Citizen Cyberscience Summit: lessons learned and reflections

Rob Simpson (Zooniverse)

Now, that the Citizen Cyberscience Summit is over, come the time to reflect more widely on the event and what it say about the state of citizen science. My previos posts, covering the three days of the summit (first day, second day, third day) were written every day during the summit – this is something I learned from Andrea Wiggins and the way she blogged about the 2012 summit (here are her descriptions of the first, second and third days). However, unlike Andrea, my notes focused on my immediate thoughts from each day and less on a synopsis of what I’ve been listening to.  The current post reflect on the event as a whole, in terms of my personal expectations and hopes for the summit. It also covers the rational behind the summit’s design, so it can be evaluated against the practice. As a result, it’s a long piece!

The structure of the summit follows the model that we first tried in 2012 and that proved to be very successful. When trying to explain the summit’s organisation, I use the description ‘starts fairly formal, and end with organised chaos’ which inherently tries to mix traditional academic conferences with open and creative events such as hackathons, but doing that in an inclusive way so people from different communities of practice can feel that there is something for them in the summit. In practice, this translates to the three days of the summit in the following way.

The first day, which uses the formal settings of the Royal Geographical Society, provided the needed academic gravitas to send the message that citizen science is noteworthy. About half of the talks in this day were from speakers that we have invited to ‘set the scene‘. We didn’t provide a detailed brief to speakers to set them ‘on message’, rather inviting them to discuss their work and how it links to a general theme. The rest of the talks were selected carefully from the open submissions to provide the breadth of citizen science.

We deliberately chose an open submission format which falls somewhere between community-led conferences (such as OpenStreetMap State of the Map) and academic conferences, to make both groups comfortable. We were aware that for the volunteers who participate in citizen science we will need a different, more proactive way of encouraging them to join. In  previous summits they were the least represented group. So to encourage them to come we created two special ticket categories (for the whole summit and for the citizen science cafe) and actively contacted different projects to encourage their volunteers to come.

Policy track (Image: Poppy Lakeman Fraser)

In the past, the first day was deliberately ‘single track’ to create a common vocabulary for all participants. This time, because of the perceived increase in the policy implications of citizen science (e.g. the creation of the Citizen Science Association or the European Citizen Science Association, or the activities of Eye on Earth initiative) we decided
to split part of the day to two sessions: one that focuses on the technology and another on policy and engagement. The aim was to attract people who might be less interested in the technology or the specific scientific domain and more with its implications, as well as a recognition that the citizen science community is growing with people that have different interests.

The second day signaled the importance of the citizens of citizen science in two elements in the programme: the citizen science panel (which happen to be only women) and the citizen science café as the closing reception. Setting the summit in such a way that this day fall on Friday is also important, as it allow people to come to the event after work and meet
with other participants who are enthusiastic about citizen science. More generally, the day was submission-led and included workshops, opportunities for discussions and shorter presentations. Only one talk was organised by invitation. This was the opening talk, to bring everyone into one place so it is possible to welcome new people and link to the previous day. Also important is the provision of central space with chairs and tables that was used as the coffee & lunch area to allow people to start or follow up discussions that started the day before. The day also included sponsored sessions (sponsors are important and need to be treated well!)

Finally, the third day was dedicated to the hackday. This was done so people with technical skills or interest in citizen science can come on a weekend day and help with the challenges (the tasks that were explored in the hackday). The posters for the challenges were on display from Friday to start the conversations about them. Saturday also include more short talks on a range of topics (mostly because we wanted to accept all the submissions) but also make sure that we left space for an unconference session – a set of very short talks (5 minutes) for people who came to attend the event and decided that they also want to talk about their work. The final keynote is schedule to keep people interested and to bring them together for the hackday presentation. This is based on a lesson from Over the Air event.

The ideas for this plan came from all the people who planned the summit, through discussions that were facilitated through an open Skype channel in the last month before the summit, regular ‘Google Hangouts’ in the 3 months before the summit and, of course, email, Google Docs and all the other collaborative tools that are now available.

So did the summit live up to these expectations? 

Mostly ‘yes’. First of all, we’ve done much better than in the previous summit in terms of representation and participation of the people who actually involved in citizen science and not only the scientists, coordinators and other people who are running citizen science projects. Catherine Jones post about the summit is exactly what we set out to achieve, so I was delighted to read it. At the same time, I think that we can do better and in future events we need to consider bursaries or grants for volunteers to attend the event. Just dropping the event price to zero is good, but not enough.

Another strength of the summit is in bringing together the community of practice of those who are involved in citizen science or are in their early stages of developing a citizen science programme. The seahorse programme at UBC is an example of a project that benefited from the interactions last time, and I’ve noticed that similar knowledge and best practice sharing this time. This will hopefully improve the projects that are run by the people who came to the summit. I’m pleased that we managed to bring people from across the domains in which citizen science is evolving and that despite the growth in number of participants, there was enough space for meaningful exchanges. The Citizen Science Café served as much for this aspect of the summit as in bringing citizens and scientists together.

It is interesting to notice how many people already knew each other from citizen science events, and there is a need to avoid creating a clique that is less welcoming to newcomers – something for the new associations to think about!

While the policy session was excellent, I noticed that we failed to get significant attention from academics and practitioners who work on science policy, public engagement in science, and people from policy making areas. The number of participants from these areas is relatively small, and include people that are already ‘converted’ (e.g. Katherine Mathieson or Erinma Ochu) but my feeling was that there wasn’t attendance on the basis ‘I need to know what this thing is because it’s important‘.

The same can be said about the commercial sector – we had some attendance from people who are involved in start-ups, and Esri showed their generosity by supporting the summit (disclaimer: they are also strong supporters of ExCiteS) but we weren’t in a situation of fending off sponsorship offers.

I find the last two points very interesting, as that signal to me the amount of ‘leg work’ that the new citizen science associations, the academics that are involved in this field and the practitioners still need to do to get the attention that the field deserve.

Another fascinating aspect that came out from the summit is a clear demonstration of the many facets of every single citizen science project – technology, education, science communication, specific scientific domain knowledge, usability and Human-Computer Interaction, community development, legal and philosophical aspects – all those were mentioned in different sessions. This calls for ongoing conversations and collaborations across the wider area of citizen science to ensure that we indeed share knowledge effectively.

The final reflection is on the size of the summit. The first summit had less than 100 participants, the second about 200 and this time over 300 participants visited the summit. Not everyone was there for the whole event – but it was clear that those that been for the whole event benefited the most. This can be expected at this size, and it feels like the maximum size to make it still effective – I know of several people that I follow but didn’t had chance to have a proper conversation (though admittedly, I was busy organising). Hopefully, with the online resources from the summit can provide a way to go beyond those who physically attended the event.

Published by

mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

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