If you have been reading the literature on citizen science, you must have noticed that many papers that describe citizen science start with an historical narrative, something along the lines of:

As Silvertown (2009) noted, until the late 19th century, science was mainly developed by people who had additional sources of employment that allowed them to spend time on data collection and analysis. Famously, Charles Darwin joined the Beagle voyage, not as a professional naturalist but as a companion to Captain FitzRoy[*]. Thus, in that era, almost all science was citizen science albeit mostly by affluent gentlemen and gentlewomen scientists[**]. While the first professional scientist is likely to be Robert Hooke, who was paid to work on scientific studies in the 17th century, the major growth in the professionalisation of scientists was mostly in the latter part of the 19th and throughout the 20th century.
Even with the rise of the professional scientist, the role of volunteers has not disappeared, especially in areas such as archaeology, where it is common for enthusiasts to join excavations, or in natural science and ecology, where they collect and send samples and observations to national repositories. These activities include the Christmas Bird Watch that has been ongoing since 1900 and the British Trust for Ornithology Survey, which has collected over 31 million records since its establishment in 1932 (Silvertown 2009). Astronomy is another area in which amateurs and volunteers have been on a par with professionals when observation of the night sky and the identification of galaxies, comets and asteroids are considered (BBC 2006). Finally, meteorological observations have also relied on volunteers since the early start of systematic measurements of temperature, precipitation or extreme weather events (WMO 2001). (Haklay 2013 emphasis added)

The general messages of this historical narrative are: first, citizen science is a legitimate part of scientific practice as it was always there, we just ignored it for 50+ years; second, that some citizen science is exactly as it was – continuous participation in ecological monitoring or astronomical observations, only that now we use smartphones or the Met Office WOW website and not pen, paper and postcards.

The second aspect of this argument is one that I was wondering about as I was writing a version of the historical narrative for a new report. This was done within a discussion on how the educational and technological transitions over the past century reshaped citizen science. I have argued that the demographic and educational transition in many parts of the world, and especially the rapid growth in the percentage and absolute numbers of people with higher education degrees who are potential participants is highly significant in explaining the popularity of citizen science. To demonstrate that this is a large scale and consistent change, I used the evidence of Flynn effect, which is the rapid increase in IQ test scores across the world during the 20th century.

However, while looking at the issue recently, I came across Jim Flynn TED talk ‘Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents (below). At 3:55, he raise a very interesting point, which also appears in his 2007 What is Intelligence? on pages 24-26. Inherently, Flynn argues that the use of cognitive skills have changed dramatically over the last century, from thinking that put connections to concrete relationship with everyday life as the main way of understanding the world, to one that emphasise scientific categories and abstractions. He use an example of a study from the early 20th Century, in which participants where asked about commonalities between fish and birds. He highlights that it was not the case that in the ‘pre-scientific’ worldview people didn’t know that both are animals, but more the case that this categorisation was not helpful to deal with concrete problems and therefore not common sense. Today, with scientific world view, categorisation such as ‘these are animals’ come first.

This point of view have implications to the way we interpret and understand the historical narrative. If correct, than the people who participate in William Whewell tide measurement work (see Caren Cooper blogpost about it), cannot be expected to think about contribution to science, but could systematically observed concrete events in their area. While Whewell view of participants as ‘subordinate labourers’ is still elitist and class based, it is somewhat understandable.  Moreover, when talking about projects that can show continuity over the 20th Century – such as Christmas Bird Count or phenology projects – we have to consider the option that an the worldview of the person that done that in 1910 was ‘how many birds there are in my area?’ while in 2010 the framing is ‘in order to understand the impact of climate change, we need to watch out for bird migration patterns’. Maybe we can explore in historical material to check for this change in framing? I hope that projects such as Constructing Scientific Communities which looks at citizen science in the 19th and 21th century will shed light on such differences.


[*] Later I found that this is not such a simple fact – see van Wyhe 2013 “My appointment received the sanction of the Admiralty”: Why Charles Darwin really was the naturalist on HMS Beagle

[**] And we shouldn’t forget that this was to the exclusion of people such as Mary Anning

 

At the end of June, I noticed a tweet about new words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

I like dictionary definitions, as they help to clarify things, and the OED is famous for careful editing and finding how a term is used before adding it. Being in the OED is significant for Citizen Science, as it is a recognised “proper” term. At the same time, the way that OED define citizen science, and its careful work in finding out when it was first used can help to emphasise some interesting aspects. This is how.

Here is the definition, in all its glory:

citizen science n. scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.

1989   Technol. Rev. Jan. 12/4   Audubon involves 225 society members from all 50 states in a ‘citizen science’ program… Volunteers collect rain samples, test their acidity levels, and report the results to Audubon headquarters.
2002   M. B. Mulder & P. Coppolillo Conservation xi. 295/1   Citizen science has the potential to strengthen conservation practice in the developing world.
2012   M. Nielsen Reinventing Discov. vii. 151   Citizen science can be a powerful way both to collect and also to analyze enormous data sets.

citizen scientist n.  (a) a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community (now rare);  (b) a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist.

1912   Manch. Guardian 11 Sept. 4/2   Trafford, thus serenely established, should…have returned to his researches with a new confidence and content and become a noble citizen-scientist.
1936   Headmaster Speaks 65   Could not Science…turn out a race of citizen scientists who do not make an absolute religion of the acquisition of new scientific knowledge however useless or harmful it may be?
1949   Collier’s 16 July 74/3   By 1930 most citizen-scientists had perfected a technique which brought gin to its peak of flavor and high-octane potency five minutes after the ingredients had been well mixed.
1979   New Scientist 11 Oct. 105/2   The ‘citizen-scientist’, the amateur investigator who in the past contributed substantially to the development of science through part-time dabbling.
2013   G. R. Hubbell Sci. Astrophotogr. xiii. 233   A citizen scientist in the astronomical field has a unique opportunity because astronomy is a wholly observational science.

Dictionaries are more interesting than they might seem. Here are 3 observations on this new definition:

First, the core definition of ‘citizen science’ is interestingly inclusive, so community based air quality monitoring to volunteer bird surveys and running climate models on your computer at home are all included. This makes the definition useful across projects and types of activities.

Second, the term ‘citizen scientist’ captures two meanings. The first is noteworthy, as it is the one that falls well within Alan Irwin’s way of describing citizen science, or in Jack Stilgoe’s pamphlet that describes citizen scientists. Notice that this meaning is not now the most common to describe a citizen scientist, but scientists that are active in citizen science usually become such citizen scientists (sorry for the headache!).

Third, it’s always fun to track down the citations that OED uses, as it tries to find the first use of the phrase. So let’s look at the late 20th century citations for ‘citizen science’ and ‘citizen scientist’ (the ones from the early 20th century are less representative of current science in my view).

The first use of ‘citizen science’ in the meaning that we now use can be traced to an article in MIT Technology Review from January 1989. The article ‘Lab for the Environment’ tells the story of community-based laboratories to explore environmental hazards, laboratory work by Greenpeace, and Audubon’s recruitment of volunteers in a ‘citizen science’ programme. The part that describes citizen science is provided below (click here to get to the magazine itself). Therefore, groups such as the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science are linked directly to this use of citizen science. 

MIT Technology Review 1989

Just as interesting is the use of ‘citizen scientist’. It was used 10 years earlier, in an article in New Scientist that discussed enthusiasts researching Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) and identified ‘ufology’ as a field of study for these people. While the article is clearly mocking the ufologists as unscientific, it does mention, more or less in passing, the place of citizen-scientists, which is “all but eliminated” by the late 1970s (click here to see the original magazine). This resonates with many of the narratives about how citizen science disappeared in the 20th century and is reappearing now. 

NewScientist1979-Details

 

If you would like to use these original references to citizen science and citizen scientists, here are the full references (I’ll surely look out for an opportunity to do so!):

Kerson, R., 1989, Lab for the Environment, MIT Technology Review, 92(1), 11-12

Oberg, J., 1979, The Failure of the ‘Science’ of Ufology, New Scientist, 84(1176), 102-105

 


 

Thanks to Rick Bonney who asked some questions about the definition that led to this post!

What is Science?

6 September, 2014

When you look at the discussions that are emerging around the term ‘Citizen Science‘, you can often find discussion about the ‘Citizen‘ part of the term. What about the ‘Science‘ part? This is something that once you start being involved in Citizen Science you are forced to contemplate. As Francois Grey like to note ‘Science is too important to be left out to scientists‘ and we need to find a way to make it more inclusive as a process and practice. Sometime, Citizen Science challenges ‘established’ science and protocols. This can be about small things – such as noticing that diffusion tubes are installed at 2.5m (while the area of real concern is 1-1.5m), or bigger things, such as noticing that a lot of noise measurement is about what is possible to measure (sound) and avoiding what is difficult (noise). Even more challenging is the integration of local, lay and traditional knowledge within the citizen science framework with scientific knowledge. In short, there is value in considering what we mean by ‘science’.

UCL iGEM team public biobrick

UCL iGEM team public biobrick

For me, the challenge that evolved was ‘how can we have a definition of science that recognises that it’s a powerful form of knowledge, while allowing other forms of knowledge to work with it?‘. After experimenting with different ideas in the past year, I ended with the following, directly paraphrasing from the famous quote* from Winston Churchill about democracy as the least worst form of government. So the current, work in progress, definition that I’m using is the following:

“Science is the least worst method to accumulate human knowledge about the natural world (and it need to work, in a respectful way, with other forms of knowledge)”

What I am trying to do with this definition is first to recognise that knowledge is produced collaboratively and, ideally, in a democratic process. For that, the original form of the phrase is useful. Second, I wanted to note that science is not infallible but meandering, getting into blind alleys and all the rest, which the ‘least worst’ is capturing better than ‘the best’. Third, it is allowing the recognition that it is a very effective and powerful form of human knowledge.

Does it work? Is it suitable?

 


* I always like to find the correct source, and if you look at the Hansard, you’ll see that Churchill was more forthright and said: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time;”. Now that I know that, it’s tempting to try and replace democracy with science and government with knowledge…

The Vespucci initiative has been running for over a decade, bringing together participants from wide range of academic backgrounds and experiences to explore, in a ‘slow learning’ way, various aspects of geographic information science research. The Vespucci Summer Institutes are week long summer schools, most frequently held at Fiesole, a small town overlooking Florence. This year, the focus of the first summer institute was on crowdsourced geographic information and citizen science.

101_0083The workshop was supported by COST ENERGIC (a network that links researchers in the area of crowdsourced geographic information, funded by the EU research programme), the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC), Esri and our Extreme Citizen Science research group. The summer school included about 30 participants and facilitators that ranged from master students students that are about to start their PhD studies, to established professors who came to learn and share knowledge. This is a common feature of Vespucci Institute, and the funding from the COST network allowed more early career researchers to participate.

Apart from the pleasant surrounding, Vespucci Institutes are characterised by the relaxed, yet detailed discussions that can be carried over long lunches and coffee breaks, as well as team work in small groups on a task that each group present at the end of the week. Moreover, the programme is very flexible so changes and adaptation to the requests of the participants and responding to the general progression of the learning are part of the process.

This is the second time that I am participating in Vespucci Institutes as a facilitator, and in both cases it was clear that participants take the goals of the institute seriously, and make the most of the opportunities to learn about the topics that are explored, explore issues in depth with the facilitators, and work with their groups beyond the timetable.

101_0090The topics that were covered in the school were designed to provide an holistic overview of geographical crowdsourcing or citizen science projects, especially in the area where these two types of activities meet. This can be when a group of citizens want to collect and analyse data about local environmental concerns, or oceanographers want to work with divers to record water temperature, or when details that are emerging from social media are used to understand cultural differences in the understanding of border areas. These are all examples that were suggested by participants from projects that they are involved in. In addition, citizen participation in flood monitoring and water catchment management, sharing information about local food and exploring data quality of spatial information that can be used by wheelchair users also came up in the discussion. The crossover between the two areas provided a common ground for the participants to explore issues that are relevant to their research interests. 

2014-07-07 15.37.55The holistic aspect that was mentioned before was a major goal for the school – so to consider the tools that are used to collect information, engaging and working with the participants, managing the data that is provided by the participants and ensuring that it is useful for other purposes. To start the process, after introducing the topics of citizen science and volunteered geographic information (VGI), the participants learned about data collection activities, including noise mapping, OpenStreetMap contribution, bird watching and balloon and kite mapping. As can be expected, the balloon mapping raised a lot of interest and excitement, and this exercise in local mapping was linked to OpenStreetMap later in the week.

101_0061The experience with data collection provided the context for discussions about data management and interoperability and design aspects of citizen science applications, as well as more detailed presentations from the participants about their work and research interests. With all these details, the participants were ready to work on their group task: to suggest a research proposal in the area of VGI or Citizen Science. Each group of 5 participants explored the issues that they agreed on – 2 groups focused on a citizen science projects, another 2 focused on data management and sustainability and finally another group explored the area of perception mapping and more social science oriented project.

Some of the most interesting discussions were initiated at the request of the participants, such as the exploration of ethical aspects of crowdsourcing and citizen science. This is possible because of the flexibility in the programme.

Now that the institute is over, it is time to build on the connections that started during the wonderful week in Fiesole, and see how the network of Vespucci alumni develop the ideas that emerged this week.

 

About a month ago, Francois Grey put out a suggestion that we should replace the term ‘bottom-up’  science with upscience  – do read his blog-post for a fuller explanation. I have met Francois in New York in April, when he discussed with me the ideas behind the concept, and why it is worth trying to use it.

At the end of May I had my opportunity to use the term and see how well it might work. I was invited to give a talk as part of the series Trusting the crowd: solving big problems with everyday solutions‘ at Oxford Martin School. The two previous talks in the series, about citizen science in the 19th Century and about crowdsourced journalism, set a high bar (and both are worth watching). My talk was originally titled ‘Beyond the screen: the power and beauty of ‘bottom-up’ citizen science projects’ so for the talk itself I have used ‘Beyond the screen: the power and beauty of ‘up-science’ projects‘ and it seem to go fine.

For me, the advantage of using up-science (or upscience) is in the avoidance of putting the people who are active in this form of science in the immediate disadvantage of defining themselves as ‘bottom’. For a very similar reason, I dislike the term ‘counter-mapping‘ as it puts those that are active in it in confrontational position, and therefore it can act as an additional marginalisation force. For few people, who are in favour of fights, this might make them more ‘fired up’, but for others, that might be a reason to avoid the process. Self-marginalisation is not a great position to start a struggle from.

In addition, I like the ability of upscience to be the term that catches the range of practices that Francois includes in the term, from DIY science, community based projects, civic science etc.

The content of the talk included a brief overview of the spectrum of citizen science, some of the typologies that help to make sense of them, and finally a focus on the type of practices that are part of up-science. Finally, some of the challenges and current solutions to them are covered. Below you can find a video of the talk and the discussion that followed it (which I found interesting and relevant to the discussion above).

If any of the references that I have noted in the talk is of interest, you can find them in the slide set below, which is the one that I used for the talk.

 

 

In citizen science, you always learn new things, and one of the aspects of this area that I like most is the cross-over between different areas of science. By learning about citizen science projects, you also learn about current research activities in Astronomy, Ecology, Conservation, Environmental Science and many other areas.

Some occasions, however, provide an opportunity to explore things in a deeper and more concentrated way. The catalyst meeting in the US National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, NC, on anthropogenic sensory stimuli as drivers of evolution was such event. The meeting was organised by Caren Cooper (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) Jesse Barber (Boise State University) and Clint Francis (California Polytechnic State University) and they assembled an outstanding group of researchers for it, with diverse backgrounds including ecology, astronomy, geography, social science and citizen science. So ‘anthropogenic sensory stimuli as drivers of evolution‘ translates to 4 and a bit busy days of concentrated work on research questions that link sound and noise; light and darkness; animals and wildlife; and citizen science. In particular, the meeting explored the scientific issues of light and noise pollution on humans and other animals (with some attention to birds and insects in particular because of expertise of participants) on the one hand, and thinking in what ways citizen science activities can be included to understand and manage these issues on the other.

In many academic meetings, most of the time is dedicated to tell other people ‘what have I done’ and even if the aim is to develop something from the meeting (say, a book), still most of the time is dedicated to the pattern: presentation, Q&A, presentation, Q&A … with discussion and further discoveries during breaks, dinners or over a drink. Workshops where new directions are explored, are commonly restricted to a day or two, which doesn’t give enough time to explore issues in depth, especially in situations were the participants are not familiar to one another. By the time you get to know people from different area of research, the meeting is over! Only rarely there are longer meetings of 4 or 5 days – so far in my academic career, I attended one – a European Science Foundation exploratory workshop on the internet of things and sustainability almost 3 years ago. The NEScent catalyst meeting belongs to the latter group of long and detailed workshops.

The workshop brought together people who are researching how to understand and model night light or noise at global and local scales, as well as people with experience in citizen science, and experts in ecology, evolution and biodiversity with an interest in the impact of light and noise. To start the discussion, we have used the framework of ‘programme logic model‘ and considered the range of long term impacts of academic and citizen science research, and what sort of research questions can be addressed. The set of questions range from considering social impacts, perceptions, health – with some potential causal chains emerging.

The synthesis work explored how to integrate different areas of research – from concepts to methodologies to data. NESCent meeting

After setting up the general model, we set out to work in groups – and at this stage the group was split between those who focus on social science and citizen science projects, and those that are more focused on evolutionary biology and ecology. By focusing on the development of specific models and aiming to start seeing how concepts in each area match, it was possible to identify gaps. It was especially fascinating to see how people shared their knowledge and provided to each other short introductions about their research areas. For example, I have learned a lot about the concepts of coupled human-nature systems and how it is linked/subsumed in social-ecological systems. An example for the synthesis that can happen in such a workshop is the expansion of the later concept to “social, ecological and evolutionary systems”. Another group explored what is possible to discover from data that is already available and used in different projects.

The workshop also provided hands-on opportunity to explore how to measure darkness, using the ‘loss of night‘ app, as well as ‘Globe at night‘ and having the researchers that are leading these projects, Connie Walker and Chris Kyba, provided more understanding of the activities and the way the information is collected.

The outcomes of the workshop will be academic papers and research projects that will emerge in the near future – and a network of researchers with much better understanding of each other area.

Some ideas take long time to mature into a form that you are finally happy to share them. This is an example for such thing.

I got interested in the area of Philosophy of Technology during my PhD studies, and continue to explore it since. During this journey, I found a lot of inspiration and links to Andrew Feenberg’s work, for example, in my paper about neogeography and the delusion of democratisation. The links are mostly due to Feenberg’s attention to ‘hacking’ or appropriating technical systems to functions and activities that they are outside what the designers or producers of them thought.

In addition to Feenberg, I became interested in the work of Albert Borgmann and because he explicitly analysed GIS, dedicating a whole chapter to it in Holding on to RealityIn particular, I was intrigues by his formulation to The Device Paradigm and the notion of Focal Things and Practices which are linked to information systems in Holding on to Reality where three forms of information are presented – Natural Information, Cultural Information and Technological Information. It took me some time to see that these 5 concepts are linked, with technological information being a demonstration of the trouble with the device paradigm, while natural and cultural information being part of focal things and practices (more on these concepts below).

I first used Borgmann’s analysis as part of ‘Conversations Across the Divide‘ session in 2005, which focused on Complexity and Emergence. In a joint contribution with David O’Sullivan about ‘complexity science and Geography: understanding the limits of narratives’, I’ve used Borgmann’s classification of information. Later on, we’ve tried to turn it into a paper, but in the end David wrote a much better analysis of complexity and geography, while the attempt to focus mostly on the information concepts was not fruitful.

The next opportunity to revisit Borgmann came in 2011, for an AAG pre-conference workshop on VGI where I explored the links between The Device Paradigm, Focal Practices and VGI. By 2013, when I was invited to the ‘Thinking and Doing Digital Mapping‘ workshop that was organise by ‘Charting the Digital‘ project. I was able to articulate the link between all the five elements of Borgmann’s approach in my position paper. This week, I was able to come back to the topic in a seminar in the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester. Finally, I feel that I can link them in a coherent way.

So what is it all about?

Within the areas of VGI and Citizen Science, there is a tension between the different goals or the projects and identification of practices in terms of what they mean for the participants – are we using people as ‘platform for sensors’ or are we dealing with fuller engagement? The use of Borgmann’s ideas can help in understanding the difference. He argues that modern technologies tend to adopt the myopic ‘Device Paradigm’ in which specific interpretation of efficiency, productivity and a reductionist view of human actions are taking precedence over ‘Focal Things and Practices’ that bring people together in a way meaningful to human life. In Holding On to Reality (1999), he differentiates three types of information: natural, cultural and technological.  Natural information is defined as information about reality: for example, scientific information on the movement of the earth or the functioning of a cell.  This is information that was created in order to understand the functioning of reality.  Cultural information is information that is being used to shape reality, such as engineering design plans.  Technological information is information as reality and leads to decreased human engagement with fundamental aspects of reality.  Significantly, these categories do not relate to the common usage of the words ‘natural’, ‘cultural and ‘technological’ rather to describe the changing relationship between information and reality at different stages of socio-technical development.

When we explore general geographical information, we can see that some of it is technological information, for example SatNav and the way that communicate to the people who us them, or virtual globes that try to claim to be a representation of reality with ‘current clouds’ and all. The paper map, on the other hand, provide a conduit to the experience of hiking and walking through the landscape, and is part of cultural information.

Things are especially interesting with VGI and Citizen Science. In them, information and practices need to be analysed in a more nuanced way. In some cases, the practices can become focal to the participants – for example in iSpot where the experience of identifying a species in the field is also link to the experiences of the amateurs and experts who discuss the classification. It’s an activity that brings people together. On the other hand, in crowdsourcing projects that grab information from SatNav devices, there is a demonstration of The Device Paradigm, with the potential of reducing of meaningful holiday journey to ‘getting from A to B at the shortest time’. The slides below go through the ideas and then explore the implications on GIS, VGI and Citizen Science.

Now for the next stage – turning this into a paper…

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