7 June, 2014
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.
23 February, 2014
After a day of ‘listening‘, and a day of ‘talking‘, the final day of the citizen cyberscience summit brought ‘doing‘ to the summit. Although the art installation on the second day of the summit would clearly fall into the ‘doing’ category, participation in the installation was mostly in the ‘contributory’ form: after summit participants handed over the citizen (cyber)science objects, the decisions on how to use them in the installation were left to the artist, Leni Diner Dothan.
The day started with setting up desks for each of the hackday challenges. The challenges ranged from Synthetic Biology to Citizen Science & Big Data. While those interested in assisting the challenge proposers to develop their ideas set to work, a set of shorter talks and discussions continued – including a set of impromptu 5 minute talks in an unconference session. Despite the compactness of the session, it was clear that people are responding to themes that appeared in the two previous days of the summit. For example, Jeff Parsons addressed the common ‘how good is the data from citizen science?‘ question, which made an appearance in several talks. Jeff pointed to his Nature paper that ‘easier citizen science is better‘. Francois Grey started the conversation which he is developing with Creative Commons and Open Knowledge Foundation about the relationships between Open Science and Citizen Science, asking if there should be an ‘Open Citizen Science’.
Geographical citizen Science was at the heart of several talks that explored the links between mapping technologies, DIY sensors and citizen science. The summit benefited from the participation of several early career researchers who were funded to visit UCL as part of the COST ENERGIC scientific network. The exchange of knowledge that is not only enabled through networks, but also through the communities of practice in DIY electronics or VGI, was clearly visible. One talk discussed using Public Laboratory technologies in schools in Germany and in another talk about using those technologies in Jerusalem. Another example of such links was demonstrated in the collaboration between Chinese and UK-based students to build a new DIY microscope.
Personally, the re-appearance of my ‘levels of participation in citizen science‘ classification is both satisfying (someone found it useful!) and fascinating, as each use of it illustrated a different interpretation and understanding of it. The levels are fuzzy and open to interpretation, so these discussions help the process of understanding what should be included in each category, and how the different levels map onto a specific project or activity.
The final talk by Jeff Howe – who coined the term crowdsourcing – discussed the way new ideas emerge from allowing a large group of people to participate in solving problems as this can open up a wider set of skills and expertise. He noted that in many cases, the success of large collaborations comes from a ‘gift’, which is creating a system or a service that provides something that people want, or which can help them to do what interests them. Or, as he phrased it, ‘ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community‘.
An example of some of the issues that Jeff covered was provided during the presentations from the hackday. As in the previous summit, we carefully measured the applause from the audience with a noise meter, to ascertain the activity that the participants in the summit liked the most. This time, it was the development of a bio-sensor that can be integrated into textiles. This challenge was led by Paula Nerlich, who is studying at the Edinburgh College of Art, showing that citizen science ideas can come from outside the traditional scientific disciplines (image by Cindy Regalado).
To get a better sense of the atmosphere, you can find plenty of interviews on the ‘Citizens of Science’ podcast board which explores the needs of the citizen science community.
Since we first began to organise the summit almost a year ago, I have had a lingering concern that the summit would not fulfill the expectations and the success of the previous one. Once the summit ended, I was more relaxed about this – I noticed many new connections being made, and new ideas discovered by participants. Now it is time to sit back and watch what will come out of these!
21 February, 2014
The second day of the summit (see my reflections on the first day) started with an unplanned move to the Darwin Lecture Theatre of UCL. This was appropriate, as the theatre is sited in a place where Charles Darwin used to live, and he is mentioned many times as a citizen scientist. Moreover, the unplanned move set the tone for a day which paid more attention to DIY science.
We started with a vision for the future of citizen science by Rick Bonney from Cornell Lab of Ornithology in which he highlighted how important it is to keep growing the field and bring together different approaches to citizen science to save the world. This was followed by a panel that explored the experiences and wishes of citizen scientists themselves – from participant in Zooniverse, to DIY electronic and environmental justice applications of citizen science (image from Daniel Lombrana Glez). The panel demonstrated the level of interest and the commitment that people that are engaged in citizen science have, and that it is taken seriously by the participants. It also gave a glimpse to the empowerment aspect of citizen science.
In my opening, I have pressed the message that while the first day of the summit involve a lot of listening, the second day is about talking with one another and sharing ideas, in order to move to doing in the third day. In fact, this was not needed, and throughout the day many conversations were happening in workshops, in the main meeting area of the conference and during the coffee and tea breaks.
Another aspects that gave a different atmosphere to the day was the work of Leni Diner-Dothan. Leni is studying at UCL Slade School, and accepted a request to create an art installation during the summit. After collecting both operational and defunct items of citizen science and developing the concept, the work commenced during the day.
With the help of the technicians from my own department, she developed the ‘citizen cyberscience nightmare wall‘ which have pieces of citizen cyberscience embedded in concrete with a reliquary. It is a thought provoking and fascinating piece of art, and I hope to write about it more soon.
The citizen science cafe that closed the day open up thematic conversation, and I encountered discussions between related projects that the summit provided an opportunity for.
Now, it’s time to move to the doing – let’s see what ideas will come tomorrow…
19 February, 2014
The Citizen Cyberscience Summit that will be running in London this week sparked the interest of the producers of BBC World Service ‘Click’ programme, and it was my first experience of visiting BBC Broadcasting House – about 15 minutes walk from UCL.
Here is the clip from the programme that covers the discussion about the summit and Extreme Citizen Science
More information is provided in the Citizens of Science podcast - where myself and the other organisers discuss and preview the summit. That is an opportunity to recommend the other podcasts that can be found in the series.
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.
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