Challenging Engineering is an EPSRC programme aimed at supporting individuals in building a research group and to ‘establish themselves as the future leaders of research’. As can be imagined, this is a both prestigious and well-funded programme – it provides enough resources to establish a group, recruit postdoctoral and PhD researchers, visit external laboratories and run innovative research activities.
The process of selecting the UCL candidates started in mid-May 2010, with the final interviews at the end of December, just before the Christmas break. Therefore, it was very satisfying to open the email from EPSRC while at a visit to the Technion and see that my application will be funded.
The proposal itself focused on Citizen Science – the participation of amateurs, volunteers and enthusiasts in scientific projects – which is not new, given activities such as the Christmas Bird Count or the British Trust for Ornithology Survey, in which volunteers observe birds and report to a national repository. Such projects date back to the early 20th century, and many of the temperature records used in climate modelling today have been collected by amateur enthusiasts operating their own weather stations.
Over the past decade, Web 2.0 technologies have led to the proliferation of Citizen Science activities, from SETI@Home, where people volunteer their unused computer processing power, to Galaxy Zoo, where amateur astronomers suggest interpretations of images from the Hubble telescope, to the Pepys Estate in Deptford, London, where residents carried out community noise monitoring for six weeks to challenge the activities of a local scrapyard operator.
However, the current range of Citizen Science projects is limited in several respects. First, in most instances the participants are trusted only as passive participants (by donating CPU cycles), or as active participants but limited to basic observation and data collection. They do not participate in problem definition or in the scientific analysis itself. Second, there is an implicit assumption that participants will have a relatively advanced level of education. Third, and largely because of the educational requirements, Citizen Science occurs mostly in affluent places, and therefore most of the places that are critical for encouraging biodiversity conservation, and where population growth is most rapid, are effectively excluded.
The new research group will challenge this current mode of Citizen Science by suggesting the establishment of an interdisciplinary team that will focus on ‘Extreme’ Citizen Science (ExCiteS). ExCiteS is extreme in three ways: first, it aims to develop the theories and methodologies to allow any community to start a Citizen Science project that will deal with the issues that concern them – from biodiversity to food production; second, it will provide a set of tools that can be used by any user, regardless of their level of literacy, to collect, analyse and act on information by using established scientific methods; finally, it aims to use the methodologies of Citizen Science around the globe, by developing a technology, through collaborative activities, that can involve communities from housing estates in London to hunter-gatherers and forest villagers in the Congo Basin. The underlying technology is intended to be universal and to provide the foundations for many other projects and activities.
The technology that will be developed will rely on spatial and geographical representations of information. The reason for focusing on this mode of representation is that, as a form of human communication, geographical representations predate text, and are likely to be accessible by many people with limited reading and technology literacy.
ExCiteS has the transformative potential to deal with some of the major sustainability challenges involved in using science and Information and Communication Technologies in a hot (due to climate change), flat (due to globalisation) and crowded (due to population increase) world, by creating tools that will help communities understand their environment as it changes, and manage it by using scientific modelling and management methods.
The proposal focuses not only on the development of ExCiteS as a practice, but, significantly, on developing a fundamental understanding of Citizen Science by studying the motivation of participants and their incentives, identifying patterns of data collection, and dealing with the uncertainty and validity of data collected in this way.
The activities of the ExCiteS group will officially start in May, and I will be working closely with Dr Jerome Lewis, at UCL Anthropology, to develop the area of Extreme Citizen Science. We are going to start by recruiting a postdoctoral fellow and 2 PhD students – so if you are interested in this type of challenge, get in touch.