Chapter in ‘Understanding Spatial Media’ on VGI & Citizen Science

77906_9781473949683[1]The book ‘Understanding Spatial Media‘ came out earlier this year. The project is the result of joint effort of the editors¬†Rob Kitchin¬†(NUI Maynooth, Ireland),¬†Tracey P. Lauriault¬†(Carleton University, Canada), and¬†Matthew W. Wilson¬†(University of Kentucky, USA).

The book is filling the need to review and explain what happened in the part 20 years, with the increase use of digital geographic information that then became widespread and can be considered as a media – something that Daniel Sui and Mike Goodchild noted in 2001. The book chapters are covering the underlying technologies, the sources of the data and media that are part of this area, and the implications – from smart cities to surveillance and privacy.

My contribution to this book is in a chapter that belong to the middle section – spatial data and spatial media – and that provides an introduction to Volunteered Geographic Information and Citizen Science. If you’re interested, you can read the chapter here.


PhD studentship in collaboration with the Ordnance Survey – identifying systematic biases in crowdsourced geographic information

Deadline 10th November 2017

UCL Department of Geography and the Ordnance Survey are inviting applications for a PhD studentship to explore the internal systematic biases in crowd-sourced geographic information datasets (also known as Volunteered Geographic Information – VGI).

The studentship provides an exciting opportunity for a student to work with Ordnance Survey on understanding the use of crowd-sourced geographic information MH DSCN0571and potentially contributing to the use of such data sources by national mapping agencies. Ordnance Survey is an active partner in its sponsored research and offers students opportunities to work on-site and to contribute to workshops and innovation within the business. In addition, the student will be part of the Extreme Citizen Science group at UCL, which is one of the leading research groups in the area of crowdsourced geographic information and the study thereof.

For more information about the project, the studentship and details how to apply, please see below:


Start Date: January 2018

Funding status: Applications are invited from UK and EU citizenship holders.

Funding Body: EPSRC and Ordnance Survey

Funding Details: The scholarship covers UCL student fees at the Home/EU rate and provides a stipend of £16,553 per annum tax free. Travel expenses and research equipment will also be provided to the successful candidate.

Project Description:

UCL Department of Geography and the Ordnance Survey are inviting applications for a PhD studentship to explore the internal systematic biases in crowd-sourced geographic information datasets (also known as Volunteered Geographic Information – VGI).

There has been a rapid increase in information gathered by people from all walks of life who are using connected devices with an ability to collect and share geographic information, such as GPS tracks, photographs with location information, or observations of the natural environment in citizen science projects. There is now a vast array of projects and activities that use this type of information, and each project has its own characteristics. Yet, it can be hypothesised that some of the characteristics of crowd-sourced geographic information will be systematically biased, and these biases differ between projects and data sources.

Crowd-sourced datasets will have some systematic biases that repeat across crowd-sourcing platforms. For example the impact of population density, business activity, and tourism on the places where data is available, or a weekend or seasonal bias of the temporal period of data collection. Others biases are project-specific – for example, some projects manage to attract more young men, and therefore places that are of interest to this demographic will be over-represented. One of the major obstacles that limit the use of such data sources is understanding and separating systematic and project-level biases and then developing statistical methods to evaluate their impact. In order to use such datasets to identify hidden features and patterns, there is a need to identify what are the relationships between a dataset and the world.

The aim of this research project, therefore, is to create a large collection of crowd-sourced GPS tracks and pedestrian trajectories, and use conflation techniques and advanced analytics to develop methodologies to identify and estimate the biases. Once this is done, the aim will be to identify hidden characteristics to be more confident about the patterns that are being observed.

Studentship Description

The studentship provides an exciting opportunity for a student to work with Ordnance Survey on understanding the use of crowd-sourced geographic information, and potentially contributing to the use of such data sources by national mapping agencies. Ordnance Survey is an active partner in its sponsored research and offers students opportunities to work on-site and to contribute to workshops and innovation within the business. In addition, the student will be part of the Extreme Citizen Science group at UCL, which is one of the leading research groups in the area of crowdsourced geographic information and the study thereof.

The project will run for four years and will be supervised by Prof Muki Haklay from UCL and Jeremy Morley from Ordnance Survey. Professor Muki Haklay, who is a professor in the UCL Department of Geography and who has a track record of research and publication relating to crowdsourced data management and quality. Jeremy Morley is the Chief Geospatial Scientist at Ordnance Survey, leading the long-term business research programme, and has research experience in crowd-sourced geographic information.

 Person Specification

Applicants should possess a strong bachelor’s degree (1st Class or 2:1 minimum) or Masters degree in Computer Science, Spatial statistics, Ecology, Geomatics, Geographic Information Science or a related discipline. The skills required to build the required database of case studies and the programming and analytical skills to assess biases and develop algorithms for their identification, are highly desirable. Candidates will ideally have some relevant previous research experience and should also have excellent communication and presentation skills.

The funding is provided for 4 years, and will involve spending time at the Ordnance Survey in Southampton.


Applications are invited from UK and EU citizens residing in UK. In particular, applicants must meet EPSRC eligibility and residency requirements found here:

Application Procedure

Applicants should send the following by e-mail to Judy Barrett ( and Prof Haklay (

  1. Cover letter, including a personal statement explaining your interest in the project.
  2. Examples of academic writing and outputs from past work (e.g. a dissertation or assignment)
  3. Academic transcripts
  4. A CV

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to interview during November 2017. Any incomplete applications will not be considered.


Cambridge Conference 2017 – The Willing Volunteer

wp-1499185668092The Cambridge Conference is an event that is held every 4 years, organised  by the Ordnance Survey, and it is a meeting of many heads of National Mapping Agencies who come together to discuss shared interests and learn from each other.

The history of the conference is available here. This year, I was asked to provide a talk about volunteered geographic information and the role of crowdsourced information in the service of national mapping bodies. As common in these conferences, I was given a title for the talk and request on the topic – this was ‚ÄúThe Willing Volunteer ‚Äď
Incorporating voluntary data into national databases‚ÄĚ – and the description was: At present few mapping databases contain crowd sourced or voluntary data. Consider how, in the future, this will be a valuable source of data for national geospatial, cadastral and mapping agencies.

The talk itself covered 4 parts – since the conference as a whole looked at the future needs of mapping in the next 15 years, I’ve mentioned the trends that will influence crowdsourcing over this period. I’ve included both the technical and the social trends that will influence this area. I then covered few examples, and paid attention to the need to think differently about crowdsourced information (using the metaphor of scarcity/abundance as a way to explain that), then provided two insights from the “crowdsourcing geographic information in government” study that I’m currently leading. I’ve finished with few slides that demonstrate that engagement can reach out to everyone, regardless of their literacy.

Here are the slides:

Has GIScience Lost its Interdisciplinary Mojo?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaging with Interdisciplinary research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From projects to research fields

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

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

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

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

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

New areas for Interdisciplinary research

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

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

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

New book: European Handbook of Crowdsourced Geographic Information

COST EnergicCOST ENERGIC is a network of researchers across Europe (and beyond) that are interested in research crowdsourced geographic information, also known as Volunteered Geographic Information¬†(VGI). The acronym stands for ‘Co-Operation in Science & Technology’ (COST) through ‘European Network Researching Geographic Information Crowdsourcing’ (ENREGIC). I have written about this programme before, through events such as twitter chats, meetings, summer schools and publications. We started our activities in December 2012, and now, 4 years later, the funding is coming to an end.

bookcoverOne of the major outcomes of the COST ENERGIC network is an edited book that is dedicated to the research on VGI, and we have decided that following the openness of the field, in which many researchers use open sources to analyse locations, places, and movement, we should have the publication as¬†open access – free to download and reuse. To achieve that, we’ve approached¬†Ubiquity Press, who specialise in open access academic publishing, and set a process of organising the writing of short and accessible chapters from across the spectrum of research interests and topics that are covered by members of the network.¬†Dr Haosheng Huang (TU Wien)¬†volunteered to assist with the editing and management of the process. The chapters then went through internal peer review, and another cycle of peer review following Ubiquity Press own process, so it is thoroughly checked!

The book includes 31 chapters with relevant information about application of VGI and citizen science, management of data, examples of projects, and high level concepts in this area.

The book is now available for download here. Here is the description of the book:

This book focuses on the study of the remarkable new source of geographic information that has become available in the form of user-generated content accessible over the Internet through mobile and Web applications. The exploitation, integration and application of these sources, termed volunteered geographic information (VGI) or crowdsourced geographic information (CGI), offer scientists an unprecedented opportunity to conduct research on a variety of topics at multiple scales and for diversified objectives.
The Handbook is organized in five parts, addressing the fundamental questions:

  • What motivates citizens to provide such information in the public domain, and what factors govern/predict its validity?
  • What methods might be used to validate such information?
  • Can VGI be framed within the larger domain of sensor networks, in which inert and static sensors are replaced or combined by intelligent and mobile humans equipped with sensing devices?
  • What limitations are imposed on VGI by differential access to broadband Internet, mobile phones, and other communication technologies, and by concerns over privacy?
  • How do VGI and crowdsourcing enable innovation applications to benefit human society?

Chapters examine how crowdsourcing techniques and methods, and the VGI phenomenon, have motivated a multidisciplinary research community to identify both fields of applications and quality criteria depending on the use of VGI. Besides harvesting tools and storage of these data, research has paid remarkable attention to these information resources, in an age when information and participation is one of the most important drivers of development.
The collection opens questions and points to new research directions in addition to the findings that each of the authors demonstrates. Despite rapid progress in VGI research, this Handbook also shows that there are technical, social, political and methodological challenges that require further studies and research


Esri Education User Conference talk: Citizen Science & Geographical Technologies: creativity, learning, and engagement

The slides below are from my keynote talk at the Esri Education User Conference 2016. The conference focused on creativity and its relevant to education and the utilisation of GIS (especially Esri software) at different levels of education.

My talk explored the area of citizen science and extreme citizen science and the way geographical technologies contribute to creativity and learning. As I continue to assume that many of the audience don’t know about citizen science, I start¬†with a review of the field as a way to contextualise what we, as a group, try to do.

[The talk is similar, in parts, to other talks that are captured here on my blog (workshop on theory, practice and policy, standards and recommendation for citizen science, or the current developments in ExCiteS). I’m updating the slides with lessons on what seem to work or not in previous talks. Social media is helpful for that – I can see which points people found most useful/meaningful!]

The talk starts with an historical perspective of citizen science, continue with the societal and technical trends that are at the basis of the current growth in citizen science. Having done that, I’m using a typology that looks at domain (academic discipline), technology, and engagement as a way to introduce examples of citizen science activities. I’m using the trailer for the TV series ‘the Crowd & the Cloud’ to recap the discussions on citizen science activities. I also mention the growth of practitioners community through the Citizen Science Associations.

Next, on this basis, I’m covering the concepts and practices of Extreme Citizen Science – what we do and how. I’m using examples from the work on noise, community resource management and earthquake and fire preparedness to demonstrate the concept.

The last part of the talk focuses specifically on creativity and learning from the Citizen Cyberlab project, and I explain the next steps that we will carry out in the Doing It Together Science project. I complete the talk by giving examples for activities that the audience can do by themselves.

Throughout the talk, I’m showing how Esri technologies are being used in citizen science. It wasn’t difficult to find examples – Esri’s GIS is used in BioBlitzes, Globe at Night, links to OpenStreetMap, and support the work that the ExCiteS group is doing. Survey123 and similar tools can be used to create novel projects and experiment with them. ArcGIS Online will be linked to GeoKey, to allow analysis of community mapping efforts. In short, there is plenty of scope for GIS as an integral part of citizen science projects.

Environmental information: between scarcity/abundance and emotions/rationality

The Eye on Earth Summit, which was held in Abu Dhabi last week, allowed me to immerse myself in the topics that I’ve been¬†researching for a long time: geographic information, public access to environmental information, participation, citizen science, and the role of all these in policy making. My notes (day 1 morning, day 1 afternoon, day 2 morning, day 2 afternoon, day 3 morning & day 3 afternoon) provide the background for this¬†post, as well as the blog posts from Elisabeth Tyson (day 1, day 2) and the IISD reports and bulletins¬†from the summit. The first Eye on Earth Summit provided me with plenty to think about, so I thought that it is worth reflecting on my ‘Take home’ messages.

What follows are my personal reflections from the summit and the themes that I feel are emerging in the area of environmental information today. 

wpid-wp-1444166132788.jpgWhen considering the recent ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs by the UN Assembly, it is not surprising that they loomed large over the summit Рas drivers for environmental information demand for the next 15 years, as focal points for the effort of coordination of information collection and dissemination, but also as an opportunity to make new links between environment and health, or promoting environmental democracy (access to information, participation in decision making, and access to justice). It seems that the SDGs are very much in the front of the mind of the international organisations who are part of the Eye on Earth alliance, although other organisations, companies and researchers who are coming with more technical focus (e.g. Big Data or Remote Sensing) are less aware of them Рat least in terms of referring to them in their presentations during the summit.

Beyond the SDGs, two overarching tensions emerged throughout the presentations and discussions – and both are challenging. They are the tensions between abundance and scarcity, and between emotions and rationality. Let’s look at them in turn.

Abundance and scarcity came up again and agin. On the data side, the themes of ‘data revolution’, more satellite information, crowdsourcing from many¬†thousands of weather observers and¬†the creation of more sources of information (e.g. Environmental Democracy Index) are all examples for abundance in the amount of available data and information. At the same time, this was contrasted with the scarcity in the real world (e.g species extinction, health of mangroves), scarcity of actionable knowledge, and¬†scarcity with ecologists with computing skills. Some speakers oscillated between these two ends within few slides or even in the same one. There wasn’t an easy resolution for this tension, and both ends were presented as challenges.


With emotions and scientific rationality, the story was different. Here the conference was packed with examples that we’re (finally!) moving away from a simplistic ‘information deficit model‘¬†that emphasise scientific rationality as the main way to lead a change in policy or public understanding of environmental change. Throughout the summit presenters emphasised¬†the role of mass¬†media communication, art (including live painting development through the summit by GRID-Arendal team), music, visualisation, and story telling as vital ingredients that make information and knowledge relevant and actionable. Instead of a¬†‘Two Cultures’ position, Eye on Earth offered a much more harmonious and collaborative linkage between these two ways of thinking and feeling.

Next, and linked to the issue of abundance and scarcity are costs and funding. Many talks demonstrated the value of¬†open data¬†and the need to provide open, free and accessible information if we want to see environmental information¬†used effectively. Moreover, providing the information with the ability of analyse or visualise it over the web¬†was offered as a way to make it more¬†powerful. However, the systems are costly, and although the assessment of the IUCN demonstrated that the investment in environmental datasets is modest compared to other sources (and the same is true for citizen science), there are¬†no sustainable, consistent and appropriate funding mechanisms, yet. Funding infrastructure or networking activities is also challenging, as funders accept the value, but are not willing to fund them in a sustainable way. More generally, there is an issue about the need to fund ecological and environmental studies – it seem that while ‘established science’ is busy with ‘Big Science’ – satellites, Big Data, complex computer modelling – the work of studying ecosystems in an holistic way is left to small group of dedicated researchers and to volunteers. The urgency ad speed of environmental change demand better funding for these areas and activities.

This lead us to the issue of Citizen Science, for which the good news are that it was mentioned throughout the summit, gaining more prominence than 4 years ago in the first summit (were it also received attention). In all plenary sessions, citizen science or corwdsourced geographic information were¬†mentioned at least once, and frequently by several speakers. Example include¬†Hermes project¬†for recording ocean temperatures,¬†Airscapes Singapore for urban air quality monitoring, the¬†Weather Underground¬†of sharing weather information, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team work in Malawi, Kathmandu Living Lab response to the earthquake in Nepal, Arab Youth Climate Movement in Bahrain¬†use of iNaturalist to record ecological observations, Jacky Judas work with volunteers to monitor dragonflies in Wadi Wurayah National Park ¬†– and many more. Also the summit outcomes¬†document is clear: ¬†“The Summit highlighted the role of citizen science groups in supporting governments to fill data gaps, particularly across the environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. Citizen Science was a major focus area within the Summit agenda and there was general consensus that reporting against SDGs must include citizen science data. To this end, a global coalition of citizen science groups will be established by the relevant actors and the Eye on Earth Alliance will continue to engage citizen science groups so that new data can be generated in areas where gaps are evident. The importance of citizen engagement in decision-making processes was also highlighted. ”

However, there was ambivalence about it Рshould it be seen as an instrument, a tool to produce environmental information or as a mean to get wider awareness and engagement by informed citizens? How best to achieve the multiple goals of citizen science: raising awareness, educating, providing skills well beyond the specific topic of the project, and democratising decision making and participation? It seem to still be the case that the integration of citizen science into day to day operations is challenging for many of the international organisations that are involved in the Eye on Earth alliance.

Another area of challenging interactions emerged from the need for wide partnerships between governments, international organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), companies, start-ups, and even ad-hoc crowds that respond to a specific event or an issue which are afforded by digital and social network. There are very different speeds in implementation and delivery between these bodies, and in some cases there are chasms that need to be explored – for example, an undercurrent from some technology startups is that governments are irrelevant and in some forms of thinking that ‘to move fast and break things’ – including existing social contracts and practices – is OK. It was somewhat surprising to hear speakers praising Uber or AirBnB, especially when they came from people who familiar with the need for careful negotiations that take into account wider goals and objectives. I can see the wish to move things faster – but to what risks to we bring by breaking things?

With the discussions about Rio Principle 10¬†and the new developments in Latin America, the Environmental Democracy Index, and the rest, I became more convinced, as I’ve noted in 2011, that we need to start thinking about adding another right to the three that are included in it (access to environmental information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice), and develop a right to produce environmental information that will be taken seriously by the authorities – in other words, a right for citizen science. I was somewhat surprised by the responses when I raised this¬†point during the discussion on Principle 10.

Final panel (source: IISD)

Finally, Eye on Earth was inclusive and collaborative, and it was a pleasure to see how open people were to discuss issues and explore new connections, points of view or new ways of thinking about issues. A special point that raised several positive responses was the gender representation in such high level international conference with a fairly technical focus (see the image of the closing panel). The composition of the speakers in the summit, and the fact that it was possible to have such level of women representation was fantastic to experience (making one of the male-only panels on the last day odd!). It is also an important lesson for many academic conferences – if Eye on Earth can, I cannot see a reason why it is not possible elsewhere.