Securing funding and balancing efforts: a tale of 21 research applications

EU H2020 Participants Portal
EU H2020 Participants Portal

The last 3 months were a gradual sigh of relief for the Extreme Citizen Science group (ExCites), Mapping for Change (MfC), and for me. As the UCL engineering website announced, the ExCiteS group, which I co-direct, secured funding through 3 research grants from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme (H2020), with enough funding to continue our work for the next 3 years, which is excellent. As usual in publicity, UCL celebrates successes, not the work that led to it. However, there are implications for the effort of securing funding and it is worth reflecting on them – despite the fact that we are in the success camp. While the criticism of the application process to European projects on the ROARS website is a bit exaggerated, it does give a good context for this post. In what follows I cover the context for the need to apply for funding, look at the efforts, successes and failures from mid 2014 to early 2016 (mostly failures), and then look at the implications. 

This is not a piece to boast about success or moan about failure, but I find writing as a useful way to reflect, and I wanted to take stock of the research application process. I hope that it will help in communicating what is the process of securing funding for an interdisciplinary, research intensive group.

Background & context 

The background is that the ExCiteS group started at the end of 2011, with a large group of PhD students – as common to early stage research groups. With the support of the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) award, which is about to end soon, it was possible to start a group. With additional funding from the European Union (EU) and EPSRC projects, including EveryAware (2011-2014), Citizen Cyberlab (2012-2015), Challenging Risk (2013-2018), and Cap4Access (2014-2016), it was possible to develop the activities of ExCiteS & MfC. This is evident in the software packages that are emerging from our work: Sapelli, GeoKey, and a new version of Community Maps, methodologies for using these tools within participatory processes. the academic and non-academic outputs, and the fact that people know about our work.

However, what was clear since 2011 was that 2015 will be a crunch point, when we will need funding to allow members of the group to move from PhD students to post-doctoral researchers (postdocs). The financial implication of funding a postdoc is about three-times the funding for a PhD student. In addition, while at earlier years members of the group (regardless of their career stage) participated in writing research proposals – and helped winning them (e.g. Citizen Cyberlab), when people write-up their PhD theses it is inappropriate to expect them to invest significant amount of time in research applications. Finally, all our funding come through research projects – we don’t have other sources of income.

Research Applications – effort, successes, failures 

UK Research Councils system (Je-S)
UK Research Councils system (Je-S)

So it was very clear that 2015 is going to be full of research applications. To give an idea of how many and the work that was involved, I’m listing them here – more or less in order of effort. I’m providing more details on successful applications but only partial on the failed ones – mostly because I didn’t check with the coordinators or the partners to see if they allow me to do so.

We started in mid 2014, when we started working on the first version of what is now DITOs. Coordinating an EU H2020 project proposal with 11 partners mean that between May and September 2014 we’ve invested an estimated 6 or 7 person months within the group in preparing it. We’ve submitted it early October, only to be disappointed in early March 2015 when we heard that although we scored high (13/15), we won’t be funded – only 1 project out of 19 that applied was funded. We then resurrected the proposal in July 2015, dedicated further 5 person months, resubmitted it and won funding after competition with 56 other proposals – of which only 2 were funded.

The next major investment was into a first stage proposal to the Citizen Observatories call of H2020. ExCiteS coordinated one proposal, and MfC participated in another. The process required an outline submission and then a full proposal. We worked on the proposal from December 2014 to April 2015, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to discover that 47 proposals were submitted to the first stage, of which 11 progressed to the second. The one coordinated by ExCiteS, with an investment of about 5 person months, scored 7/10, so didn’t progressed to the second stage. MfC also invested 2.5 person months in another proposal, as a partner. This proposal passed the first stage, but failed in the second.

Participating as a major partner in a proposal is also a significant effort, especially in H2020 projects in which there are multiple partners. The collaborative effort of MfC and ExCiteS in the proposal that emerged at WeGovNow! required about 4 person months. The proposal was submitted twice – first in July 2015 to a call for “Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation” which received 193 proposals of which 22 were funded, and then again to a call for “Meeting new societal needs by using emerging technologies in the public sector” where only 2 proposals were submitted in December 2015 (you can be lucky sometimes!).

The proposal for the European Research Council (ERC) was developed between May and June 2015, with about 3 person months – and luckily was successful. It competed with 1953 applications in total (423 in the social sciences), of which 277 (59) were successful – about 14% success rate.

Another fellowship proposal in response to an EPSRC call passed the first round, and failed at the interview stage (where 2 out of 5 candidates were selected). This one was developed from May 2015 and failed in February 2016, after an effort of about 2.5 person months.

We also developed the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) responsive mode proposal, which mean that we’ve applied to the general funds, and not to a specific call. We collaborated with colleagues at the Institute of Education from January 2015 to July 2015 , with an effort of about 2.5 person months, but we learned that it was unsuccessful in March 2016.

Another 2 person months were dedicated to an ESRC call for methodological research, for which 65 applications were submitted out of which 6 were funded, with our proposal ranking 22 out of about 65. In parallel, I had a small part in another proposal for the same call, which was ranked 56.

We’ve invested a month in an unsuccessful application to Wellcome Trust Science Learning + call in July 2014.

Less time was spent on proposals where we had a smaller role – a failed H2020 ICT proposal in April 2015, or another H2020 about Integrating Society in Science and Innovation September 2015. This also include a successful proposal to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).  Because of all the other proposals, information such as the description of our activities, CVs and other bits were ready and adjusted quite easily.

ExCiteS and MfC also participated in an EU LIFE proposal – this was for funding for applied activities, with very low level of funding of only 50%, so there was a need to think carefully about which add-on activities can be used for it. However, as the proposal failed, it wasn’t an issue.

Along the way, there were also small parts in an application to the Wellcome trust in early 2015 (failed), in an EPSRC programme grant (a large grant with many partners) that was organised at UCL and on which we dedicated time from June 2014 to February 2015 (ditto), an outline for Leverhulme trust (ditto), an ERC research proposal (ditto), and finally  a COST Action application for a research network on Citizen Science (which was successful!)

So let’s summarise all these proposals, success, failure, effort in one table. Lines where the funder marked in bold mean that we’ve coordinated the proposal:

Funder Effort (Months) Success/Failure
1 H2020 7 Failure
2 H2020 5 Success
3 H2020 5 Failure
4 H2020 2.5 Failure
5 H2020 4 Failure
6 H2020 1 Success
7 ERC 3 Success
8 EPSRC 2.5 Failure
9 ESRC 2.5 Failure
10 ESRC 2 Failure
11 ESRC 0.5 Failure
12 Wellcome 1 Failure
13 H2020 0.25 Failure
14 H2020 0.25 Failure
15 CDKN 0.25 Success
16 EU LIFE 0.5 Failure
17 Wellcome 0.5 Failure
18 EPSRC 0.5 Failure
19 Leverhulme 0.5 Failure
20 ERC 0.25 Failure
21 COST 0.5 Success

So what?

We’ve applied to lots of funders and mechanisms – fellowships, calls for proposals, and open calls for research ideas. We applied to UK funders and EU. As we are working in an interdisciplinary area, we have applied to social science as well as engineering, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and in between these areas. In third of the case we led the proposal, but in the rest we joined in to proposals that were set by others. So the first point to notice is that we didn’t fixate on one source, mechanism or role.

As the table shows, we’re not doing badly. Out of the 7 proposals that we’ve led, 2 succeeded (30%). Also among the 14 that we’ve participated in 3 succeeded (20%). The overall success is about quarter. Over about 18 months a group of about 10 people invested circa 40 person months in securing future funding (about 20% of the time) for the next 3 years, which doesn’t sound excessive.

However, the load was not spread equally, so some people spent a very significant amount of their time on proposals. I was involved in almost all of these 21 proposals during this period, much more in those that we led, and in some of those that we participated as partner, I was the only person in the group that worked on the proposal. It was increasingly challenging to keep submitting and working on proposals with so much uncertainty and the very long gap between submission and results (look above, and you’ll see that it can be up to 9 months). Because of the uncertainty about success, and an assumption that only 20% will be successful at best (that’s 4 wasted proposals for every successful one), I felt that I need to keep on going, but there were moment when I thought that it’s a doomed effort.

There is also the issue of morale – as should be obvious from the fact that we’ve announced the successes recently, as the failures mounted up during the second part of 2015, it was harder to be cheerful. Because of the long gap between proposal submission and result that I mentioned, the future of the group is unknown for a significant period, and that influences decisions by people about staying or leaving, or how to use the funds that we do have.


Leaving aside that by early 2016 it became hard to find the energy to be involved in more proposal writing, there is an issue about how interdisciplinary research groups are funded. While we can apply to more funding opportunities, the responses from the failures indicated that it’s tough to convince disciplinary evaluators that the work that is being done is important. This mean that we knew all along that we need to apply more. Maybe it was a coincident, but the EU funding evaluations seem more open to these ideas than UK funders.

Second, such a high number of applications take time from other research activities (e.g. check my publications in 2014-2015). Applications, with all the efforts that is associated with them, are not seen as an academic output, so all the effort of writing the text, proofing it and revising it are frequently wasted when a proposal fail.

Third, all these proposals burn social capital, ‘business capital’, and cash reserves – e.g. having a consultant to help with H2020 project or covering the costs of meetings, asking for letter of support from business partners, raising hopes and making links with partners only to write at the end that we won’t be working together beyond the proposal. There are also negotiations with the Head of Department on the level of support from the university, requests for help from research facilitators, financial administrators and other people at the university.

Fourth, considering how much effort, experience, support – and luck – is needed to secure research funding, I’m not surprise that some people are so despondent about their chances to do so, but all the above is the result of a large team and I would argue that the clue to the ability to keeping the stamina is team spirit and having a clear goal on why the hell you want the funding in the first place (in our case, we want to materialise Extreme Citizen Science).

Finally, looking at the number of the submissions, the ranking and the general success rate of applications in the areas that we’ve applied to (about 15% or less), I have concerns that under such conditions there is a ‘crowding out’ situation, in which groups that got better resources around them (e.g. the institutional infrastructure at UCL, our internal experience) make it harder for new entrants or smaller groups. At a higher funding rate, we could have secured the funding in less proposals, at which point we wouldn’t continue to apply, and therefore allow others to secure funding.


I have no plans for another period like the one that led to the current results. I am incredibly grateful to have such a level of success, which is about the institution that I’m in, the hard work and the evolving experience in preparing proposals and, always, luck. It is very possible that this post would have counted 19 failures, so we’re very grateful to all the people who evaluated out proposals positively and gave us the funding.

Back to the funding, with all the successes, in people terms, we’ve secured funding for the 10 people that I’ve mentioned for 3 years, with further 6 PhD students joining us over that period. There are still other people in the group that will need funding soon, so probably we will put the accumulated knowledge and experience to use soon.

Giving time – randomised experiments on volunteering and citizen social science

As the event blurb explained  “the Giving Time experiments were led by a team from four UK universities, who wanted to know whether sharing information about how others have volunteered could help to improve volunteering… this was about giving time – and whether volunteers can be nudged. The methodology was randomised control trial (RCTs) in real-life field settings involving university student volunteers, Parish Councils, National Trust volunteers, and housing association residents.  The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).” The discussion of RCTs and Citizen Science in the same event was bound to generate interesting points.

In the first session, Prof Peter John (UCL) discussed The research challenges of large scale RCTs with volunteers and volunteering organisations. Peter covered the principles for Randomised Control Trials  (RCTs) – using randomness in trying something: assuming that two random groups will behave the same if you leave them alone, so you do things only to one group and observe the results. Start with baseline, random allocation to programme and control group, and then compare the outcome. Tying the outcomes to random allocation and – they are unbiased estimates of the impact of outcomes. Key distinguishing features of RCTs: need to deliver an intervention and the research at the same time. He suggests a 10 steps process – assessment of fit for RCTs, recruitment of partner organisations in which the work will be carried out, select a site, decide treatment, specify control, calculation of sample size, develop the procedure for random allocation, collection of data on the subjects, preparation of research plans, and assessment of ethical principles. The things can go wrong include: loss of subjects – people drop out along the way; failed randomization – deciding on who will be included in the process; treatment not given or modified; interference between treatment and control – when the groups meet; unavoidable confounds – when something come along in policy or media and policy change; poor quality data – what the data mean and what is going on with it; loss of cooperation with partners; and unexpected logistical challenges.
The Giving Time was the first RCTs on volunteering experiments – volunteering is more complex than giving money. The question is if behavioural methods can impact on the changes in the process. Working with the volunteering sector was challenging as they don’t have detailed records of volunteers that can be used to develop RCTs. There was willingness to participate in experiments and it was quite interesting to work with such organisations. There was a high level of attrition for those who are staying in the study – just getting volunteers to volunteer – from getting people to be interested until they do something. Is it possible to make it easier, get better quality data? RCTs required changes in organisational practices – if they are information based they are not hugely costly. It is possible to design trials to be sensitive to organisational practice and can be used quickly in decision making. There are issues with data protection and have a clear data sharing agreement.

Against this background, the second session Towards ‘Extreme Citizen Social Science’ – or volunteering as a tool for both social action and enquiry explored a contrasting approach. The session description already explored challenge: “For many, the scale of engagement with volunteers undertaken through Giving Time brings to mind related questions about the role of citizens in formal research – and then of course Citizen Science – or perhaps ‘Citizen Social Science’? At the same time we see the emergence of “Extreme Citizen Science” aimed at stimulating debate and challenging power relationships through citizen involvement in large scale scientific investigations. Extreme citizen science often starts from natural and physical sciences and has citizen researchers working with formal researchers to define the central research questions, and methods of investigation. But what is the potential for Extreme Citizen Social Science – characterised by being large scale, focused on social science questions, exploiting digital technology, having a high degree of participant control, and orientated towards influencing policy?”

Liz Richardson (Manchester Uni) gave her view on citizen social science approach. She is doing a lot of participatory research, and you need to explore with participants what is accepted to do with them. We can solve problems in a better way, if we have conversations on wide knowledge base in science – e.g. – a rough guide to spotting bad science. Liz compared her experience to early memories of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch – the natural sciences version of citizen science, and part of it is access to back gardens and wide area research. She also reflected on her participation in Zooniverse and the confusion about what is the science there – e.g. why scientists ask which direction wildebeest look? There are different levels of engagement in citizen science classification, such as Haklay 2013 and a version in the book community research for participation – from low participation to high level. Citizen social science  – example for a basic one is the 2011 big class survey in the BBC – just giving and sharing information – more crowdsourcing. Another, more complex example is Christian Nold emotional maps when people responded to arousal measurement, part of evolution in visualising information and sharing mapping. The app MapLocal is used in local planning and sharing information by community members. Groups can also collect data and analyse it – they then work with social scientists how to make sense of data that they collected (work carried out with White Rock Trust in Hasting). It’s not research that done alone but integrated and leading to a change – it’s community consultation. An example is a game in Boston with Participatory Chinatown – and example for a community-led action research from the Morris Justice Project with support from academics.

I provided a presentation about extreme citizen science, positioning it within social science context (similar to my talk for the Institute for Global Prosperity) with some pointers to underlying social theory – especially that the approach that we take in contrast to some behaviour change approaches that take methodological individualism for granted.

Jemma Mouland (Family Mosaic) provided the provider point of view. Head of research at large social housing provider, with about 45,000 tenants. They have done project with Liz, and she explained it from provider point of view. Family Mosaic is looking at community involvement and decision making – what affect them in their daily life and where the housing provider come in? How to work more collaboratively with the residents. They run the a citizen science project around the meaning of community. They have done that through the Giving Time project – they sent email to recruit people to become citizen scientists – from 8000 people that received the message, 82 were interested, then 13 people were involved. They provided the material to carry out workshops, and didn’t instructed how to carry out the research – that led to 50 responses, although instructed to get at least 3, so some people moved beyond just 3. They also got the citizen scientists to analyse the data and the residents interpreted the data that they have gathered. The results from the survey – different definition of community, with active minority, and barriers include time and articulating the benefits (‘why should I do it?’). The residents felt that it was great, but they weren’t sure about doing it again – and also acting on behalf of the provider can be an issue, as well as feeling that all familiar contacts where used. The issue of skills is also interesting – gave very little information, and it can be effective to train people more. For Family Mosaic – the data was not ground breaking, but prove that collaboration can work and have a potential, it gave evident that it can work for the organisation.

So, *can* volunteers be nudged? Turning the spotlight on the future of Nudge techniques. Professor Gerry Stoker (Southampton Uni) The reasons for the lack of success of intervention was the use of the wrong tool and significant difference of money donation and time donation. Nudge come with a set of ideas – drawing on behavioural economics – we use short-cuts and tricks to make decision and we do what other do and then government followed it in a way to influence and work with people and change their behaviour. There are multiple doubts about nudge – nudge assumes fast thinking, but giving time is in slow thinking mode – donating money closer to type 1 (fast thinking) and volunteering closer to type 2 (slow thinking). Second, humans are not just cognitive misers – there are degrees of fast and slow thinking. Almost all nudging techniques are about compliance. Also it’s naive and overly promotional – and issues when the topic is controversial. The individual focus missed the social – changing people mind require persuasion. Complexity also make clear answers harder to find – internal and external validity, and there are very complex models of causality. There are ironic politics of nudge and experiments – allowed space only at the margins of policy making. Need to recognise that its a tool along other tools, and need to deal with groups side by side with other tools. Nudge is a combination with structural or institutional change, wider strategies of behaviour change, and not that other techniques are not without their own problems and issues

Discussion – need to have methodologies that are responsive to the local situation and context. A question is how do you nudge communities and not work at the individual level.

The final talk before the panel discussion was Volunteers will save us – volunteering as a panacea. Presenter: Dr Justin Davis-Smith (National Council for Voluntary Orgs) State of volunteering in 2015 – volunteering can lead to allow social transformations – e.g. ex-offenders being released to volunteering roles and that help avoiding offending. Another success is to involve people who are far from the job market to get employable skills through volunteering. Volunteering also shown that volunteers have better mental health and wellbeing. Not volunteering has a negative impact on your wellbeing. There are volunteering that can be based on prescription (e.g. Green Gyms). Volunteers are engaged in public services, such as special constables. Social capital is also improved through volunteering. Replacement value £40Bn, and the other impacts of volunteering are not being quantified so the full value is estimated at £200Bn. So volunteer will save us?
However, volunteering is cost effective but not without cost and require investment, which is difficult to make. The discussion about engagement of volunteers in public service put the volunteers against paid labour, instead of co-production. There are also unhealthy dynamic with paid staff if it only seen as cost-saving measure. We have a small core that provide their volunteering effort, and the vast majority of volunteering is made by a small group (work on civic core by the centre for third sector research was mentioned). The search for the panacea is therefore complex. Over effort of 15 years in different forms of volunteering, there is only 5% change in the amount people report about volunteering. Some of the nudge mechanisms didn’t work – there is a lot of evidence to show that campaign on volunteering don’t work well. People react negatively to campaigns. Barrier for volunteering is lack of time, and concerned that getting involved will demand more and more of their time. Reflecting on time constraints and micro-volunteering can work.

The final panel explored issues of co-production of research and the opportunities to work with volunteering organisations to start the process – many social services providers do want to have access to research but find it difficult to start the process.

UCL Fossil Fuel Divestment debate

UCL organised a debate about fossil fuel divestment, with 7 knowledgeable speakers (all professors), raising argument for and against the suggestion that UCL should divest from fossil fuels and sell its £21million invested in the industry. In the room and on the panel there were more people who supported the motion than those who opposed it. Interestingly, at the end of the discussion more people switched to support divestment. I took notes of the positions and what people mentioned as a way to map the different views that were expressed. So here are my notes, the tl;dr point of each argument and something about my view at the end of this longish post.

Anthony Costello opened the debate and discuss that research from UCL provided evidence to justify the Guardian ‘keep it in the ground‘ campaign. The aim of the debate is to explore different views and see what the general views of the people who attended it.

Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet opened with some comments officially Chaired the debate – there is a movement around divestment from fossil fuel that is very rapidly growing across society and different places. Universities are special in their role in society – they are creator of knowledge about public policy issues, but they are also a moral space within society, where position can be taken. Some of UK universities decided to divest – Glasgow, SOAS. Other university didn’t decide – e.g. Oxford. It is appropriate to ask what UCL should do, it is leading on considering the impacts of climate change on society at large – e.g. risk to health?

Chris Rapley, opened with nothing that we are the first humans to breath at 400ppm of CO in the atmosphere as a basic composition  – it is above the levels for the last 800,000 years. 40% rise is the same increment between ice age and interglacial age. The change is taking place 100 times faster than anything natural. The conclusion is that it is unwise to increase above 2C from pre-industrial levels, and we have very little left to burn. 80% of coal and 50% of oil are unburnable – we don’t have a solution for carbon capture and storage yet. The first reason to divest is that it’s prudent – it’s the energy of the past, and renewable are the future. The valuations are a bubble so it is best to put the money elsewhere. second point, we need to be put on a trajectory away from fossil fuel by this December – and lot of issues play out in Paris will not be ratified until 2020. We need to connect the trajectory that we are currently on and the future one, so we do it properly. The CEOs of BP and Shell suggested business as usual, and the recent budget gave 1.2 billion to North Sea oil, so the government is not following its own statement. UCL as radical thinker need to do a gesture in the right direction. We are all part of a web of carbon intensive world, and we need to manage the transition.

My TL;DR Rapley: Science is showing the need combined with need to change trajectory 

Jane Holder argued for divestment from the point of view of a teacher of environmental law. The meaning for teaching and learning – the movement that has gone on for the past 20 and more years to increase environmental education at university level. Helping students to deal with contested knowledge, uncertainty and environmental issues. UCL has done a lot of work over the years – changes to the estate and the curriculum, from this perspective, the UCL campaign make a connection between the estate, curriculum and its finance. There is linkages between environmental education and the learning and teaching of UCL. Significance of informal curriculum – the intangible way in which institution instil values in students – there is publicness of university building and the way it treat staff. Secondly, there are broader changes in university – in terms of education, students explained that since tuition fees, the student is viewed as a consumer, and not citizens of the university community. The divestment campaign allow students to act as citizens and not consumer. University is a site for environmental activity and the roles should be combined.

My TL;DR Holder: teaching and learning imperatives and finance is part of it. 

Anthony Finkelstein argued, this is not question of expertise, starting point that accepting the need to change – but expect to see change in energy sources happening with technological advances. The speed and extent of change is complex feedback systems. Generally, he adopts a precautionary view. However, fossil fuel will be part of our future because of their properties – we need to deal with consumption and not production. Consumption is within a political context and the condemnation of fossil fuel is about political failure. UCL should invest according to regulatory aspects. Ownership of asset can be used to exert influence, the concern is about research and UCL strategy – it’s hypocritical to use money from fossil fuel companies for research, but not to invest in them – it sends the wrong message. A lot of research in engineering is supported by fossil fuel companies – also raise the issue of academic freedom. It is not right to ask or to question ethics of people you disagree with. (see the full argument on Anthony’s blog)

My TL;DR Finkelstein: deal with consumption and not production, we are using a lot of funding from fossil fuel companies and there is a risk to academic freedom. 

Hugh Montgomery – fossil fuel helped humanity, but it need to stop. Energy gain to the planet is equivalent to 5 Hiroshima bombs a second. 7% will stay 100,000 years. Health impacts will be in all sort of directions – and these concern also among military bodies, or the WHO. Not only from ‘extreme left wing’ organisations. Even to reach 2C we have 27 years or even more like 19 years – if we are to act, we have to keep 2/3 of fossil fuel in the ground. There is over-exposure to stranded assets. Why divestment? it’s not ‘rabid anti-capitalist agenda’ – we should change market forces. The aim of the divestment is to force fossil fuel companies to go through transformative change. UCL should do what is right, not only the amount of money, but as a statement. The stigmatisation will be significant to fossil fuel companies.

My TL;DR Montgomery: it’s not only left wing politics, even if you are fairly conservative in outlook, this make sense. 

Jane Rendell – stated that she concerned about the environment and stood down from the Bartlett research vice-dean position because of BHP Billiton funding. Leading on ethics and the built environment in the Bartlett. From her view, investment in fossil fuel is not compatible with UCL research strategy of dealing with judicious application of knowledge to improve humanity. The investment is incompatible with its own ethical guidelines and its environmental strategy. It’s also incompatible with UCL research itself about the need to leave fossil fuel in the ground. The most profound change will come from breaking down practices of finance – it’s not acceptable for fund manager to hide behind claims to ignore their responsibility to everyone else. The only argument is for shareholder engagement, and there is no evidence for it – as well as Porritt declared recently about the uselessness of engagement.

My TL;DR Rendell: incompatibility with UCL policies, and there is no point in engagement. 

Alan Penn – Universities should concentrate in their place in society – relatively new institutions and important in generation of knowledge and passing it to future generation. The ability to critically question the world. We are all invested in this companies – we benefiting from tax from North Sea oil, pension funds. Arguing that money is just transactional property and therefore doesn’t hold value. Arguing that people should invest and force companies to change through engagement.

My TL;DR Penn: don’t mix money with values, and if you want change, buy controlling stake in shares.

After the discussion (with Anthony Finkelstein having to defend his position more than anyone else), there was more support for divestment, although most of the room started from that point of view.

Finally, my view – I’ve started my university studies in October 1991, and as I was getting interested in environment and society issues in my second year of combined Computer Science and Geography degree, the Earth Summit in Rio (June 1992) was all the rage. The people who taught me have been in the summit – that also explains how I got interested in Principle 10 of the Rio declaration which is central to my work. This biographical note is to point that Earth Summit was also the starting point for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which opens with

The Parties to this Convention,
Acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind,
Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind …

So for the past 23 years, I’ve been watching from the sidelines how the decision makers are just not getting to the heart of the matter, nor acting although they are told about the urgency. The science was clear then. If the actions of government and industries started in 1992 we could have all been well on the route for sustainability (at least in energy consumption). It was absolutely clear that the necessary technologies are already around. I therefore find the argument of shareholders engagement as unrealistic at this stage, nor do I see the link between investment, where you don’t have control over the actions of the company, and careful decision on which research project to carry out in collaboration and under which conditions. This why I have supported the call to UCL to divest.


I still need to find the time to write the academic paper to follow my blog post about the role of my research area in fossil fuel exploration

nQuire-it/Sense-it – discovering sensors in your phone

Sense-it Light sensor Sense-it Sound
The Open University, with support from Nominet Trust and UTC Sheffield have launched  the website, which seem to have a great potential for running citizen science activities. The nQuire platform allows participants to create science inquiry ‘missions’. It is accompanied by an Android app called Sense-it that exposed all the sensors that are integrated in a smartphone and let you see what they are doing and the values that they are showing.

The process of setting up a project on the nQuire-it site is fairly quick and you can figure it out in few clicks. Then, joining the project that you’ve created on the phone is also fairly simple, and the integration with Google, Facebook and Twitter accounts mean that linking the profiles is quick. Then you can get few friends to start using it, and the Sense-it app let you collect the data and then share it with other participants in the project on the nQuire website. Then participants can comment on the data, ask questions about how it was produced and up or down vote it. All these make nQuire a very suitable place for experimentation with sensors in smartphones and prototyping citizen science activities. It also provides an option for recording geographic location, and it good to see that it’s disabled by default, so the project designer need to actively switch it on.

The value of “analog” user experience

I’ve been using 37Signals’ Basecamp now for over 5 years. I’m involved in many projects with people from multiple departments and organisations. In the first large project that I run in 2007 – Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities – Basecamp was recommended to us by Nick Black (just before he co-founded CloudMade), so we’ve started using it. Since then, it was used for 33 projects and activities which range from coordinating writing an academic paper to running a large multidisciplinary group. In some projects it was used a lot in other it didn’t work as well. As with any other information system, the use of it depends on needs and habits of different users and not only on the tool itself.

It is generally an excellent tool to organise messages, information and documents about projects and activities and act well as a repository of project related information – but project management software is not what this post is about.

I’m sure that in the scheme of things, we are a fairly small users of Basecamp. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised to receive a card from 37Signals. 
I’m fairly passive user of Basecamp as far as 37Signals are concerned – I’m please with what it does, but I have not contacted them with requests or anything like that. So getting this hand-written card was a very nice touch from a company that could very easily wrote the code to send me an email with the same information – but that wouldn’t be the same in terms of emotional impact.

As Sherry Turkle is noting in her recent book, the human contact is valuable and appreciated. This is important and lots of times undervalued aspect of communication and interaction – the analog channels are there and can be very effective. This blog post – and praising 37Signals for making this small effort, is an example of why it is worth doing it.

Geographical Citizen Science

The London Citizen Cyberscience Summit in early September was a stimulating event, which brought together a group of people with an interest in this area. A report from the event, with a very good description of the presentations, including a reflection piece, is available on the ‘Strange Attractor’ blog.

During the summit, I discussed the aspects of ‘Extreme’ Citizen Science, where we move from usual science to participatory research. The presentation was partly based on a paper that I wrote and that I presented during the workshop on the value of Volunteered Geographical Information in advancing science, which was run as part of the GIScience 2010 conference towards the middle of September. Details about the workshop are available on the workshop’s website including a set of interesting position papers.

The presentation below covers the topics that I discussed in both workshops. Here, I provide a brief synopsis for the presentation, as it is somewhat different from the paper.

In the talk, I started by highlighting that by using different terminologies we can notice different facets of the practice of crowd data collection (VGI within the GIScience community, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping …).

The first way in which we can understand this information is in the context of Web 2.0 applications. These applications can be non-spatial (such as Wikipedia or Twitter), or implicitly spatial (such as Flickr – you need to be in a location before you can capture a photograph), or explicitly spatial , in applications that are about collecting geographical information – for example OpenStreetMap. When looking at VGI from the perspective of Web 2.0 it’s possible to identify the specific reasons that it emerged and how other similar applications influence its structure and practices.

The second way to view this information is as part of geographical information produced by companies who need mapping information (such as Google or TomTom). In this case, you notice that it’s about reducing the costs of labour and the need for active or passive involvement of the person who carries out the mapping.

The third, and arguably new way to view VGI is as part of Citizen Science. These activities have been going for a long time in ornithology and in meteorology. However, there are new forms of Citizen Science that rely on ICT – such as movement-activated cameras (slide 11 on the left) that are left near animal trails and are operated by volunteers, or a network of accelerometers that form a global earthquake monitoring network. Not all Citizen Science is spatial, and there are very effective examples, especially in the area of Citizen Cyberscience. So in this framing of VGI we can pay special attention to the collection of scientific information. Importantly, as in the case of spatial application, some volunteers become experts, such as Hanny van Arkel who has discovered a type of galaxy in Galaxy Zoo.

Slides 16-17 show the distribution of crowdsourced images, and emphasise the spatial distribution of information near population centres and tourist attractions. Slides 19-25 show the analysis of the data that was collected by OpenStreetMap volunteers and highlight bias towards highly populated and affluent areas.

Citizen Science is not just about the data collections. There are also cultural problems regarding the trustworthiness of the data, but slides 28-30 show that the data is self-improving as more volunteers engage in the process (in this case, mapping in OpenStreetMap). On that basis, I do question the assumption about trustworthiness of volunteers and the need to change the way we think about projects. There are emerging examples of such Citizen Science where the engagement of participants is at a higher level. For example, noise mapping activities that a community near London City Airport carried out (slides 34-39) which shows that people can engage in science and are well placed when there are opportunities, such as the ash cloud in April 2010, to collect ‘background’ noise. This is not possible without the help of communities.
Finally, slides 40 and 41 demonstrate that it is possible to engage non-literate users in environmental data collection.

So in summary, a limitless Citizen Science is possible – we need to create the tool for it and understand how to run such projects, as well study them.

Computers and the Renaissance of Cartography (1976)

While sorting out our departmental GIS library, I came across a small booklet titled Computers and the Renaissance of Cartography from 1976. It was written by Dr Tom Margerison, the first editor of New Scientist, and describes the activities of the Experimental Cartography Unit (ECU), which pioneered the use of computers for geographical and cartographical applications. Though Prof. David Rhind told me that the description should be taken with a pinch of salt, and that there are alternative accounts.

Interestingly, the ECU operated within the Royal College of Art to encourage new designs and innovations in map making. It was established in 1967 and operated until the late 1980s.
The booklet provides a description of the main processes of assembling maps at the ECU in the middle of the 1970s, and what is especially interesting is to see some amazing outputs of maps from that time, which, unlike the typical crude output of Symap, are beautiful and clear.
I have asked Dan Lewis, who was involved in the digitising of the CATMOG catalogue of booklets about quantitative methods in geography, to turn this booklet into PDF format so we can share it. Dan put some of the maps on his blog .

If you want to download the booklet – it is now available here.

Today is a good day to publish this booklet, following the announcement that Prof. Peter Woodsford, who was among the founders of Laser-Scan (now 1Spatial), received an MBE for his services to the geographic information industry in the Queen’s birthday honours list, and it was the equipment of Laser-Scan that enabled the creation of these maps.