During the 22 to 29 October, I visited Shanghai & Shenzhen together with Michael Norton (CIVA), who organised the visit, and Liz Barry (Public Lab). This was a packed tour, with two all-day workshops that are dedicated to citizen science (one in Fudan University, Shanghai, and the other as part of the Asian Environmental Innovation Forum (AEIF) 2018 in Shenzhen at the Open FIESTA facility in Shenzhen), talks and visits to social enterprise hubs and social innovation activities, as well as participation in the Asian Environmental Innovation forum. This was my first visit to China, and as a result, it was an overwhelming experience – with a lot of things to try to make sense of, such as considerations for cultural practices (in other words, trying not to offend anyone unknowingly), or how the internet and mobile applications are experienced within the Great Firewall. This post is about some of the things that I’ve noticed during this visit.
Despite the fact that the three of us are focused on community action, the workshops and talks were designed as a general introduction to the area of citizen science, highlighting the potential for participation that is suitable for people who want to do something with little time investment, all the way to the DIY science approach that Public Lab promotes and dedicate significant time to such an activity. We also emphasised the link between getting involved in an activity as part of a wider awareness and actions that address social and environmental challenges. In the workshops, we started with an introduction to citizen science (me), followed by a talk on the ethos and activities of Public Lab (Liz), and finally about the use of information and insight for action (Michael). Next, we designed a session in which participants could experience different types of activities – from using two Zooniverse projects – the Wildes’ Wildlife Watch and Snapshot Serengeti, which provide different complexity in wildlife classification; A second group used their phones to install soundscape monitoring apps – the Chineses-based Participatory Soundscape Sensing using the SPL Meter app, and the German-based HushCity with the HushCity app. The participants downloaded and registered in class (only HushCity require registration), and then went out to collect information for about 10 minutes; A third group build the Public Lab DIY microscope and examined water taken from a local river; The last group focused on balloon mapping, which was the most involved task, culminating in all workshop participants going outside for an aerial selfie. We have repeated the session twice, and allowing people to experience two areas of activities. Finally, there was a group work, on developing ideas on how to address plastic pollution with the help of citizen science.
The workshop in Fudan attracted about 35 participants, while 60 came to the one at Open FIESTA. In both cases, there were many students (with more postgraduate students in Fudan) as well as people from NGOs and civil society organisations. We also had a talk with about 10 people present and many more online through webcasting at Bottledream office which is an online network for social innovation and change makers, and a talk to about 30 people, many of them expat who live and work in Shanghai at Green Initiatives.
Across the workshops and the talks, it was a pleasure to receive questions that were insightful and show real engagement with the potential of citizen science. The “data quality monster” (or should it be a dragon?) was dormant most of the time, although the second common question on motivations and reasons for participation did appear. I was asked several times about the inclusion of game elements and competition in citizen science project as a way to increase participation, and I pointed to the challenges that such an approach requires (dealing with cheating to score points, short engagement cycles etc.). There was a good question about the ownership of data and images and the intellectual property rights from a law student, and another one about ethics and the way in which consent is being secured in citizen science. Another valuable question was about the implications of Machine Learning (AI) on citizen science. People also asked about a specific area of application – e.g about projects that deal with coastal and marine issues. At the Bottledream talk, we explored the potential for social enterprise and investment in the area of citizen science. Finally, and not surprisingly, in each talk and workshop, the issue of collaboration with officials and the potential conflict in government did appear, with a lively discussion about different types of citizen science – those that are about helping progressing scientific knowledge vs. projects that are more aimed at civil action, and how to navigate these challenges based on our experience.
Technically, the Great Firewall helped in demonstrating the need for adapting apps and IT infrastructure to specific contexts – especially in view of the global initiatives for citizen science which must include China. Oddly, Zooniverse website was accessible in some networks (e.g. Fudan University), but in other places – though it was mostly accessible if somewhat slow. But the issue with access especially stood out in the soundscape mapping. The SPL Meter app was easy to set up, and the results could be shown on the website and thus providing the all-important immediate feedback. HushCity (leftmost screenshot) could not show the information because it rely on Google Maps as background – which is also not available in China (middle). In contrast, I could demonstrate Mapping for Change community maps, because it relies on MapBox tiles, which are available in China. This, turn out, is not solving the whole problem, there is also the issue that China is using a different datum for its maps, which in plain language mean that there is a GPS shift that needs to be taken into account. There is a clear interest to share knowledge and best practice beyond the challenges of accessing a specific platform. There is also the issue of language. Hopefully, resources in citizen science can be shared by CitizenScience.asia and or the Open FIESTA.
Another insight was provided by the very different “app ecosystem” in China. Because of the ubiquity of WeChat (equivalent to WhatsApp), which also have the ability of add-ons (which WhatsApp doesn’t), there is a whole range of applications that are possible which combine the intimacy of contact in a managed group with the ability to do more things. I learned about three applications which are relevant to citizen science. First Respond is a Chinese social business that provides first aid support for large public events – such as marathons. As part of the work with their volunteers, they organised crowdsourced mapping and checking of AED (Automatic Defiblerator) in which volunteers verify the location and preparedness of AED across a large area. Another example is the Sengo organisation of environmental volunteers who use WeChat to report river pollution incidents. Finally, the volunteer cleaning effort fo PickUpChina was using an app to record places that need a cleaning effort, and getting people to join and carry out a cleaning day.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were recurring theme throughout the visit at both social innovation spaces and universities – in the Impact Hub in Shanghai they are prominent, and at the workshops and the AEIF conference, they were mentioned frequently as a framing for education, social innovation, the wider regional support in the region (e.g. Laos, Cambodia), and also in thinking about the opportunity for citizen science. Thinking again about global initiatives, there is a need to link them to the SDGs since although they are not high on the agenda in say, the UK, they are a common language (as Liz describe them) between initiatives.
In addition to the SDGs, litter and addressing the challenges of plastic pollution was a recurring theme, and we have used it in the workshops as a final exercise, in which participants were split into 3 or 4 groups – government, industry, consumers, and young students (in the second workshop). The discussion between the group was lively (we asked them to discuss in Chinese), and it was clearly an issue that raises concern and interest to address it.
The social enterprise activities were also impressive in their ambition and content – from meeting Shiyin Cai, the founder of Dialogue in the Dark which provides an encounter with blindness for people who can see, to hearing from Xia Li, who founded Shenzhen Power Solution Ind who is committed to providing lighting and energy to “bottom of the pyramid” people, or Songqiao Yao, who founded Wildbound to link young people in China to global environmental issues. Visiting the two incubators in Shanghai – the Impact Hub, but also 724 Cheers Hub – was fascinating and educating.
The final note is that looking at the participants during the hands-on session was delightful. As Michael pointed to them during the feedback session at the end of their experiences, they looked interested and engaged in trying and experimenting like “someone who is 9 years old“. Indeed, there was an active learning that was apparent in every stage, but especially during the flying of the balloons. The flying of the balloons to take a picture of the participants create a “focal practice” that brings people together, make them focus on the communal activity, and bring meaning to technological design and implementation.
The level of enthusiasm across the meetings and workshops was very high, with students giving up their weekend, or professional giving up a workday to attend an event. There was also a lot of generosity and help in working through language differences, helping to navigate the city, running a group at the workshops, or volunteering to translate a discussion. I was continuously grateful to all the lovely people that we met and talked with. Below you can see the “balloon selfie” from the Shenzhen workshop.