Being philosophical about crowdsourced geographic information


This is a post by Renee Sieber and myself, providing a bit of a background on why we wrote the paper “The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique” – this is in addition to what I’ve written about it in this blog post

Originally posted on Geo: Geography and Environment:

By Renée Sieber (McGill University, Canada) and Muki Haklay (University College London, UK)

Our recent paper, The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique, started from a discussion we had about changes within the geographic information science (GIScience) research communities over the past two decades. We’ve both been working in the area of participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and critical studies of geographic information science (GIScience) since the late 1990s, where we engaged with people from all walks of life with the information that is available in GIS. Many times we’d work together with people to create new geographic information and maps. Our goal was to help reflect their point of view of the world and their knowledge about local conditions, not always aim for universal rules and principles. For example, the image below is from a discussion with the community in Hackney Wick, London, where individuals collaborated to…

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New paper: The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique

Considering how long Reneé Sieber  (McGill University) and I know each other, and working in similar areas (participatory GIS, participatory geoweb, open data, socio-technical aspects of GIS, environmental information), I’m very pleased that a collaborative paper that we developed together is finally published.

The paper ‘The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique‘ took some time to evolve. We started jotting ideas in late 2011, and slowly developed the paper until it was ready, after several rounds of peer review, for publication in early 2014, but various delays led to its publication only now. What is pleasing is that the long development time did not reduced the paper relevancy – we hope! (we kept updating it as we went along). Because the paper is looking at philosophical aspects of GIScience, we needed periods of reflection and re-reading to make sure that the whole paper come together, and I’m pleased with the way ideas are presented and discussed in it. Now that it’s out, we will need to wait and see how it will be received.

The abstract of the paper is:

Numerous exegeses have been written about the epistemologies of volunteered geographic information (VGI). We contend that VGI is itself a socially constructed epistemology crafted in the discipline of geography, which when re-examined, does not sit comfortably with either GIScience or critical GIS scholarship. Using insights from Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology we offer a critique that, rather than appreciating the contours of this new form of data, truth appears to derive from traditional analytic views of information found within GIScience. This is assisted by structures that enable VGI to be treated as independent of the process that led to its creation. Allusions to individual emancipation further hamper VGI and problematise participatory practices in mapping/geospatial technologies (e.g. public participation geographic information systems). The paper concludes with implications of this epistemological turn and prescriptions for designing systems and advancing the field to ensure nuanced views of participation within the core conceptualisation of VGI.

The paper is open access (so anyone can download it) and it is available in the Geo website . 

‘Nature’ Editorial on Citizen Science

The journal Nature published today an editorial on citizen science, titled ‘Rise of the citizen scientist’. It is very good editorial that addresses, head-on, some of the concerns that are raised about citizen science, but it is also have a problematic ending.

On the positive side, the editorial recognises that citizen scientists can do more than just data collection. The writer also demonstrated an inclusive understanding of citizen science that encompass both online and offline forms of participation. It also include volunteered computing in the list (with the reference for SETI@Home) and not dismiss it as outside the scope of citizen science.

It then show that concerns about the ability of citizen scientists to produce high quality data are not supported by research findings and as Caren Cooper noted, there are many other examples across multiple fields. My own minor contribution to this literature is to demonstrate that this is true for OpenStreetMap mappers. It also recognises the important of one of the common data assurance methods – the reliance on instrument reading as a reason to trust the data.

Finally, it recognise the need to credit citizen scientists properly, and the need to deal with their personal details (and location) carefully. So far, so good. 

Then, the article ends with rather a poor paragraph about ‘conflicts of interest’ and citizen science:

More troubling, perhaps, is the potential for conflicts of interest. One reason that some citizen scientists volunteer is to advance their political objectives. Opponents of fracking, for example, might help to track possible pollution because they want to gather evidence of harmful effects. When Australian scientists asked people who had volunteered to monitor koala populations how the animals should be managed, they found that the citizen scientists had strong views on protection that did not reflect broader public opinion.

Checking for air qualityI have already written here about the attitude of questioning activism and citizen science in specific local issues, but it seem that motivations especially irk scientists and science writers when they look at citizen science. So here some of the reasons that I think the claim above is contradictory.

There are two reasons for this: first, that scientists themselves have a complex set of motivations and are under the same ‘conflict of interests’ and secondly, if motivations having such an impact on science in general, than this is true for every science, not just citizen science.

Let’s start with the most obvious one – the whole point in the scientific method is that it investigates facts and conditions regardless of the motivation of the specific person that is carrying out the research. I have a reminder of that every day when I go to my office, at UCL’s Pearson Building. The building is named after Karl Pearson (known to any scientist because of the Pearson correlation), who was one of the leaders of Eugenics, which was the motivation for parts of his work. While I don’t like the motivation (to say the least) it doesn’t change the factual observations and analysis of the results though it surely change the interpretation of them, which we today reject. We therefore continue to use Pearson’s methods and science since they are useful despite of the motivation. We have detached the motivations from the science.

More generally, scientists like to believe that they are following Mertonian Norms and that they are ‘disinterested’ in their research – but listen to some of the episodes of the BBC Life Scientific and you discover that what keep them motivated to apply for research grants against the odds and to carry out long stretches of boring work are very deep personal motivations. They wouldn’t do it otherwise! Therefore, according to the paragraph above we should consider them conflicted.

Citizen Scientists are, of course, motivated by specific interests – they wouldn’t volunteer their free time otherwise. Look at the OED definition of citizen science at the sources of the term, and you discover that the first modern use of the term ‘citizen scientists‘ was in a report about the Audubon effort to campaign about acid rain. The fact that it was activism did not influence the very careful data collection and analysis operation. Or take the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in which ‘Campaign with us‘ is the top option of ‘what we do’, and yet they run the valuable Big Garden Bird Watch with results used in scientific papers and for policy. The source of the activism, again, does not influence the outcomes, or the quality of the science.

Is it some forms of activism that Nature have a problem with?

The value of using citizen science in cases such as fracking, air quality or noise is that the scientific method support a systematic, disinterested, and objective data collection and analysis. It therefore allows to evaluate concerns about a specific issue and check if they are justified and supported by the evidence or not. In the same way that the environmental impact assessment and report from the fracking operators are created from a point of conflicts of interest, so does the data that come from the people who oppose it. As long as the data is being collected in a rigorous way, with evidence to back that it was done this way (e.g. timestamp from the smartphone, as the article noted) the scientific approach can provide evidence if the level of pollution from the fracking site (or planned site) is acceptable or not. Arguably, the risk of falsifying the data or pressure to drop inconvenient observations is actually greater, in my view, from the more powerful side of the equation.

My conclusion is that you can’t have it both ways: either science work regardless of motivations or the motivations and conflicts of interest are central to every other piece of science that Nature report on. 

Beyond quantification: a role for citizen science and community science in a smart city

Arduino sensing in MaltaThe Data and the City workshop will run on the 31st August and 1st September 2015, in Maynooth University, Ireland. It is part of the Programmable City project, led by Prof Rob Kitchin. My contribution to the workshop is titled Beyond quantification: a role for citizen science and community science in a smart city and is extending a short article from 2013 that was published by UCL’s Urban Lab, as well as integrating concepts from philosophy of technology that I have used in a talk at the University of Leicester. The abstract of the paper is:

“When approaching the issue of data in Smart Cities, there is a need to question the underlying assumptions at the basis of Smart Cities discourse and, especially, to challenge the prevailing thought that efficiency, costs and productivity are the most important values. We need to ensure that human and environmental values are taken into account in the design and implementation of systems that will influence the way cities operate and are governed. While we can accept science as the least worst method of accumulating human knowledge about the natural world, and appreciate its power to explain and act in the world, we need to consider how it is applied within the city in a way that does leave space for cultural, environmental and religious values. This paper argues that a specific form of collaborative science – citizen science and community science – is especially suitable for making Smart Cities meaningful and democratic. The paper use concepts from Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology – especially those of the Device Paradigm and Focal Practices, to identify the areas were sensing the city can gain meaning for the participants.”

The paper itself can be accessed here.

Other papers from the same workshop that are already available include:

Rob Kitchin: Data-Driven, Networked Urbanism

Gavin McArdle & Rob Kitchin: Improving the Veracity of Open and Real-Time Urban Data

Michael Batty: Data About Cities: Redefining Big, Recasting Small

More details on the workshop will appear on the project website

Citizen Science and Policy – possible frameworks

Back in February, my report ‘Citizen Science & Policy: a European Perspective‘ was published by the Wilson Centre in the US. As I was trying to make sense of the relevance of citizen science to policy making, I used a framework that included the level of geography, area of policy making and the type of citizen science activity. This helped in noticing that citizen science is working well at the neighbourhood, city and national scales, while not so well at regional and international level. The reasons for it are mostly jurisdiction, funding and organisational structure and scale of operation.

Later on, at a workshop that was organised by Prof Aletta Bonn on Citizen Science and Policy impact, the idea of paying attention to the role of citizen science within the policy cycle was offered as another dimension of analysis.

Last week, at a workshop that was organised by the European Environment Agency (EEA) as part of their work on coordinating the European Protection Agencies (EPA) Network, I was asked to provide an introduction to these frameworks.

The presentation below is starting with noting that citizen science in an EPA is a specific case of using crowdsourced geographic information in government and some of the common issues that we have identified in the report on how governments use crowdsourced information are relevant to citizen science, too. Of particular interest are the information flows between the public and government, and the multiple flows of environmental information that the 3rd era of environmental information brought.

After noticing the individual, organisational, business and conceptual issues that influence use in general, I turn to the potential framing that are available – geography, stage in policy formation and mode of engagement, and after covering those I’m providing few examples of case to illustrate how specific cases fit into this analysis.

It was quite appropriate to present this framework in the EEA, considering that the image that was used to illustrate the page of the report on the Wilson Center site, is of the NoiseWatch app which was developed by the EEA…

Citizen Science in the Research Evaluation Framework impact studies

In the UK, every 5 years or so, there is a complex and expensive process that evaluates the work of academics in research institutions across the country, and rate them in terms of quality (see the infographics). The last round of this process was called ‘Research Evaluation Framework’ or REF for short. You don’t need to look far to find complaints about it, the measures that are used, the methodology and so on. I think that a lot of this criticism is justified, but this post is not about the process of the REF, but about the outcomes.

The REF included a requirement from universities to demonstrate their wider societal impact – beyond teaching, publishing academic papers or sharing research results. The societal impact includes lots of aspects, and while academics and evaluators are fixated on economic outcomes, impacts also include policy, influencing health and wellbeing, and engaging the public in scientific research. The writing of impact case studies was a major task for the academics that were selected to write them (about 1 in 10) and universities invested money and effort in picking up the best examples that they could find. When looking at these examples, we need to remember that they were submitted in 2013, so they cover the work done by universities until then.

According to a study that looked at these impact descriptions, out of the 6,975 cases, 447 (6.5%) are classified as ‘public engagement’ of all forms (e.g. a lecture). Within these cases, the database of impact case studies provides about 731 that use the term ‘public engagement’, 260 that use the term ‘participatory’, about 60 which include ‘public participation’ and 33 that include the ‘citizen science’ with few more that did not but are about it. While this is a tiny group (0.5%), it is still interesting to see what projects are included.

It is not surprising to find that  ecological projects such as Conker Tree Science, invasive species & the ladybird surveyThe Black Squirrel Project, or observing ants and spidersgrassland fungi, stag beetles, birds, and amphibians  were included. As expected, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project is noted by the Universities of Central Lancashire, Birmingham, UCL, and the Open University (but surprisingly missing from the university that coordinated the effort – Imperial College). There are also apps such as the WildKnwledge recording app or the iSpot app. Related environmental projects include monitoring peatland erosion or community volcanology. Also Community Archaeology and involvement in archaeology excavations can be considered as outdoor activities.

Volunteer thinking in the form of Zooniverse appeared several times from the Universities of Oxford, Portsmouth, and Sussex , while volunteer computing in the form of  is noted by two departments of University of Oxford – physics and computing). There are other astronomy projects such as Aurora Watch, or Gravitational Waves.

Other examples include our participatory mapping activities while UCL Anthropology highlighted the indigenous mapping activities, while DIY biology and DNA testing are also mentioned, and even projects in the digital humanities – the Oxyrhynchus papyri  or The Reading Experience Database.

What can we make out of this? I’d like to suggest few points: The 30 or so projects that are described in the case studies offer a good overview of the areas where citizen science is active – ecology, volunteer thinking and volunteer computing. The traditional areas in which public participation in science never stopped – astronomy, archaeology, or nature observation are well represented. Also the major citizen science projects (OPAL, Zooniverse) also appear and as expected they are ‘claimed’ by more than one unit or university. More specialised citizen science such as participatory mapping, digital humanities or DIY biology is not missing, too.

On the downside, this is a very small number of cases, and some known projects are not listed (e.g. Imperial College not claiming OPAL). I guess that like many evaluation activities, the tendency of those evaluated is to be conservative and use terms that the evaluators will be familiar with. Maybe over the next five years citizen science will become more common, so we will see more of it in the next round.

Citizen Science and Ethics session (British Ecological Society – Citizen Science SIG)

As part of the activities of the Citizen Science Special Interest Group of the British Ecological Society (BES), Michael Pocock organised “A training event for citizen science: What you need to know, but no one told you!”. I was asked to lead a 30 minutes discussion on ethics and citizen science. This is a wide area, and some discussion about it is already happening.  In addition, there is an emerging working group within the Citizen Science Association (CSA) that will be dedicated to this issue, and I have summarised the session about ethics in the CSA conference in another post.

For the training event, and especially considering that the participants are more likely to be with a background in ecology, I have decided to focus on 4 documents with ‘codes of ethics’ that are the most relevant to ecology & citizen science, with 2 extra for comparison. Three of these are official – the codes of ethics of the Ecological Society of America – (ESA, available here), the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management – (CIEE, available here), the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE, available here). Finally, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) principles of citizen science (the latest draft available here). In the comparative group, I used the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of Civil Engineers codes.

What is noticeable in professional codes of ethics (ESA, CIEEM) is that the profession, its reputation and the relationships between members are the top priority. This is common to almost all professional codes of ethics – and it demonstrate that ethics is about self-preservation. Later on, come the responsibility to the other stakeholders, the wider public and to non-humans that the activities can impact. Commonly, wider issues are covered in the principles, or in a preamble, but not within the code itself – although the Royal Geographical Society actually codified  “due regard to the need to protect the environment, human rights, and to ensure efficient use of natural resources” and the Institute of Civil Engineers also codified “due regard for the environment and for the sustainable management of natural resources.”. It is somewhat ironic that ecologists have not codified this aspect.

The two other documents are especially interesting from the point of view of citizen science. First, the ISE code of ethics is not mostly about the researchers and their professional standing, but “to facilitate ethical conduct and equitable relationships, and foster a commitment to meaningful collaboration and reciprocal responsibility by all parties.” it continues with “The fundamental value underlying the Code of Ethics is the concept of mindfulness – a continual willingness to evaluate one’s own understandings, actions, and responsibilities to others. The Code of Ethics acknowledges that biological and cultural harms have resulted from research undertaken without the consent of Indigenous peoples.” and it has a much stronger stance on the duty of care of the researcher as the powerful actor in the situation.

The code is especially relevant in bottom-up citizen science activities, but a lot of it seem to match the concepts behind ECSA principles of citizen science. The principles are calling for a meaningful activities with mutual respect and recognition of the scientists and the volunteers that working with them.

Will the ethics of citizen science evolve along this more inclusive lines, with an understanding that following this will also help to grow and preserve the field as a whole?