5 apps to help you become a citizen scientist with nearly minimal effort

24 Oct 2016

Boy photographing nature. Image: Julia Kuznetsova/Shutterstock

So you want to become a citizen scientist but with the minimal amount of effort expended? Well then, these five citizen science apps should be a good place to start.

The power held in our pocket in the form of smartphones isn’t there solely to take a series of funny Snapchat images, but is actually an unlikely citizen scientist toolkit.

After all, most smartphones these days are jam-packed full of sensors, cameras, microphones and processors that can combine to churn out valuable data, either for yourself or on your behalf for an organisation.

Future Human

Companies like Google and Apple have already realised the potential for their devices as mass harvesters of data – not including the information used to target you with specified advertising – with their own citizen science-like projects.

One example is Apple rolling out ResearchKit to help researchers use health data obtained from iPhones for the benefit of solving medical conditions through metadata.

But being a citizen scientist is not all about giving your data to major conglomerates; sometimes it can be just for you, or a voluntary research organisation.

To get you started, here are five tools that you can download for your smartphone.

Google Science Journal

If you are an Android user, the first app you should definitely download is Science Journal.

The free app was launched last May as a tool that uses sensors to measure your environment, like light and sound, so you can graph your data, record your experiments, and organise your questions and ideas.

All of the information is trackable in real time and – most importantly – presents it in an easy-to-read format for beginners.

If you want to make the app even more capable, you can buy a number of different kits – including additional internet of things sensors – to bring you from beginner to expert in no time.

Science Journal app

Science Journal app. Image: Google


Launched only last August, NASA’s latest free app on Android and iOS lets outdoorsy types make the best use of their time spent looking up at the expansive sky.

In the initial release of the app, users can collect observations of clouds, which are a critical part of the global climate system.

Once you collect environmental observations with the app, they are sent to the GLOBE data and information system, for use by scientists and students studying the Earth.

Your observations can also be used for your own investigations and to interact with a vibrant community of individuals from around the world who care about Earth system science and our global environment.

From a meteorological perspective, ground-up views from citizen scientists are valuable in validating and understanding satellite observations.

It is certainly not a bad way to spend a hike.


The new NASA GLOBE Observer app allows anyone to become a citizen scientist by collecting observations of clouds. Image: NASA GLOBE Observer


This strange-sounding app is the one-stop shop for anyone interested in giving over some processing power to astronomers searching for alien life in the universe.

Not only that, but a number of different research organisations have signed up, including Yoyo@Home, World Community Grid, PrimeGrid, Enigma@Home, OProject@Home, theSkyNet POGS, Asteroids@home, and Einstein@Home.

This means that a citizen scientist can use their phone or tablet to study diseases, predict global warming or even discover pulsars.

Thankfully for users, BOINC computes only when the Android device is plugged in and charged, meaning it won’t run down your battery.

Also, all data is transferred over Wi-Fi, so your phone bill won’t be enormous after using it.

You literally don’t have to lift a finger to use it once it’s up and running.


What if you could do your part for quantum science simply by playing a free mobile game on your smartphone?

Well, then you might want to get your hands on a game called Decodoku that is free on Android, iOS and desktop browsers.

Developed by Dr James Wootton, the app is aiming to be a crowdsourced solution to solving quantum error correction. It will go towards helping him and other computer science researchers to make better and more effective quantum computers.

In the same way that an error or ‘bit flip’ can occur in a binary systems of one and zeros, similar bit flips can occur in quantum bits that can be one, zero or both at the same time.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be a computer scientist to play the game based on making the most amount of moves possible on a board before everything seizes up.

At the end of the day, you’re playing a completely free game and aiding science, so what have you to lose?

Micro-litter app monitoring app

While currently still in a testing phase, one interesting way you can do your part for citizen science while also getting in a nice walk along the coast is to download a micro-litter app from the organisation Coastwatch.

The idea behind the app is to use peoples’ mobile phones to photograph and chart examples of micro-litter – miniaturised pieces of plastic and other litter found in the sea – and send it back to the organisation to chart its abundance.

This can range from identifying plastic pellet spills at sea, to places where the sea shreds macro into micro litter.

You can check out the global information gathered globally so far, however, most results have been catalogued in Ireland.

Micro litter app Coastwatch

Recent data obtained through the micro-litter app. Image: Coastwatch

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic