GISRUK 2011 talk – Participatory GIS, Volunteered Geographic Information and Citizen Science

GIS Research UK (GISRUK) is a long running conference series, and the 2011 instalment was hosted by the University of Portsmouth at the end of April.

During the conference, I was asked to give a keynote talk about Participatory GIS. I decided to cover the background of Participatory GIS in the mid-1990s, and the transition to more advanced Web Mapping applications from the mid-2000s. Of special importance are the systems that allow user-generated content, and the geographical types of systems that are now leading to the generation of Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI).

The next part of the talk focused on Citizen Science, culminating with the ideas that are the basis for Extreme Citizen Science.

Interestingly, as in previous presentations, one of the common questions about Citizen Science came up. Professional scientists seem to have a problem with the suggestion that citizens are as capable as scientists in data collection and analysis. While there is an acceptance about the concept, the idea that participants can suggest problems, collect data rigorously and analyse it seems to be too radical – or worrying.

What is important to understand is that the ideas of Extreme Citizen Science are not about replacing the role of scientists, but are a call to rethink the role of the participants and the scientists in cases where Citizen Science is used. It is a way to consider science as a collaborative process of learning and exploration of issues. My own experience is that participants have a lot of respect for the knowledge of the scientists, as long as the scientists have a lot of respect for the knowledge and ability of the participants. The participants would like to learn more about the topic that they are exploring and are keen to know: ‘what does the data that I collected mean?’ At the same time, some of the participants can become very serious in terms of data collection, reading about the specific issues and using the resources that are available online today to learn more. At some point, they are becoming knowledgeable participants and it is worth seeing them as such.

The slides below were used for this talk, and include links to the relevant literature.


A postdoctoral position and 3 PhD studentships in Extreme Citizen Science

Following successful funding for the European Union FP7 EveryAware and the EPSRC Extreme Citizen Science activities, the department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at UCL is inviting applications for a postdoctoral position and 3 PhD studentships. Please note that these positions are open to students from any EU country.

These positions are in the ‘Extreme Citizen Science’ (ExCiteS) research group. The group’s activities focus on the theory, methodologies, techniques and tools that are needed to allow any community to start its own bottom-up citizen science activity, regardless of the level of literacy of the users. Importantly, Citizen Science is understood in the widest sense, including perceptions and views – so participatory mapping and participatory geographic information are integral parts of the activities.

The research themes that the group explores include Citizen Science and Citizen Cyberscience; Community and participatory mapping/GIS; Volunteered Geographic Information (OpenStreetMap, Green Mapping, Participatory GeoWeb); Usability of geographic information and geographic information technology, especially with non-expert users;  GeoWeb and mobile GeoWeb technologies that facilitate Extreme Citizen Science; and identifying scientific models and visualisations that are suitable for Citizen Science.

The positions that are opening now are part of an effort to extend Dr Jerome Lewis’ research with forest communities (see BBC Report and report on software development):

Research Associate in Extreme Citizen Science – a 2-year, postdoctoral research associate position commencing 1 May 2011.

The research associate will lead the development of an ‘Intelligent Map’ that allows non-literate users to upload data securely; and the system should allow the users to visualise their information with data from other users. Permissions need to be developed in accordance with cultural sensitivities. As uploaded data from multiple users sharing the same system increase over time, repeating patterns will begin to emerge that indicate particular environmental trends.

The role will also include some general project-management duties, guiding the PhD students who are working on the project. Travel to Cameroon to the forest communities that we are working with is necessary.

Complete details about this post and application procedure are available on the UCL jobs website.

PhD Studentship – understanding citizen scientists’ motivations, incentives and group organisation – a 3.5-year fully funded studentship. We are looking for applicants with a good honours degree (1st Class or 2:1 minimum), and an MA or MSc in anthropology, geography, sociology, psychology or related discipline. The applicant needs to be familiar with quantitative and qualitative research methods, and be able to work with a team that will include programmers and human-computer interaction experts who will design systems to be used in citizen science projects. Travel will be required as part of the project. A willingness to live for short periods in remote forest locations in simple lodgings, eating local food, will be necessary. French language skills are desirable.

The research itself will focus on motivations, incentives and understanding of the needs and wishes of participants in citizen science projects. We will specifically focus on engagement of non-literate people in such projects and need to understand how the process – from data collection to analysis – can be made meaningful and useful for their everyday life. The research will involve using quantitative methods to analyse large-scale patterns of engagement in existing projects, as well as ethnographic and qualitative study of participants. The project will include working with non-literate forest communities in Cameroon as well as marginalised communities in London.

Complete details about this post and application procedure are available on the UCL jobs website.

PhD Studentship in geographic visualisation for non-literate citizen scientists – a 3.5-year fully funded studentship. The applicant should possess a good honours degree (1st Class or 2:1 minimum), and an MSc in computer science, human-computer interaction, electronic engineering or related discipline. In addition, they need to be familiar with geographic information and software development, and be able to work with a team that will include anthropologists and human-computer interaction experts who will design systems to be used in citizen science projects. Travel will be required as part of the project. A willingness to live for short periods in remote forest locations in simple lodgings, eating local food, will be necessary. French language skills are desirable.

Complete details about this post and application procedure are available on the UCL jobs website.

In addition, we offer a PhD Studentship on How interaction design and mobile mapping influences participation in Citizen Science, which is part of the EveryAware project and is also open to any EU citizen.

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.

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…