I am an active research scientist, so let me explain something. ~99.9% of my time is spent figuring out how to generate data, generating data and analysing said data. The left over 0.1%, at most, is actual discovery. When I can speed up any portion of the data collection or analysis, I do.
Crowd sourcing scientific research is not a new idea, think of the SETI project in the 90's. They gave away free screensaver that utilised your computers processing power when activated to analyse data in the search for aliens... All us cool kids had it! :) Another one that quickly springs to mind is foldit, a game whereby you actually solve the structures of real proteins (that can not be calculated with a computer and need a human brain). There are many other examples out there, these were just the first two to pop into my head!
A recent paper by Brewin et al. 2015 in PLoS One looks at "the Potential of Surfers to Monitor Environmental Indicators in the Coastal Zone". In short, they demonstrated that by using the abundant surfer population in the south west United Kingdom (UK), they could generate ~40 million data points per year, overcoming the current inadequate sampling methods. This data would be invaluable for costal monitoring and management.
They use a device attached to the leash of the surfboard to take temperature readings, that are then submitted with location information as a data point. This device will also log the surfers performance allowing them to gain something personally too. It is hoped that this reciprocity will motivate surfers into the system, which, given the world-wide distribution of the sport, could represent a massive source for scientific research.
Given the sheer number of us wildlife enthusiasts with cameras these days, are we a potential untapped resource like the surfers?
Citation: Brewin RJW, de Mora L, Jackson T, Brewin TG, Shutler J (2015) On the Potential of Surfers to Monitor Environmental Indicators in the Coastal Zone. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0127706. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127706