Till the recent past, we were reliant on being handed down information from scientists or a specialist or your doctor, etc. and things were pretty much controlled within these bounds.
The downside of this is that things do not get studied because they are deemed “not profitable enough” (e.g. rare diseases) or are slow moving due to the processes involved (e.g. a breast cancer treatment)
Citizen-science attempts to get to a point where people can do many of these things by themselves having more open and good tools, and many companies are building these.
In a way, it short-circuits the processes of organizations (which is good and bad).
Many studies or analysis takes time, and with citizen-science, one does not have to wait long cycles for the process in an institution and feel helpless waiting for it.
The key is to empower a user to be able learn more on their own, the caveat being, as I mentioned earlier, that the users know what they are doing.
There can also be a dark side where things could backfire because they have not been really ratified by experts.
Be warned that there is always a risk that something deduced this way could be harmful (e.g. a treatment that has good short-term effects but has bad long-term effects).
Picture from Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stasiland/467444438/
Recently, faster access, more computing power, the cloud, etc. have lead to a tipping point of citizen science.
Take this story of ALS patients, who are looking for urgent cures since time is essential to them: http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304818404577345953943484054.html
The founder of 23 And Me talks about crowd-sourcing: http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2012/04/18/why-23andmes-anne-wojcicki-trusts-the-crowd-over-the-system/
Genomera is a good example of citizen-science. All kinds of studies and observations with remedies, the company that can run studies by users (and not only academicians, as is the norm). Think of it as studies created and run by users. Anyone who can follow their instructions can participate in a study or just join the discussion. Think of it like the fusion of a Yahoo group and experiments.
The Quantified Self (QS) is a company that encourages tracking oneself through self-observation, and this could lead to some useful observations and corelations – www.quantifiedself.com
A fascinating story of a Stanford professor who tracked and discovered himself developing diabetes, which involves genetics, QS, etc. can be read at http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/march/snyder.html.
Citizen-science goes beyond healthcare. It is the underpinned by making things more open and available.
Many major US universities are making their courses available online (for free). Thus they make things open and global and that is a great step.
Of course, it is not the same as being in their class, which is more interactive, but someone who is interested can now access these.
One cannot talk about open online learning without mentioning the Khan Academy – http://www.khanacademy.org/ and, recently, it also collaborated with 23 and Me to offer knowledge about genetics – http://techcrunch.com/2012/04/20/khan-academy-partners-with-23andme/.
Expect citizen-science to become more common as people become more pro-active and involved and are willing to do experiments on themselves.