ECSA annual meeting in Barcelona (28-29 October)

Barcelona is becoming a hub of strong support for Citizen Science with an office for citizen science at the city level. It was therefore the site of the 2015 annual meeting of the European Citizen Science Association.

wpid-wp-1446153439017.jpgOn the day before the annual meeting, the afternoon was dedicated to a citizen science safari, with visit to the Parc de la Ciutadella and the nearby coast, learning and trying a range of citizen science projects.

Some of my notes from the meeting day are provided below.

Katrin Vohland (ECSA vice chair) open with noting that we see growing networks at national levels (Austria, Germany) and internationally. She noted that role of ECSA as a networking organisation and draw parallels to transformative social innovation theory which talks about ‘guided expansion’. ECSA can develop into multiple hubs (innovation, urban, ecology etc.) with shared responsibility and potentially distributed secretariat . We can share experiences and work load across the network and find new ways to grow.

Libby Hepburn (Australian Citizen Science Association ACSA) talked about the experience in Australia from two perspectives  – personally running the Coastal Atlas of Australia and being involved in ACSA. Starting with the Australian context – the history that it didn’t have many people (20 mil population over space larger than Europe, displacement of aboriginal groups and loss of local knowledge) and impact of weather and climate is important. Only 25% of Australian species have been described. There are lots of introduced species – from rabbits to dung beetles to cane toads, thought there are counter examples such as dung beetles are actually successful as they deal with the impact from hoofed species that were introduced. The development of science in Australia is from the late 19th century.  The political approach towards science is complex and changing, but citizen science doesn’t wait for the political environment. The Australian Museum created a project to digitise over 16,000 transcriptions of species. Projects such as Explore the Sea-floor allow people to classify images that are being taken automatically under the sea. Philip Roetman Cat Tracker project is another example, allowing to understand the damage that domestic cats causing to local biodiversity. The atlas of living Australia allow for information sharing and distribution patterns. and additional layers – including likely rainfall. They are starting to develop a citizen science project finder, and starting an association – while keeping links to the other emerging associations and projects. She noted the analysis of the Socientize white paper, OPAL, and other lessons from around the world.

wpid-wp-1446156208999.jpgA presentation from the Citi-Sense project explained the need for development of sensor-based on citizens’ observatory community. Some of the products that are ready for use. Starting to have stationary boxes that are becoming possible to produce information about air quality. They have developed the CityAir app which provide to report geolocated perceptions and visualise user community reports. Provide personal and community perceptions. There are ways of integrating the data from the models and perception.

Sven Schade (JRC) talked about the citizen science data flow survey. Received 149 projects. at different scales – from neighbourhood to multi national. The data re-usability is that while 90 projects provide data, the majority do that after embargo.

Daniel Wyler (University of Zürich) talked about the citizen science in universities – an initiative in the University of Zürich – establish citizen science at public research and education bodies, they want to establish the Zürich Citizen Science Centre, and developing two papers – a policy paper about the area, and a set of suggested standards for research universities and science funding bodies.

Josep Parelló talked about creativity and innovation in Barcelona – BCNLAb is collaboration with the city council – providing a hub that allow grass-roots to create activities. Providing open scope – they established a citizen science office and promoting participatory practices in scientific research, enjoy from multipliers of research, sharing resources, having a large base of committed participants, common protocol, data repository. He used inspiration from Michel Callon (2003) Research in the wild concept.

Daniel Garcia wpid-wp-1446153467202.jpgtalked about the Responsible Research and Innovation Challenges and the linkage to citizen science. RRI includes concept such as CBPR, Science Shops , Open Science. Citizen Science is concerned in the political acceptance to inform policies. There are multiple links between RRI and Citizen Science.


Anne Bowser and Elisabeth Tyson described the Wilson Center commons lab and the emerging legal landscape in the US: the crowdsourcing and citizen science bill of 2015 that is being offered in congress – it’s about educating policy makers to the topic. There was also memo from the Office of Science and technology Policy. The memo asked to have point of contacts for citizen science, secondly standardising metadata and cataloguing citizen science activities. A toolkit was published to assist with the implementation. There is an effort of creating a shared database across the CSA,, SciStarter and other sources. There is value in these database for end users, and also use the database as a research tools.

From the ECSA meeting itself there are several news: ECSA have 84 members from 22 countries 30% individual members, the rest organisational members. New badge for ECSA – you can have a badge that recognise ECSA members. The working group on the principle and standards published the 10 principles of citizen science. The new working group deal with best practice and building capacity. Data working group exploring interoperability, privacy/reliability, and intellectual property rights. The international conference is now in planning in 19-21 May 2016, and there is an emerging social media representation on Instagram and Facebook. The policy group is engaging at EU policy levels, but also noticing international developments in the area of citizen science and policy. Planning policy briefing. Responding to policy consultations, and there are some proposals for  areas that ECSA can impact policy. A new working group was suggested to coordinate the work of citizen science facilitators. New members selected to the advisory board: Malene
Bruun (European Environmental Agency), Alan Irwin (Department of Organization at Copenhagen Business School), Michael Søgaard Jørgensen
(DIST, Aalborg University), Roger Owen (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) and Ferdinando Boero (University of Salento).


There is more information on the TagBoard platform, where the hashtag #ECSAbcn captured the

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 – as 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 – at 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 – should 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.

Being philosophical about crowdsourced geographic information


This is a post by Renee Sieber and myself, providing a bit of a background on why we wrote the paper “The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique” – this is in addition to what I’ve written about it in this blog post

Originally posted on Geo: Geography and Environment:

By Renée Sieber (McGill University, Canada) and Muki Haklay (University College London, UK)

Our recent paper, The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique, started from a discussion we had about changes within the geographic information science (GIScience) research communities over the past two decades. We’ve both been working in the area of participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and critical studies of geographic information science (GIScience) since the late 1990s, where we engaged with people from all walks of life with the information that is available in GIS. Many times we’d work together with people to create new geographic information and maps. Our goal was to help reflect their point of view of the world and their knowledge about local conditions, not always aim for universal rules and principles. For example, the image below is from a discussion with the community in Hackney Wick, London, where individuals collaborated to…

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Eye on Earth Summit 2015 talk – Extreme Citizen Science – bridging local & global

Thanks to the organisers of the Eye on Earth Summit, I had an opportunity to share the current state of technological developments within the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group with the audience of the summit: people who are interested in the way environmental information sharing can promote sustainability.

The talk, for which the slides are provided below is made of two parts. The first is an overview of current citizen science and where are the extremities of current practice, and the second covering the current state of development of the technological work that crease the tools, methodologies and techniques to allow any community, regardless of literacy, to develop their own citizen science projects.

I have addressed the issues at the beginning of the talk in earlier talks (e.g. the UCL Lunch Hour Lecture) but now found a way to express them in several brief slides which demonstrate the changes in science and education levels in the general population as an important trends that powers current citizen science. If we look at early science (roughly until the early 19th Century), professional science (roughly from the middle of the 19th Century all the way throughout the 20th Century) and the opening of science in the past decade, we can see an ongoing increase in the level of education in the general population, and this leads to different types of participation in citizen science – you couldn’t expect more than methodological basic data collection  by volunteers in the early 20th Century, while today you can find many people who have good grasp of scientific principles and are inherently sharing data that they are interested in.

After exploring the limits of current citizen science in terms of the scientific process and levels of education that are expected from participants, I turn to our definition of extreme citizen science, and then focus on the need to create technologies that are fit for use within participatory processes that take into account local and cultural sensitivities, needs and wishes about the use of the data. In particular, I’m explaining the role of Sapelli and its use with participatory processes in the Congo basin, Amazon and potentially in Namibia. I then explain the role of GeoKey in providing an infrastructure that can support community mapping, ending with the potential of creating visualisation tools that can be used by non-literate participants.

The slides are available below.

New paper: The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique

Considering how long Reneé Sieber  (McGill University) and I know each other, and working in similar areas (participatory GIS, participatory geoweb, open data, socio-technical aspects of GIS, environmental information), I’m very pleased that a collaborative paper that we developed together is finally published.

The paper ‘The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique‘ took some time to evolve. We started jotting ideas in late 2011, and slowly developed the paper until it was ready, after several rounds of peer review, for publication in early 2014, but various delays led to its publication only now. What is pleasing is that the long development time did not reduced the paper relevancy – we hope! (we kept updating it as we went along). Because the paper is looking at philosophical aspects of GIScience, we needed periods of reflection and re-reading to make sure that the whole paper come together, and I’m pleased with the way ideas are presented and discussed in it. Now that it’s out, we will need to wait and see how it will be received.

The abstract of the paper is:

Numerous exegeses have been written about the epistemologies of volunteered geographic information (VGI). We contend that VGI is itself a socially constructed epistemology crafted in the discipline of geography, which when re-examined, does not sit comfortably with either GIScience or critical GIS scholarship. Using insights from Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology we offer a critique that, rather than appreciating the contours of this new form of data, truth appears to derive from traditional analytic views of information found within GIScience. This is assisted by structures that enable VGI to be treated as independent of the process that led to its creation. Allusions to individual emancipation further hamper VGI and problematise participatory practices in mapping/geospatial technologies (e.g. public participation geographic information systems). The paper concludes with implications of this epistemological turn and prescriptions for designing systems and advancing the field to ensure nuanced views of participation within the core conceptualisation of VGI.

The paper is open access (so anyone can download it) and it is available in the Geo website . 

‘Nature’ Editorial on Citizen Science

The journal Nature published today an editorial on citizen science, titled ‘Rise of the citizen scientist’. It is very good editorial that addresses, head-on, some of the concerns that are raised about citizen science, but it is also have a problematic ending.

On the positive side, the editorial recognises that citizen scientists can do more than just data collection. The writer also demonstrated an inclusive understanding of citizen science that encompass both online and offline forms of participation. It also include volunteered computing in the list (with the reference for SETI@Home) and not dismiss it as outside the scope of citizen science.

It then show that concerns about the ability of citizen scientists to produce high quality data are not supported by research findings and as Caren Cooper noted, there are many other examples across multiple fields. My own minor contribution to this literature is to demonstrate that this is true for OpenStreetMap mappers. It also recognises the important of one of the common data assurance methods – the reliance on instrument reading as a reason to trust the data.

Finally, it recognise the need to credit citizen scientists properly, and the need to deal with their personal details (and location) carefully. So far, so good. 

Then, the article ends with rather a poor paragraph about ‘conflicts of interest’ and citizen science:

More troubling, perhaps, is the potential for conflicts of interest. One reason that some citizen scientists volunteer is to advance their political objectives. Opponents of fracking, for example, might help to track possible pollution because they want to gather evidence of harmful effects. When Australian scientists asked people who had volunteered to monitor koala populations how the animals should be managed, they found that the citizen scientists had strong views on protection that did not reflect broader public opinion.

Checking for air qualityI have already written here about the attitude of questioning activism and citizen science in specific local issues, but it seem that motivations especially irk scientists and science writers when they look at citizen science. So here some of the reasons that I think the claim above is contradictory.

There are two reasons for this: first, that scientists themselves have a complex set of motivations and are under the same ‘conflict of interests’ and secondly, if motivations having such an impact on science in general, than this is true for every science, not just citizen science.

Let’s start with the most obvious one – the whole point in the scientific method is that it investigates facts and conditions regardless of the motivation of the specific person that is carrying out the research. I have a reminder of that every day when I go to my office, at UCL’s Pearson Building. The building is named after Karl Pearson (known to any scientist because of the Pearson correlation), who was one of the leaders of Eugenics, which was the motivation for parts of his work. While I don’t like the motivation (to say the least) it doesn’t change the factual observations and analysis of the results though it surely change the interpretation of them, which we today reject. We therefore continue to use Pearson’s methods and science since they are useful despite of the motivation. We have detached the motivations from the science.

More generally, scientists like to believe that they are following Mertonian Norms and that they are ‘disinterested’ in their research – but listen to some of the episodes of the BBC Life Scientific and you discover that what keep them motivated to apply for research grants against the odds and to carry out long stretches of boring work are very deep personal motivations. They wouldn’t do it otherwise! Therefore, according to the paragraph above we should consider them conflicted.

Citizen Scientists are, of course, motivated by specific interests – they wouldn’t volunteer their free time otherwise. Look at the OED definition of citizen science at the sources of the term, and you discover that the first modern use of the term ‘citizen scientists‘ was in a report about the Audubon effort to campaign about acid rain. The fact that it was activism did not influence the very careful data collection and analysis operation. Or take the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in which ‘Campaign with us‘ is the top option of ‘what we do’, and yet they run the valuable Big Garden Bird Watch with results used in scientific papers and for policy. The source of the activism, again, does not influence the outcomes, or the quality of the science.

Is it some forms of activism that Nature have a problem with?

The value of using citizen science in cases such as fracking, air quality or noise is that the scientific method support a systematic, disinterested, and objective data collection and analysis. It therefore allows to evaluate concerns about a specific issue and check if they are justified and supported by the evidence or not. In the same way that the environmental impact assessment and report from the fracking operators are created from a point of conflicts of interest, so does the data that come from the people who oppose it. As long as the data is being collected in a rigorous way, with evidence to back that it was done this way (e.g. timestamp from the smartphone, as the article noted) the scientific approach can provide evidence if the level of pollution from the fracking site (or planned site) is acceptable or not. Arguably, the risk of falsifying the data or pressure to drop inconvenient observations is actually greater, in my view, from the more powerful side of the equation.

My conclusion is that you can’t have it both ways: either science work regardless of motivations or the motivations and conflicts of interest are central to every other piece of science that Nature report on. 

Beyond quantification: a role for citizen science and community science in a smart city

Arduino sensing in MaltaThe Data and the City workshop will run on the 31st August and 1st September 2015, in Maynooth University, Ireland. It is part of the Programmable City project, led by Prof Rob Kitchin. My contribution to the workshop is titled Beyond quantification: a role for citizen science and community science in a smart city and is extending a short article from 2013 that was published by UCL’s Urban Lab, as well as integrating concepts from philosophy of technology that I have used in a talk at the University of Leicester. The abstract of the paper is:

“When approaching the issue of data in Smart Cities, there is a need to question the underlying assumptions at the basis of Smart Cities discourse and, especially, to challenge the prevailing thought that efficiency, costs and productivity are the most important values. We need to ensure that human and environmental values are taken into account in the design and implementation of systems that will influence the way cities operate and are governed. While we can accept science as the least worst method of accumulating human knowledge about the natural world, and appreciate its power to explain and act in the world, we need to consider how it is applied within the city in a way that does leave space for cultural, environmental and religious values. This paper argues that a specific form of collaborative science – citizen science and community science – is especially suitable for making Smart Cities meaningful and democratic. The paper use concepts from Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology – especially those of the Device Paradigm and Focal Practices, to identify the areas were sensing the city can gain meaning for the participants.”

The paper itself can be accessed here.

Other papers from the same workshop that are already available include:

Rob Kitchin: Data-Driven, Networked Urbanism

Gavin McArdle & Rob Kitchin: Improving the Veracity of Open and Real-Time Urban Data

Michael Batty: Data About Cities: Redefining Big, Recasting Small

More details on the workshop will appear on the project website