17 May, 2013
The UCL Urban Laboratory is a cross-disciplinary initiative that links various research interest in urban issues, from infrastructure to the way they are expressed in art, films and photography. The Urban Laboratory has just published its first Urban Pamphleteer which aim to ‘confront key contemporary urban questions from diverse perspectives. Written in a direct and accessible tone, the intention of these pamphlets is to draw on the history of radical pamphleteering to stimulate debate and instigate change.’
My contribution to the first pamphleteer, which focused on ‘Future & Smart Cities’ is dealing with the balance between technology companies, engineers and scientists and the values, needs and wishes of the wider society. In particular, I suggest the potential of citizen science in opening up some of the black boxes of smart cities to wider societal control. Here are the opening and the closing paragraphs of my text, titled Beyond quantification: we need a meaningful smart city:
‘When approaching the issue of Smart Cities, there is a need to discuss the underlying assumptions at the basis of Smart Cities and challenge the prevailing thought that only efficiency and productivity are the most important values. We need to ensure that human and environmental values are taken into account in the design and implementation of systems that will influence the way cities operate…
…Although these Citizen Science approaches can potentially develop new avenues for discussing alternatives to the efficiency and productivity logic of Smart Cities, we cannot absolve those with most resources and knowledge from responsibility. There is an urgent need to ensure that the development and use of the Smart Cities technologies that are created is open to democratic and societal control, and that they are not being developed only because the technologists and scientists think that they are possible.’
The pamphleteer is not too long – 32 pages – and include many thought-provoking pieces from researchers in Geography, Environmental Engineering, Architecture, Computer Science and Art. It can be downloaded here.
The talk, which is titled ‘Science for everyone by everyone – the re-emergence of citizen science‘ covered the area of citizen science and explained what we are trying to achieve within the Extreme Citizen Science research group.
Because the lunch hour lectures are open to all, I preferred not to assume any prior knowledge of citizen science (or public participation in scientific research) and start by highlighting that public participation in scientific research is not new. After a short introduction to the history and to the fact that many people are involved in scientific activities in their free time, from bird watching to weather or astronomical observations and that this never stopped, there is a notable difference in the attention that is paid to citizen science in recent years.
Therefore, I covered the trends in education and technology that are ushering in a new era of citizen science – access to information through the internet, use of location aware mobile devices, growth in social knowledge creation web-based systems, increased in education and the ability to deal with abstract ideas (Flynn effect is an indicator of this last point). The talk explored the current trends and types of citizen science, and demonstrate a model for extreme citizen science, in which any community, regardless of their literacy, can utilise scientific methods and tools to understand and control their environment. I have used examples of citizen science activities from other groups at UCL, to demonstrate the range of topics, domains and activities that are now included in this area.
The talk was recorded, and is available on YouTube and below
5 December, 2012
Recently, I attended a meeting with people from a community that is concerned with vibration and noise caused by a railway near their homes. We have discussed the potential of using citizen science to measure the vibrations that pass the sensory threshold and that people classify as unpleasant, together with other perceptions and feeling about these incidents. This can form the evidence to a discussion with the responsible authorities to see what can be done.
As a citizen science activity, this is not dissimilar from the work carried out around Heathrow to measure the level of noise nuisance or air pollution monitoring that ExCiteS and Mapping for Change carried out in other communities.
In the meetings, the participants felt that they need to emphasise that they are not against the use of the railway or the development of new railway links. Like other groups that I have net in the past, they felt that it is important to emphasise that their concern is not only about their locality – in other words, this is not a case of ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) which is the most common dismissal of local concerns. The concern over NIMBY and citizen science is obvious one, and frequently come up in questions about the value and validity of data collected through this type of citizen science.
During my masters studies, I was introduced to Maarten Wolsink (1994) analysis of NIMBY as a compulsory reading in one of the courses. It is one of the papers that I keep referring to from time to time, especially when complaints about participatory work and NIMBY come up.
Inherently, what Wolsink is demonstrating is that the conceptualisation of the people who are involved in the process as selfish and focusing on only their own area is wrong. Through the engagement with environmental and community concerns, people will explore issues at wider scales and many time will argue for ‘Not in Anyone’s Back Yard’ or for a balance between the needs of infrastructure development and their own quality of life. Studies on environmental justice also demonstrated that what the people who are involved in such activities ask for are not narrow, but many times mix aspects of need for recognition, expectations of respect, arguments of justice, and participation in decision-making (Schlosberg 2007).
In other words, the citizen science and systematic data collection are a way for the community to bring to the table evidence that can enhance arguments beyond NIMBY, and while it might be part of the story it is not the whole story.
For me, these interpretations are part of the reason that such ‘activism’-based citizen science should receive the same attention and respect as any other data collection, most notably by the authorities.
Wolsink, M. (1994) Entanglement of Interests and Motives: Assumptions Behind the NIMBY-Theory on Facility Siting, Urban Studies, 31(6), pp. 851-866.
Scholsberg, D. (2007) Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford University Press, 2007
5 October, 2012
On 25th September, the UCL iGEM team organised an event that was dedicated to demonstrating their work with the Biohacking enthusiasts at the London Hackspace, on the rights and risks on public participation in developing a biobrick. The event raised some fundamental questions about ethics and limits of citizen science, but first, some jargon entanglement is required.
Biobricks are segments of DNA that perform a specific function, been identified and submitted to a repository so other researchers can use them. They are being used in synthetic biology (synthbio) where an engineering approach is being used to construct genetically modified organisms. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is encouraging undergraduate students to develop biobricks and learn about synthbio. This year, the UCL iGEM team is focusing on finding ways to clean the oceans .
The London Hackspace is a place where people with various technical interests come to explore a wide range of technological experimentation through making them and trying them in different ways. This ranges from carpentry and laser cutting of metal and plastic, to computing and electronics. The members decide for themselves what topic they want to explore and how to go about doing that. A subgroup of the hackspace decided to focus on biohacking – the DIY version of synthbio. And this is where things get interesting from citizen science perspective. The group decided that they will focus on creating a biobrick which will act as ‘antifreeze’ for bacteria so it can survive in lower temperature environment, and started experimenting.
The link between UCL students and the hackspace members developed by sharing expertise of how to handle genetic experiments and the goal of creating an official biobrick that was created with significant public input. Generally, there are restrictions on who is allowed to submit them and they are not open to the public.
By attending the event and talking to people that were involved in the project, it transpires that this is a challenging example of citizen science. It opens up many ethical, practical and theoretical challenges and questions.
First, unlike the use of electronics or smartphones, interacting with a ‘wet laboratory’ involved many tacit skills and knowledge which are not easily recorded in the literature and are passed from one experienced user of the lab to another. How should these skills taught and should it be opened to amateur or hobbyists? Is it better to ensure that people are competent or is it better to have it as a barrier to entry?
Second, because a lot of the risks are not always visible to the naked eye and other senses, accidents with material that can be dangerous can happen. At the same time, the biohackers are concerned about these aspects and reported to be more attuned then some of the students, although accidents can happen out of lack of knowledge. Is it just an issue that they are taking a risk or should strong regulations apply?
Thirdly, synthbio is fairly much in the forefront of science – so side effects, risks, applications and policy decisions are open. Should that be a space where citizen scientists experiment and try in their kitchens?
There are many more questions and queries that this case is opening – but it was also an enjoyable and fascinating evening.
8 August, 2012
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,
The Guardian Science Weekly podcast is dedicated to Citizen Science – another example of the growing interest in popular media in Citizen Science. However, the podcast conflate cases were non-professional scientists are involved in scientific project (and Chris Lintott discuss Galaxy Zoo, FoldIt and similar projects) with participation in scientific research through surveys. It is rather interesting that George MacKerron is usually explaining that Mappiness, despite the wide participation in it, is a social survey tool and not a citizen science project. It is also not strictly crowd-sourcing project, so calling the chronotype survey a crowd-sourced science, as the podcast does, is a bit of a hype…
13 June, 2012
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:
- It doesn’t produce real science
- It doesn’t work for my science – it is too complex to engage people in it
- Nobody will be interested in my area of science
- You can’t trust the results from ordinary people if you involve them in something other than automatic processing
- Volunteer computing is energetically hugely wasteful when compared to computer clusters
- It doesn’t really engage people in science
- 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.
The London Citizen Cyberscience Summit ran in the middle of February, from 16th (Thursday) to 18th (Saturday). It marked the launch of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group, while providing an opportunity for people who are interested in different aspects of citizen science to come together, discuss, share ideas, consider joint projects and learn from other people. The original idea for the summit, when the first organisational meeting took place in October last year, was to set a programme that would include academics who research citizen science or develop citizen science projects; practitioners and enthusiasts who are developing technologies for citizen science activities; and people who are actively engaged in citizen science.Therefore, we included a mix of talks, workshops and hack days and started approaching speakers who would cover the range of interests, backgrounds and knowledge.
The announcement about the summit came out only in late December, so it was somewhat surprising to see the level of interest in the topic of citizen science. Considering that the previous summit, in 2010, attracted about 60 or 70 participants, it was pleasing to see that the second summit attracted more than 170 people.
To read about what happened in the summit there is plenty of material online. Nature news reported it as ‘Citizen science goes extreme‘. The New Scientist blog post discussed the ‘Intelligent Maps’ project of ExCiteS in ‘Interactive maps help pygmy tribes fight back‘, which was also covered by the BBC World Service Newshour programme (around 50 minutes in) and the Canadian CBC Science Shift programme. Le Monde also reported on ‘Un laboratoire de l’extrême‘.
Another report in New Scientist focused on the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) development of a thermal flashlight in ‘Thermal flashlight “paints” cold rooms with colour‘. The China Dialogue ‘Scientists and Citizens‘ provided a broader review of the summit.
In terms of blogs, there are summaries on the GridCast blog (including some video interviews), and a summary by one of the speakers, Andrea Wiggins, of day 1, day 2 and day 3. Nicola Triscott from the Arts Catalyst provides another account of the summit and her Arctic Perspective Initiative linkage. Another participant, Célya Gruson-Daniel, discussed the summit in French at MyScienceWork, which also provided a collection of social media from the first day at http://storify.com/mysciencework/london-citizen-cyberscience-summit-16-18th-februar.
The talks are available to view again on the LiveStream account of ExCiteS at http://www.livestream.com/excites and there are also summaries on the ExCiteS blog http://uclexcites.wordpress.com/ and on the conference site http://cybersciencesummit.org/blog/ . Flickr photos from MyScienceWork and UCL Engineering (where the image on the right is from) are also available.
For me, several highlights of the conference included the impromptu integration of different projects during the summit. Ellie D’Hondt and Matthias Stevens from BrusSense and NoiseTube used the opportunity of the PLOTS balloon mapping demonstration to extend it to noise mapping; Darlene Cavalier from SciStarter discussed with the Open Knowledge Foundation people how to use data about citizen science projects; and the people behind Xtribe at the University of Rome considered how their application can be used for Intelligent Maps – all these are synergies, new connections and new experimentation that the summit enabled. The enthusiasm of people who came to the summit contributed significantly to its success (as well as the hard work of the ExCiteS team).
Especially interesting, because of the wide-ranging overview of examples and case studies, is how the activity is conceptualised in different ways across the spectrum of DIY citizen science to structured observations that are managed by professional scientists. This is also apparent in the reports about the summit. I have commented in earlier blog posts about the need to understand citizen science as a different way of producing scientific knowledge. What might be helpful is a clear ‘code of ethics’ or ‘code of conduct’ for scientists who are involved in such projects. As Francois Taddei highlighted in his talk at the summit, there is a need to value the shared learning among all the participants, and not to keep the rigid hierarchies of university academics/public in place. There is also a need to allow for the creativity, exploration and development of ideas that we have seen during the summit to blossom – but only happen when all the sides that are involved in the process are open to such a process.
19 December, 2011
As noted in the previous post, which focused on the linkage between GIS and Environmental Information Systems, the Eye on Earth Summit took place in Abu Dhabi on the 12 to 15 December 2011, and focused on ‘the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making’. Throughout the summit, two aspects of public were discussed extensively. On the one hand, Principle 10 of the Rio declaration from 1992 which call for public access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice was frequently mentioned including the need to continue and extend its implementation across the world. On the other, the growing importance of citizen science and crowdsourced environmental information was highlighted as a way to engage the wider public in environmental issues and contribute to the monitoring and understanding of the environment. They were not presented or discussed as mutually exclusive approaches to public involvement in environmental decision making, and yet, they do not fit together without a snag – so it is worth minding the gap.
As I have noted in several talks over the past 3 years (e.g. at the Oxford Transport Research Unit from which the slides above were taken), it is now possible to define 3 eras of public access to environmental information. During the first era, between the first UN environmental conference, held in Stockholm in 1972, were the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) was established, and the Earth conference in Rio in 1992, environmental information was collected by experts, to be analysed by experts, and to be accessed by experts. The public was expected to accept the authoritative conclusions of the experts. The second period, between 1990s and until the mid 2000s and the emergence of Web 2.0, the focus turned to the provision of access to the information that was collected and processed by experts. This is top-down delivery of information that is at the centre of Principle 10:
‘Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided’
Notice the two emphasised sections which focus on passive provision of information to the public – there is no expectation that the public will be involved in creating it.
With the growth of the interactive web (or Web 2.0), and the increase awareness to citizen or community science , new modes of data collection started to emerge, in which the information is being produced by the public. Air pollution monitoring, noise samples or traffic surveys – all been carried out independently by communities using available cheap sensors or in collaboration with scientists and experts. This is a third era of access to environmental information: produced by experts and the public, to be used by both.
Thus, we can identify 3 eras of access to environmental information: authoritative (1970s-1990s), top-down (1990s-2005) and collaborative (2005 onward).
The collaborative era presents new challenges. As in previous periods, the information needs to be at the required standards, reliable and valid. This can be challenging for citizen science information. It also need to be analysed, and many communities don’t have access to the required expertise (see my presentation from the Open Knowledge Foundation Conference in 2008 that deals with this issue). Merging information from citizen science studies with official information is challenging. These and other issues must be explored, and – as shown above – the language of Principle 10 might need revision to account for this new era of environmental information.
The previous post focused on citizen science as participatory science. This post is discussing the meaning of this differentiation. It is the final part of the chapter that will appear next year in the book:
The typology of participation can be used across the range of citizen science activities, and one project should not be classified only in one category. For example, in volunteer computing projects most of the participants will be at the bottom level, while participants that become committed to the project might move to the second level and assist other volunteers when they encounter technical problems. Highly committed participants might move to a higher level and communicate with the scientist who coordinates the project to discuss the results of the analysis and suggest new research directions.
This typology exposes how citizen science integrates and challenges the way in which science discovers and produces knowledge. Questions about the way in which knowledge is produced and truths are discovered are part of the epistemology of science. As noted above, throughout the 20th century, as science became more specialised, it also became professionalised. While certain people were employed as scientists in government, industry and research institutes, the rest of the population – even if they graduated from a top university with top marks in a scientific discipline – were not regarded as scientists or as participants in the scientific endeavour unless they were employed professionally to do so. In rare cases, and following the tradition of ‘gentlemen/women scientists’, wealthy individuals could participate in this work by becoming an ‘honorary fellow’ or affiliated to a research institute that, inherently, brought them into the fold. This separation of ‘scientists’ and ‘public’ was justified by the need to access specialist equipment, knowledge and other privileges such as a well-stocked library. It might be the case that the need to maintain this separation is a third reason that practising scientists shy away from explicitly mentioning the contribution of citizen scientists to their work in addition to those identified by Silvertown (2009).
However, similarly to other knowledge professionals who operate in the public sphere, such as medical experts or journalists, scientists need to adjust to a new environment that is fostered by the Web. Recent changes in communication technologies, combined with the increased availability of open access information and the factors that were noted above, mean that processes of knowledge production and dissemination are opening up in many areas of social and cultural activities (Shirky 2008). Therefore, some of the elitist aspects of scientific practice are being challenged by citizen science, such as the notion that only dedicated, full-time researchers can produce scientific knowledge. For example, surely it should be professional scientists who can solve complex scientific problems such as long-standing protein-structure prediction of viruses. Yet, this exact problem was recently solved through a collaboration of scientists working with amateurs who were playing the computer game Foldit (Khatib et al. 2011). Another aspect of the elitist view of science can be witnessed in interaction between scientists and the public, where the assumption is of unidirectional ‘transfer of knowledge’ from the expert to lay people. Of course, as in the other areas mentioned above, it is a grave mistake to argue that experts are unnecessary and can be replaced by amateurs, as Keen (2007) eloquently argued. Nor is it suggested that, because of citizen science, the need for professionalised science will diminish, as, in citizen science projects, the participants accept the difference in knowledge and expertise of the scientists who are involved in these projects. At the same time, the scientists need to develop respect towards those who help them beyond the realisation that they provide free labour, which was noted above.
Given this tension, the participation hierarchy can be seen to be moving from a ‘business as usual’ scientific epistemology at the bottom, to a more egalitarian approach to scientific knowledge production at the top. The bottom level, where the participants are contributing resources without cognitive engagement, keeps the hierarchical division of scientists and the public. The public is volunteering its time or resources to help scientists while the scientists explain the work that is to be done but without expectation that any participant will contribute intellectually to the project. Arguably, even at this level, the scientists will be challenged by questions and suggestions from the participants and, if they do not respond to them in a sensitive manner, they will risk alienating participants. Intermediaries such as the IBM World Community Grid, where a dedicated team is in touch with scientists who want to run projects and a community of volunteered computing providers, are cases of ‘outsourcing’ the community management and thus allowing, to an extent, the maintenance of the separation of scientists and the public.
As we move up the ladder to a higher level of participation, the need for direct engagement between the scientist and the public increases. At the highest level, the participants are assumed to be on equal footing with the scientists in terms of scientific knowledge production. This requires a different epistemological understanding of the process, in which it is accepted that the production of scientific insights is open to any participant while maintaining scientific standards and practices such as systematic observations or rigorous statistical analysis to verify that the results are significant. The belief that, given suitable tools, many lay people are capable of such endeavours is challenging to some scientists who view their skills as unique. As the case of the computer game that helped in the discovery of new protein formations (Khatib et al. 2011) demonstrated, such collaboration can be fruitful even in cutting-edge areas of science. However, it can be expected that the more mundane and applied areas of science will lend themselves more easily to the fuller sense of collaborative science in which participants and scientists identify problems and develop solutions together. This is because the level of knowledge required in cutting-edge areas of science is so demanding.
Another aspect in which the ‘extreme’ level challenges scientific culture is that it requires scientists to become citizen scientists in the sense that Irwin (1995), Wilsdon, Wynne and Stilgoe (2005) and Stilgoe (2009) advocated (Notice Stilgoe’s title: Citizen Scientists). In this interpretation of the phrase, the emphasis is not on the citizen as a scientist, but on the scientist as a citizen. It requires the scientists to engage with the social and ethical aspects of their work at a very deep level. Stilgoe (2009, p.7) suggested that, in some cases, it will not be possible to draw the line between the professional scientific activities, the responsibilities towards society and a fuller consideration of how a scientific project integrates with wider ethical and societal concerns. However, as all these authors noted, this way of conceptualising and practising science is not widely accepted in the current culture of science.
Therefore, we can conclude that this form of participatory and collaborative science will be challenging in many areas of science. This will not be because of technical or intellectual difficulties, but mostly because of the cultural aspects. This might end up being the most important outcome of citizen science as a whole, as it might eventually catalyse the education of scientists to engage more fully with society.