BBC Radio StudioThe 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.

During the symposium “The Future of PGIS: Learning from Practice?” which was held at ITC-University of Twente, 26 June 2013, I gave a talk titled ‘Keeping the spirit alive’ – preservations of participatory GIS values in the Geoweb, which explored what was are the important values in participatory GIS and how they translate to the Geoweb, Volunteered Geographic Information and current interests in crowdsourcing. You can watch the talk below.


To see the rest of the presentations during the day, see https://vimeo.com/album/2475389 and details of the event are available here http://www.itc.nl/Pub/Events-Conferences/2013/2013-June/Participatory-GIS-Symposium.html

 

As I’ve noted in the previous post, I have just attended CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) conference for the first time. It’s a fairly big conference, with over 3000 participants, multiple tracks that evolved over the 30 years that CHI have been going,  including the familiar paper presentations, panels, posters and courses, but also the less familiar ‘interactivity areas’, various student competitions, alt.CHI or Special Interest Groups meetings. It’s all fairly daunting even with all my existing experience in academic conferences. During the GeoHCI workshop I have discovered the MyCHI application, which helps in identifying interesting papers and sessions (including social recommendations) and setting up a conference schedule from these papers. It is a useful and effective app that I used throughout the conference (and wish that something similar can be made available in other large conferences, such as the AAG annual meeting).

With MyCHI in hand, while the fog started to lift and I could see a way through the programme, the trepidation about the relevance of CHI to my interests remained and even somewhat increased, after a quick search of the words ‘geog’,’marginal’,’disadvantage’ returned nothing. The conference video preview (below) also made me somewhat uncomfortable. I have a general cautious approach to the understanding and development of digital technologies, and a strong dislike to the breathless excitement from new innovations that are not necessarily making the world a better place.

Luckily, after few more attempts I have found papers about ‘environment’, ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’. Moreover, I discovered the special interest groups (SIG) that are dedicated to HCI for Development (HCI4D) and HCI for Sustainability and the programme started to build up. The sessions of these two SIGs were an excellent occasion to meet other people who are active in similar topics, and even to learn about the fascinating  concept of ‘Collapse Informatics‘ which is clearly inspired by Jared Diamond book and explores “the study, design, and development of  sociotechnical systems in the abundant present for use in a future of scarcity“.

Beyond the discussions, meeting people with shared interests and seeing that there is a scope within CHI to technology analysis and development that matches my approach, several papers and sessions were especially memorable. The studies by Elaine Massung an colleagues about community activism in encouraging shops to close the doors (and therefore waste less heating energy) and Kate Starbird on the use of social media in passing information between first responders during the Haiti earthquakeexplored how volunteered, ‘crowd’ information can be used in crisis and environmental activism.
Exploring a map next to Paire Lachaise
Other valuable papers in the area of HCI for development and sustainability include the excellent longitudinal study by Susan Wyche and Laura Murphy on the way mobile charging technology is used in Kenya , a study by Adrian Clear and colleagues about energy use and cooking practices of university students in Lancastera longitudinal study of responses to indoor air pollution monitoring by Sunyoung Kim and colleagues, and an interesting study of 8-bit, $10 computers that are common in many countries across the world by Derek Lomas and colleagues.

TheCHI at the Barricades – an activist agenda?‘ was one of the high points of the conference, with a showcase of the ways in which researchers in HCI can take a more active role in their research and lead to social or environmental change, and considering how the role of interactions in enabling or promoting such changes can be used to achieve positive outcomes. The discussions that followed the short interventions from the panel covered issues from accessibility to ethics to ways of acting and leading changes. Interestingly, while some presenters were comfortable with their activist role, the term ‘action-research’ was not mentioned. It was also illuminating to hear Ben Shneiderman emphasising his view that HCI is about representing and empowering the people who use the technologies that are being developed. His call for ‘activist HCI’ provides a way to interpret ‘universal usability‘ as an ethical and moral imperative.

It was good to see the work of the Citizen Sort team getting into the finalists of the students game competition, and to hear about their development of citizen science games.

So despite the early concerned, CHI was a conference worth attending and the specific jargon of CHI now seem more understandable. I wish that there was on the conference website a big sign ‘new to CHI? Start here…’

The Eye on Earth first user conference, which was in Dublin at the beginning of March, was as interesting as the first summit in Abu Dhabi, in December 2011. Significantly, in the conference the role of citizen science in environmental monitoring and the creation of useful environmental information was highlighted from the opening address by Prof Jacquie McGlade, the head of the European Environment Agency to the final statement of the meeting which stated that the Eye on Earth Network see “citizen science as an important source of knowledge within the diversity of knowledge communities“.

I’ve been following the Eye on Earth network with a lot of interest: with the combination of environmental information for public access, use of GIS and the integration of citizen science, it is dealing with many of my research interests over the past 15 years. I was not surprised to find the conference and the discussions during it very stimulating.

As the conference progressed and more and more examples were given on how effortlessly information can be accessed through “the cloud” I became aware that there was a hidden partner to the whole process and that it’s role is generally being ignored: computing doesn’t happen in the Ether, and does have environmental consequences – as the New York Times investigation explored. It was valuable to hear about Microsoft environmental activities at the end of the conference, but that was done in not a completely connected way. So the issue with environmental information is that there is a need to use the systems that are being used to collect, manage and share environmental information into exemplars of  ‘deep green computing’. A lot of the data is paid for by public sector bodies, and contracts can include demands on increasing environmental performances as an integral part of dealing with this information. Otherwise, the information itself can be part of the problem instead of part of the solution!

It is possible, even at a small scale. In Mapping for Change, we needed to change hosting provider and it was clear to us that we need to do things right, so we set out to look for a provider that is reliable but also respecting the values of the business itself (both social and environmental). This has reduced the number of possible providers, but we are now switching over to ecohosting who demonstrate that it is possible to provide web hosting with suitable environmental standards.

 

On the 4th and 5th August, Portland, OR, was the gathering place for 300 participants that came to the workshop on Public Participation in Scientific Research. The workshop was timed just before the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, and therefore it was not surprising that the workshop focused on citizen science projects that are linked to ecology and natural environments monitoring. These projects are some of the longest running citizen science activities, that are now gaining recognition and attention.

The workshop was organised as a set of thematic talks interlaced with long poster sessions. This way, the workshop included over 180 presentations in a day and a half. That set the scene for a detailed discussion at the end of the second day, to explore what is the way forward to the field of PPSR/Citizen Science/Civic Science etc., with attention to sharing lessons, developing and supporting new activities, considering codes of ethics, etc.

I presented the last talk of the workshop, describing Extreme Citizen Science and arguing for the potential of public participation to go much deeper in terms of engagement. The presentation is provided below, together with an interview that was conducted with me shortly after it.

And the interview,

 

Over the Air 2012 event was a wonderful event – it’s a 36 hours event, dedicated to mobile development and it is based on Bletchley park. This year, Citizen Science was a theme of the event. The final talk was given by Francois Grey from the Citizen Cyberscience Centre . Francois’ interest is on volunteer computing – the type of citizen science were people donate the unused cycles on the computers through software such as BOINC - as well as the wider range of citizen science project. Based on his experience from talks with scientists around the world about citizen science, he developed the 7 myths of citizen science which he covered in his talk (see it below). He suggest them as point of views that are expressed by scientists when citizen science is suggested to them. They are:

  1. It doesn’t produce real science
  2. It doesn’t work for my science – it is too complex to engage people in it
  3. Nobody will be interested in my area of science
  4. You can’t trust the results from ordinary people if you involve them in something other than automatic processing
  5. Volunteer computing is energetically hugely wasteful when compared to computer clusters
  6. It doesn’t really engage people in science
  7. One day we will run out of volunteers

Interestingly, the myths are covering the practice of science (energy consumption, validation), social practices (number of volunteers) and the educational aspects of science (interest, engagement). It is worth thinking about these myths and what they mean for various projects – as well as remembering that they are based on scientists’ views.

At the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, I presented during the session Information Geographies: Online Power, Representation and Voice’, which was organised by Mark Graham (Oxford Internet Institute) and Matthew Zook (University of Kentucky). For an early morning session on a Saturday, the session was well attended – and the papers in the session were very interesting.

My presentation, titled ‘Nobody wants to do council estates’ – digital divide, spatial justice and outliers‘, was the result of thinking about the nature of social information that is available on the Web and which I partially articulated in a response to a post on GeoIQ blog. When Mark and Matt asked for an abstract, I provided the following:

The understanding of the world through digital representation (digiplace) and VGI is frequently carried out with the assumption that these are valid, comprehensive and useful representations of the world. A common practice throughout the literature on these issues is to mention the digital divide and, while accepting it as a social phenomenon, either ignore it for the rest of the analysis or expect that it will solve itself over time through technological diffusion. The almost deterministic belief in technological diffusion absolves the analyst from fully confronting the political implication of the divide.

However, what VGI and social media analysis reveals is that the digital divide is part of deep and growing social inequalities in Western societies. Worse still, digiplace amplifies and strengthens them.

In digiplace the wealthy, powerful, educated and mostly male elite is amplified through multiple digital representations. Moreover, the frequent decision of algorithm designers to highlight and emphasise those who submit more media, and the level of ‘digital cacophony’ that more active contributors create, means that a very small minority – arguably outliers in every analysis of normal distribution of human activities – are super empowered. Therefore, digiplace power relationships are arguably more polarised than outside cyberspace due to the lack of social check and balances. This makes the acceptance of the disproportional amount of information that these outliers produce as reality highly questionable.

The following notes might help in making sense of the slides.

Slide 2 takes us back 405 years to Mantua, Italy, where Claudio Monteverdi has just written one of the very first operas – L’Orfeo – as an after-dinner entertainment piece for Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. Leaving aside the wonderful music – my personal recommendation is for Emmanuelle Haïm’s performance and I used the opening toccata in my presentation – there is a serious point about history. For a large portion of human history, and as recent as 400 years ago, we knew only about the rich and the powerful. We ignored everyone else because they ‘were not important’.

Slide 3 highlights two points about modern statistics. First, that it is a tool to gain an understanding about the nature of society as a whole. Second, when we look at the main body of society, it is within the first 2 standard deviations of a normalised distribution. The Index of Deprivation of the UK (Slide 4) is an example ofthis type of analysis. Even though it was designed to direct resources to the most needy, it analyses the whole population (and, by the way, is normalised).

Slide 5 points out that on the Web, and in social media in particular, the focus is on ‘long tail’ distributions. My main issue is not with the pattern but with what it means in terms of analysing the information. This is where participation inequality (Slide 6) matters and the point of Nielsen’s analysis is that outlets such as Wikipedia (and, as we will see, OpenStreetMap) are suffering from even worse inequality than other communication media. Nielsen’s recent analysis in his newsletter (Slide 7) demonstrates how this is playing out on Facebook (FB). Notice the comment ‘these people have no life‘ or, as Sherry Turkle put it, they got life on the screen

Slide 8 and 9 demonstrate that participation inequality is strongly represented in OpenStreetMap, and we can expect it to play out in FourSquare, Google Map Maker, Waze and other GeoWeb social applications. Slide 10 focuses on other characteristics of the people that are involved in the contribution of content: men, highly educated, age 20-40. Similar characteristics have been shown in other social media and the GeoWeb by Monica Stephens & Antonella Rondinone, and by many other researchers.

In slides 11-14, observed spatial biases in OpenStreetMap are noted – concentration on highly populated places, gap between rich and poor places (using the Index of Deprivation from Slide 4), and difference between rural and urban areas. These differences were also observed in other sources of Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI) such as photo sharing sites (in Vyron Antoniou’s PhD).

Taken together, participation inequality, demographic bias and spatial bias point to a very skewed group that is producing most of the content that we see on the GeoWeb. Look back at Slide 3, and it is a good guess that this minority falls within 3 standard deviations of the centre. They are outliers – not representative of anything other than of themselves. Of course, given the large number of people online and the ability of outliers to ‘shout’ louder than anyone else, and converse among themselves, it is tempting to look at them as a population worth listening to. But it is, similarly to the opening point, a look at the rich and powerful (or super enthusiastic) and not the mainstream.

Strangely, when such a small group controls the economy, we see it as a political issue (Slide 15, which was produced by Mother Jones as part of the response to the Occupy movement). We should be just as concerned when it happens with digital content and sets the agenda of what we see and how we understand the world.

Now to the implication of this analysis, and the use of the GeoWeb and social media to understand society. Slide 17 provides the link to the GeoIQ post that argued that these outliers are worth listening to. They might be, but the issue is what you are trying to find out by looking at the data:

The first option is to ask questions about the resulting data such as ‘can it be used to update national datasets?’ – accepting the biases in the data collection as they are and explore if there is anything useful that comes out of the outcomes (Slides 19-21, from the work of Vyron Antoniou and Thomas Koukoletsos). This should be fine as long as the researchers don’t try to state something general about the way society works from the data. Even so, researchers ought to analyse and point to biases and shortcomings (Slides 11-14 are doing exactly that).

The second option is to start claiming that we can learn something about social activities (Slides 22-23, from the work of Eric Fischer and Daniel Gayo-Avello, as well as Sean Gorman in the GeoIQ post). In this case, it is wrong to read too much into the dataas Gayo-Avello noted – as the outliers’ bias renders the analysis as not representative of society. Notice, for example, the huge gap between the social media noise during the Egyptian revolution and the outcomes of the elections, or the political differences that Gayo-Avello noted.

The third option is to find data that is representative (Slide 24, from the MIT Senseable City Lab), which looks at the ‘digital breadcrumbs’ that we leave behind on a large scale – phone calls, SMS, travel cards, etc. This data is representative, but provides observations without context. There is no qualitative or contextual information that comes with it and, because of the biases that are noted above, it is wrong to integrate it with the digital cacophony of the outliers. It is most likely to lead to erroneous conclusions.

Therefore, the understanding of the concept of digiplace (Slide 25) – the ordering of digital representation through software algorithms and GeoWeb portals – is, in fact, double filtered. The provision of content by outliers means that the algorithms will tend to amplify their point of view and biases.  Not only that, digital inequality, which is happening on top of social and economic inequality, means that more and more of our views of the world are being shaped by this tiny minority.

When we add to the mix aspects of digital inequalities (some people can only afford a pay-as-you-go function phone, while a tiny minority consumes a lot of bandwidth over multiple devices), we should stop talking about the ‘digital divide’ as something that will close over time. This is some sort of imaginary trickle-down  theory that is being proven not to withstand the test of reality. If anything, it grows as the ‘haves’ are using multiple devices to shape digiplace in their own image.

This is actually one of the core problems that differentiates to approaches to engagement in data collection. There is the laissez-faire approach to engaging society in collecting information about the world (Slides 27-28 showing OpenStreetMap mapping parties) which does not confront the biases and opposite it, there are participatory approaches (Slides 29-30 showing participatory mapping exercises from the work of Mapping for Change) where the effort is on making the activity inclusive.

This point about the biases, inequality and influence on the way we understand the world is important to repeat – as it is too often ignored by researchers who deal with these data.

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