Extreme Citizen Science – ExCiteS

Challenging Engineering is an EPSRC programme aimed at supporting individuals in building  a research group and to ‘establish themselves as the future leaders of research’. As can be imagined, this is a both prestigious and well-funded programme – it provides enough resources to establish a group, recruit postdoctoral and PhD researchers, visit external laboratories and run innovative research activities.

The process of selecting the UCL candidates started in mid-May 2010, with the final interviews at the end of December, just before the Christmas break. Therefore, it was very satisfying to open the email from EPSRC while at a visit to the Technion and see that my application will be funded.

The proposal itself focused on Citizen Science – the participation of amateurs, volunteers and enthusiasts in scientific projects – which is not new, given activities such as the Christmas Bird Count or the British Trust for Ornithology Survey, in which volunteers observe birds and report to a national repository. Such projects date back to the early 20th century, and many of the temperature records used in climate modelling today have been collected by amateur enthusiasts operating their own weather stations.

Over the past decade, Web 2.0 technologies have led to the proliferation of Citizen Science activities, from SETI@Home, where people volunteer their unused computer processing power, to Galaxy Zoo, where amateur astronomers suggest interpretations of images from the Hubble telescope, to the Pepys Estate in Deptford, London, where residents carried out community noise monitoring for six weeks to challenge the activities of a local scrapyard operator.

However, the current range of Citizen Science projects is limited in several respects. First, in most instances the participants are trusted only as passive participants (by donating CPU cycles), or as active participants but limited to basic observation and data collection. They do not participate in problem definition or in the scientific analysis itself. Second, there is an implicit assumption that participants will have a relatively advanced level of education. Third, and largely because of the educational requirements, Citizen Science occurs mostly in affluent places, and therefore most of the places that are critical for encouraging biodiversity conservation, and where population growth is most rapid, are effectively excluded.

The new research group will challenge this current mode of Citizen Science by suggesting the establishment of an interdisciplinary team that will focus on ‘Extreme’ Citizen Science (ExCiteS). ExCiteS is extreme in three ways: first, it aims to develop the theories and methodologies to allow any community to start a Citizen Science project that will deal with the issues that concern them – from biodiversity to food production; second, it will provide a set of tools that can be used by any user, regardless of their level of literacy, to collect, analyse and act on information by using established scientific methods; finally, it aims to use the methodologies of Citizen Science around the globe, by developing a technology, through collaborative activities, that can involve communities from housing estates in London to hunter-gatherers and forest villagers in the Congo Basin. The underlying technology is intended to be universal and to provide the foundations for many other projects and activities.

The technology that will be developed will rely on spatial and geographical representations of information. The reason for focusing on this mode of representation is that, as a form of human communication, geographical representations predate text, and are likely to be accessible by many people with limited reading and technology literacy.

ExCiteS has the transformative potential to deal with some of the major sustainability challenges involved in using science and Information and Communication Technologies in a hot (due to climate change), flat (due to globalisation) and crowded (due to population increase) world, by creating tools that will help communities understand their environment as it changes, and manage it by using scientific modelling and management methods.

The proposal focuses not only on the development of ExCiteS as a practice, but, significantly, on developing a fundamental understanding of Citizen Science by studying the motivation of participants and their incentives, identifying patterns of data collection, and dealing with the uncertainty and validity of data collected in this way.

The activities of the ExCiteS group will officially start in May, and I will be working closely with Dr Jerome Lewis, at UCL Anthropology, to develop the area of Extreme Citizen Science. We are going to start by recruiting a postdoctoral fellow and 2 PhD students – so if you are interested in this type of challenge, get in touch.

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Mapping for Change activities covered in GIS Development

In its February issue, the magazine GIS development published an article on the activities of the social enterprise Mapping for Change. Please note that the image at the start of the published article is not from our activities and that the article was truncated for publication – we are currently working on a more comprehensive version that we aim to publish later in the year. Dr Hanif Rahemtulla contributed significantly to organising the writing of this article.

The article describes how we utilised community mapping, participatory sensing and mashups technologies to deal with a range of environmental issues with communities across London. It also provides information about our recent projects, including the North Dorset Climate Action map.

The article can be accessed here.

OSM Quality Assessment – S4 presentation

The following presentation is a summary of the OSM quality assessment paper that I’ve posted here in August. It was presented in the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) S4 event which was held on the 8th January 2009.

The presentation does not include additional analysis to what included in the paper, apart from a graph that analyses the bias of coverage in comparison to the Index of Multiple Deprivation (Slide 37) which shows the analysis for urban areas only. In the slide, only areas with size up to single standard deviation from the average are shown. By and large, this means that only urban areas are included.

Manifold GIS installation and different aspects of usability

As part of the work on community mapping in Hackney Wick, we used the area for a project with the Development Planning Unit MSc students. As part of this work, and since we’re using Manifold GIS in this project, we offered the students the use of Manifold GIS for this exercise.

From an experienced system administrator perspective, installing the package and linking it to the licence server is a very quick and easy task. However, for the students it proved to be a difficult task – especially with Windows Vista where special procedures must be followed to enable the administrator account and install Manifold GIS. The process is rather scary for the average user, and the information architecture and links on the Manifold website are not clear enough to guide a novice, non-technical user through the installation process. As a result, many didn’t manage to make the package work. After a brief explanation and being pointed in the right direction, the installation issue was resolved.

This is a very interesting aspect of usability which, many times, is overlooked. When looking at a GIS or a component of geotechnology, it is worth evaluating its usability for different audiences. With software, I would differentiate between ‘end-user’, ‘programmer’ and ‘system manager’ usability. For each of these archetypes it is possible to evaluate whether the package is easy to use for this role. For example, programmer usability can be evaluated by examining how long it takes for a programmer to learn how to manipulate the system and perform a task with it. The new generation of APIs such as those that are used by OpenStreetMap or Google Maps are very programmer usable – it takes very little time to learn them and achieve something useful with the system.

The installation of Manifold GIS, therefore, scores high on system manager usability, but low on end-user usability – and, importantly, there are far more of the latter than the former. Some small changes to the website with a clear installation guide can improve the situation significantly, but a real change to the installation process that removes the need to switch to the administrator account is the real solution…

Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities – videos

The UrbanBuzz team that recorded some of the community showcase presentations during the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities event in June, have now released the videos on YouTube. The videos are showing the posters and explanations for our work in Marks Gate, Pepys Estate and Hackney Wick. The presentations are by members of the communities, with some help from the project team.

This is the video for Marks Gate, where the focus was on community perceptions about their environment and how it can improved:

The next one shows the noise mapping work in the Pepys Estate (and I had the pleasure of assisting Caroline to explain the mapping):

And the final one shows the historical mapping in Hackney Wick:

The three videos give a good overview of the community mapping projects that were carried out within Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities, and the Environmental Justice projects with London 21 and London Sustainability Exchange .

Mapping for Sustainable Communities – presentations

The Mapping for Sustainable Communities seminar that was organised by myself together with London 21, on the 17th June, was a fantastic event that I thoroughly enjoyed. With over 100 participants, coming from academia, practice and from communities across London and further afield, it was a unique opportunity for discussion between these 3 groups which, unfortunately, is rare.

The day was fairly intensive with a series of presentations from a wide range of speakers, providing a range of views and opinions. At lunch, and especially during the afternoon workshops, there was more time for discussion and exchange of experiences. It was very satisfying to see people stand and discuss the various aspects of participatory and community mapping during the reception at the end of the day, after a heavy day of listening and talking about these issues.

The seminar covered the whole range of technical options – from paper to 3D computer mapping. It also covered various views – from the more theoretical to the practical.

As a conclusion from the day, it is clear that there is a good potential for community and participatory mapping in many aspects of life in the UK. Particpatory mapping can we be used to celebrate the wonder of places, find about their history, or identify issues that are of concern to the community. We need to take into account the local organisational and governance structures, and be sensitive to the needs of the communities within which we operate. There is an ethical dimension that should not be overlooked, but it is important to find the cases where we can make an impact with these tools and use them to make places more sustainable.

In case that you have missed the seminar, or would like to see the presentations from it, here is the outline of the day, with a link to the presentations on SlideShare:

  • Mike Batty (UCL) – Participation through Online Technologies: Experiences with 3D-GIS, Second Life and Multimedia in London (Mike’s presentation was too interactive – so for more information about the issues that he presented, see the CASA website)
  • Community Showcase, where five of the communities that we are working with talked about their experiences.