5 January, 2015
The academic literature on Citizen Science is expanding quickly, with hundreds of papers that are published in peer review publications every years about it. These papers are written by professional scientists and practitioners, mostly for an audience of other professional scientists and practitioners. A very common concern of researchers is to understand the motivations and incentives that get citizen scientists involved in projects. Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of research evaluating these aspects through questionnaires and interviews, but there is relatively little on how citizen science is experienced from the point of view of the participants (although it does come out in the research notes of Public Lab or Clare Griffiths’ account of community air quality study).
So what is it like to be a citizen scientist?
Luckily, Sharman Apt Russell has decided to find out, and because she is a talented author with plenty of experience in creative writing of non-fiction books about science and nature, she is well placed to provide an engaging account of the experience. Covering a period of about year and a half, her book ‘diary of citizen scientist: chasing tiger beetles and other new ways of engaging the world‘ is interesting, insightful and enjoyable read.
Sharman didn’t took the easy route to citizen science, but decided to jump in and find out an unknown detail about the life of Tiger Beetles by studying them in the Gila river, near her home. The tasks that she took upon herself (and her family) include chasing beetles and capturing them, grow them in terrariums at home, dismember some and analyse them under microscope and so on. This quest is sparked by a statement from Dick Vane-Wright, then the Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum that ‘You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would know more than anyone else on the planet. Our ignorance is profound‘ (p. 15). This, of course, is not only true about insects, or animals, but also to the night sky, or our understanding of urban air pollution. I think that this can be a crucial statement for the potential of discovery in citizen science in general.
While the story about understanding the lives of the tiger beetles provide the core of the book, Sharman explores many other aspects of citizen science, from online activities, to observing the changes in nature over the seasons (phenology), and noticing the footprints in the sand. Her love of nature in her area is coming through in the descriptions of her scientific observations and also when she describes a coming storm or other aspects of her local environment.
Throughout the book, you can come across issues that citizen scientists experience – from difficulties in following instructions that seem obvious to scientists, to figuring out what the jargon mean, to the critical importance of supportive mentoring by professional scientists. All this make the book a very interesting source to understand the experience. If you want to read her short summary of Sharman’s experience, see her writing in Entomology Today.
One disclosure, though: Sharman has contacted me while working on the book, and she note the interview in her book so I was intrigued to read her description of Extreme Citizen Science, which is excellent.
Notes from the second day of the BES/sfé annual meeting (see first day notes here)
Several talks in sessions that attracted my attention:
Daniel Richards (National University of Singapore) looked at cultural ecosystem services from social media sources. He mentioned previous study by Casalegno at al 2013 study on social media and ecosystem services . In Singapore they carry out a study for the few green spaces that are used for leisure and nature reserves – the rest of the place is famously highly urbanised. There are patches of coastal habitat that are important locally. The analysis looked at Flickr photos to reveal interest. There are 4 study sites, with 760 photos that were returned and of them 683 related to coastal habitat. They use classification of content, with 8 people analysing the photos. Analysis of Flickr showed different aspects – landscape in one site, and wildlife in another site. In one site there are research photos due to the way it is used locally. Looking closely to one coastal site, focal points in the route where people stopped to take a picture stood out, and landscape photos. All the photos follow the boardwalk in the area of Changi which is the only route. Simulation showed that after 70 photos they can get a good indication of the nature of the place, no need to look through all the images.
Barbara Smith explored the role of indigenous and local knowledge as part of a multiple evidence base for pollinator conservation. The context is India in agricultural area – looking at places where there is more extensive agriculture and less. The project aim is to record pollinators and then explore the impact of landscape and crop productivity . In this study, the starting point was the belief that traditional knowledge has a lot of value, and it is a knowledge that can be integrated with scientific information. She mentioned Tengo et al 2013 discussion paper in IPBES on the value of local knowledge, and also Sutherland et al 2014 paper in Oryx about the need to integrate indigenous knowledge in ecological assessment. The aim to collate knowledge of trends, they created a local peer-review process to validate local knowledge. Understanding factual data collection and separate it from inferences which are sometime wrong. They carry out small group discussions, in which they involved 5-7 farmers, in each of the 3 study area they had 3 groups. They asked questions that are evidence gathering (which crop you grow?) and also verification (how do you know?) they also ask opinion scoping (perceptions ) and then ‘why did you observed the change?’. In the discussions with the farmers they structured in around questions that can be explored together. After the first session, the created declarations – so ‘yields have fallen by 25%’ or crop yield declined because of the poor soil’ the statements were accepted or rejected through discussion with the farmers – local peer-review. Not all farmers can identify pollinators, and as the size goes down, there is less identification and also confusion about pests and pollinators. The farmers identified critical pollinators in their area and also suggestions on why the decline happen.
In the workshop on ‘Ecosystem assessments – concepts, tools and governance‘ there was various discussion on tools that are used for such purposes, but it became clear to me that GIS is playing a major role, and that many of the fundamental discussions in GIScience around the different types of modelling – from overlaying to process oriented modelling – can play a critical role in making sense of the way maps and GIS outputs travel through the decision making. It can be an interesting area to critically analysed – To what degree the theoretical and philosophical aspects of the modelling are taken into account in policy processes? The discussion in the workshop moved to issues of scientific uncertainty and communication with policy makers. The role of researchers in the process and the way they discuss uncertainty.
In the computational ecology session, Yoseph Araya presented a talk that was about the use of citizen science data, but instead he shared his experience and provide an interesting introduction to a researcher perspective on citizen science. He looked at the data that is coming from citizen science and the problem of getting good data. Citizen Science gaining attention – e.g. Ash die-back and other environmental issues are leading to attention. Citizens are bridging science, governance and participation. Citizen Science is needed for data at temporal, spatial and social scales and we should not forget that it is also about social capital, and of course fun and enjoyment. There is an increase in citizen science awareness in the literature. He is building on experience from many projects that he participated in include Evolution Megalab, world water monitoring day, floodplain meadows partnership, iSpot and OPAL, and CREW – Custodians of Rare and Endangered Windflowers (that’s a seriously impressive set of projects!). There are plenty of challenges – recruitment, motivation; costs and who pays; consideration of who run it; data validation and analysis and others. Data issues include data accuracy, completeness, reliability, precision and currency. He identified sources of errors – personnel, technical and statistical. The personal – skills, fitness and mistakes and others. Potential solutions – training with fully employed personnel, then also monitor individual and also run an online quiz. Technically, there is the option of designing protocols and statistically, it is possible to use recounts (15%), protocols that allow ‘no data’ and other methods.
The poster session included a poster from Valentine Seymour, about her work linking wellbeing and green volunteering
The British Ecological Society (BES) & Société Française d’Ecologie meeting organised their annual meetings to be a joint meeting, held in Lille 9-12 December. Over the past 5 years, my journey in citizen science gave me an opportunity to reconnect to ecology, a topic in which I was interested in during my high-school years. I was also working side by side with ecologists while learning ArcInfo in the early 1990s, since the GIS laboratory at the time started in the ecology department. Because there is so much citizen science activity in the area of ecological monitoring, it is not surprising to see that the BES already include a special interest group on citizen science.
Although I’m now a member of the BES, my notes from the meeting are of visitor to the annual festival of the discipline of ecology – and include much learning of what is of interest to this discipline. In many of the talks, I have been attempting to understand the specific disciplinary terminology and what topics people see as important. Some of the workshops and sessions that I found interesting include
The workshop on “Doing and funding effective public engagement” which was organised by Helen Featherstone, and Will Gosling.
Helen Featherstone from the University of Bath (public engagement unit) and she’s been working with the BES over 18 months to assist them in public engagement. Will Gosling – University of Amsterdam and involve in the BES, interested in science communication and outreach.
The workshop started by exploring ‘What is meant by public engagement?‘. doing a lecture at the university is seen by the audience is argued by some people as not enough engagement – need to be two ways interaction with people outside research. Who is coming to the lecture? There is the issue of Q&A at the end of the lecture that makes it more interactive. Another example is being interviewed on the local radio station, this is more outreach but less interactive, though that is depending on the form, for example phone-in. Going to a music festival to do demonstration of scientific issues – it’s considered more engaging, because it’s for audience that don’t go out of their way to do it. Engagement with art was suggested to be ‘completely waste of time’ although it is dependent on how it is shared and what is the aim. The generic questions of Public Engagement are “How direct? How many people are involved? How much science? Is there an opportunity for a dialogue (e.g. in Science Cafe the emphasis on the Q@&A)?.
The UK definition – “Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”. The workshop then explored why the public and researchers should be interested
For the public, the following points were suggested: curiosity, want to understand the natural world. If the public is asked to do things without understanding them, they will reject them, so understanding and explaining is an important part of acting. Interest in sharing lived experiences. The public want to know what their money was spent on. There is an issue of inclusiveness, and ensuring that everyone is involved. Also it was highlighted that because science is used in decision making, there is a need to provide the public with the ability to understand why thing are done to them. Generally, moving to researching with people and not ‘for’ or ‘about’.
For researchers: those who want to have impact on society, public engagement is a route for that. The public is funder and need to maintain interest in the topic. Ensuring that there is uptake of the results. The citizenship aspect of researchers engaging with society came up. Also the need for general advocacy for the investment in research. Harnessing interest and curiosity, getting information that is not possible to get otherwise (people’s backyards). Accountability to the public and how you spend their money. The issue between making paper open access and making it accessible came up. Improving communication skills as scientists. It takes you to different places and it can be fun and interesting. Reminding people why they do it in the first place.
The target audience for the activity in 2013 was adults music festival goers and professional researchers were involved and the activity was designed at this levels. The video was aimed at researchers, to encourage them to get involved in public engagement as part of BES activities, and therefore the view counts can be low – the issue is not just any number of views, but to consider who it is intended for. Through the festival, the BES had interactions with 5500 people, and some engaged quite seriously about the specific research. Some people in the event were very pleased that there was an opportunity to meet scientists in music festival. People were capable to bring in their own nature or ecology story. BES now committed to a person with a role of public engagement.
In public engagement there are questions about long term impact and how to evaluate it. Also the context of engagement came up – is it for something that is done as a family or as adults. There are differences between adults coming as themselves but when adults are with children, they become facilitators of the learning experience of the children.
The next session that I attended was ‘Long Term Monitoring of Agro-ecosystems’.
Vincent Bretagnolle – in the past 15 years, there is a stabilisation in the yield of wheat and other agricultural products and there are many other issues, so in agro-ecosystems, there is need to reduce anthropogenic pressure. Intensive agriculture in not environmental sustainable on ecosystems services and biodiversity. Need to reconcile biodiversity management, ecosystem services, and food production. Research need to be territorial in scale (landscape 450 sq km as an example). Social-ecological systems approach allows the analysis of processes at this scale. Implementing agri-environmental schemes as a way to increase support to flagship species. At the societal level, they promote several programme of citizen science to encourage people to think about complexity and uncertainty on the conditions around them. He sees it as part of social-ecological system approach. They carry out citizen science not for the purpose of collecting data, but to disseminate thinking about the environment and ecosystem services, aiming at groups of 20-40 people.
James Pearce-Higgins covered the BTOs breeding bird surveys (BBS) over 20 years – this is collaborative project with RSPB & BTO and suppoert from JNCC. The BBS replaces in 1994 the Common Birds Census which was more complex. The BBS monitor 100 bird species – 2854 volunteers in 3761 survey squares – 2013 . Stratified sampling programme to select the location of the squares. They ask people to walk two transects of 1km and each transect is divided to 5 sections and the data collected online. This allow them to convert counts to density. There is an issue of detectability which they have modelled, so for example the size is influencing the probability of detection. They check efficacy, quality and how to use the data. They provide lots of searchable information online. They analyse annual trends but there is a need to look at long, overall trend – there are very few species with very big increase, and species that are declining significantly. There is big decline in species that mgirate to africa and those that are in humid zones have special decline. There is also effect of habitats – decline in woodlands, farmland. There are strong spatial patterns – increase in species in richness as temprature increase. Generalist species are doing well, while specialists species are doing badly. There are impacts of land-use and climate change. Citizens science is the only way to get large scale monitoring of this sort of coverage which bring evidence on farmland and woodland decline, but there is need to focus on agricultural management. Volunteers reasons for participation closed the talk. A press release on BTO (my image is not clear, so I picked up citations from the press release of BTO):
I believe the data makes a very valuable contribution to the wider picture of the state of our wild bird populations, and there is no small satisfaction making the effort for this. Nick Tardivel
The achievement of reaching remote squares, after a seemingly vertical climb, with the reward of panoramic views of the Cheviots, singing Skylarks, ‘pipping’ pipits, calling Curlews, and Snipe drumming is all the incentive needed to keep going, year after year, to this beautiful part of Northumberland. Muriel Cadwallender
It’s great fun, it is always good to be out birding and recording birds; you never know what you will find – on one occasion I found the island’s first Lesser Whitethroat just after I finished the count. David Jardine
I appreciate the value of persisting with an average square of farmland, to enable the gathering of data to show just how badly our farmland birds are doing. Louise Bacon
The opportunity to take part in a bird survey in beautiful surroundings, being ‘up with the lark’ as the day wakens is great reward. So much so that I have taken on four more squares since! Andrew King
I am pleased to be a small part of an important conservation tool which makes doing the survey worthwhile. Heather Coats
2014 marks my 20th year of surveys. It is now part of my early summer; I love the excuse (and of course the prompt) to be up early and taking in the route and, like old friends, the birds I can expect to find along the way. Paul Copestake
Each visit I add a few more pieces to the ever changing pattern of bird trends both here on my patch and also in the wider countryside. Vic Fairbrother
Marc Botham covered UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme – been going on since 1976, and standardised as ‘Pollard walks‘ – 26 weekly walks annually, citizen science based. Piloted in 1973-1976 and then started at full scale from 1976. The walks are from April to September. They also carry out series of other methods that are done year after year regularly – including larval web counts and egg counts. They have over 1000 sides, of which most are from the standard way. They are gradually covering the whole area of the UK although more in the south. That allow them to analyse long term trends and there are trends that are changing with different ecological cycles – crashes and peaks which are common in butterflies. The long term trend allow to notice major decline in ‘common’ widespread species, some of them by almost 80%. The use indicators that contribute to national policy. Butterfly are doing more badly than birds and bats on the long term scale. Agri-environmental schemes where there is site-specific advice have been shown effective and monitoring can demonstrate the improvement. They are now created a wider countryside butterfly survey and ask people to take randomised 1-km square that are selected for volunteers. 2 visits a year, and that add 1000 sides for the volunteers. There are, of course, similarities between this method and BTO BBS as it is based on it.
Ondine Filippi-Codaccioni presented in the poster session an interesting piece of analysis that compared the quality, in terms of providing information that represent species distribution, between very structured citizen science and opportunistic citizen science. The abstract of the poster (edited a bit) is ‘In most cases, citizen science is associated with with loosley defined and heterogeneous data collection protocols. Opportunistic data in our case are data collected by a large number of different observers whose spatial and temporal distribution is greatly heterogeneous, the effort is usually unknown, zeros are generally unreported, and finally positive count may be reported differently or even censured according to species. To analyse such data we propose a multivariate hierarchical model with latent spatial – spatiotemporal – fields for relative abundances of each considered species. Its specificity is to account for different types of observation and for observer characteristics in distribution or behaviour. First results show that it seems possible to correct several main biases, to model count positive-only data and to infer fairly well relative density maps in a multi-species context, using a Bayesian framework and INLA R-package tools. We analysed a case study data set of several thousand observations from the French Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO, Birdlife France) to show the feasibility of such approaches and we checked the inference quality and limits on smaller simulated examples.’ In short, the study shows that by having some well calibrated and trusted observations, the opportunistic data significantly improve the model and the ability to predict were species are.
In terms of terminology, it is interesting to note that in several presentation the source of data was recognised as ‘citizen science data’ as well as recognition of their work.
On 29th April, I gave a talk in the Wilson Center in Washington DC on ‘Environmental Information – the Roles of Experts and the Public‘. The event was organised by Lea Shanley, who is heading the ‘Commons Lab‘ initiative of the center, and Dr Jay Benforado, from the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) provided a response to the talk.
The talk is based on a forthcoming chapter in a book that will be the final output of the EveryAware project, and I can share a copy of it if you email me.
I described the content of the talk as: ‘Access to environmental information and use of it for environmental decision-making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since NEPA in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts, to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2012); and finally, information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public.
Underlying these are changes in access to information, rise in levels of education and rapid change due to digital technologies. The three eras and their implication to environmental decision-making will be explored, with special attention to the role of geographical information systems and to citizen science.’
The talk (and the chapter) are building on the themes that I discussed in a presentation during the Eye on Earth user conference in Dublin in 2013, and earlier talks in Oxford Transport Studies Unit, UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and at University College Dublin School of Geography, Planning & Environmental Policy in 2010 (see also my reflection from the Eye on Earth summit in Abu Dhabi in 2011). In the talk I covered some of the legal frameworks about production and use of environmental information, including laws and international agreements, as well as using specific demonstrations of the information systems themselves, as to demonstrate the practice. I also tried to suggest the trends that are behind the changes in the eras, and levels of education is quite central.
On reflection, the 4 years that passed since I started thinking about the ‘eras of environmental information‘ allowed me to think how to communicate them, and I hope for the better. It also made the writing up of the chapter easier, as the responses and comments that I received in previous talks provided the needed feedback and peer review to structure the text.
Although I was setting specific dates as markers for the eras, the reality is that the boundaries are more flexible and the transition was over time – it is especially difficult for the latest transition of public participation in environmental information production.
The talk was followed by a discussion that lasted almost 45 minutes, and during the discussion, the common issue of data quality of citizen science data or the interesting point about the issue of dissemination as Rob Baker noted: ‘Is the role of experts as facilitators extend to dissemination of information or just collection? Who closes the loop? ‘ (https://twitter.com/rrbaker/statuses/461157624592203776) or Susan Wolfinbarger question about citizen science: ‘How do you know when the quality of a #citsci project is bad?’ (https://twitter.com/SWolfinbarger/statuses/461166886043262976)
The presentation and discussion were captured on YouTube, below
and the slides are available on SlideShare
Kate Chapman posted an interesting reflection to the talk over at H.O.T website.
The Guardian’s Political Science blog post by Alice Bell about the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Natural Environment Research Council and Shell, reminded me of a nagging issue that has concerned me for a while: to what degree GIS contributed to anthropocentric climate change? and more importantly, what should GIS professionals do?
I’ll say from the start that the reason it concerns me is that I don’t have easy answers to these questions, especially not to the second one. While I personally would like to live in a society that moves very rapidly to renewable energy resources, I also take flights, drive to the supermarket and benefit from the use of fossil fuels – so I’m in the Hypocrites in The Air position, as Kevin Anderson defined it. At the same time, I feel that I do have responsibility as someone who teaches future generations of GIS professionals how they should use the tools and methods of GIScience responsibly. The easy way would be to tell myself that since, for the past 20 years, I’ve been working on ‘environmental applications’ of GIS, I’m on the ‘good’ side as far as sustainability is concerned. After all, the origins of the biggest player in our industry are environmental (environmental systems research, even!), we talk regularly about ‘Design With Nature’ as a core text that led to the overlays concept in GIS, and we praise the foresight of the designers of the UNEP Global Resource Information Database in the early 1980s. Even better, Google Earth brings Climate Change information and education to anyone who want to downloaded the information from the Met Office.
But technologies are not value-free, and do encapsulate certain values in them. That’s what critical cartography and critical GIS has highlighted since the late 1990s. Nadine Schuurman’s review is still a great starting point to this literature, but most of it analysed the link of the history of cartography and GIS to military applications, or, in the case of the volume ‘Ground Truth’, the use of GIS in marketing and classification of people. To the best of my knowledge, Critical GIScience has not focused its sight on oil exploration and extraction. Of course, issues such as pollution, environmental justice or environmental impacts of oil pipes are explored, but do we need to take a closer look at the way that GIS technology was shaped by the needs of the oil industry? For example, we use, without a second thought, the EPSG (European Petroleum Survey Group) definitions of co-ordinates reference systems in many tools. There are histories of products that are used widely, such as Oracle Spatial, where some features were developed specifically for the oil & gas industry. There are secretive and proprietary projections and datums, and GIS products that are unique to this industry. One of the most common spatial analysis methods, Kriging, was developed for the extractive industry. I’m sure that there is much more to explore.
So, what is the problem with that, you would say?
Fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas – are at the centre of the process that lead to climate change. Another important thing about them is that once they’ve been extracted, they are likely to be used. That’s why there are calls to leave them in the ground. When you look at the way explorations and production work, such as the image here from ‘Well Architect‘, you realise that geographical technologies are critical to the abilities to find and extract oil and gas. They must have played a role in the abilities of the industry to identify, drill and extract in places that were not feasible few decades ago. I remember my own amazement at the first time that I saw the complexity of the information that is being used and the routes that wells take underground, such as what is shown in the image (I’ll add that this was during an MSc project sponsored by Shell). In another project (sponsored by BP), it was just as fascinating to see how paleogeography is used for oil exploration. Therefore, within the complex process of finding and extracting fossil fuels, which involves many engineering aspects, geographical technologies do have an important role, but how important? Should Critical GIScientists or the emerging Critical Physical Geographers explore it?
This brings about the more thorny issue of the role of GIS professionals today and more so with people who are entering the field, such as the students who are studying for an MSc in GIS, and similar programmes. If we accept that most of the fossil fuels should stay underground and not be extracted, than what should we say to students? If the person that involved in working to help increasing oil production does not accept the science of climate change, or doesn’t accept that there is an imperative to leave fossil fuels in the ground, I may accept and respect their personal view. After all, as Mike Hulme noted, the political discussion is more important now than the science and we can disagree about it. On the other hand, we can take the point of view that we should deal with climate change urgently and go on the path towards reducing extraction rapidly. In terms of action, we see students joining campaigns for fossil free universities, with which I do have sympathy. However, we’re hitting another difficult point. We need to consider the personal cost of higher education and the opportunity for well paid jobs, which include tackling interesting and challenging problems. With the closure of many other jobs in GIS, what is the right thing to do?
I don’t have an easy answer, nor can I say that categorically I will never work with the extractive sector. But when I was asked recently to provide a reference letter by a student in the oil and gas industry, I felt obliged to state that ‘I can completely understand why you have chosen this career, I just hope that you won’t regret it when you talk with your grandchildren one day in the future’