Citizen Science Association board meeting By Jennifer ShirkThe week that passed was full of citizen science – on Tuesday and Friday the citizen Science Association held its first Board meeting, and with the Citizen Science 2015 conference on Wednesday and Thursday, and to finish it all, on Friday afternoon a short meeting of a new project, Enhancing Informal Learning Through Citizen Science explored the directions that it will take.

After such an intensive week, it takes some time to digest and think through the lessons from the many conversations, presentations and insights that I’ve been exposed to. Here are my main ‘take away’ lessons. The conference itself ended by members of the Board of the Citizen Science Association (CSA) describing their ‘take away’ in short, tweeter messages. which was then followed by other people joining in such as:

In more details, my main observations are about the citizen science CSA board - by Michalis Vitosresearch and practice community, and the commitment to inclusive and ethical practice that came up in different sessions and conversations.

It might be my own enthusiasm to the subject, but as in previous meetings and conferences about citizen science, you can feel the buzz during the event, with participants sharing their knowledge with others and building new connections. While there are already familiar faces and the joy of meeting colleagues in the field of citizen science that you already know, there are also many new people who are either exploring the field of citizen science or are active in it, but new to the community of practice around citizen science. As far as I can tell, the conference was welcoming to new participants and the poster session on the first day and the breakfast on the second day provided opportunities to create new connections. It might be because people in this field are used to talk with strangers (e.g. participants in citizen science activities), but that is an aspect that the CSA need to keep in mind to ensure that it stays an open community and not closed one.

CSA breakfast Secondly, citizen science is a young, emerging field. Many of the practitioners and researchers are in early stages of their careers, and within research institutions, the funding for the researchers is through research grants (known in academia as ‘soft money‘) as opposed to budgeted and centrally funded positions. Many practitioners are working within tight and limited government budgets. This have an implications on ensuring the funding limitations don’t stop people from publishing in the new journal ‘Citizen Science: Theory and Practice‘ or if they can’t attend the conference they can find information about it in blogs, see a repository of posters that were displayed in the conference or read curated social media outputs about it. More actively, as the CSA done for this meeting, funding should be provided to allow early career researchers to attend.

Third, there is clearly a global community of researchers and practitioners committed to citizen science. Yet, the support and network that they need must be local. The point above about budget limitations reinforce the need for local networks and need for meeting opportunities that are not to expensive to attend and participate in. For me, the value of face to face meetings and discussions is unquestionable (and I would hope that future conferences will be over 3 days to provide more time), and balancing travel, accommodation and budget constraints with the creation of a community of practice is something to grapple with over the coming years. Having a global community and a local one at the same time is one of the challenges of the Citizen Science Association.

Katherine M - Ethics PanelFinally, the conference hosted plenty of conversations and discussions about the ethical and inclusive aspects of citizen science (hence my take away above). From discussions about what sort of citizenship is embedded in citizen science, to the need to think carefully on who is impacted through citizen science activities. A tension that came throughout these discussions is the value of expertise – especially scientific – within an activity where citizen scientists are treated respectfully and their knowledge and contributions appreciated. The tension is emphasised by the hierarchical nature of the academic world, with the ‘flatter’ or ‘self organising’ hierarchies that emerge in citizen science projects. I would guess that it is part of what Heidi Ballard calls ‘Questions that Won’t Go Away’ and will need to be negotiated in different projects. What is clear is that even in contributory projects, where the scientists setting the project question, the protocol, and asking participants to help in data collection of analysis, simple hierarchical thinking of the scientist as expert and the participants as ‘laity’ is going to be challenged.

If you want to see other reflections on Citizen Science 2015 conference, see the conference previews from  and Caren Cooper, and post conference reports from Monica Peters, which provides a newcomer view from a New Zealnad, while Kelsey McCutcheon provide an American oneSarah West for an experienced citizen science researcher view. Tessa Scassa provides a view on Intellectual Property and citizen science,  and the center for advancement of informal science education (CAISE) posted a summary of conference and Q&A with CSA.  Finally, from the Schoodic Institute, who are the sponsors and hosts of the CSA.

San Jose is the location for the first citizen science association meeting, on the 11th and 12th February. The level of enthusiasm to citizen science by researchers and practitioners was palpable, even well before the conference – the conference organising team were coping with an overwhelming number of submissions and abstracts that they needed to fit into a two days programme. In the end, the conference run with 7 parallel sessions, and many posters in the reception session on the first day, as a way to allow as many participants to present their workAs can be imagined, what you read in the rest of this post is just 1/7 of what was going on!

Rick Bonney (who was elected as the treasurer of the association just the day before the conference) started with emphasising the reasons for having the Citizen Science Association (CSA): learning from others, developing synergies between projects and sharing information collaboratively, so we can start to solve wicked problems society is facing by finding the answers that we need, together. He noted that the CSA now got 3000 members, a new journal Citizen Science: Theory and Practice and the conference have almost 650 participants.

Following Rick, Lila Higgins and Alison Young, the joint conference chairs, opened the conference, with Lila promoting the use of the hashtag #WhyICitSci on twitter, to provide a range of reasons why people work in citizen science. Few of those are:

Mine was :

The opening talk ‘A Place in the World – Science, Society, and Reframing the Questions We Ask‘ was given by Chris Filardi of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History. Filardi, an evolutionary biologist by training, has been recognising the importance of wide participation in science in understanding our place in the world. He started his career by going to New Guinea to study birds in remote places. Though interaction with villagers in the highlands of New Guinea he learned that science dependent on a sense of purpose and understanding the set of relationship that people have with their natural environment. Over the years, he started realising that many of the datasets that he was using are coming from citizen science, and wouldn’t be there with out the effort of the volunteers. He admits that he is new to the field, but what he noticed the lively discussion around the definition. Once he read Alan Irwin’s citizen science he found the explanation that he liked, which is seeing citizen science as that point where analysis and intervention meet each others – and it was huge personal discovery. As scientists, there is an amazing wealth of knowledge that is born from local systems – social systems that deal with the local environment. But scientists are preaching from their own pedestal . If we engage people in the full life cycle of science, we can get a more meaningful relationship between science and society. There is so much as citizen science and society that were revelationary to him. Citizen Science helps in exposing obvious things. It helps to reframing the questions that we ask – as examples from working with indigenous people on their relationship with the forest, which also linked to the preservation of grizzly bears demonstrate. Citizen Science is a touchstone in linking science and other perspectives – when they are involved in the full life cycle of science, allow to notice pre-existing values and practices that can get to the right results when it’s the community that helps to lead to the wished-for results. Conservation and evidence can help in providing community evidence that will allow them to improve the protection of their environment. By working in participatory way, we can get better results. Citizen Science also reveals risks worth taking – scientists are scared of bringing people who are not trained scientists into scientific projects and should learn to do so. Engaging wider audience in data collection can lead to risks – for example respecting areas that are taboo for local people, which sometimes are protected through such mechanisms, and not insisting on exploring them. Need to consider the costs of insisting on science – carrying out a survey in an area that the community decided not to go to because of their beliefs. Science in the name of evidence can harm relationships – we need to know when science need to step back. Citizen Science can link talk, action and symbol – so the social discourse, the actions and beliefs and help in dealing with some of the challenges that we have as a society. Sometimes there are risks for the scientists itself – stating that there was a compromise the scientific process because of local beliefs can be problematic amongst scientists. The discussion that followed the talk also led to mentioning participatory action research and participatory science as names for the topic.

The second session that I attended was 1D Re-Imagining Citizen Science for Knowledge Justice — A Dialogue with Tom Wakeford, Alan Irwin, Erinma Ochu,  Michel Pimbert, and Cindy Regalado. The session was organised as a dialogue in groups of 8, with several groups in the room and linking. The dialogue run as a facilitated discussion of the Questions That Won’t Go Away (QTWGA) in participatory action research which Heidi Ballard recently identified – and how to either solve them or learn to live with them. The groups explored the tensions and challenges in the practice of citizen science, and how these have been resolved, or lived with. This was follow by imagining what the vision for citizen science should look like. The group that I found myself impromptu facilitating identified data handling which includes understanding quality, sharing of information, ownership of data and ethics as a major issue in citizen science that won’t go away. Other groups  challenged the term ‘citizen’ both from scientists and participants perspectives . The need to understand the ‘citizen’ side demands respect to people financial resources and thinking about compensations – are we treating participants properly and going beyond free labour. Another issue is how expertise are defined – different types of expertise from scientists and participants, and how they can be negotiated. For example, when research is done with communities, it is important not to further stigmatise communities and also to feel obliged to provide information back.

QTWGA in citizen science

QTWGA in citizen science

A second round explored the vision for the future citizen science. In my group concepts of place-based citizen science or in the medical field, a disease-based citizen science were proposed – a lot of attention on community focused and based research with issues that are set by the community. There was also wish for truly collaborative citizen science with decision makers, industry and scientists. An idea that was raised is to educate natural scientists to do citizen science as part of their training  and also seamless collaborations with the data being properly used and citizen science that is funded for long terms.


The next session that I attended was 2G Talks: Tackling Grand Challenges and Everyday Problems with Citizen Science. The first talk was by Gianfranco Gliozzo from ExCiteS , titled Using Citizen Science to evaluate the cultural value of biodiversity (co-authored with Elizabeth Boakes, David Roy, myself, and Chloe Smith). Gianfranco described a project that is funded by UCL grand Challenges of Sustainable Cities programme. The study looked at cultural ecosystem services – the inspiration from nature that people receive and influence their wellbeing. The approach is especially focused on learning from citizen science data about the cultural services from the environment. The project is specifically looking at data in greater London, which have almost 50% of the total area as vegetated space. The data is from iSpot, iRecord and GiGL. So far, they found that there is emphasis on birds and flowering plants in terms of taxa. The study also looked at spatial patterns and starting to identify the heterogeneity in data collection with some hot spots of more activity. The conclusion so far is that there is a lot of value in integrating citizen science data and understanding the patterns but this is challenging, and also to appreciate the diversity of data sources and their contribution to the total information.

Karen James discussed Combining Citizen Science and DNA-Assisted Species Identification to Enable “A New Kind of Ecology”. Karen opened by explaining that there is a challenge to identify the taxonomic classification of a species during citizen science activities. There are tools such as leafsnap (to recognise patterns of leaves) or wildlife acoustics tools that help in the process, but identification and classification remain very challenging. She specifically focused on DNA barcoding which allow to extend expertise – the barcode of life is a website that is dedicated to this. DNA identification provide further validation. There is an effort to create a library of DNA sequences of species. She demonstrated the potential of identification by using DNA of invasive species. She also see potential in engaging DIY bio enthusiasts in doing this work.

John Tweddle talk Beyond Transcription: Realising the Research Potential of Museum Specimens Through Citizen Science (co-authored with Mark Spencer, Lucy Robinson) discussed work at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. NHM have extensive engagement in citizen science, from molecular biology to field work. John focused on unlocking the collection of the museum – they have 3 billion specimens and metadata for it. It’s a treasure trove of information – and most of it is locked away. There is an easy way to take pictures of specimens, but the metadata is hand written, so there is an interest in crowdsourcing of preparing the data for further analysis. However, there is so much more that volunteers can do, beyond the transcriptions. John suggested to move forward – to engage participants in measurements, and further information from the digitized specimens. There is also a potential to add place-based knowledge to enhance the information in the collection, and then design new projects and enhanced them. He used an example from the Robert Pocock Herbarium project started by amateur historians, but once they came to the museum, they got engaged in classification, so ended with a community led project for backtracking where the specimens were collected, and add contextual information.Beyond transcription

Alison Young talk Acting Locally and Thinking Globally: Building Regional Community around Citizen Science to Broaden Impacts and to Create a Scalable Model (with Rebecca Johnson) covered the work of the California Academy of Science (CAS) is focus on biodiversity and is focused on research, with 45 million specimens. CAS considered how they can engage citizen scientists in the same way that they work with researchers – they aim that their citizen science will be used for both research and for managing biodiversity. They started with Mount Tamalpais, with an aim of creating a benchmark and record the biodiversity in many ways, including adding specimens to the herbarium. They are defining their community as the citizen scientists, those that might want to use the data (scientists and government), practitioners and organisations and groups that are doing related work. They are relying on iNaturalist as part of their engagement plan and consider also grass-root bioblitz that people can do it more easily then full ones. The ability of people to come and document species with iNaturalist in something close by is valuable, and people engage in a short exercise of just few hours.  Nerds for nature are helping in establishing rapid bioblitzes.

As part of session 3A Speed Talks – Across Conference Themes, Simon Lambert (Lincoln University) covered Indigenous Peoples as Citizen Scientists. Simon is from New Zealand and talked about Mauri in joint projects. He noted that there is lack of first nation people in many conferences and meetings. He talks about the people from which he came, he worked with Mauri for some years. There is a history of science in which people where treated as specimens and working with them requires to recognise this history and view of science. There are issues at the global level that recognised indigenous people in international agreements such as CBD, TRIPs and UNDRIP so asserting themselves is challenging for indigenous group and sovereignty – saying no to any science project. Good science comes from great politics – inclusive, ethical, acknowledging First Citizens as First Scientists – pushing into the social sciences to affect change.

In session 3G Tackling Grand Challenges and Everyday Problems with Citizen Science Christian Adams covered Google Tools in From the Ground to the Cloud: Groundtruthing Environmental Change (co-authored with Tanya Birch, and Yaw Anokwa). Christian focused on the technology. Data collection in the field – paper got both upsides and downsides. Technology provides a lot of the issues with paper – Open Data Kit or ODK provides the ability to collect data in the field. It is an open source project. ODK got forms, then collecting and then managing and analysing it with Google Map Engine and Google Earth Engine. ODK got a tool to build forms and it also got a sensors framework. ODK aggregate allow to share data in a spreadsheet or in fusion tables which then can be visualised on maps.

The final talk in the session was Public Lab: Open and cooperative structures for community-based environmental health monitoring by Shannon Dosemagen. Shannon covered the work of the Public Laboratory of Open Technology and Science, she looked at the process that Public Lab established to work with community. Shannon described the new tools that were emerging at the time of the BP oil spill in 2010. The analysis of barriers for community based environment science and health – the tools that are used are expensive, they are aimed at expert users to be able to interpret the results. Public Lab try to engage people in the full data life cycle and provide everything that is needed from development of the tools to the use of the results. At the heart of the activities are the social activities. The combination is low-cost hardware + collaborative web software + visual data that can help people to understand them + public archive so everything is accessible + you. They created open space that allow people to share experience. She demonstrated the web tools – first, a collaborative writing efforts and individual research notes that are tagged to bigger bits of information. They encourage people and recognise the contributions that people made. They maintain many emails lists that are localised and place based. They got 65 organisers that integrated the tools of public lab in their area. There is also places – to highlight the local connections. They treat participants as researchers, they also build openness into the process – so the physical link between the balloon and the operator is allowing for social interactions. The barn raising is also valuable event in the public lab calendar and it is about people coming together. Another ways to add value is mainstreaming true accessibility by linking imagery to Google Earth to make it accessible. The also protect openness with viral licensing so share alike licences are central. They also allow local version of hardware and tools. Third of the organisers are associated with higher education institutions. calibration is another issue that public lab are working with research institutions to test the tools.

The final Symposium of the day was 4A DIY Aerial Photography: Civic Science and Small Data for Public Participation and Action, chaired by Shannon Dosemagen, with cases bringing stories of engagement and change ranging from the Los Angeles River (Lila Higgins) and Gulf of Mexico (Scott Eustis), to Uganda (Maria del C Lamadrid) and Palestine-Israel (Hagit Keysar)Shannon D - Public Lab session

The symposium or panel covered the technical aspects of DIY aerial photography. Public lab aim to create DIY, low cost (below <$150) tools that can be used by different communities. The basic components are also provided as set of tools that can be build easily, and tutorial, guides, hand drawn instruction. People can take any design and change it, but ask to share it back and continue to develop it. People use aerial mapping across the world – MapMill is an image sorting site, which is based on good/not image and MapKnitter that allows the integration of images into it. There is attribution to the people who collected, classified and stitched the map. Finally, they use print publications to share the data with other people.

Scott Eustis described his work which is aimed at understanding where people want to manage their wetlands – it allow a way to link the people who know the land deeply. The effort is about 3h field trip and 2h to turn it into useful map. Going out after rain events to record the location of water helps to communicate the authorities about which places are flooded and causing problem. He highlighted the ability to ‘eye ball’ statistics but most of the cases only little information is needed apart from the image. With near infra-red there is also ability to see information about growth of plant and their health.

Lila Higgins describe her additional interest in the Los Angeles river – a lot of people don’t know that there is a river there. The balloon mapping was aimed to increase recognition. The river became invisible – in the early 1900 during storm event it was causing collapse of houses with major property loss. To deal with that, they crease a concrete channel in 1938 – the river was concritsie in the 1960s. Most people see the concrete view, but there are people who saw different option for the river. Activists navigate the river with kayaks through the 51 miles and then EPA declared it as under the clean water act. The aim is to make it shared space. They started to use Google Earth to pick a section of the river to carry out a blue balloon over the river, and started to use the mapping to build a community. They are documenting events that are promoting the use of the river.

Maria del Carmen Lamadrid, looked at eviction stalling mapping in Uganda. The balloon mapping was aimed to assist people who faced a threat of eviction in Feb 2013. Some people where using the area for over 20 years. The market was mapping in November 2012, when the police came to evict the residents, the evidence was used to prove that the place is used in a valuable way. The project asked question about self-representation and how people use tools that can allow the people in the area to control the data collection. Aerial mapping was combined with stills from the ground to tell stories about the area. Land issues are complex in Uganda with tension between different tenure structures, because some official data and tools such as google maps didn’t show the level of use of the market, the balloon mapping provide their rights. In the end, the place was evicted, and they created a map that show the eviction. Although the project was successful, it helped in terms of empowerment and gaining control over the process. They were treated as equal during the process.

Hagit Keysar looked at two use cases in east Jerusalem as an activists and researcher, looking at recording and document human right abuses, so accountability by the communities itself. Of the 60% of Jerusalem population live in east Jerusalem, and of them, 40% are Jewish and 60% Palestinians. There are regular surveillance balloons by the authorities in the area on a regular basis – what’s the role of DIY aerial photography in this context? The Silwan village outside the old city is contested, and a map was created with information activists in the neighbourhood – they wanted to free themselves from dependency on human right organisations or the UN which don’t provide suitable information. By annotating the information by personal stories. The details of the imagery – allowing to have satellites above their own neighbourhood – providing information that Palestinian cannot access due to local restrictions. The second case is in Beit Safafa and the impact of a 6 lane motorway that cut through the neighbourhood, a discriminatory urban planning practice. The community activists use the aerial photograph to explain the issues when he presented the information in different places. The photograph is not a map – it’s a testimony, something real that make a difference. The maps that were provided were not making the damage to the community legible, so it provides a testimony to the damage – for the person who look at the image, they can understand what the abuses are.

The discussion  that followed the presentations also highlighted the integration of objective information from the image, and combining that with narrative and stories of the community. It is also important to explore the journey to empowerment – a joint journey to understand how the technology works by participants and the people who are bringing the technology to it. The use of this toolkit make people interested and shared imagination between the person who promotes it and those who are involved. Flying above your local environment is powerful. There is also potential of documenting important temporal moment (e.g. many birds, or flooding)

The final session of the day included the poster session, and provided me a unique opportunity to finally meet Louis Liebenberg and to hear about CyberTracker from the person who led it since 1996.

You can also see another description of the first day at 

If you have been reading the literature on citizen science, you must have noticed that many papers that describe citizen science start with an historical narrative, something along the lines of:

As Silvertown (2009) noted, until the late 19th century, science was mainly developed by people who had additional sources of employment that allowed them to spend time on data collection and analysis. Famously, Charles Darwin joined the Beagle voyage, not as a professional naturalist but as a companion to Captain FitzRoy[*]. Thus, in that era, almost all science was citizen science albeit mostly by affluent gentlemen and gentlewomen scientists[**]. While the first professional scientist is likely to be Robert Hooke, who was paid to work on scientific studies in the 17th century, the major growth in the professionalisation of scientists was mostly in the latter part of the 19th and throughout the 20th century.
Even with the rise of the professional scientist, the role of volunteers has not disappeared, especially in areas such as archaeology, where it is common for enthusiasts to join excavations, or in natural science and ecology, where they collect and send samples and observations to national repositories. These activities include the Christmas Bird Watch that has been ongoing since 1900 and the British Trust for Ornithology Survey, which has collected over 31 million records since its establishment in 1932 (Silvertown 2009). Astronomy is another area in which amateurs and volunteers have been on a par with professionals when observation of the night sky and the identification of galaxies, comets and asteroids are considered (BBC 2006). Finally, meteorological observations have also relied on volunteers since the early start of systematic measurements of temperature, precipitation or extreme weather events (WMO 2001). (Haklay 2013 emphasis added)

The general messages of this historical narrative are: first, citizen science is a legitimate part of scientific practice as it was always there, we just ignored it for 50+ years; second, that some citizen science is exactly as it was – continuous participation in ecological monitoring or astronomical observations, only that now we use smartphones or the Met Office WOW website and not pen, paper and postcards.

The second aspect of this argument is one that I was wondering about as I was writing a version of the historical narrative for a new report. This was done within a discussion on how the educational and technological transitions over the past century reshaped citizen science. I have argued that the demographic and educational transition in many parts of the world, and especially the rapid growth in the percentage and absolute numbers of people with higher education degrees who are potential participants is highly significant in explaining the popularity of citizen science. To demonstrate that this is a large scale and consistent change, I used the evidence of Flynn effect, which is the rapid increase in IQ test scores across the world during the 20th century.

However, while looking at the issue recently, I came across Jim Flynn TED talk ‘Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents (below). At 3:55, he raise a very interesting point, which also appears in his 2007 What is Intelligence? on pages 24-26. Inherently, Flynn argues that the use of cognitive skills have changed dramatically over the last century, from thinking that put connections to concrete relationship with everyday life as the main way of understanding the world, to one that emphasise scientific categories and abstractions. He use an example of a study from the early 20th Century, in which participants where asked about commonalities between fish and birds. He highlights that it was not the case that in the ‘pre-scientific’ worldview people didn’t know that both are animals, but more the case that this categorisation was not helpful to deal with concrete problems and therefore not common sense. Today, with scientific world view, categorisation such as ‘these are animals’ come first.

This point of view have implications to the way we interpret and understand the historical narrative. If correct, than the people who participate in William Whewell tide measurement work (see Caren Cooper blogpost about it), cannot be expected to think about contribution to science, but could systematically observed concrete events in their area. While Whewell view of participants as ‘subordinate labourers’ is still elitist and class based, it is somewhat understandable.  Moreover, when talking about projects that can show continuity over the 20th Century – such as Christmas Bird Count or phenology projects – we have to consider the option that an the worldview of the person that done that in 1910 was ‘how many birds there are in my area?’ while in 2010 the framing is ‘in order to understand the impact of climate change, we need to watch out for bird migration patterns’. Maybe we can explore in historical material to check for this change in framing? I hope that projects such as Constructing Scientific Communities which looks at citizen science in the 19th and 21th century will shed light on such differences.

[*] Later I found that this is not such a simple fact – see van Wyhe 2013 “My appointment received the sanction of the Admiralty”: Why Charles Darwin really was the naturalist on HMS Beagle

[**] And we shouldn’t forget that this was to the exclusion of people such as Mary Anning


At the end of June, I noticed a tweet about new words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

I like dictionary definitions, as they help to clarify things, and the OED is famous for careful editing and finding how a term is used before adding it. Being in the OED is significant for Citizen Science, as it is a recognised “proper” term. At the same time, the way that OED define citizen science, and its careful work in finding out when it was first used can help to emphasise some interesting aspects. This is how.

Here is the definition, in all its glory:

citizen science n. scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.

1989   Technol. Rev. Jan. 12/4   Audubon involves 225 society members from all 50 states in a ‘citizen science’ program… Volunteers collect rain samples, test their acidity levels, and report the results to Audubon headquarters.
2002   M. B. Mulder & P. Coppolillo Conservation xi. 295/1   Citizen science has the potential to strengthen conservation practice in the developing world.
2012   M. Nielsen Reinventing Discov. vii. 151   Citizen science can be a powerful way both to collect and also to analyze enormous data sets.

citizen scientist n.  (a) a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community (now rare);  (b) a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist.

1912   Manch. Guardian 11 Sept. 4/2   Trafford, thus serenely established, should…have returned to his researches with a new confidence and content and become a noble citizen-scientist.
1936   Headmaster Speaks 65   Could not Science…turn out a race of citizen scientists who do not make an absolute religion of the acquisition of new scientific knowledge however useless or harmful it may be?
1949   Collier’s 16 July 74/3   By 1930 most citizen-scientists had perfected a technique which brought gin to its peak of flavor and high-octane potency five minutes after the ingredients had been well mixed.
1979   New Scientist 11 Oct. 105/2   The ‘citizen-scientist’, the amateur investigator who in the past contributed substantially to the development of science through part-time dabbling.
2013   G. R. Hubbell Sci. Astrophotogr. xiii. 233   A citizen scientist in the astronomical field has a unique opportunity because astronomy is a wholly observational science.

Dictionaries are more interesting than they might seem. Here are 3 observations on this new definition:

First, the core definition of ‘citizen science’ is interestingly inclusive, so community based air quality monitoring to volunteer bird surveys and running climate models on your computer at home are all included. This makes the definition useful across projects and types of activities.

Second, the term ‘citizen scientist’ captures two meanings. The first is noteworthy, as it is the one that falls well within Alan Irwin’s way of describing citizen science, or in Jack Stilgoe’s pamphlet that describes citizen scientists. Notice that this meaning is not now the most common to describe a citizen scientist, but scientists that are active in citizen science usually become such citizen scientists (sorry for the headache!).

Third, it’s always fun to track down the citations that OED uses, as it tries to find the first use of the phrase. So let’s look at the late 20th century citations for ‘citizen science’ and ‘citizen scientist’ (the ones from the early 20th century are less representative of current science in my view).

The first use of ‘citizen science’ in the meaning that we now use can be traced to an article in MIT Technology Review from January 1989. The article ‘Lab for the Environment’ tells the story of community-based laboratories to explore environmental hazards, laboratory work by Greenpeace, and Audubon’s recruitment of volunteers in a ‘citizen science’ programme. The part that describes citizen science is provided below (click here to get to the magazine itself). Therefore, groups such as the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science are linked directly to this use of citizen science. 

MIT Technology Review 1989

Just as interesting is the use of ‘citizen scientist’. It was used 10 years earlier, in an article in New Scientist that discussed enthusiasts researching Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) and identified ‘ufology’ as a field of study for these people. While the article is clearly mocking the ufologists as unscientific, it does mention, more or less in passing, the place of citizen-scientists, which is “all but eliminated” by the late 1970s (click here to see the original magazine). This resonates with many of the narratives about how citizen science disappeared in the 20th century and is reappearing now. 



If you would like to use these original references to citizen science and citizen scientists, here are the full references (I’ll surely look out for an opportunity to do so!):

Kerson, R., 1989, Lab for the Environment, MIT Technology Review, 92(1), 11-12

Oberg, J., 1979, The Failure of the ‘Science’ of Ufology, New Scientist, 84(1176), 102-105



Thanks to Rick Bonney who asked some questions about the definition that led to this post!

What is Science?

6 September, 2014

When you look at the discussions that are emerging around the term ‘Citizen Science‘, you can often find discussion about the ‘Citizen‘ part of the term. What about the ‘Science‘ part? This is something that once you start being involved in Citizen Science you are forced to contemplate. As Francois Grey like to note ‘Science is too important to be left out to scientists‘ and we need to find a way to make it more inclusive as a process and practice. Sometime, Citizen Science challenges ‘established’ science and protocols. This can be about small things – such as noticing that diffusion tubes are installed at 2.5m (while the area of real concern is 1-1.5m), or bigger things, such as noticing that a lot of noise measurement is about what is possible to measure (sound) and avoiding what is difficult (noise). Even more challenging is the integration of local, lay and traditional knowledge within the citizen science framework with scientific knowledge. In short, there is value in considering what we mean by ‘science’.

UCL iGEM team public biobrick

UCL iGEM team public biobrick

For me, the challenge that evolved was ‘how can we have a definition of science that recognises that it’s a powerful form of knowledge, while allowing other forms of knowledge to work with it?‘. After experimenting with different ideas in the past year, I ended with the following, directly paraphrasing from the famous quote* from Winston Churchill about democracy as the least worst form of government. So the current, work in progress, definition that I’m using is the following:

“Science is the least worst method to accumulate human knowledge about the natural world (and it need to work, in a respectful way, with other forms of knowledge)”

What I am trying to do with this definition is first to recognise that knowledge is produced collaboratively and, ideally, in a democratic process. For that, the original form of the phrase is useful. Second, I wanted to note that science is not infallible but meandering, getting into blind alleys and all the rest, which the ‘least worst’ is capturing better than ‘the best’. Third, it is allowing the recognition that it is a very effective and powerful form of human knowledge.

Does it work? Is it suitable?


* I always like to find the correct source, and if you look at the Hansard, you’ll see that Churchill was more forthright and said: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time;”. Now that I know that, it’s tempting to try and replace democracy with science and government with knowledge…

The Vespucci initiative has been running for over a decade, bringing together participants from wide range of academic backgrounds and experiences to explore, in a ‘slow learning’ way, various aspects of geographic information science research. The Vespucci Summer Institutes are week long summer schools, most frequently held at Fiesole, a small town overlooking Florence. This year, the focus of the first summer institute was on crowdsourced geographic information and citizen science.

101_0083The workshop was supported by COST ENERGIC (a network that links researchers in the area of crowdsourced geographic information, funded by the EU research programme), the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC), Esri and our Extreme Citizen Science research group. The summer school included about 30 participants and facilitators that ranged from master students students that are about to start their PhD studies, to established professors who came to learn and share knowledge. This is a common feature of Vespucci Institute, and the funding from the COST network allowed more early career researchers to participate.

Apart from the pleasant surrounding, Vespucci Institutes are characterised by the relaxed, yet detailed discussions that can be carried over long lunches and coffee breaks, as well as team work in small groups on a task that each group present at the end of the week. Moreover, the programme is very flexible so changes and adaptation to the requests of the participants and responding to the general progression of the learning are part of the process.

This is the second time that I am participating in Vespucci Institutes as a facilitator, and in both cases it was clear that participants take the goals of the institute seriously, and make the most of the opportunities to learn about the topics that are explored, explore issues in depth with the facilitators, and work with their groups beyond the timetable.

101_0090The topics that were covered in the school were designed to provide an holistic overview of geographical crowdsourcing or citizen science projects, especially in the area where these two types of activities meet. This can be when a group of citizens want to collect and analyse data about local environmental concerns, or oceanographers want to work with divers to record water temperature, or when details that are emerging from social media are used to understand cultural differences in the understanding of border areas. These are all examples that were suggested by participants from projects that they are involved in. In addition, citizen participation in flood monitoring and water catchment management, sharing information about local food and exploring data quality of spatial information that can be used by wheelchair users also came up in the discussion. The crossover between the two areas provided a common ground for the participants to explore issues that are relevant to their research interests. 

2014-07-07 15.37.55The holistic aspect that was mentioned before was a major goal for the school – so to consider the tools that are used to collect information, engaging and working with the participants, managing the data that is provided by the participants and ensuring that it is useful for other purposes. To start the process, after introducing the topics of citizen science and volunteered geographic information (VGI), the participants learned about data collection activities, including noise mapping, OpenStreetMap contribution, bird watching and balloon and kite mapping. As can be expected, the balloon mapping raised a lot of interest and excitement, and this exercise in local mapping was linked to OpenStreetMap later in the week.

101_0061The experience with data collection provided the context for discussions about data management and interoperability and design aspects of citizen science applications, as well as more detailed presentations from the participants about their work and research interests. With all these details, the participants were ready to work on their group task: to suggest a research proposal in the area of VGI or Citizen Science. Each group of 5 participants explored the issues that they agreed on – 2 groups focused on a citizen science projects, another 2 focused on data management and sustainability and finally another group explored the area of perception mapping and more social science oriented project.

Some of the most interesting discussions were initiated at the request of the participants, such as the exploration of ethical aspects of crowdsourcing and citizen science. This is possible because of the flexibility in the programme.

Now that the institute is over, it is time to build on the connections that started during the wonderful week in Fiesole, and see how the network of Vespucci alumni develop the ideas that emerged this week.


About a month ago, Francois Grey put out a suggestion that we should replace the term ‘bottom-up’  science with upscience  – do read his blog-post for a fuller explanation. I have met Francois in New York in April, when he discussed with me the ideas behind the concept, and why it is worth trying to use it.

At the end of May I had my opportunity to use the term and see how well it might work. I was invited to give a talk as part of the series Trusting the crowd: solving big problems with everyday solutions‘ at Oxford Martin School. The two previous talks in the series, about citizen science in the 19th Century and about crowdsourced journalism, set a high bar (and both are worth watching). My talk was originally titled ‘Beyond the screen: the power and beauty of ‘bottom-up’ citizen science projects’ so for the talk itself I have used ‘Beyond the screen: the power and beauty of ‘up-science’ projects‘ and it seem to go fine.

For me, the advantage of using up-science (or upscience) is in the avoidance of putting the people who are active in this form of science in the immediate disadvantage of defining themselves as ‘bottom’. For a very similar reason, I dislike the term ‘counter-mapping‘ as it puts those that are active in it in confrontational position, and therefore it can act as an additional marginalisation force. For few people, who are in favour of fights, this might make them more ‘fired up’, but for others, that might be a reason to avoid the process. Self-marginalisation is not a great position to start a struggle from.

In addition, I like the ability of upscience to be the term that catches the range of practices that Francois includes in the term, from DIY science, community based projects, civic science etc.

The content of the talk included a brief overview of the spectrum of citizen science, some of the typologies that help to make sense of them, and finally a focus on the type of practices that are part of up-science. Finally, some of the challenges and current solutions to them are covered. Below you can find a video of the talk and the discussion that followed it (which I found interesting and relevant to the discussion above).

If any of the references that I have noted in the talk is of interest, you can find them in the slide set below, which is the one that I used for the talk.




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