Documentaries

New Miniseries Shows How Ordinary Citizens Can Help Advance Science—and Be a Part of Solutions

From the lead crisis to fracking, citizen scientists are doing much more than just reading about the issues.

Photo Credit: The 2050 Group

With more mobile phones than people on the planet, there's an army of regular citizens across the world who are able to help advance scientific research.

"By observing their environments, monitoring neighborhoods, collecting information about the world and the things they care about, so-called 'citizen scientists' are helping professional scientists to advance knowledge while speeding up new discoveries and innovations," write the producers of The Crowd & the Cloud, a new four-part public television series premiering today. (Click here to find stations and air dates.)

"I was NASA chief scientist at the time when Curiosity landed on Mars, so I know big data and big science," explains the show's host Waleed Abdalati, who is the current director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a research center sponsored in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "But I'm also convinced that citizen-generated data has an important role." 

In his open-sourced data quest, Abdalati invites viewers to "do science" by using the #CrowdCloudLIVE Twitter hashtag to tweet questions and comments.

Segments feature the volunteer water testers of “Philly Unleaded," first responders to the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal, as well as a rural Wyoming bucket brigade monitoring their own air. 

After smelling an uptick in emissions and the state's refusal to investigate, residents of Pavillion, Wyoming, quickly took matters into their own hands. 

"People wanted to know what they were breathing, you know, it's pretty basic," Bucket Brigade founder Denny Larson explains in one episode. 

Samples were analyzed using EPA protocols in a laboratory certified by the U.S. Department of Defense. The results were shocking.

"Basically what we found is that sixty percent of these samples did not exceed any federal guidelines, but that is to say forty percent of them did," said David Carpenter, director at the School of Public Health at the University of Albany. 

"Many of the toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer that we found in this report were in some cases hundreds in other cases thousands and in one case 22 million times over the EPA cancer risk," Larson adds. 

The Crowd and the Cloud is distributed by American Public Television (APT, APTonline.org). The four episodes will air on April 6, 13, 20 and 27. You can also view the episodes online.

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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