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Enlisting Passers-By In Scientific Research


Scientific research can be expensive, but a lack of funds did not stop one scientist in Buffalo from moving forward with his project. State University of New York professor Chris Lowry came up with a creative and cheap way to get measurements on stream levels across the state by crowdsourcing his research.

Chris Lowry joins us from member station WBFO in Buffalo, New York. Professor Lowry, thank you very much for coming in.

CHRIS LOWRY: Oh, thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Tell us what you did. I mean, as I understand it, you basically just stuck a big ruler in the streams whose flow you were trying to measure and attached a sign with a phone number and asked passersby to send you a text message and tell you what the water level looked like.

LOWRY: That's exactly what we did do, and we realized that text messaging was ubiquitous and so as a result, we thought maybe we can engage citizens and see if they can start to help us make these measurements. And so we literally stuck a sign in the stream, and that sign said "please text us the water level" and it was right on top of basically just a giant ruler.

WERTHEIMER: Ha. You know, I still, I haven't asked you yet what exactly it is that you are doing with this information. Why do you want it?

LOWRY: My specific research is looking at ground water and surface water interactions. I literally set up these gauges so that I could know what was going on in terms of streams so I could better understand what's going on in the subsurface.

WERTHEIMER: If you're having passersby do your research, what do your colleagues think about that? I mean, do they think that that might just be a tiny bit too random?

LOWRY: You know, I think the jury's kind of out. What we've been able to show is we've been able to show that these data that come in are actually very accurate. It's just a matter of kind of convincing people that this is a new way of doing things. This is leveraging a new technology.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what about if you got some person coming by who was hostile to the idea or thought it would be a great idea laugh to send you some completely bogus results?

LOWRY: So that is possible, right? But because you're crowdsourcing, what we're doing is we're getting multiple measurements, so you may see that the water level is 3.5 feet and then it might go to 6.5 feet and then back to 3.5 feet. That 6.5 feet is an outlier and we can easily identify that and say, you know what? That was a bad measurement. And I don't think it's people being hostile. I think people are inherently good, right? I think it's more of people with fat thumbs texting, right?


WERTHEIMER: I hope you're right.

LOWRY: I mean, I have fat thumbs. Like, I have a hard time texting. I'm not - I didn't grow up texting.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think you've actually saved money by doing it this way?

LOWRY: Oh, yeah. We've saved a ton of money doing it this way, and it's also engaging people that aren't engaged in hydrologic sciences. This is a really cool, not only scientific endeavor, but it's also a really cool engagement endeavor.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Chris Lowry joined us from member station WBFO in Buffalo, New York. Thank you very much for being with us.

LOWRY: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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