INSPIRE Track 1: Aurorasaurus - Citizen Scientists Experiencing the Extremes of Space Weather

Project: Research project

Project Details


This INSPIRE award is partially funded by the Space Weather Research Program in the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences in the Directorate for Geoscience; the Human Centered Computing Program in the Division of Information & Intelligent Systems in the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering; and the Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program in the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources.

This is a two-year inter-disciplinary project pursuing tightly coupled goals within human centered computing, citizen science, and space weather research. The aurora borealis of the northern hemisphere and its twin, the aurora australis of the southern hemisphere, are among the most beautiful and awe-inspiring of natural phenomena. They are a manifestation of the interaction of solar plasma with the Earth's atmosphere, magnetic field, and surface, the combined effect of which is termed space weather. As the aurora is a visible manifestation of space weather, observations of aurora are potentially a means of forecasting its catastrophic extremes. Capitalizing on public curiosity of normally intangible plasma physics, the objective of this project is to create a system for collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and redistributing data on the dynamics and evolution of auroral events using crowd-sourced ad hoc Tweets and more purposeful postings from citizen scientists. The current solar maximum is the first since the emergence of the ubiquitous use of social media that has changed - and will continue to change - our interactions with computers and the world. Building on a demonstrated prototype system, the project is poised to take advantage of the approach in 2013-2014 of the maximum in the current 11-year solar activity cycle, with several high activity years following.

The team combines expertise in space weather science, human-computer interface design, and informal science education to realize each of its intertwined goals.

1) For space science, the contribution will be a totally new data source for auroral observations and the potential for real-time, higher-resolution space weather forecasts that are a critical step towards transforming our ability to protect and manage critical infrastructure susceptible to interruption and damage. With crowd-sourced data and user contributions, it is possible to achieve the increased density of high quality data needed for improved predictions. State of the art human-computer interfaces, for data upload, analysis, and interpretation that make participation easy, intuitive, and rewarding, will be developed to ensure the high quality data critical to forecasting.

2) For the field of human-centered computing, the creation of new frameworks will transform our understanding of how the emergent processes of crowd-sourced knowledge and labor come together for scientific discovery under the structures of networked computer platforms. Specifically, the stickiest problem in making crowd-sourced media actionable is the verification of the messages received at a high enough tolerance level for organizational decision-making. A transformative approach will be adopted, employing verification techniques within a community of active participants who will also engage the data, offering human intelligence in collaboration with machine intelligence.

3) The education approach is innovative and potentially transformative in its use of social media to explore the beautiful and mysterious aurora, through which participants in a dynamic social network will come to understand the relevance of space weather to their lives. Intellectually engaging resources, research projects, and motivational incentives for participation will help build a community of citizen scientists committed to advancing knowledge of space weather.

This low-cost, citizen science system for improved forecasting of geomagnetic storms has the potential to transform the way space weather prediction is done and considering the enormous potential cost to society of damage due to such storms would be cost-effective. The project will help enhance public understanding of this little known phenomenon so that citizens are aware and prepared to respond to the effects of space weather. Resulting new understanding of effective approaches to citizen science and the impact of human computer interactions on motivations and success at learning will have value to a wealth of other ongoing citizen science programs.

Effective start/end date9/15/1312/31/17


  • National Science Foundation: $998,957.00


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