowdsourcing and citizen science unit in 2007. She is now the coordinator of FedCCS activities and helped co-write the 2019 OSTP FedCCS report to Congress.

Crowdsourcing is about actively engaging people in a certain task, sometimes a very specific micro-task that includes a two-way feedback loop with the public. We need to leverage the human power that is better at understanding, processing, and communicating information.
—Dr. Sophia B Liu, Innovation Specialist, USGS


Some of the most popular sites for GIS enthusiasts to get involved are Open Street Maps (OSM), GISCorps, GeoHIVE and Zooniverse. OSM has more than 2 million contributors worldwide and has been on the front line of international disasters beginning with the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Through its Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) it has supported operations of the Red Cross, FEMA, and United Nations. Through the power of the crowd, OSM contributors rapidly map transportation networks in disaster areas to show the most accessible routes in order for rescue operations and emergency supplies to reach the most impacted communities.

The GIS Corps, founded in 2003, operates under URISA and coordinates short-term mapping volunteer projects for humanitarian relief, human rights, disaster response, and other important efforts. Over 4,500 volunteers have helped support 195 missions around the world such as Hurricane Katrina, Ebola outbreaks in Sierra Leone, and the Nepal earthquake, in fact, if there is a crisis somewhere in the world, GISCorps is most likely going to have an effort in place to support it.

GeoHIVE (Geospatial Human Imagery Verification Effort) is an imagery based geospatial crowdsource platform which began in 2015 eventually replacing Tomnod in 2018. Digital Globe formed a collaboration with Radiant Solutions, SSL and MDA combining efforts and resources creating a more robust crowdsourcing platform. GeoHIVE’s 3,000 volunteers have contributed to nearly 700 campaigns. Registering for GeoHIVE requires an Amazon Mechanical Turk account, which allows contributors to be compensated for crowdsource tasks.

Zooniverse began as an astronomy site to enable hobbyists to help classify galaxy types but quickly grew into a crowdsource platform that encompasses all sorts of projects in addition to its cosmic origins including art, biology, literature and there are several spatially related projects to be found, as well. With Zooniverse you can contribute to science by studying gravitational waves or categorizing auroras as the ionized plasma washes up onto our cosmic shore.

90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today.
—Steven N. Rader, Deputy Manager, NASA, Center of Excellence


That quote by Steven Rader of NASA is accredited to Derek de Solla Price in 1961 referring to the exponential growth in the number of PhD’s and patents throughout the world. But now, science is in the hands of the Makers — those with 3D printers or those who can program a virtual world, or design an augmented reality, or those who can extract patterns from data and provide meaningful intelligence in geography, demographics, genetics, biology, and every field of study.

Citizen scientists are making a significant mark upon the world. Take for example CeCe Moore, a genealogy hobbyist who became a self-taught expert and now tracks down killers solving several cases using her laptop and open source DNA records. Gary Hug, a backyard astronomer, who built his own observatory in Topeka, Kansas, has discovered over 300 asteroids in near Earth orbits, and in March, Michael Mattiazzo, a citizen scientist astronomy enthusiast, discovered comet (C/2020 F8) SWAN which will make its closest approach to Earth on May 13th inside Earth’s orbit. Then there is Ted Ground, a citizen scientist hero. Ted is a winner in multiple citizen science competitions winning the NASA ideation challenge for the Mars ballast payload, the Bureau of Land Reclamation challenge for identifying insect invertebrates in rivers and estuaries, and the INNOcentive challenge for identifying trace minerals in livestock.

The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.
—Peter Diamandis, executive chairman of the X Prize Foundation


Logo: Challenge.govChallenges are competitions sponsored by governments, private industry, non-profits and international entities. At the end of this article are listed several challenge sites. Agencies of the U.S. government post their challenges on and Challenges are opportunities to work on projects for NASA, DOD, EPA, NOAA, FEMA, USGS, DARPA, and a growing list of agencies and companies. Most of these projects can be worked on at home with a laptop. Some challenges are for money or other prizes and some are just for the recognition, but all of them are ways to improve skills, build connections, and enhance a resume.

Logo: Citizen ScienceIn closing, the legislation signed into law since 2010 culminating in the America Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017 requiring bi-annual reports to Congress directs federal agencies to use Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science. This movement empowers the individual. There has never been a better time for an idea whose time has come.

All achievements, all earned riches, have their beginning in an idea.
—Napoleon Hill, Author of Think and Grow Rich


A final note: The four-part television series, “The Crowd & the Cloud,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and hosted by Waleed Abdalati, former NASA chief scientist, can be seen here.