Citizen Science & SDG, Berlin 14-15 Oct – a hybrid conference

The Citizen Science and Sustainable Development Goals (or in its full name “Knowledge for Change: A decade of Citizen Science (2020-2030) in support of the SDGs” was held on 14 and 15 October 2020 as a hybrid conference in Berlin and online, using the Hopin platform.

I attended the conference in person, as I was giving one of the keynote talks. These are some of my reflections and impressions from the conference, including some thoughts about hybrid conferences. I have now involved in organising an online-only conference and attended another symposium that used the Hopin platform, so this conference was the first physical event that I have attended since the Covid-19 lockdown got into force in March.

Johannes Vogel opens the conference

You know that the conference is not in normal times when the conference bag includes a face mask. It was one of the excellent reusable ones from the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde. It continued with all the familiar signs: plenty of hand sanitiser points, distance of more than 1.5m between chairs or desks, one way movement through the space of the Kulturbrauerei and more – a huge difference from the last time I’ve been in a citizen science conference at the same place, in 2016.

As Berlin was just declared as an area with increasing cases of Covid-19 and with the various travel restrictions in place, most of the participation happened online. However, enough brave souls attended the event in person. With each person sitting at a desk, it somewhat resembled a class configuration…

Socially distanced conference – view from the stage

The three opening addresses, by Johannes Vogel, the director of the Museum of Naturkunde and the chair of the European Citizen Science Association; Michael Meister, the German minister for science; and Signe Ratso, the Deputy Director-General of DG RTD of the European Commission, highlighted the way that Covid-19 crises demonstrate the need for a close science and society collaborations. They also emphasised the importance of the sustainable development goals and that addressing them requires shared cooperative efforts across society.

Michael Meister, minister for science explained that Covid-19 highlighted the responsibility of researchers to society. Solving global challenges required shared effort, and he endorses the declaration from the conference. We need people, communities, and organisations across countries and levels of government. Citizen science can improve public understanding of the research process – as practical experience. The scientific community benefit from shortening the innovation cycle. Importance of cooperation with civil society organisations in the development of science and research. The European Research Area need to become a driver of change if it is allowing wide participation in the process, including the general public. Citizen Science has enormous potential – allowing to collect data on the ground and address global issues. We need to ask about the involvement of scientists in citizen science, also to understand the limits and potentials of citizen science. He also mentioned how a plastic monitoring project that has started in Germany (plastic pirates) will now be expended to many European countries as an example of a cross country collaboration.

Signe Ratso focused more on the links of citizen science and the SDGs: the SDGs are central to EU policy. There is no way that we can address the SDG by addressing one sector or discipline. We need to leverage knowledge across research, industry, and society. The conference is an important milestone of citizen science – it will point to how citizen science can grow and improve, and the commission and member states are continuing to work in this direction. The European Research Area communication highlights the need for wider societal engagement in research. Initiatives such as plastic monitoring (plastic pirates) are important. The EC wants to see further outreach and involvement of citizens in science.

Following the opening, a policy panel, co-chaired by Aletta Bonn and Susanne Hecker, discuss the potentials and challenges of citizen science in the context of the SDGs. I was part of a panel with three participants on location (Michael Meister, Katrin Vohland the director of the natural history museum in Vienna, and myself) and two remote (Signe Ratso, and Klement Tockner the president of the Austrian Science Fund). Issues that were mentioned include how we achieve better involvement and empowerment through citizen science, the way we can support it within policymaking but also within the research community. The issue of integrating with research paradigms, career incentives and funding came up and discussed in quite a lot of details.

I will dedicate a separate post to share my keynote from the conference.

Most of the other sessions where either completely online – with no one presenting in Berlin, with few other where local and remote presentation were mixed

The conference included many projects that are linked to the current investment by the European Union in citizen science projects, as well as different local projects that show how local efforts are also emerging. An excellent theme of this conference was around citizen social science or social citizen science. This started in evening sessions on the first day, and continued throughout the second day – it is very good to see these projects emerging. The first day also ended with electronic dance music and beautiful visual display (which you can watch

The second day, Josep Parelo’s keynotes demonstrated the importance of citizen social science.

The last part of the conference was open with a keynote from Thomas Mboa

Another highly valuable session was organised by Anett Richter, and signals the growth in Agrifood interest in citizen science with a range of very interesting projects.

The conference ended with the declaration which was co-developed by the citizen science practice community.

Reflection on a hybrid conference

About 8 years ago, when we run the citizen cyberscience summits in 2012 and 2014, we thought that for the sake of inclusiveness we should try to make live streaming of the event. We’ve done that with a laptop and a webcam, and it gave a taster of how complex this is – the audio was terrible, and the fixed angle of the webcam meant that we had plenty of complaints. It proved that while at a very basic and bad level it is possible to create a hybrid conference, to do it properly is very complex. The conference in Berlin demonstrated the complexity of doing that even when the resources to do it properly are available!

First, due to Covid-19 restriction, the hybridity was such that as another participant commented, it felt like the conference is mostly happening online, and the people at the venue were the minority that join the conference from a place of gathering together to watch it. But that was about the talks themselves or the sessions. Being again in a place where you are with other people physically mean that you can have the coffee break conversation, or the lunch discussions (seating away from each other 1.5m still facilitates a good discussion). There is plenty of things that come up in such chats that are not well facilitated by online conferences.

This stood out to me in a “meet the expert” session following my talk. Unlike what would happen in a usual conference, which includes people sharing their views on what you said and their stories, which sometimes leads to longer connection, this session was just Q&A – an element of an online connection that does not affords informality.

The implementation of a hybrid conference is complex – the physical space requires the equivalent of a live broadcasting studio, with investment and constraints on audio and video (plus the added complexity that before replacing a faulty microphone, the replacement needs to be disinfected!). It looks like a whole order of costs above and beyond either face to face or an online conference. There is also a whole range of technical challenges to merge and deliver different audio and video streams from stage and online together.

One thing that I’ve noticed was regarding the user interfaces – the current tools, such as Hopin, seem to be geared towards an online conference, but not towards a hybrid conference. As a result of this, if you wanted to join the discussion about a session, you needed to log to the Hopin session and see the video streaming – consuming both bandwidth that you didn’t need and battery, that in an event you want to preserve! Instead of that, it will be great if it was possible to join only the chat function, but without the video.

Just like with the ECSA conference, I have much appreciation for the team at the Berlin museum who had a very challenging task on their hand. All sort of audio problems that emerged in a different session and even in one of the keynote. I think that like PNS5, or the keynote of the ECSA conference, it makes a lot of sense to record in advance the video of the talk, and then to play it during the conference in case of a remote speaker.

As the Covid-19 restrictions and adjustments continue, we will need to develop a way to create online conferences that are engaging and inclusive, and also find a way to have at least some of the informality. In PNS5, the coffee room session provided some of this function (though more people watched than actively joined and it is a public conversation which is not what happening in conference). The digital environment is making some things possible (e.g. remote participation) but is also taking away much of the social and human interactions.

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