Citizen Science 2017 – workshops day and opening panel

The Citizen Science Association conference is held at the River Center in St Paul, Minnesota on 17th to 20th May. This post and the following ones are notes that were taken during the meeting in the sessions that I’ve attended.

Wednesday was dedicated to workshops, and I joined the Citizen Science at College level workshop. Organised by Thomas Tisue (Muskegon Community College); John R. Jungck (University of Delaware); Aerin W. Benavides (University of North Carolina); Julie Feldt (Adler Planetarium); Colleen Hitchcock (Brandeis University); Leslie Ries (Georgetown University); and Terry A. Gates (North Carolina State University). The workshop aim was to bring together academics who work with undergraduate students to discuss best practices for developing citizen science research within their university classes.

Some ideas about citizen science at undergraduate level – it can be about enculturating students with the concepts of democratisation of science, the value of open science and education. It also brings up issues of data quality, and understand connections beyond their discipline. There is plenty of opportunities for experiential learning. The issue is that move from a closed process that it is evaluated by the instructor to one that they are evaluated by peer and even participants.  The students, of course, have different motivation to participate in citizen science.

John Jungck – philosophically, citizen science can be thought differently including different levels of engagement and about how it fit with societal goals. Think that each assignment is for a social good. Learning skills for the 21st century require developing citizenship skills, and investigation in the field is assisting in the development of issues in physics, biology, and mathematics.

Colleen Hitchcock is seeing the view of citizen science as an integral to much of the studies, and doing things like phenology on campus can increase bio-literacy and understand changes. In every class that she teaches there is an element of citizen science. The way to allow students to engage in research is to join an existing project as a way to save resources. The assignments include – what is citizen science – reflect on the experience, explore SciStarter, learn through a contributory project. Citizen Science can assist in enhancing classes such as about Climate Change. It also provides an opportunity for professional development.

Leslie Ries – she looks at research in the classroom, and instead of running a programme, joining an existing one. Looking at butterfly at continental scale as her research area, and this allows for well-curated data sets – butterfly informatics that provides data. She integrated the module into existing course to introduce students to this is to teach informatics in ecology and where the data come from. She now got a module that starts in a lecture that explains history, needs for large scale data and then citizen science as a source for that. The question development about being able to develop a question and focusing on butterfly ecology and develop question and acquire data

Aerin W. Benavides talked about the value of citizen science for project-based learning – it provides an opportunity for exploration that is missing in the previous schooling. This leads to teaching teachers about the potential of citizen science.

Thomas Tisue – in community colleges there is a need to help STEM students who are looking for research opportunity and linking that to citizen science group that want to learn to education and outreach, and considering the limited resources of the college open up an opportunity. In community colleges, students are many time first generations and lack context of study, and sometime need financial support to allow them to participate in an internship programme with local environmental monitoring. The faculty need to be involved and assure integrity. College can offer credit through independent study time.

Julie Feldt – at Adler and work on zooniverse. Different opportunities – educators are sharing material to use projects in teaching, with examples from middle school, high school, and college introduction. They have done access to Galaxy Data on Google Drive to allow students to use these data to examine information with Google spreadsheet

Bucky Gates – the students go on SciStarter, doing a project, and then fill in a review form that was designed with SciStarter, and got over 500 forms completed, and that helps in assessing which projects work and how people who are volunteered to a project react to different projects. Projects need to be simple – and creative. Can make data collection simple so it is malleable to different areas and allow an opening for creativity.

In different breakup sessions, participants explored 6 teams: analysing citizen science data; supporting pre-service and in-service educators (teachers training); independent research – supporting students; learning within the semester; using citizen science project in the classroom; and an open one.

The using citizen science in the classroom group highlighted the need to simplify and focus on what possible to get. Challenges of teaching in one semester – reaching out to mailing lists, creating more collaborative/co-created than just contributory and who to partner around college on a specific citizen science. Supporting educators – citizen science is not visible in museums, science centres etc. Analysing data – issues of developing different ways. Independent learning – learning from UK, Chile, USA. Social engagement is an important part of citizen science and is it suitable to expect students to come up with a question or join someone’s question.

There is a growing recognition of the need to have introductory material on where to start and which system, project, and platform to use. There are resources such as that provide information for teacher to get into citizen science – mostly to middle school

The first plenary event of the conference was “Meet the Authors with Darlene Cavalier (ASU): The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science; Caren Cooper (NCSU): Citizen Science: Changing the Face of Discovery; and Mary Ellen Hannibal: Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. The moderator was Heather McElhatton, MN Public Radio.

Darlene Cavalier talked about her “The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science”. Darlene defined citizen science as a way to advance science without a formal degree, or simply science. Darlene described her journey into citizen science: from journalism to science communication, and technology assessment. Darlene also explains the link to Science Cheerleaders and the way it works together and allows to promote citizen science project. The name if the book came from a series by ASU. The selection of chapters that were included in this book was done in order to keep the book cheap and to ensure that the process is manageable while being written by passionate experts. The different chapters are exploring the link to policy; definitions of citizen science by Booney and Irwin and the tension in them; How citizen science can be linked to teaching in class situations; media aspects of citizen science – but there are situations where citizen science and citizen journalism is getting close. Darlene also explained the role of SciStarter – different ways for getting involved in citizen science and giving multiple routes that will allow people to join in. The chapter on citizen science in community citizen science – and how it is linked to concerns of the community. The final chapter is demonstrating how citizen science can engage with people in exploring microbiome in the international space station, with people also analysing the data, and the story of how the project came about.  The book ends with “now it’s time for you to explore citizen science”. The challenge of the book is to open citizen science to many audiences – truly everybody that is curious can participate in a project about their concerns.

Caren Cooper combined her curiosity, and the need to become scientist in order to engage with nature in a serious way. Once she had kids, doing field work wa less possible, so she started collaborating with volunteers. It’s important to acknowledge citizen science, as it contributed to science but also pointing to the limitation of main science – of things that scientists just cannot achieve alone. Covering the history of science. Caren identify the smartphone as very handy tool in influencing ability to collect and share the data. The purpose of her book is to demistify science and make it accessible to people – it’s collective activity where everyone is giving a little bit, and collectively, it’s a feast. Caren was surprised of the range of disciplines and fields that involving people and the different ways in which it is happening. There are some great stories of community transformation in the book about community action of plastic bags following turtle monitoring, to engagement of prison inmates in dealing with entomology research. The take away – citizen science should become the new norm in science and life.

Mary Ellen Hanibal, brought a new concept to audiences. Her journey began 10 years ago from a book about evolution. In the California Academy she explored  with taxonomies, and she understood the concept of sixth extinction that is happening and she started to look at conservation biology, and that led to understand big data, and citizen science within this. The word “hope” in the title is not what she wanted, and want to see action and having a heroe’s journey. She also explored the need to act, to think about concepts like half earth and be aware of the emergency of saving species. Citizen science is a platform to bring people together and make people come togehter. She want people to reconsider the plae of humans in the circle of lifes – it’s part of a journay of life and we need to support other life form and find a way to do it all together.

More on Darlene book here and Mary Ellen book here. I’m in the middle of Caren’s book and hope to write about it soon!

Into the night – training day on citizen science

dscn1936Last December, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) awarded funding to UCL Extreme Citizen Science group and Earthwatch as part of their investment in public engagement. The projects are all short – they start from January to March and included public engagement and training to early career researchers.

“Into the Night” highlights the importance of light pollution, a growing environmental stressor to both wildlife and humans, through collaborative and co-designed citizen science research. The project aims to increase awareness of this issue through two public workshops exploring the potential of two citizen science focal points – glow-worms and human wellbeing – explicitly linking ecological and human impacts. The project will culminate with a set of public activities (pilot data collection and educational) to coincide with Earth Hour (25.03.2017).

The project aims to build public engagement capacity through PhD internships with Earthwatch (Europe), CEH, Natural England and UCL, and forms a dedicated training day on the design and implementation of citizen science for 50 early-career researchers and PhD students.

The project is led by UCL (in collaboration with North Carolina State University – NCSU) and Earthwatch, bringing together leading research and practice in citizen science. It is the result of two co-design workshops, with over 30 participants from environmental science, social science, public health, National Parks, and NGOs. Based on this preparatory work, and with active training of early career researchers, we will run two focused workshops which will take place in dark sky reserves. These workshops will focus on two preliminary ideas for citizen science projects: a countrywide survey of glow-worms and the impact of artificial light on their activities, and the influence of lightscapes and dark green spaces on human wellbeing while balancing safety and concerns.

The two projects will generate public awareness and provide the public with opportunities to have debate and dialogue on the subject, as well as involvement in data collection and analysis. Results will be shared through social and traditional media. The outcome will advance ideas for a national citizen science project, which UCL and Earthwatch will take forward.

The training day run in Oxford on the 2nd February and during the day I gave two 45 minutes sessions. First, I provided an introduction to the field of citizen science, how to design a project, and how to evaluate such a project.

The session provided a brief overview of the types of citizen science that are relevant in addressing environmental challenges. We looked at classifications of citizen science projects, explore their potential goals, the process of recruitment and retention as well as the need to start project evaluation from an early stage. At the end the participants engage in a short exercise to consider how these elements can be used in the design of a citizen science project.

The second talk focused on technology.

The talk aim was described as follows: Current citizen science seems effortless…just download an app and start using it. However, there are many technical aspects that are necessary to make a citizen science project work. This session provided an overview of all the technical elements that are required – from the process of designing an app, to designing and managing a back-end system, to testing the system end to end before deployment. Again, at the end of the session, a short exercise considered the design of an app for a citizen science project that addresses light pollution.


Public Participation GIS and Participatory GIS in the Era of GeoWeb – editorial for a special issue

As part of the AAG 2015 conference, Bandana Kar, Rina Ghose, Renee Sieber and I organised a set of sessions on Public Participation GIS – you can read the summary here. After the conference, we’ve organised a special issue of the Cartographic Journal (thanks to Alex Kent, the journal editor) dedicated to current perspectives of public participation GIS (PPGIS) and participatory GIS (PGIS).

The process of organising a special issue is quite involved – not all the papers that start the journey managed to finish, and even at the last point, 2 papers that are part of the special issue will appear in the next issue of the journal due to physical limitations and the number of pages that appear in each issue!

Working with an editorial group across the US, Canada, and the UK was also a challenge, especially as we were all busy, as usual. Bandana Kar kept us going and because of her continued efforts and encouragement, the special issue was evolving. So it’s only right that she is the lead author of the editorial piece. Our editorial points to the evolution of PPGIS and the need to understand how it is shaped up in the era of web-based mapping and rapid increase in the use of mobile technologies. The papers in the special issue (you can find them here) are addressing this evolving landscape and are all worth reading. We finish our editorial with the following statement:

‘In this sea of changing tools and technologies it appears that P/PGIS may be competing with other approaches and terminologies. At its core many of the new projects remain mission-driven, are led by local residents, and requires generation of data and knowledge to resolve a specific problem. The data generated through platforms old and new still suffer from lack of interoperability and data quality issues. Analytics may have been improved since the days of the command-line but still require considerable expertise; moreover, evidence-based policy, especially from the non-credentialled, must have entree into politics. Moving forward, researchers and practitioners should focus on not answering the place of P/PGIS amid new technologies and approaches but instead examine the extent to which new participatory technologies are effective in integrating local, scientific and personal knowledge in resolving political decisions and societal issues of interest to local communities.’

The paper is available here and if you don’t have access to the journal, email me and I’ll send you a copy.


Crowdsourcing the Future?

About a month ago, on 7th December 2016, DR Kingsley Purdam (Manchester) organised a one day workshop on citizen science, and in particular on citizen science from a social science methodological perspective. The day organised with the support of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM).

The purpose of the workshop/conference was to explore the future of citizen science and citizen social science methods as research tools. In particular, understanding the different types of applications, methods, the data and the challenges posed. Because the point of view was based on methodologies in social sciences, issues about expertise, divisions of labour, different ways of seeing, data quality, questions about what might still be going undocumented and the ethical issues raised were all discussed.

The workshop was structured around two blocks of discussion – the morning around methods, data and ethics, while the after looked at issues of participation and working in the area of policy, as well as a discussion of the specific issues that need to be discussed for a citizen social science project.

As an introduction, both natural science and social science projects were presented. You can find a summary on twitter of some of the points that came up during the day with the hashtag #crowdfutures.

Some of the important tweets are captured here with comments (bit storify style).

Chris Lintott started the day with a discussion of large-scale, online citizen science projects, with the story of Zooniverse.

People participate in Zooniverse because they want to do something useful, and he pointed to the complexities of combining machine learning with citizen science effort while maintaining motivation and interest.

While I presented after Chris, and mostly talked about a more social theory explanation of what Extreme Citizen Science is – in particular, the creation of technologies that are embedded with a social participatory process. Many of the processes that I described were small-scale, and local. I have also pointed to the growth of citizen science and the Doing It Together Science project that we currently run.

However, in the discussion that followed we agreed that the nature of participation and many of the issues that come in these projects are similar across the scales even if the mechanisms for engagement are different.

Ben Rich (BBC), covered issues of engagement in weather observation that the BBC implemented successfully, with million observations and report in the first year

Hilary Geoghegan (Reading) & Alison Dyke (SEI)  talked about the UK EOF study on the motivation of participants and the ethics of participation, as well as the tensions between contributory and co-created citizen science in environmental research.

Will Dixon (Manchester) described the Cloudy with Pain project which engaged 12,000 participants and receives substantial information. The project also experiments with some access to data and opportunity for analysis by the participants themselves.

Kingsley Purdam (Manchester) talked about the complexity of citizen social science about begging, when the beggars are involved in data collection. Another Manchester-based project looked at linguistic diversity in street signs

The next set of talks raised some important point, including by Erinma Ochu on the process of creating the Robot Orchestra as a participatory DIY electronic and creative process, raising issues about expertise and success (the orchestra is in very high demand); Monika Buscher (Lancaster) emphasising that citizen social science is not about bigger torch to understand reality, but critique science & social science; and Alex Albert (Manchester), who run  project to encourage citizen reporting of empty houses and consider what should be done with them, highlighted the challenges of starting a project and recruiting participants. Liz Richardson (Manchester), talked about the interface between participatory action research and citizen science, and described her work with a community who collected data and asked for guidance on how to analyse it. The three talks by Monika, Alex, and Liz raised many issues about the participation of people in different stages of the research process, and the role of established researchers in such projects.

The last set of talks focused back on ecological and medical projects: Rachel Webster of Manchester Museum explained the museum digitising effort, and how they are making progress one MSc in computing student at a time – the integration of citizen science with small museum activities is a resource challenge, so the work with students require some compromises. There was also a demonstration of setting systems for citizen science and then discovering how they are used:

Lamiece pointed that a challenge with such approach is to get the app downloaded and to see continued use, although so far there are 1500 participants, 800,000 observations. There is also Data challenge of presence/absence reporting to make sense of what the data means.

Ian Thornhill fro mEarthWatch who coordinates the FreshWater Watch project demonstrate how simple data collection tools open up space for participant’s innovations in tools and in data collection. He also provided different models of how projects are run – corporate sponsorship, or by payment from interested communities.

Some of the points in the discussion include the need to balance scientific data collection and activism (especially for projects such as those that Liz Richardson described). Also balancing small scale, deep engagement or large datasets, wide engagement – e.g. for 3 years as researchers on projects that got limited funding and a goal. The need to consider what participation is doing to citizen science, and what science is doing to it? How to balance between the two? and in general, the wider societal impacts of projects cannot be ignored. There are also people that coming from a policy perspective, and try to push for procedural aspects, not interested in engagement issues.

There are also ethical issues such as those that relate to volunteer management – what should be done with contributors that are not doing good work? exclude them? train? ignore them? There is a constant need to think of useful roles and how making people valued for their contribution.

Another set of questions explored what citizen social science does to science? How are issues about ownership,  responsibilities to ensuring data quality integrated into project planning and management?

GIScience 2016 notes

The bi-annual Geographic Information Science conference is one of the focal point on the field. This year, it was held in Montreal. You can find my talk in a long and separate post. Here are some notes of talks that I took during the meeting.

The conference started with reasons for the location, and a tribute to Roger Tomlinson

Monica Wachwicz, which open the conference with the first keynote, explored her experience in managing a complex set of projects that deal with sensing the environment using geospatial technologies. She summarised her insights:

She aslo described the challenges of recruiting computer scientists, mathematicians, & social scientists to multidisciplinary team.

In the poster session, the work of Daniel Bégin stood out (and he later won an award for it)

Dennis Hlynsky gave the keynote on the second day. As an artist, he is using digital technologies to see the world around him, focusing on the individual and the group. We live in worlds and there are other ‘worlds’ around us – some of too fast, some too slow, some you can’t sense – from gravity to chemistry. He views the creative process as something that is based on guidelines (e.g. Warhol daily procedures), opportunity, being a resident (living in a place and taking it in). Making a playful mess. Critique (is it working, is it not? What my artwork communicate? does it need more or less?). Make sense (we are sense making creatures, telling stories, making sense of things we don’t understand). However, many times he does not know what he is doing and explore things. To witness in a place, what you are witnessing and conveying is important: verbal storytelling, narrative, science and experiments, drawing and painting, photography and film, text, maps, data analysis. We’ve tried to mechanise witness – for example perspective, which force understanding the world from a single point of view. Photography is also a form of mechanisation. There is also the issue of mechanisation in emphasising efficiency which part of industrialisation. The technology changes in photography is important. Until the 1970s, the cost of photographic equipment was limited the opportunity of what is recorded. Since then, the acceleration of sharing photos and evidence change things, with the affordability of cameras in phones. The process of taking photos with phones (which are cameras) make the recording of moments in life much more common, but also the need to switch them off in order to be at the moment. There are many opportunities to do creativity with cameras – for example, providing them to all the students in class, and created a system that allow people to share images, but explicit human intuition to link things, not an automatic tags analysis. There are subsets of the world that communicate with each other, even if they can’t understand it fully.  Interestingly, YouTube is focusing on data driven relationships, while Vimeo is about human led curation. There are different was of organising and understanding the world. The claim that an image is worth a thousand words can be turned on its head – you need to understand the context and meaning of the world, and this is not possible without it.

Helen Couclelis talked about ‘Encyclopedia Gallica of (improbable) event and the why GIScience is not like physics’. The informational standpoint, events, processes, endurance, non-event, do not have a user independent definition. Road networks look different from a perspective of a tourist and biologist, so we need to find a way to create information that support their use. Events are more complex: flood – flood can be an event, process to those in charge of evacuation, occurrences for disaster statistics, noise to everyone else. As metascience – GISCience is a framework for optimising the relation between the interests of information seekers and data in any spatio-temporal domain. She suggest a user-centred GIS with the notion of R-Events to help in search process. The empirical and informational aspects in information systems as distinct epistemic layers.

Genevieve Reid & Renee Sieber compared indigenous ontologies of time. It provide a case for inclusive semantic interoperability, and ensure representation and accessibility for indigenous knowledge. SNAP/SPAN frameworks for ontologies have a very basic notion of time in a Newtonian way and as always progressing and unilinear. In contrast, in TEK, time can be spiral, branch, triangle, cyclical, or double spiral – future that incorporate the future (in Maori culture). Eastern Cree culture see part and present leading to the future. In TEK time is not temporal but social. There are no fix – creation stories include notions of creating a river through a specific story. Time also has an agency. On the basis of these different concepts, she progress to suggest an inclusive model of relationship trough ontological representation. Time is not a simple model but into spatial temporal relations. GIScience can’t ignore the different social constructions of time – excluding indigenous concepts is ontological violence and risk of loss of indigenous knowledge.

Lex Comber et al. talked about “A Moan, a Discursion into the Visualisation of Very Large Spatial Data and Some Rubrics for Identifying Big Questions”, while looking at trends in anti-depressant. Databating meaning manipulation of database. There is an increasing amount of data, and demands (experiences of changing title from GIScience to Data Analytics, create challenges). There is a lack of asking serious questions or knowing what is it for, and ‘letting the data talk for itself’. There is opening of data – for example, GP practice prescription: the practice, the drug, the postcode of the patient. The Postcode can be linked to geography. Demonstrate that it’s possible to producing stupid results by only going data fishing. If we have a plan, on the other hand, we can see urban/rural areas. Need to use: view, refine, and zoom. If you are looking for a needle in a haystack, then making the stack bigger is not making it easier.

Jim Tatcher et al. (delivered by David O’Sullivan) ‘Searching for a common ground (again). Mentioning Golledge et al. 1988 A ground for Common Research. Need to identify common terms and how they are used.  The model of seeing the world as layer cake, is still significant. Harvey Miller mentioned it in 2003 that Euclidean space can be problematic, and it is associated with the quantitative geography. However, in old books that are all sort of representations that look different. From Bunge to Haggett, there are representations that are not Euclidean. The paradigm of GIS caused the adoption of this model. Tobler’s first law actually appeared as ‘throwaway remark’ and travelled through geography in different ways. Need to consider why Euclidean is accepted for granted when in earlier period there were many experimentation.

Has GIScience Lost its Interdisciplinary Mojo?

The GIScience conference is being held every two years since 2000, and it is one of the main conferences in the field of Geographic Information Science (GIScience). It is a special honour to be invited to give a keynote talk, and so I was (naturally) very pleased to get an invitation to deliver such a talk in the conference this year. The title of my talk is ‘Has GIScience Lost its Interdisciplinary Mojo?’ and I’m providing here the synopsis of the talk, with the slides.

My own career is associated with GIScience very strongly. In 1992, as I was studying for my undergraduate studies with a determination to specialise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by combining computer science and geography degrees, I was delighted to discover that such studies fall within a new field called GIScience. The paper by Mike Goodchild that announced the birth of the field was a clear signal that this was an area that was not only really interesting, but also one with potential for growth and prospects for an academic career, which was very encouraging. This led to me to a Masters degree which combined environmental policy, computer science, and GIS. During my PhD, I started discovering another emerging area – citizen science, with two main pieces of work – by Alan Irwin and Rick Bonney marking the beginning of the field in 1995 (I came across Irwin’s book while looking into public understanding of science, and learn about Bonney’s work much later). According to OED research, the use of citizen science can be traced to 1989. In short, GIScience and citizen science as a recognised terms for research areas have been around for about the same time – 25 years.

Over this period, I have experienced an inside track view of these two interdisciplinary research fields. I would not claim that I’ve been at the centres of influence of either fields, or that I’ve analysed the history of these areas in details, but I followed them close enough to draw parallels, and also to think – what does it mean to be involved in an interdisciplinary field and what make such a field successful? 

The use of terms in publications is a good indication to the interest in various academic fields. Here are two charts that tell you how GIScience grown until it stalled around 2010, and how citizen science have been quiet for a while but enjoying a very rapid growth now.

First, from Egenhofer et al. 2016 Contributions of GIScience over the Past Twenty Years, showing the total number of publications with the keywords GIS or GIScience, based on a Scopus query for the years 1991 through 2015, executed in July 2015. Notice the peak around 2009-2010.


And here is Google Trends graph for comparing GIScience and Citizen Science, showing that in the past 8 years citizen science has taken off and increased significantly more than GIScience:


I think that it’s fair to say that these two fields as inherently interdisciplinary.

In GIScience, as Traynor a Williams identify already in 1995: “Off-the-shelf geographic information system software is hard to use unless you have sufficient knowledge of geography, cartography, and database management systems; are computer-literate” and to these observations we need to add statistics, algorithms development, and domain knowledge (ecology, hydrology, transport).

Citizen Science also includes merging knowledge from public engagement, education, science outreach, computer science, Human-Computer Interaction, statistics, algorithms and domain knowledge (e.g. ecology, astrophysics, life science, digital humanities, archaeology).

Both fields are more than a methodology – they are contributing to scientific research on different problems in the world, and only a very reductionist view about what they are will see them as ‘a tool’. They are more complex than that – which is why we have specific scholarship about them, periods of training, dedicated courses and books, conferences and all the rest.

A very shallow comparison will note that GIScience was born as an interdisciplinary field of study, and experience consolidation and focus early on with research agendas, core curriculum which was supposed to lead to stability and growth. This did not happen (see Patrick Rickles comments, from an interdisciplinary research perspective, on this). Take any measure that you like: size of conferences, papers. Something didn’t work. Consider the Esri UC, with its 15,000 participants who are working with GIS, yet only a handful of them seem to be happy with the identity of a GIScientists.

In contrast, Citizen Science is already attracting to its conferences audience in the many hundreds – the Citizen Science Association have 4000 (free) members, The European Citizen Science Association 180 (paid) – and that is in the first 2 years since they’ve been established. It doesn’t have an explicit research agenda, and have an emerging journal, but the field also benefits from multiple special issues – there is almost a competition among them.

As a GIScientist this is a complex, and somewhat unhappy picture. What can I offer to explain it? What are the differences between the two fields that led to the changes and what we can learn from them? It is worth exploring these questions if we want the field to flourish

Engaging with Interdisciplinary research

The wider engagement with these fields is also linked to my personal and direct engagement in GIScience research that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries. Over the years, I was also involved in about 20 multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary projects. I also found myself evaluating and funding x-disciplinary projects (where cross, inter, multi or trans  stand for x). The main observations from all these is that many times, projects that started under the interdisciplinary flag (integrating knowledge from multiple areas), ended with mostly multidisciplinary results (each discipline addressing the issue from its own point of view). However, here are nine lessons that I’ve learned, which can also help evaluating the wider fields of GIScience and citizen science.

First, Get them young & hungry – when established professors are joining an interdisciplinary project, usually they have a clear personal research agenda, and the likelihood that they will be open to radically new ideas about their area is low. You can get excellent multidisciplinary projects with experienced researchers, but it is much harder and rarer to have interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project – there is too much to lose. That mean that early career researchers are the most suitable collaborators who can develop new directions. At the same time, in terms of job potential and publications, it is very risky for PhD students to get into interdisciplinary research as this can reduce their chances of securing an academic job. With appropriate funding (as we done in Bridging the Gaps) and specific support to people at the more secured stage of early career (after securing a lectureship/assistant professor position), we’ve seen interdisciplinary collaboration evolve.

Second, in x-disciplinary projects, you’ll find yourself being undermined, unintentionally which will hurt. Disciplines have different notion of ‘truth’ and how to get to it (in philosophy: epistemology and ontology). What is considered as an appropriate methodology (e.g. fixation with randomised control trials), how many people need to participate, how they are selected and more. When people from another discipline use these concepts to question your practice it can feel as undermining the expertise, and the disciplinary knowledge that you are offering to the project…

logo-ercThird, there are also cases of being undermined, intentionally. Interdisciplinary proposal are evaluated by experts from different fields, and no matter how much they are told to focus their comments on their discipline, they will comment on other aspects. Moreover, proposal evaluators can assess the novelty in their area, not the overall innovation, reducing the likelihood of ‘outstanding’ mark that make it more likely to get funded. For example, in an early version of what was now funded by both EPSRC and ERC, a Research Challenges Board rejected the proposal because it “seemed so high risk to us is that there are many links in the chain… is it clear that even if everything works there would be real value from these sorts of devices? You use the example that the forest people might be able to tell if there were poachers in the area. Yet can that really be shown? Do forest people understanding probabilistic reasoning? If there any evidence that illiterate people can use maps, digital or otherwise?“. It’s important to note that both ERC and the EPSRC programmes were aimed at risky, interdisciplinary projects, but in more standard programmes, it is difficult to get funded.

Fourth, look out for the disciplinary scrounger. They might not be aware that they are disciplinary scrounger, but this is how it happens: Interdisciplinary research open up new tools and methodologies and people who know how to use them for the research team as a whole. While there is a supposed shared goals that will provide benefits to all sides, a savvy researcher will identify that there is an opportunity for using resources to advance their own research in their discipline, and find ways to do that, even if there are no apparent benefits to the side that give the resources. This act is not necessarily malicious – from the researcher perspective, it is exactly a demonstration of interdisciplinary contribution.

Fifth, in an interdisciplinary research it is critical to develop a common narrative, early. As the project progresses, it will shift and change. Because of the disciplinary differences, it is very easy to diverge and work on different issues, with some relationship to the original proposal. Especially in case where the funder evaluate the project against the proposal (e.g. in Horizon 2020), it’s critical to have a common story. The project can be harmonious and show good progression, but without a common narrative that is shared across the team, there can be troubles when it come to evaluation by external people as the outputs do not all fit neatly to their idea of what the project is about. In another project, Adaptable Suburbs, we deliberately shared reading lists between teams to help understanding each other, which bring us to…

Sixth, highstreetconsider the in-built misunderstanding. Terminology is an obvious one. For Anthropology, scale, from small to large is individual, household, community – and for cartography city is small scale, while house is large scale. However, these are easy – it can take time, and long discussions to discover that you’re looking at the same thing but seeing something completely different. As Kate Jones suggested when she worked on the Successful Suburban Town Centres project. In the image above urban designers see the streets, but not the people, while human geographers who look at census data will tend to see the people, but not the urban structure that they inhibit. There are many other examples of subtle, complex and frustrating misunderstanding that happen in such projects.

Seven, there will be challenges with publications – those that are written. Publications are critical academic outputs, and important for the individuals, teams, and the project as a whole. Yet, they are never easy – different disciplines have very different practices. In some, the first position in the author list is the most important, in another, the last. Some value single author monograph (Anthropology), other conference paper with multiple authors (Computer Science). This creates tensions and a need for delicate discussions and agreement. Moreover, and linked to Six – writing joint publications is an opportunity to expose interdisciplinary misunderstanding, but that make the writing process longer.

Eight, it is important to realise that many times interdisciplinary publications will never be written  – because academic careers, promotion criteria, visibility, and recognition depends on disciplinary practices, within projects disciplinary papers and outputs are written first. The interdisciplinary outputs left to a later stage – and then the project end and they never get written. They are actually dependent on voluntary investment of multiple contributors, which make it very difficult to get them done!

Finally, nine, is the importance of coffee and lunch breaks (and going out together). Team members in interdisciplinary projects are usually coming from different departments, and it is challenging to organise a shared space. However, by putting people together – computer scientists sitting next to a geographer, designer, anthropologists – it is possible to achieve the level of trust, relationship and the development of new ideas that are needed in such projects. In ExCiteS, we have a designated ‘social officer’ for the group.

On the basis of these experiences, I’d argue that Interdisciplinarity is always hard, risky, require compromises, accommodations, listening, and making mistakes. The excitement from the outputs and outcomes does not always justify the price. Frequently, there is no follow-on project – it’s been too exhausting. The analysis that Patrick Rickles done across the literature can provide you with further information on challenges and solutions.

From projects to research fields

Considering the project level challenges, viewing interdisciplinary areas of studies emerging is especially interesting. You can notice how concepts are being argued and agreed on. You can see what is inside and what is outside, and where the boundary is drawn. You can see how methodologies, jargon, acceptable behaviour, and modes of operations get accepted or rejected – and from the inside, you can nudge the field and sometimes see the impact of your actions. Here are some observations about GIScience and citizen science evolution.

First, citizen science seem to be growing organically, without a deliberate attempt to set a research agenda, define core curriculum, or start with nationally focused research centres, in contrast to GIScience, who had all of these. There is an emergent research agenda: data quality, motivations & incentives, interaction design, management of volunteers, and more. These are created according to views of different people who join the research area, opening opportunities for new collaborations. It is noted that GIScience, in practice, allowed for many other areas to emerge – for example crowdsourcing, which was not in the last version of the research priorities that are listed on UCGIS website, and also seemed to stop doing these exercises.

Second, there is an interesting difference in inclusiveness. Although there are different variants of citizen science, across events, conferences and projects, there is an attempt to be inclusive to the different variants (e.g. volunteer computing or ecological observations) though tensions remain and need maintenance. In GIScience, there have been inclusive activities, of workshops that brought together people from Human-Computer Interaction in the late 1980s, or the excellent series of meetings about GIS and Environmental Modelling. There is clear separation, for example in spatial analysis, where different methods are now appearing in ecology, but they are not shared back with the general GIScience. It is worth considering how to make such events and consider active inclusiveness, where researchers from different areas will find their place and reasons to participate.

It might be that citizen science is also more inclusive because of the interaction with people outside academia (participants) and the need to focus on things that matter to them, whereas GIScience has largely been for/by scientists. However, citizen science gets backlash for “not doing REAL science”, but it’s still grown. Maybe, in the process of GIScience trying to validate itself, it’s cut itself off from other research areas (even though GIS use continues to grow)?

Third, there is a sharp difference in the relationship with practitioners – GIScience decided to focus on fundamental questions and laws, while citizen science is a deliberate integration between researchers (the science of citizen science) and practitioners who are running volunteering programmes. The interaction between practice and science is bringing research questions to light and provide a motivation for addressing them with interdisciplinary teams. It might be that separation between science and systems in GIScience need to be blurred a bit to open up new opportunities.
bookcoverFinally, GIScience benefited from having a disciplinary name, and attention by a growing group of researchers who are committed to the field – job titles, positions, journals and conference do matter in terms of visibility and recognition. Citizen science, on the other hand, is only now starting to have a proper home and networks. There are ongoing discussions about what it is, and not everyone in the field is using the term ‘citizen science’ or happy with it. The actual conference that led to the creation of the Citizen Science Association was titled ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research'(!). The coherence and focus on understanding how important key phrases are, more than dislike of their potential meaning is valuable for the coherence of a field and stating that you have knowledge that can be shared with others.

New areas for Interdisciplinary research

To complete this discussion, I point to the opportunities that citizen science open for interdisciplinary collaborations with GIScience – It provides examples for longevity of VGI data sources, that can be used to address different research questions. There are new questions about scales of operations and use of data from the hyper local to the global. Citizen science offer challenging datasets (complexity, ontology, heterogeneity), and also a way to address critical issues (climate change, biodiversity loss). There are also usability challenges and societal aspects.

In final account, GIScience got plenty of interdisciplinary activity in it. There are actually plenty of examples for it. In terms of ‘mojo’ as being attractive for researchers from other area to join in, there are plenty of opportunities – especially if the practice of using GIS within different research and practice problems is included in the framework of GIScience.

This post benefited from discussions and comments from Patrick Rickles, who is our local expert in GIS use in an interdisciplinary settings. You should check his work.

Science Foo Camp 2016

Science Foo Camp (SciFoo) is an invitation based science unconference that is organised by O’Reilly media, Google, Nature, and Digital Science. Or put it another way, a weekend event (from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon), where 250 scientists, science communicators and journalists, technology people from area that relate to science, artists and ‘none of the above’ come and talk about their interests, other people interests, and new ideas, in a semi-structured way.

As this is an invitation only event, when I got the invitation, I wasn’t sure if it is real – only to replace this feeling with excitement after checking some of the information about it (on Wikipedia and other sites). I was also a little bit concerned after noticing how many of the participants are from traditional natural science disciplines, such as physics, computer science, neuroscience, chemistry, engineering and such (‘Impostor syndrome‘). However, the journey into citizen science, since 2010 and the first Citizen Cyberscience Summit, have led me to fascinating encounters in ecological conferences, physicists and environmental scientists, synthetic biologists, epidemiologists, and experimental physicists, in addition to links to Human-Computer Interaction researchers, educational experts, environmental policy makers, and many more. So I hoped that I could also communicate with the scientists that come to SciFoo.

I was especially looking forward to see how the unconference is organised and run. I’ve experienced unconferences (e.g. WhereCampEU in 2010, parts of State of the Map) and organised the Citizen Cyberscience Summits in 2012 & 2014 where we meshed-up a formal academic conference with unconference. I was intrigued to see how it works when the O’Reilly media team run it, as they popularised the approach.

The event itself run from the evening of Friday to early afternoon on Sunday, with very active 45 hours in between.

wp-1469243960730.jpgThe opening of the event included the following information (from Sarah Winge, Cat Allman, Chris DiBona, Daniel Hook, and Tim O’Reilly): The Foo Camp is an opportunity to bunch of really interesting people to get together and tell each other interesting stories – talk about the most interesting story that you’ve got. The main outputs are new connections between people. This as an opportunities to recharge and to get new ideas – helping each person to recharge using someone else battery. The ground rules include: go to sessions outside your field of expertise – an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective; be as extroverted as you can possibly be – don’t sit with people that you know, as you’ll have a better weekend to talk to different people. The aim is to make a conference that is made mostly from breaks – it’s totally OK to spend time not in a session; the law of two feet – it’s OK to leave and come from sessions and coming and going. It’s a DIY event. There are interesting discussions between competitors commercially, or academically – so it is OK to say that part of the conversations will be kept confidential.

wp-1469414697362.jpgThe expected scramble to suggest sessions and fill the board led to a very rich programme with huge variety – 110 sessions for a day and a half, ranging from ‘Origami Innovations’, ‘Are there Global Tipping Points?’, to ‘Growth Hacking, Rare disease R&D’, and ‘What we know about the universe? and what we don’t know?’. Multiple sessions explored Open science (open collaborations, reproducibility, open access publication), issues with science protocols, increasing engagement in science, gender, social justice side by side with designer babies, geoengineering, life extension, artificial intelligence and much more.

In addition, several curated sessions of lightning talks (5 minutes rapid presentations by participants), provided a flavour and extent of the areas that participants cover. For example, Carrie Partch talk about understanding how circadian cycles work – including the phenomena of social jet-lag, with people sleeping much more at weekends to compensate for lack of sleep during the weekdays. Or Eleine Chew demonstrated her mathematical analysis of different music performances and work as concert pianist.

I’ve followed the advice from Sarah, and started conversation with different people during meals, or on the bus to and from SciFoo, or while having coffee breaks. Actually everyone around was doing it – it was just wonderful to see all around people introducing themselves, and starting to talk about what they are doing. I found myself learning about research on common drugs that can extend the life of mice, brain research with amputees, and discussing how to move academic publications to open access (but somehow ending with the impact of the cold war on the investment in science).

I have organised a session about citizen science, crowdsourcing and open science, in which the discussion included questions about science with monks in Tibet, and patient active involvement in research about their condition. I’ve joined two other sessions about ‘Making Science Communication Thrilling for the Lay Person‘ with Elodie Chabrol (who run Pint of Science) and Adam Davidson; and ‘Science Communication: What? What? How? Discuss‘ with Suze Kundu, Jen Gupta, Simon Watt & Sophie Meekings. Plenty of ideas (and even a sub-hashtag to get responses for specific questions) came from these sessions, but also realisation of the challenges for early career academics in developing their skills in this area, with discouraging remarks from more senior academics, and potential career risks – so we also dedicated thinking about appropriate mechanisms to support public engagement activity.

Another fantastic discussion was led by Kevin Esvelt about ‘Better than nature: ethics of ecological engineering‘ – when this involve gene editing with techniques such as CRISPR with potential far reaching impact on ecological systems. This session just demonstrated how valuable it is to have interdisciplinary conference where the expertise of the people in the room range from geoengineering to ecology and ethics. It was also a mini-demonstration of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in action, where potential directions of scientific research are discussed with a range of people with different background and knowledge.

The amount of input, encounters and discussion at SciFoo is overwhelming, and the social activities after the sessions (including singing and sitting by the ‘fire’) is part of the fun – though these were very exhausting 40 hours.

Because SciFoo invitees include a whole group of people from science communication, and as SciFoo coincide with Caren Cooper stint of the twitter account @IamSciComm account where she discussed the overlap between citizen science and science communication, I paid attention to the overlap during the meeting. The good news is that many of the scientists had some idea of what citizen science is. I always check that people know the term before explaining my work, so it’s great to see that term is gaining traction. The less good news is that it is still categorised under ‘science communication’ and maybe a useful session would have been ‘What is the problem of scientists with citizen science?’.


For me, SciFoo raised the question about the value of interdisciplinary meetings and how to make them work. With such a list of organisers, location, exclusiveness and the mystery of invitation (several people, including me, wonder ‘It’s great being here, but how did they found out about my work?’) – all make it possible to get such an eclectic collection of researchers. While it’s obvious that the list is well curated with considerations of research areas, expertise, background, academic career stage, and diversity, the end results and the format open up the possibility of creative and unexpected meetings (e.g. during lunch). My own experience is that to achieve something that approach such a mix of disciplines in a common ‘bottom-up’ academic conference is very challenging and need a lot of work. The Citizen Cyberscience summits, ECSA conference, or the coming Citizen Science Association conference are highly interdisciplinary in terms of the traditional academic areas from which participant come – but they require to convince people to submit papers and come to the conference. Usually, the interdisciplinary event is an additional commitment to their disciplinary focus and this creates a special challenge. Maybe it can be possible to achieve similar interdisciplinary meetings by getting endorsements from multiple disciplinary societies, or get support from bodies with wide remit like the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.

Another thought is that the model of reaching out to people and convincing them that it is worth their while to come to such a meeting might also work better in allowing mixing, as open call are impacted by ‘self deselection’ where people decide that the conference is not for them (e.g. getting active participants to a citizen science conference, or ensuring that papers are coming from all flavours of citizen science).

Another delightful aspect is to notice how the unconference format worked with people that (mostly) haven’t experienced it before – the number of slots and opportunities was enough for people to mostly put their sessions forward. Although the call for people to be extroverts, the people with less confident will prepare their ideas more slowly, and can end up outside the grid. It was nice to see how some places in the grid were blocked off during the early stages, and then release to ideas that came during breaks, or for sessions that were proposed more slowly and didn’t secure a spot. There might be also value in restricting people to one session, and then progressing to more? What are the steps that are required to make an unconference format inclusive at the session setting stage?

In contrast to the approach in academic meetings to control the number of parallel sessions (to ensure enough people are showing up to a session), SciFoo is having so many, that most of the sessions are with a small group of about 10 or 20 people. This make it more valuable and suitable for exploratory discussions – which worked well in the sessions that I attended. In a way, at its best, SciFoo is many short brain storming sessions which leave you with a wish to discuss for longer.

If you get an invitation (and being flattered is part of the allure of SciFoo), it is worth going on the Wiki, give a bit of a description of yourself and think about a session that you’d like to propose – +1 can help you to get a feeling that people will be interested in it. Think about a catchy title that includes keywords, and remember that you are talking to intelligent lay people from outside your discipline, so prepare to explain some core principles for the discussion in 5 minutes or so. Don’t dedicate the time to tell people only about your research – think of an issue that bother you to some degree and you want to explore (for me it was the connection between citizen science and open science) and consider that you’ll have one hour to discuss it.

Follow the advice – say hello to everyone and have great conversations during breaks, and don’t go to sessions if the conversation is more interesting. Another take on the meeting is provided by Bjoern Brembs on his blog, with whom I had the open access conversation (and I still unsure how we ended with the Cold War).  Also remember to enjoy the experience, sit by the ‘fire’ and talk about things other than science!