25 February, 2014
Now, that the Citizen Cyberscience Summit is over, come the time to reflect more widely on the event and what it say about the state of citizen science. My previos posts, covering the three days of the summit (first day, second day, third day) were written every day during the summit – this is something I learned from Andrea Wiggins and the way she blogged about the 2012 summit (here are her descriptions of the first, second and third days). However, unlike Andrea, my notes focused on my immediate thoughts from each day and less on a synopsis of what I’ve been listening to. The current post reflect on the event as a whole, in terms of my personal expectations and hopes for the summit. It also covers the rational behind the summit’s design, so it can be evaluated against the practice. As a result, it’s a long piece!
The structure of the summit follows the model that we first tried in 2012 and that proved to be very successful. When trying to explain the summit’s organisation, I use the description ‘starts fairly formal, and end with organised chaos’ which inherently tries to mix traditional academic conferences with open and creative events such as hackathons, but doing that in an inclusive way so people from different communities of practice can feel that there is something for them in the summit. In practice, this translates to the three days of the summit in the following way.
The first day, which uses the formal settings of the Royal Geographical Society, provided the needed academic gravitas to send the message that citizen science is noteworthy. About half of the talks in this day were from speakers that we have invited to ‘set the scene‘. We didn’t provide a detailed brief to speakers to set them ‘on message’, rather inviting them to discuss their work and how it links to a general theme. The rest of the talks were selected carefully from the open submissions to provide the breadth of citizen science.
We deliberately chose an open submission format which falls somewhere between community-led conferences (such as OpenStreetMap State of the Map) and academic conferences, to make both groups comfortable. We were aware that for the volunteers who participate in citizen science we will need a different, more proactive way of encouraging them to join. In previous summits they were the least represented group. So to encourage them to come we created two special ticket categories (for the whole summit and for the citizen science cafe) and actively contacted different projects to encourage their volunteers to come.
In the past, the first day was deliberately ‘single track’ to create a common vocabulary for all participants. This time, because of the perceived increase in the policy implications of citizen science (e.g. the creation of the Citizen Science Association or the European Citizen Science Association, or the activities of Eye on Earth initiative) we decided
to split part of the day to two sessions: one that focuses on the technology and another on policy and engagement. The aim was to attract people who might be less interested in the technology or the specific scientific domain and more with its implications, as well as a recognition that the citizen science community is growing with people that have different interests.
The second day signaled the importance of the citizens of citizen science in two elements in the programme: the citizen science panel (which happen to be only women) and the citizen science café as the closing reception. Setting the summit in such a way that this day fall on Friday is also important, as it allow people to come to the event after work and meet
with other participants who are enthusiastic about citizen science. More generally, the day was submission-led and included workshops, opportunities for discussions and shorter presentations. Only one talk was organised by invitation. This was the opening talk, to bring everyone into one place so it is possible to welcome new people and link to the previous day. Also important is the provision of central space with chairs and tables that was used as the coffee & lunch area to allow people to start or follow up discussions that started the day before. The day also included sponsored sessions (sponsors are important and need to be treated well!)
Finally, the third day was dedicated to the hackday. This was done so people with technical skills or interest in citizen science can come on a weekend day and help with the challenges (the tasks that were explored in the hackday). The posters for the challenges were on display from Friday to start the conversations about them. Saturday also include more short talks on a range of topics (mostly because we wanted to accept all the submissions) but also make sure that we left space for an unconference session – a set of very short talks (5 minutes) for people who came to attend the event and decided that they also want to talk about their work. The final keynote is schedule to keep people interested and to bring them together for the hackday presentation. This is based on a lesson from Over the Air event.
The ideas for this plan came from all the people who planned the summit, through discussions that were facilitated through an open Skype channel in the last month before the summit, regular ‘Google Hangouts’ in the 3 months before the summit and, of course, email, Google Docs and all the other collaborative tools that are now available.
So did the summit live up to these expectations?
Mostly ‘yes’. First of all, we’ve done much better than in the previous summit in terms of representation and participation of the people who actually involved in citizen science and not only the scientists, coordinators and other people who are running citizen science projects. Catherine Jones post about the summit is exactly what we set out to achieve, so I was delighted to read it. At the same time, I think that we can do better and in future events we need to consider bursaries or grants for volunteers to attend the event. Just dropping the event price to zero is good, but not enough.
Another strength of the summit is in bringing together the community of practice of those who are involved in citizen science or are in their early stages of developing a citizen science programme. The seahorse programme at UBC is an example of a project that benefited from the interactions last time, and I’ve noticed that similar knowledge and best practice sharing this time. This will hopefully improve the projects that are run by the people who came to the summit. I’m pleased that we managed to bring people from across the domains in which citizen science is evolving and that despite the growth in number of participants, there was enough space for meaningful exchanges. The Citizen Science Café served as much for this aspect of the summit as in bringing citizens and scientists together.
It is interesting to notice how many people already knew each other from citizen science events, and there is a need to avoid creating a clique that is less welcoming to newcomers – something for the new associations to think about!
While the policy session was excellent, I noticed that we failed to get significant attention from academics and practitioners who work on science policy, public engagement in science, and people from policy making areas. The number of participants from these areas is relatively small, and include people that are already ‘converted’ (e.g. Katherine Mathieson or Erinma Ochu) but my feeling was that there wasn’t attendance on the basis ‘I need to know what this thing is because it’s important‘.
The same can be said about the commercial sector – we had some attendance from people who are involved in start-ups, and Esri showed their generosity by supporting the summit (disclaimer: they are also strong supporters of ExCiteS) but we weren’t in a situation of fending off sponsorship offers.
I find the last two points very interesting, as that signal to me the amount of ‘leg work’ that the new citizen science associations, the academics that are involved in this field and the practitioners still need to do to get the attention that the field deserve.
Another fascinating aspect that came out from the summit is a clear demonstration of the many facets of every single citizen science project – technology, education, science communication, specific scientific domain knowledge, usability and Human-Computer Interaction, community development, legal and philosophical aspects – all those were mentioned in different sessions. This calls for ongoing conversations and collaborations across the wider area of citizen science to ensure that we indeed share knowledge effectively.
The final reflection is on the size of the summit. The first summit had less than 100 participants, the second about 200 and this time over 300 participants visited the summit. Not everyone was there for the whole event – but it was clear that those that been for the whole event benefited the most. This can be expected at this size, and it feels like the maximum size to make it still effective – I know of several people that I follow but didn’t had chance to have a proper conversation (though admittedly, I was busy organising). Hopefully, with the online resources from the summit can provide a way to go beyond those who physically attended the event.
23 February, 2014
After a day of ‘listening‘, and a day of ‘talking‘, the final day of the citizen cyberscience summit brought ‘doing‘ to the summit. Although the art installation on the second day of the summit would clearly fall into the ‘doing’ category, participation in the installation was mostly in the ‘contributory’ form: after summit participants handed over the citizen (cyber)science objects, the decisions on how to use them in the installation were left to the artist, Leni Diner Dothan.
The day started with setting up desks for each of the hackday challenges. The challenges ranged from Synthetic Biology to Citizen Science & Big Data. While those interested in assisting the challenge proposers to develop their ideas set to work, a set of shorter talks and discussions continued - including a set of impromptu 5 minute talks in an unconference session. Despite the compactness of the session, it was clear that people are responding to themes that appeared in the two previous days of the summit. For example, Jeff Parsons addressed the common ‘how good is the data from citizen science?‘ question, which made an appearance in several talks. Jeff pointed to his Nature paper that ‘easier citizen science is better‘. Francois Grey started the conversation which he is developing with Creative Commons and Open Knowledge Foundation about the relationships between Open Science and Citizen Science, asking if there should be an ‘Open Citizen Science’.
Geographical citizen Science was at the heart of several talks that explored the links between mapping technologies, DIY sensors and citizen science. The summit benefited from the participation of several early career researchers who were funded to visit UCL as part of the COST ENERGIC scientific network. The exchange of knowledge that is not only enabled through networks, but also through the communities of practice in DIY electronics or VGI, was clearly visible. One talk discussed using Public Laboratory technologies in schools in Germany and in another talk about using those technologies in Jerusalem. Another example of such links was demonstrated in the collaboration between Chinese and UK-based students to build a new DIY microscope.
Personally, the re-appearance of my ‘levels of participation in citizen science‘ classification is both satisfying (someone found it useful!) and fascinating, as each use of it illustrated a different interpretation and understanding of it. The levels are fuzzy and open to interpretation, so these discussions help the process of understanding what should be included in each category, and how the different levels map onto a specific project or activity.
The final talk by Jeff Howe – who coined the term crowdsourcing - discussed the way new ideas emerge from allowing a large group of people to participate in solving problems as this can open up a wider set of skills and expertise. He noted that in many cases, the success of large collaborations comes from a ‘gift’, which is creating a system or a service that provides something that people want, or which can help them to do what interests them. Or, as he phrased it, ‘ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community‘.
An example of some of the issues that Jeff covered was provided during the presentations from the hackday. As in the previous summit, we carefully measured the applause from the audience with a noise meter, to ascertain the activity that the participants in the summit liked the most. This time, it was the development of a bio-sensor that can be integrated into textiles. This challenge was led by Paula Nerlich, who is studying at the Edinburgh College of Art, showing that citizen science ideas can come from outside the traditional scientific disciplines (image by Cindy Regalado).
To get a better sense of the atmosphere, you can find plenty of interviews on the ‘Citizens of Science’ podcast board which explores the needs of the citizen science community.
Since we first began to organise the summit almost a year ago, I have had a lingering concern that the summit would not fulfill the expectations and the success of the previous one. Once the summit ended, I was more relaxed about this – I noticed many new connections being made, and new ideas discovered by participants. Now it is time to sit back and watch what will come out of these!
21 February, 2014
The second day of the summit (see my reflections on the first day) started with an unplanned move to the Darwin Lecture Theatre of UCL. This was appropriate, as the theatre is sited in a place where Charles Darwin used to live, and he is mentioned many times as a citizen scientist. Moreover, the unplanned move set the tone for a day which paid more attention to DIY science.
We started with a vision for the future of citizen science by Rick Bonney from Cornell Lab of Ornithology in which he highlighted how important it is to keep growing the field and bring together different approaches to citizen science to save the world. This was followed by a panel that explored the experiences and wishes of citizen scientists themselves – from participant in Zooniverse, to DIY electronic and environmental justice applications of citizen science (image from Daniel Lombrana Glez). The panel demonstrated the level of interest and the commitment that people that are engaged in citizen science have, and that it is taken seriously by the participants. It also gave a glimpse to the empowerment aspect of citizen science.
In my opening, I have pressed the message that while the first day of the summit involve a lot of listening, the second day is about talking with one another and sharing ideas, in order to move to doing in the third day. In fact, this was not needed, and throughout the day many conversations were happening in workshops, in the main meeting area of the conference and during the coffee and tea breaks.
Another aspects that gave a different atmosphere to the day was the work of Leni Diner-Dothan. Leni is studying at UCL Slade School, and accepted a request to create an art installation during the summit. After collecting both operational and defunct items of citizen science and developing the concept, the work commenced during the day.
With the help of the technicians from my own department, she developed the ‘citizen cyberscience nightmare wall‘ which have pieces of citizen cyberscience embedded in concrete with a reliquary. It is a thought provoking and fascinating piece of art, and I hope to write about it more soon.
The citizen science cafe that closed the day open up thematic conversation, and I encountered discussions between related projects that the summit provided an opportunity for.
Now, it’s time to move to the doing – let’s see what ideas will come tomorrow…
20 February, 2014
So the first day of the Citizen Cyberscience Summit?
From James Borrell‘s opening with his lessons from a year of citizen science, to Leo Bottrill who closed the day by discussing the Moabi platform that is being developed for forest communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the issue of ‘inclusiveness‘ appeared throughout the day.
The line from Jacquie McGlade’s video presentation was very thought-provoking – ‘we need to collaborate with people that we don’t know, and we might not even like’. This goes to the heart of issues that came up in different presentations. It is so easy to exclude areas of activities – even when you don’t intend to do so. There is a need to keep definitions broad, and events and activities welcoming to newcomers. Even during a day that was mainly focussed on the professional communities (those that run citizen science projects, create tools, use it in their research or research citizen science itself), I felt that the messages about inclusiveness from various speakers were very valuable. We need to allow citizen science, in all its shades, to feel represented and respected. Considering that meetings about citizen science are fairly new phenomena, there has already emerged another need – to notice how not to create just an inner community of people that already know each other (while recognising that it’s very valuable to meet again…), but also to keep reaching out to new groups and individuals.
It was very satisfying to work towards such an event, and to hear many conversations and discussions all over the lovely building of the Royal Geographical Society. It was also good to see the interest in the policy and engagement track, a strand which was new this year. The rapid changes in attitudes to citizen science at global, regional, country and local levels in the span of just a few short years is very encouraging.
Finally, the geographic element was present in many different ways – from the map of Zooniverse participants in the morning, to the ESRI presentation in the afternoon, and the day ended with a mention of OpenStreetMap. So, geographical citizen science certainly remains relevant.
Now for the next day!
19 February, 2014
The Citizen Cyberscience Summit that will be running in London this week sparked the interest of the producers of BBC World Service ‘Click’ programme, and it was my first experience of visiting BBC Broadcasting House – about 15 minutes walk from UCL.
Here is the clip from the programme that covers the discussion about the summit and Extreme Citizen Science
More information is provided in the Citizens of Science podcast - where myself and the other organisers discuss and preview the summit. That is an opportunity to recommend the other podcasts that can be found in the series.
11 February, 2014
A special delight during my PhD research was to discover, at the UCL library the proceedings of the first ever symposium on GIS. Dr Tomlinson studied towards a PhD at UCL, and probably that is how the copy found its way to the library. It was fairly symbolic for me that the symposium was titled ‘environmental information systems’. See my earlier comment about the terminology: Geographic information or Environmental Information.
The Guardian’s Political Science blog post by Alice Bell about the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Natural Environment Research Council and Shell, reminded me of a nagging issue that has concerned me for a while: to what degree GIS contributed to anthropocentric climate change? and more importantly, what should GIS professionals do?
I’ll say from the start that the reason it concerns me is that I don’t have easy answers to these questions, especially not to the second one. While I personally would like to live in a society that moves very rapidly to renewable energy resources, I also take flights, drive to the supermarket and benefit from the use of fossil fuels – so I’m in the Hypocrites in The Air position, as Kevin Anderson defined it. At the same time, I feel that I do have responsibility as someone who teaches future generations of GIS professionals how they should use the tools and methods of GIScience responsibly. The easy way would be to tell myself that since, for the past 20 years, I’ve been working on ‘environmental applications’ of GIS, I’m on the ‘good’ side as far as sustainability is concerned. After all, the origins of the biggest player in our industry are environmental (environmental systems research, even!), we talk regularly about ‘Design With Nature’ as a core text that led to the overlays concept in GIS, and we praise the foresight of the designers of the UNEP Global Resource Information Database in the early 1980s. Even better, Google Earth brings Climate Change information and education to anyone who want to downloaded the information from the Met Office.
But technologies are not value-free, and do encapsulate certain values in them. That’s what critical cartography and critical GIS has highlighted since the late 1990s. Nadine Schuurman’s review is still a great starting point to this literature, but most of it analysed the link of the history of cartography and GIS to military applications, or, in the case of the volume ‘Ground Truth’, the use of GIS in marketing and classification of people. To the best of my knowledge, Critical GIScience has not focused its sight on oil exploration and extraction. Of course, issues such as pollution, environmental justice or environmental impacts of oil pipes are explored, but do we need to take a closer look at the way that GIS technology was shaped by the needs of the oil industry? For example, we use, without a second thought, the EPSG (European Petroleum Survey Group) definitions of co-ordinates reference systems in many tools. There are histories of products that are used widely, such as Oracle Spatial, where some features were developed specifically for the oil & gas industry. There are secretive and proprietary projections and datums, and GIS products that are unique to this industry. One of the most common spatial analysis methods, Kriging, was developed for the extractive industry. I’m sure that there is much more to explore.
So, what is the problem with that, you would say?
Fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas – are at the centre of the process that lead to climate change. Another important thing about them is that once they’ve been extracted, they are likely to be used. That’s why there are calls to leave them in the ground. When you look at the way explorations and production work, such as the image here from ‘Well Architect‘, you realise that geographical technologies are critical to the abilities to find and extract oil and gas. They must have played a role in the abilities of the industry to identify, drill and extract in places that were not feasible few decades ago. I remember my own amazement at the first time that I saw the complexity of the information that is being used and the routes that wells take underground, such as what is shown in the image (I’ll add that this was during an MSc project sponsored by Shell). In another project (sponsored by BP), it was just as fascinating to see how paleogeography is used for oil exploration. Therefore, within the complex process of finding and extracting fossil fuels, which involves many engineering aspects, geographical technologies do have an important role, but how important? Should Critical GIScientists or the emerging Critical Physical Geographers explore it?
This brings about the more thorny issue of the role of GIS professionals today and more so with people who are entering the field, such as the students who are studying for an MSc in GIS, and similar programmes. If we accept that most of the fossil fuels should stay underground and not be extracted, than what should we say to students? If the person that involved in working to help increasing oil production does not accept the science of climate change, or doesn’t accept that there is an imperative to leave fossil fuels in the ground, I may accept and respect their personal view. After all, as Mike Hulme noted, the political discussion is more important now than the science and we can disagree about it. On the other hand, we can take the point of view that we should deal with climate change urgently and go on the path towards reducing extraction rapidly. In terms of action, we see students joining campaigns for fossil free universities, with which I do have sympathy. However, we’re hitting another difficult point. We need to consider the personal cost of higher education and the opportunity for well paid jobs, which include tackling interesting and challenging problems. With the closure of many other jobs in GIS, what is the right thing to do?
I don’t have an easy answer, nor can I say that categorically I will never work with the extractive sector. But when I was asked recently to provide a reference letter by a student in the oil and gas industry, I felt obliged to state that ‘I can completely understand why you have chosen this career, I just hope that you won’t regret it when you talk with your grandchildren one day in the future’