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People-Powered Data Visualization

National Geographic

Last fall the National Audubon Society published an alarming report about the future of North American birds. Of the hundreds of species that they studied, more than half are threatened with extinction as a result of climate change. Accompanying the report was a series of animations, produced by the San Francisco firm Stamen Design, showing how each threatened bird’s home range could shift over the next 65 years. Many of the maps showed suitable habitat drifting north in response to rising temperatures and in some cases disappearing. The breeding grounds of birds such as the eastern whip-poor-will and the Baird’s sparrow, a tiny grassland bird native to the northern plains, may all but vanish.

From Crowdsourcing to Citizen Science

The Audubon report reflects the rise of crowdsourcing, in which masses of private citizens contribute to collective projects. Thanks to smartphones, the Web, and cloud computing platforms, individuals around the world can help identify wild animals in safari parks, categorize the emotions evoked by literary excerptsclassify galaxies, or just draw pictures of sheep. When crowdsourcing extends beyond typically low-level validation tasks to more profound analytical contributions, it enters the realm of citizen science.