Notes from the Mutual Learning Exercise (MLE) visit to Slovenia – 10 Oct 2022 

The ministry of education, science and sport hosted the meeting, in Ljubljana on the 10-11 October. For the ministry, the MLE is a very helpful exercise for Slovenia, in working with experts, the commission, and the member states. Citizen science cannot be measured in the same way as ordinary science – no H-index, citations, etc. It’s an important part, nevertheless. The guideline for member states on how to implement citizen science is an important outcome of the MLE. Citizen science is something that there is an awareness of in Slovenia – it’s important to engage with citizens, and also provide legitimacy to the investment in science. There is the importance of including people in research is something integral to the thinking of decision-makers about science.

Alan Irwin started the meeting with an overview of the MLE and its aim. The MLE includes sharing experiences and also studying and exploring citizen science. The discussion paper for this meeting is discussing maximising relevance and excellence in citizen science, which is led by Marzia Mezzonetto.

Examples of Slovenian citizen science projects:

Mateja Grego talked about the implementation of plastic pirates in Slovenia. Mateja describes her journey from science to an interest in plastic. This led to an interest in Plastic Pirates, which involves schoolchildren in sampling river pollution from plastic. The activity around plastic pirates is implemented in other countries across Europe. There are several goals: scientific, educational, and promotion. Students that are involved in the project, even if they do so sampling, learn about it in their curriculum and understand the link between river and ocean pollution. There is also a hierarchical design that allows engaging lots of students. The implementation in Slovenia started with the ministry, which got in touch with all schools. The webinar attracted 207, of which 120 were interested and about 100 joined. They provided hotline hours and also did social media campaign with 234 messages. The motivation for teachers, according to the survey, is that provided an opportunity to participate in international research, it provided an interesting topic, provided outdoor activity and a good team activity. They provided a range of teaching materials that explain the project within the wider context. Each section of the process is linked to an activity. There is material for teachers and for students.

These data are different from usual scientific data, as a researcher that focuses on standards is concerned about how this is recognised within her institution. The data quality led to 87% accepted data. They are using 25 categories. They looked at Marine Litter Watch, International Coastal Cleanup and OSPAR, which are not following data quality procedures. The verification is done with images. The data for microplastics requires more detailed instructions – there are issues with measuring verification of river flow velocity and sometimes GPS coordinates were not near a river, so they had to contact the school again. In the end, they managed to accept 93% of the data.

There were 99 schools with 1533 students participating, and they could demonstrate that 68% of the litter was plastic. In the laboratory, they sort out the samples and check them with a spectrometer. They had 96 samples (51 in spring and 45 in autumn) with more plastic in the spring – a total of 49 samples. They expanded their project to Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina and could show the increase in the amount of microplastic as it gets near the Danube. The students themselves also share their experiences in different media.

There are some concerns: for example the fact that they are not paid, and some students were reluctant to touch the waste. There are many students who are happy to contribute and sample, and they also acknowledge the schools in publications. In terms of the SDG, the project can fit into multiple SDGs, and it addresses to Marine Strategy Framework, Water Framework Directive and the Zero pollution goal. They integrated the data into the EMODnet database. There was a good interest from schools to continue and contribute.

The next presentation is the Sledilnik Covid-19 tracker by Dr Andrej Srakar and Dr Ana Slavec. The project came from economic research – background in mathematics, econometrics, and statistics. The volunteers in this initiative are wanted to communicate science-based findings, research, and information about the Covid-19 pandemic. It is done in a voluntary organisation – almost 400 individuals and without systemic funding. There are three areas of activity – Data, modelling, and content. the modelling was active during the dealing with the pandemic. The group of the 50 most active participants – 2/3 male, all age groups, and most employed in the private sector. There are many areas of knowledge – 12 have PhD and 9 are registered researchers. The involvement of people from arts and journalism is important for sharing the information, although the study started with an information technology focus. Using collaboration tools: Gdocs, Slack, Zoom. They have 382 registered members with about 100 active weekly. Many Slack channels (about 60). A lot of external communications – 30 medium posts, dynamic data visualisation, and scientific publication in different publications. The Sledilnik society was formalised in December 2020 and aims to the utilisation of publicly available data and use it in different modelling and then share it with the public and doing it in an educational way. They are showing compliance with the ECSA principles. notably, they are discussing the 10th principle about ethical practices of their practice. They want to address negative attitudes towards science and scientists. Their future for Sledilnik – maintain discussion and cooperation in a diverse community, they need to connect with public institutions – there are some problems with institutions in such a collaboration. They want to develop novel and relevant data and modelling, empowering citizens in literacy access and handling of data – noticeably only 12 members got PhD. They want to extend public action to other areas such as climate change. They have an interested physicist who would like to develop it into new areas.

Ana Slavec – protecting bronze monuments in a changing environment. This is a project from InnoRenew centre of excellence which works in the field of renewable materials, with a lot of focus on wood. They have strong cooperation with the institute for the protection of cultural heritage. They use funding from Slovenian funding. Bronze statues are exposed to different degradation and they studied 4 monuments. Most of the work was focused on natural science. The final package was on the social mechanism to include society in monitoring. They used the opportunity to develop more citizen science activities, on the basis of an online screening survey and four focus groups. This led to the creation of smartphone photography to monitor monuments. They consider using the existing app. They found several aspects that are useful for the gamification strategy. They published the results in the journal Sustainability https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/13/13/7312. People wanted to understand how their data will be used. They considered gamification strategies, based on existing options – from developing their own app to a photo contest. They created a series of videos about the process of the research of the monuments. They got permission from the cultural heritage institute and ask people to share videos. They also run a “science picnic” in August 2021. They had a database of photos but it was a limited number of photos. Challenges include interdisciplinary collaboration, and explaining how the photos will be used. It’s really important for people to understand how it will be used. There were issues of lack of interest from local tourist organisations. They consider involving volunteers in analysing and tagging the data. The tagging can help in utilising the data in computer science models. They are aiming to extend the project to other bronze monuments. Also considering collaboration with Wikipedians in the descriptions of monuments and connection with sensors data.

Jaka Cibej – crowdsourcing for Slovene language resources. The centre is a research unit at the university of Ljubljana and develops digital language resources and language technology for modern Slovene. They are building computational linguistics, natural language processing, dictionary etc. This is part of the European Language Equality that is aiming for 2030. This mean that they can be used in machine translation, and speech synthesis. This impacts access to tools such as Alexa and other techniques. They need the data fast, and digital methods can be used. Citizen science and crowdsourcing became something that is happening across the computational linguistics landscape. This is also part of language democratisation – not a prescriptive approach to how to use the language. They create a Thesaurus of Modern Slovene and it’s open source. It’s a responsive dictionary – it’s digital, compiled automatically, open and frequently updated. It responds to user feedback. Users can add missing synonyms, even without registration. Synonyms can be upvoted or downvoted. They checked the automatically extracted data with 18% and experts agreed it’s good, but a lot of areas need further work. They received funding from the ministry of culture in 2018-2019 to promote engagement with the thesaurus. They can see an increase in traffic on the site, with 1 million visits. Most queries are successful. 64,000 synonyms are added, which is about 20% of the database. Of the suggestions, 71% are acceptable or good. There are no malicious examples. They even considered gamification of contributions to language resources.

Following this set of local projects, the discussion turned to the topic of the workshop – data quality and sharing of examples. Maria Mazzonetto led the discussion. The workshop focus on excellence and relevance. Excellence is a concept in research and innovation – high-quality research, carried out by professional researchers, frontiers research – this is something that is done in different ways of understanding excellence. Professionals are used to it, but there are only evolving concepts of excellence in citizen science. For example, accepting most of the data. Citizen science needs to gain legitimacy in mainstream science and in policy-making, We will look today at three examples.

As for relevance, it can be how it contributes to global aims – e.g. to SDGs. The added value of CS can be co-creating solutions, increased participation and sustainable development.

Three factors: SDGs, ethics, data management

We will look at data management its longevity and policy impact, then alignment with SDG, and finally ethical issues. In data management, there is a lot of discussion of FAIR principles (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable). Considering how FAIR will be implemented in citizen science is something that will require attention and adjustment. Good data management can multiply the impact of the effort of the data collection. It increases the sustainability of the data.

Karen Soacha from the Cos4Cloud project. The team at ICM-CSIC are coordinating the project. The approach for citizen science and Cos4Cloud, they are seeing citizen science as a bridge, which brings new data and perspectives to address social and environmental problems. Two aspects of the project -the citizen observatories and co-design. The observatories are a participatory infrastructure to share data and support citizen collaboration. They provide qualitative and quantitative data. They are frequently based on low costs technologies. And they provide science with measurement and data. The other part of the effort is co-design, considering new technologies and services in a way that involved complex conversation and a common language and understanding among the stakeholders.

the need for data is everywhere and there are many challenges. The ones that they are focusing on are low interoperability and standardisation, lack of data validation levels, low technological capacity, and lack of recognition. To address these, they have considered how user services are provided in a way that they can be integrated into the EOSC framework. They created 13 services – for example, Cos4Bio that use different sources of biodiversity observations. Or MOBIS which is for mobile phone observations. With Cos4Cloud they are talking about citizen science data within the EOSC and linking citizen scientists to it. The lesson that they learned is that co-design provides innovation, design, and social values. They were a need to identify roles and tools – e.g. the facilitator. They have developed a 7 stage process for the co-design. They used different modes of engagement to carry out the co-design. Citizen science and its technologies need active involvement from all stakeholders to be sustainable, citizen observatories need to be the research infrastructure for citizen science.

Some of the discussion points – where should data reside? In specialised citizen science spaces or in disciplinary repositories. Considering how creating citizen observatories can support the bridging of citizen science data and disciplinary repositories.

The second session focused on the impact of citizen science on the policy agenda, using the Sustainable Development Goals as an example. CS can be used in defining targets and metrics and improving reporting coverage. It can also help in monitoring progress and closing data gaps in a cost-effective way, and foster actions towards implementing and achieving the SDGs.

While there is a realisation about the potential, there is a lack of trust and acceptability in citizen-generated data by national agencies, and CS projects are limited in scope and scale – tend to focus on local action rather on achieving national goals and focus on the SDG targets and not on the indicators. There are recommendations for support, such as the CS-SDG conference declaration: https://www.cs-sdg-conference.berlin/en/declaration/. There are questions about what is the vision beyond the 2030 goals.

Dilek Fraisl provided an overview of citizen science in support of policy decisions and actions. Starting from the SDGs. For many of the SDGs, there are indicators for which there is no knowledge of how to collect and monitor them. We need data that is timely, and accurate, and in the SDG report of 2021, even in the most active SDGs the proportion of countries with available data is not beyond 85%. In climate action (G13), only 20% have the data to monitor the progress. As part of WeObserve, several papers looked at citizen science and SDGs and identified where citizen science can contribute to an indicator. They show that CS is already contributing to 5 goals, and there is potential in many others – 76 of them, based on existing projects. There are huge environmental data gaps in environmental monitoring. CS can contribute to four SDGs. She then provided examples from bird monitoring, beach cleaning, water monitoring, and also the quality of green spaces. She also mentioned the methodological paper in Nature Reviews Methods Primer which provides a 6 stage process for implementing environmental citizen science projects. She also presented the work of the monitoring of marine litter in Ghana – the project shows that it can contribute to 14.1.1b (the first country to report this indicator and the first to use CS). It helps the coastal and marine policy for Ghana and it bridges local and global.

The process of integrating citizen science data in Ghana also showed that monitoring can be done while also progressing towards achieving the goal. Ghana used existing networks. The project takes time – instead of 6 months, it took 2.5 years – but that is required to build trust.

Questions included the exploration of the link between the Ghana project and the plastic pirates. There are opportunities to integrate into wider networks and projects – it’s important to integrate data from different projects and activities to set up something that is consistent and sustainable.

The final introductory session looked at the consideration of novel ethical issues. There is an ethics gap because it’s a new approach. Existing frameworks may not adequately address this. Participants are no longer only subjects and are also researchers. Listing all the ethical problems may not be easy. Examples of ethical issues can be very different in different areas of activities. There are questions about data integrity, and there are also issues of IPs, conflict of interest and risk of exploitation. There are new issues – for example in the noise study in Barcelona, there are issues of sound in the house, which can include highly private activities. There are specific concerns: sharing credit and IP, exploitation, overburdening, and so on.

There are very few frameworks and a lack of governance of ethical issues in CS (which is also asked in European projects). In academia, it creates a problem to set up an ethics approval board for SMEs and other social actors. There are recommendations for the creation and they can be useful. There are ethics toolkits and so on.

Antonella Ficorilli from Milan University shared her experience with the cities-health project. Talking about ethical aspects in citizen science and environmental epidemiology. In cities-health (2019-2022), there was concern over the urban environment and health. The Citieshealth.eu – developing participatory citizen science studies in 5 cities: air pollution, noise, city design, and wood burning. The organisation included universities, research inst and SMEs (social enterprises). The investigation looked at personal data, environmental data, and human biological samples but not genetic data. Human biological samples were only in one case study around Luca. There was a need to follow the principle of pseudonymisation from GDPR 2016 was required. This means splitting the data between personal data and the biospecimen. The project included co-created studies with a participatory governance model. They created co-created studies that required a double role for citizens: active and passive participants in different parts. The active role is a novel characteristic that in research. How can we handle ethics for citizens as collaborators? First, we need that laws and practices aimed at passive participation. There is a lack of legal recognition for the active part. There is also a need to pay attention to the duality of the roles. There is a challenge – how to extend the ethics of protection to the empowerment of participants? How can we harmonise the new role of participants with existing regulations?

There is a lack of a legal framework to support this. To address these, a new process was considered. Within the project, each of the case studies is required to pass the ethics committees with their existing structures. The collaboration required attention in the development of the study protocol (co-design), and then in the active participation in the study (co-implementation phase). Finally, there are new responsibilities – for the researcher to share results with participants, and participants need to follow the practices.

Two structures – new elements were included in the study protocol (D4.2 of the project), secondly, strategies were carried out to involve citizens in all stages of the decision-making (D4.4). Progressing towards the development of procedures for co-responsibilities. New elements: having participants as co-proponents. A general concept is an extension of stakeholders as the extended peer community as in Post-Normal Science. Second, it requires a co-design process – including a public peer review of the protocol and improving confidence. There was also training of active participants, identifying COI of co-proponents in the study, returning individual medical results to the participants and co-authoring documents/articles. The outcomes were that the co-created studies were cleared by the ethics committee – the protocol has co-written the cases, and it included the previous discussion. Lessons learned – there are new ethical aspects and new elements to the process. There is the novelty of ethics for citizens as collaborators but raises many challenges. It highlights the importance of public debates. Finally, the co-creative nature of research studies may not be a problem when such study protocols are submitted to the ethics committee.

Questions – ethics committee approval: it is necessary to create a path with the ethics committee, it’s important to notice that they follow the democratic element and other procedures that they set. The awareness of ethics committees about this type of study will improve over time. Right now it’s not complete enough, ethics committees are paying more attention to standard procedures. Another aspect concerns the ownership of access to data at the community level – the community can be involved as citizen scientists and research subjects. The citizens can learn about other individuals in their community and it’s a very delicate aspect. The question is how we use the results in future projects. The important aspect is to be transparent with all individuals and communities about the rules of citizen science – informing people that some individuals will be able to access the data and will be active researchers. People who gave their data are informed about this possibility. An important point is to give the right to individuals on how to share the data, especially when the project ends. Transparency is very important.

Other questions – lots of scientists don’t understand ethical considerations, so what is the expectation for participants. The answer is that we need to develop new ways to explain and share information.

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