27 August, 2013
An interview by Prof Anthony Costello of UCL Institute of Global Health, discussing the growth in citizen science today.
8 July, 2013
The term ‘Citizen Science’ is clearly gaining more recognition and use. It is now get mentioned in radio and television broadcasts, social media channels as well as conferences and workshops. Some of the clearer signs for the growing attention include discussion of citizen science in policy oriented conferences such as UNESCO’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS+10) review meeting discussion papers (see page ), or the Eye on Earth users conference (see the talks here) or the launch of the European Citizen Science Association in the recent EU Green Week conference.
Another aspect of the expanding world of citizen science is the emerging questions from those who are involved in such projects or study them about the efficacy of the term. As is very common with general terms, some reflections on the accuracy of the term are coming to the fore – so Rick Bonney and colleagues suggest to use ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research‘ (significantly, Bonney was the first to use ‘Citizen Science’ in 1995); Francois Grey coined Citizen Cyberscience to describe projects that are dependent on the Internet; recently Chris Lintott discussed some doubts about the term in the context of Zooniverse; and Katherine Mathieson asks if Citizen Science is just a passing fad. In our own group, there are also questions about the correct terminology, with Cindy Regalado suggestions to focus on ‘Publicly Initiated Scientific Research (PIScR)‘, and discussion on the meaning of ‘Extreme Citizen Science‘.
One way to explore what is going on is to consider the evolution of the ‘hype’ around citizen science through ‘Gartner’s Hype Cycle‘ which can be seen as a way to consider the way technologies are being adopted in a world of rapid communication and inflated expectations from technologies. leaving aside Gartner own hype, the story that the model is trying to tell is that once a new approach (technology) emerges because it is possible or someone reconfigured existing elements and claim that it’s a new thing (e.g. Web 2.0), it will go through a rapid growth in terms of attention and publicity. This will go on until it reaches the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ where the expectations from the technology are unrealistic (e.g. that it will revolutionize the way we use our fridges). This must follow by a slump, as more and more failures come to light and the promises are not fulfilled. At this stage, the disillusionment is so deep that even the useful aspects of the technology are forgotten. However, if it passes this stage, then after the realisation of what is possible, the technology is integrated into everyday life and practices and being used productively.
So does the hype cycle apply to citizen science?
If we look at Gartner cycle from last September, Crowdsourcing is near the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and some descriptions of citizen science as scientific crowdsourcing clearly match the same mindset.
There is a growing evidence of academic researchers entering citizen science out of opportunism, without paying attention to the commitment and work that is require to carry out such projects. With some, it seems like that they decided that they can also join in because someone around know how to make an app for smartphones or a website that will work like Galaxy Zoo (failing to notice the need all the social aspects that Arfon Smith highlights in his talks). When you look around at the emerging projects, you can start guessing which projects will succeed or fail by looking at the expertise and approach that the people behind it take.
Another cause of concern are the expectations that I noticed in the more policy oriented events about the ability of citizen science to solve all sort of issues – from raising awareness to behaviour change with limited professional involvement, or that it will reduce the resources that are needed for activities such as environmental monitoring, but without an understanding that significant sustained investment is required – community coordinator, technical support and other aspects are needed here just as much. This concern is heightened by statements that promote citizen science as a mechanism to reduce the costs of research, creating a source of free labour etc.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the hype cycle doesn’t apply to citizen science because of history. Citizen science existed for many years, as Caren Cooper describe in her blog posts. Therefore, conceptualising it as a new technology is wrong as there are already mechanisms, practices and institutions to support it.
In addition, and unlike the technologies that are on Gartner chart, academic projects within which citizen science happen benefit from access to what is sometime termed patient capital without expectations for quick returns on investment. Even with the increasing expectations of research funding bodies for explanations on how the research will lead to an impact on wider society, they have no expectations that the impact will be immediate (5-10 years is usually fine) and funding come in chunks that cover 3-5 years, which provides the breathing space to overcome the ‘through of disillusionment’ that is likely to happen within the technology sector regarding crowdsourcing.
And yet, I would guess that citizen science will suffer some examples of disillusionment from badly designed and executed projects – to get these projects right you need to have a combination of domain knowledge in the specific scientific discipline, science communication to tell the story in an accessible way, technical ability to build mobile and web infrastructure, understanding of user interaction and user experience to to build an engaging interfaces, community management ability to nurture and develop your communities and we can add further skills to the list (e.g. if you want gamification elements, you need experts in games and not to do it amateurishly). In short, it need to be taken seriously, with careful considerations and design. This is not a call for gatekeepers , more a realisation that the successful projects and groups are stating similar things.
Which bring us back to the issue of the definition of citizen science and terminology. I have been following terminology arguments in my own discipline for over 20 years. I have seen people arguing about a data storage format for GIS and should it be raster or vector (answer: it doesn’t matter). Or arguing if GIS is tool or science. Or unhappy with Geographic Information Science and resolutely calling it geoinformation, geoinformatics etc. Even in the minute sub-discipline that deals with participation and computerised maps that are arguments about Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) or Participatory GIS (PGIS). Most recently, we are debating the right term for mass-contribution of geographic information as volunteered geographic information (VGI), Crowdsourced geographic information or user-generated geographic information.
It’s not that terminology and precision in definition is not useful, on the contrary. However, I’ve noticed that in most cases the more inclusive and, importantly, vague and broad church definition won the day. Broad terminologies, especially when they are evocative (such as citizen science), are especially powerful. They convey a good message and are therefore useful. As long as we don’t try to force a canonical definition and allow people to decide what they include in the term and express clearly why what they are doing is falling within citizen science, it should be fine. Some broad principles are useful and will help all those that are committed to working in this area to sail through the hype cycle safely.
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
20 October, 2012
The Spatial Data Infrastructure Magazine (SDIMag.com) is a relatively new e-zine dedicated to the development of spatial data infrastructures around the world. Roger Longhorn, the editor of the magazine, conducted an email interview with me, which is now published.
In the interview, we are covering the problematic terminology used to describe a wider range of activities; the need to consider social and technical aspects as well as goals of the participants; and, of course, the role of the information that is produced through crowdsourcing, citizen science, VGI with spatial data infrastructures.
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.