Diary of a a citizen scientist by Sharman Apt Russell

The academic literature on Citizen Science is expanding quickly, with hundreds of papers that are published in peer review publications every years about it. These papers are written by professional scientists and practitioners, mostly for an audience of other professional scientists and practitioners. A very common concern of researchers is to understand the motivations and incentives that get citizen scientists involved in projects. Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of research evaluating these aspects through questionnaires and interviews, but there is relatively little on how citizen science is experienced from the point of view of the participants (although it does come out in the research notes of Public Lab or Clare Griffiths’ account of community air quality study).

So what is it like to be a citizen scientist? 

Luckily, Sharman Apt Russell has decided to find out, and because she is a talented author with plenty of experience in creative writing of non-fiction books about science and nature, she is well placed to provide an engaging account of the experience. Covering a period of about year and a half,  her book ‘diary of citizen scientist: chasing tiger beetles and other new ways of engaging the world‘ is interesting, insightful and enjoyable read. 

Sharman didn’t took the easy route to citizen science, but decided to jump in and find out an unknown detail about the life of Tiger Beetles by studying them in the Gila river, near her home. The tasks that she took upon herself (and her family) include chasing beetles and capturing them, grow them in terrariums at home, dismember some and analyse them under microscope and so on. This quest is sparked by a statement from Dick Vane-Wright,  then the Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum that ‘You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would know more than anyone else on the planet. Our ignorance is profound‘ (p. 15). This, of course, is not only true about insects, or animals, but also to the night sky, or our understanding of urban air pollution. I think that this can be a crucial statement for the potential of discovery in citizen science in general.

While the story about understanding the lives of the tiger beetles provide the core of the book, Sharman explores many other aspects of citizen science, from online activities, to observing the changes in nature over the seasons (phenology), and noticing the footprints in the sand. Her love of nature in her area is coming through in the descriptions of her scientific observations and also when she describes a coming storm or other aspects of her local environment.

Throughout the book, you can come across issues that citizen scientists experience – from difficulties in following instructions that seem obvious to scientists, to figuring out what the jargon mean, to the critical importance of supportive mentoring by professional scientists. All this make the book a very interesting source to understand the experience. If you want to read her short summary of Sharman’s experience, see her writing in Entomology Today.

One disclosure, though: Sharman has contacted me while working on the book, and she note the interview in her book so I was intrigued to read her description of Extreme Citizen Science, which is excellent.

EU BON round table discussion on supporting citizen science, Berlin

The EU BON is a European project, focusing on building the European Biodiversity Observation Network. Now, with the growing recognition of citizen science as a source of biodiversity observations, a meeting dedicated to the intersection was organised in Berlin today, following the ECSA meeting

The project carried out gap analysis of the available data, which also explores the role of citizen science data. Understanding these aspects was the motivation for the meeting.

Jose Miguel Rubio Iglesias (DG R&I) discussed the link between science-society-policy at the EU level. He noted that Citizen Science has an established tradition, especially in environmental observations. There is no common definition, interpretation and classification for citizen science. Some typologies are based on project goals, degree of citizen engagement (contributory, collaborative, co-created) and links to policy. There are studies that were created by scientists and those that were created by citizens. There are new initiatives that emerge from new technologies (citizen cyberscience). He noted that ICT tools provide both opportunity to participate and also access to the latest science. Collaborative power of ICT can allow influencing environmental policy, and lead to more sustainable behaviour and lifestyle. The challenges that are linked to citizen science, include: engaging broader spectrum of society, beyond those who have access to smartphone but also not well off; Recognition of the work by scientists and policy makers; how to guarantee that there is action on the findings;  quality of data; security and privacy of data about participants; incorporating local knowledge – not only seeing citizens as sensors but co-design; and acknowledging ownership and feedback. There is also criticism – do we need to use ICT in the first place?

The background for the policy aspect of citizen science can be the Aarhus convention (1998) the emphasised public participation in decision making which was translated to Directive 2003/35/EC. In the SEIS implementation outlook, it was realised that citizens also provide information and not just consumed information, as this is also reflected in the 7th environment action programme 2014-2020 in priority objective 5 which focused on improving knowledge and evidence for EU environment policy. Citizen science is mentioned in the text.

The policy perspectives of dealing with the gap between citizen science and policy is done through several activities – the work on responsible research & innovation is relevant, although it includes wider societal issues such as gender.digital Science is another importance area for the EU, looking at the ICT enabled transformation of science – so open access and citizen engagement. Finally, the area of global systems science, where there is the need to allow citizens to participate. Finally, there is the need to progress the concept of citizen observatories. One definition is “communities of citizens sharing technological solutions and community participatory governance methods aided by social media streams with the objectives to deliver environmental observations”. Issues that are open include level of maturity of solutions, ways of citizens to influence environmental policy making etc. The scientific perspectice include data management and conflation with authoritative data. There is a need to narrow the gap between citizens-science and policy, but need to develop truly participatory process.

Christoph  Häuser is the coordinator of EU BON. He noted that biodiversity is critical for the life support of the planet, but biodiversity observations are varied, so GBIF data portal demonstrate that information is not covering many areas. The structure of the project (which got 30 partners and it is 5 years long) is around creating data sources and infrastructure and then science and application, and finally policy and dialogue. There are many links to citizen science – data sources and mobilising involvement in adding observation records, exploring the data generations by citizens. Trying to do that through a science-based social network with communities of practice, and a technological network of interoperable sources and trying to use existing infrastructure instead of adding new one.

Citizen science can be used for biodiversity assessment and monitoring, using technology based recording schemes, adding to environmental education and supporting education network, so trying to. In the Museum fur Naturkunde Berlin they created an app for anymals + plants to allow recording information that is available in the area, using GBIF.

Lucy Robinson from the NHM in London, provided a European perspective on citizen science. The NHM got interface between science and public engagement. The museum been doing citizen science for 10 years, supporting amateur experts – and they have citizen science in the galleries and encouraging people to carry it out after the visit to the museum. The aim of citizen science at the NHM is about engagement, education and delivering high impact scientific research. The definition that NHM use is citizen science the involvement of volunteers that contribute to scientific endeavour – research or monitoring. It is possible to define what is not citizen science: when the data is not usable at the end, as well as science communication projects. Citizen science is not replacing existing monitoring activities and need to be aware that it won’t replace existing effort, and it cost about £100,000 per year to run per project. There are key drivers – for scientific levels, policy and human levels. Need to maximise the potential of citizen science projects without squashing projects, and the awareness of citizen science over the past 5-10 years it been growing very fast. There are grouping of European Natural History museums, and ECSA which provide opportunities to share best practice. She explained the role of ECSA and the 10 principles of citizen science. One of the follow on questions was about the definition of what is a citizen scientist, and the ability to act as professional scientist during the day and citizen scientist as a volunteer in their free time.

The second session of the day focused on data mobilisation. Antonio Garcia Camacho discussed the EU BON biodiversity data portal, which integrates data from GBIF and LTER centres, with taxonomy providers. He gave a demonstration of the system.

Jaume Piera discussed the requirements, as in yesterday, highlighting that the process is not unidirectional from monitoring to delivery, but to have multiple loops that people collect information and use it at any stag. in collaborative citizen science there is a need to use social media channels – the requirements are: engagements, data qualification, tracking systems (who is using my data and what for, do I agree with it), privacy rules and system integration. Requirement model
He explains, with examples, the advantages of data access tracking. With this system, it is possible to provide recognition to contributions and efforts to the people that contributed and manipulated the data. Questions in the discussion explored the traceability, metadata and trust in the data, keeping trace of what happen to the information is important.

The final presentation from Simao Belchior of Vizzuality, explored the fall of dta portals and the future of data workflow or data access, visualisation and products. Vizzuality created different products that are easy to use and well design, including Global Forest Watch. With their focus on visualisation, they emphasise the move to publishing information in portals – data is available on line, but not accessible.There is also an issue with too much data that stream from new systems. The suggestion is to develop applications that allow doing things when they the people who use them need them – doing one thing well. Likely the same app will not fit all needs and users. Some examples of that include zooniverse projects.

The follow on discussion raised the issue the ability to explore new data set and find unknown patterns in comparison to well designed, but limited to specific task, applications. For the flexibility, data download and API can help, but this bring challenges of using GIS, for example.

The afternoon explored some data providers. Veljo Runnel presented a survey about researchers readiness for citizen science data in Estonia – in the Baltic countries, the term is not familiar. Researchers are willing to engage volunteers (85%) even though they are not using them. NGOs are more engaged with volunteers and government agencies, but scientist in universities are less willing to do so. The reason for engaging with volunteers – not enough resources, big effort to engage and don’t have capabilities – or the data is too specific to be suitable, and of course, concern about data quality.

Christos Arvanitidis, talked about crowdsourcing initiative in the meditaranian area. The citizen science projects include: COMBER - sea life, CIGESMED - evaluation the good environmental status of Corals. They try to develop indicators and engage divers to provide information – pictures in predefined states , AmvrakikosBirds is a project to support bird watching in the Amvrakikos gulf. COMBER, which is about fish and sea life, is done with diving and sailing clubs – so not experience divers, this is challenging to do and they use the BIO-WATCH card of identification of fishes types, and also work with divers and snorkelers community. Submitting observations through a website. Information is going from COMBER to Anymals.org and they have a mobile app that allow submitting data.

Nils Valland (Norway) talked about citizen science and species occurrence data in Europe. He assumes 150 portals/sytems around, about 120-250 mil records. This lead to a total of 207.7 mil records, but only 92.5 mil are in GBIF, so most is not available. Key success factors (from the Norwey system), for quantity – need effective UI, rich services for the user, and environmental impact. For quality, need basic knowledge and motivations, no anonymous login, visibility – report first, qa later, informal voluntary QA and validation on priority species. The accessability of the data require cooperation governmental institutions and NGO, effective data distribution and open license

The artsobservasjoner is the Swedish and Norwegian system for nature observations. They work with 5 NGOs in Norway, 150 validators, and 9000 participants contributing 11.6 million records with 14,000 species.

Dirk Schmeller covered Volunteer Species Monitoring in Europe. Volunteer eager to help monitoring around Europe. The EuMon documents 395 monitoring schemes, annual costs of 4 mil EUR and involving 46,000 people, putting in 148,000 person-day/year to biodiversity monitoring (Schmeller et al 2009). There is a need for government support to make this happen – from public institutions, scientists and managers. It’s a serivce the public give to policy . The more people there are in a programme, the more sites are cover (of course). The EU BON portal need to support volunteers.

Pierre-Philippe Mathieu fro ESA-ESRIN discussed the new era for ESA – the launch of Sentinel 1 will provide monitoring for several decades, fully open and accessible data. SAR sattelite can be used from sea ice to land use. ESA see the societal need, and paying attention to Nexus issues. They try to do science in society – ESA will produce a lot of data, and putting all the data together will be a challenge. We will get ZettaB, problems with filtering information. Volume of data is unmanagable, and developing the ability to deal with the data before delivering a product – it will see it as data management issue. RS data need interpretation, so need to figure out how to build components that allow analysis as the data come in. Some citizen science activities – e.g. the geowiki application that allow people to classify information about land use are relevant to ESA. There is also the post-2015 devleopment goals – they want to be able to use crowd sourcing and working through data revolution.

Fermin Serrano Sanz covered Socientize project and the white paper on citizen science. The white paper came with over 200 contributors. At the macro level, they recommend ‘citizen science think tank’ for promotion, coordination, monitoring, evaluation, collaboration. At the meso level, body like ECSA with adaptable guidelines.

Luigi Ceccaroni covered the citclops project about the marine area, and examples of optical monitoring of marine environments. The observations are about the colour, transperancy and fluorescence of water. They focus specifically on DIY, low costs sensors.

Jamie Williams covered COBWEB, consume crowd sourced environmental data, then autmatic quality measure and outputing to standards such as INSPIRE. They specifically focus through GEOSS without resriction. The aim is that sensors in the environment, and the crowd provide the information and improve it. They focus on UNESCO world network or Biospehere reserve – they will extend to Greece and Germany. Several demonstration applications – validating earth observations, biological monitoring and flooding. Engagement with school, marine research centre, RSPB orgnaisation, educational charity, park authority and other bodies. They are co-designing the software according to what they would want to do. The co-design is with group from 15 to 100 and they got project contacts and person that is in charge of working with them. The community champions work with project person to discuss the applications with the developer – not direct link community – developer to ensure translation.

Siro Masinde discuss citizen science in GBIF. GBIF – 52 countries and 40  organisation. free and open access biodiversity data and promote common standards and tools and guiding national information facilities. GBIF got 517M specific records, 1.45 mil species and 13,945 datasets. About 33% are from citizen science. Most of it are charismatic taxa nad easy to recongize – birds and butterfly and grasses. Data from citizen science is key to some taxa groups. The sources for citizen science data include data from ireland (bioblitz), denmark, costa rica etc. eBird, iNaturalist, Anymals_plants, Diveboard and the scnadinavian networks. They have crowdsourcing projects in france, Australia nad Norway. Transcriptions are helping with that. eBird highly significant, when removing it, Sweden and UK come to the top contribution. They would like to have endorsement of datasets and community assessment and evaluation of data set before publication, also would like to see quality and fitness for use information, and some reference datasets.

European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) general assembly (Berlin)

The European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) reached an important stage in its development, with a general assembly in Berlin on 26th November 2014. The organisation was finally formally registered as a German charity in April, so now it’s time to consider future directions and developments. The assembly had about 50 participants with new members joining in the association, which now has a full time staff member. As in many organisations, one there is someone with a day job of running the organisation, things start to happen.

Andrea Sforzi, one of the trustees started the day discussing its history – from early discussions in July 2012 to setting up the organisation, registration and to the current day. He noted that there are positive policy indication about the role of citizen science, e.g. the report to the EU from December 2013, which recognised that the potential of environmental citizen science has largely untapped. With the White Paper on citizen science from Socientize, we now have policy documents to support citizen science and we should use them to develop the field. In terms of the strengths, ECSA already building on strong core organisations. On the weakness side, there is wide variety of citizen science across and inside EU countries, as well as a need for funding, and business structures are still unstable. There is also ongoing challenges over the scientific value of data. Some of the challenges that ECSA need to deal with are cultural differences, different tools, and re-evaluate the role of people and to invest in citizen scientists. Maintain interest and participation over time. External challenges are the acceptance of data. Andrea pointed that we need to share experiences, stay inclusive, broad and open minded – people before data!! We need to accelerate the development of the network, and national communities, how to assure guidance and maintain a ballanced approach among the different topics within ECSA.

We have also an address from Jose Miguel Rubio Iglesias from the Climate Actions and Earth Observations unit (DG R&I) covered the citizens’ observatory. He suggested some possible definitions from the current set of projects, but in many of the current definitions of citizen observatories there is too much focus on ICT and the definition need to move to people. From the EC guidance to the goals of Horizon 2020, there is an emphasis on participatory democracy in terms of the environment, empower citizens to make informed decisions, engaging broader spectrum in terms of awareness and environmental protections. There is also potential to empower communities and get in-situ monitoring while reducing costs (a win win situation). The set of citizens’ observatories that is currently running already providing demonstration, and starting to see pilot activities and the development of working methods to establish citizens observatories. For example, WeSenseIt created some applications – smart umbrella and the commission want to see also jobs creation from observatories through innovation. Citclops – started to engage stakeholder communities and validated their results. They take open data and DIY apporach – need to see how it continue after the project. Omniscientis is a project that just finished, with odor monitoring and worked as an open lab approach – an app Odomap released.Citi-sense about to launch city scale projects, and developed a range of sensors. All in all good development for the next call, with total budget of 20 mil EU and expectations of proposals of 3-5 mil. There is awareness at the EC that it’s early stage for development. They want to see more examples of co-designed approach rather than treating citizens as data collectors.

Elizabeth Tyson reported on the workshop that was just completed in the US, exploring how to integrate citizen science in national climate assessment

Guillermo Santamaria Pampliega gave a video talk, and highlighted the commonalities between citizen science and RRI. Because Citizen science links engagement, co-responsibility, co-creation, inclusiveness, sustainability, and openness, this make it very similar to RRI – thinking about thew process of science but also the outcomes.

Claudia Goebel (who is working for ECSA now!) discussed the work programme for 2015 – communication and engagement with citizens and scientists, organisational development and networking, piloting EU wide citizen science programmes, EU policy engagement, collecting and engaging best practices, EU participatory data access and handling system. These were then covered by people from the different working group of ECSA

A lot of discussion followed Lucy Robinson’s presentation of the 10 principles of citizen science – trying to move from principles to a final version that will go on the site. Jade Cawthray from NHM discussed the developing a guidance on best practices – something like 15 pages, covering issues of running citizen science projects, bioblitzes, a lot to discuss on data handling and sharing, and the quality. Also covered will be open access and how it is possible to access to people – to what degree it is suitable for citizen scientists to read. Finally evaluation, recruitment , motivation of volunteers.

The discussion of the principles focused on understanding what research mean – does it need to be hypothesis led or not, and how to provide space for discoveries and monitoring.

Jaume Piera discussed the current concept of developing ECSA data portal came next. The role of citizens need to be different – closing the loop by giving them access and control over the data. Not just extractive relationship to their work but also allowing them to participate in the process. Expectations are that there will be different quality of information and data but still keep it all. The way to do that is to have integration of general public and scientists. The need for a new portal is to have engagement abilities, some data qualification – not to say that it’s not valid. Include labels for the data. Need tracking systems – who is using my data, and what for. Need to consider privacy rules and system integration with other systems. Considering the built up on the basis of iNaturalist,

In the discussion it was highlighted that the portal need to be linked to other working groups of ECSA.

Martin Brocklehurst – was pointing that current regulations and directives do not include citizen science and suggested policy direction. There are discussions within the commission about the citizen science white papers. There is plenty of resistance in policy makers about the data quality and there are different view. But is ECSA ready for promoting policy and substantiate  it with good evidence that will convince policy makers? It might be possible to develop a road map of how to put citizen science into directives and policy. Some directives are already blocking citizen science data and need to be changed.

Poppy Lakeman-Fraser -discussed the communication and conference directions. Issues that are considered are the form of membership (paid/unpaid) and benefits. There is a need to further work on the reason for people to participate.There was early discussion on the directions of the planned conference for February 2016.

Most of the afternoon focus on procedural aspects – which is a good thing, as the organisation is starting to take shape. An advisory board was elected, changes to the articles of association, discussion of budget, and plans for funding. The positive atmosphere and the willingness of current members to contribute to ECSA is encouraging.

During the day, I have acted as a representative of the Citizen Science Association (CSA) while also being a member of ECSA. There was interest in the development of the journal ‘citizen science: theory and practice’ and interest in the process of forming the CSA. Many people plan to come to the CSA conference next February which is a good thing, and the memorandum of understanding between ECSA, CSA and the Citizen Science Network Australia was adopted in the final call. People were especially interest in the wide reach of disciplines that CSA includes.

AAG 2015 CFP: OpenStreetMap Studies: Research Perspectives on a Decade of OSM

Call for papers: OpenStreetMap Studies: Research Perspectives on a Decade of OSM
Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting
April 21-25, 2015
Chicago, Illinois

Alan McConchie, University of British Columbia
Muki Haklay, University College London

OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)
OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)

Since its founding in 2004, OpenStreetMap has grown into one of the pre-eminent open collaborative geographic knowledge projects online, growth that has been tracked closely by the emerging research domains of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and the Geospatial Web. Due to OSM’s size (now boasting well over 1 million users), and its relative accessibility (open source code, public mailing lists, freely-downloadable data), OSM has been the preferred case study for many VGI researchers. This is in contrast to arguably more successful VGI projects, such as Google Map Maker, Waze, Facebook places and others, which are closed and researchers cannot access their data easily. Recently, however, there has been growing awareness that OSM and VGI are too often conflated, and that OSM should not be taken to stand in for all VGI. To this end, Muki Haklay suggested that the breadth and complexity of research into OSM may warrant a potential subfield “OpenStreetMap Studies”

Taking the 10th birthday of OSM as a starting point, this session will survey the state of geographical research on OpenStreetMap. This session seeks research demonstrating a variety of approaches, with particular interest in papers that investigate (1) how OSM has changed over the last 10 years, (2) how OSM research has also evolved over that time and how it compares to other crowdsourced systems, and (3) how OSM research differs from VGI research.

Possible paper topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Comparisons between OSM and other open knowledge initiatives such as Wikipedia or other VGI projects like Google Map Maker.
  • Studies of data quality and completeness in OSM data, and consideration if these studies are possible in closed systems such as Google Map Maker or only possible with OSM.
  • OSM and its role in crisis mapping and disaster response and the role of other crowdsourced systems.
  • Novel applications of OSM data used in other fields, such as software algorithms, computer vision, traffic modeling, etc.
  • Social histories and social geographies of OSM and its community of contributors, and comparison to other, open or closed VGI projects.
  • Feminist and critical approaches to the societal impacts of OSM, the epistemological assumptions of its data structures, and the demographics of its community.
  • Political economic approaches to OSM, and open source software and open geodata more generally.

The session is supported by the European COST Energic (COST Action IC1203) network: European Network Exploring Research into Geospatial Information Crowdsourcing.

Please email abstracts of 250 words or less to Alan (alan.mcconchie@geog.ubc.ca) and Muki (m.haklay@ucl.ac.uk) before October 31st, 2014. All accepted papers will need to register for the AAG conference at AAG.org.

Citizen Science and GIS


An interesting blog post from Matt Artz in ESRI about Citizen Science and GIS. I have written about it in 2010 in ‘Geographical Citizen Science’ http://web.ornl.gov/sci/gist/workshops/2010/papers/Haklay.pdf – and it is important that more people who are dealing with GIS at government and scientific organisations be aware of citizen science (disclosure: ESRI provided generous support to ExCiteS)

Originally posted on GIS and Science:

“Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.”


Applications of geospatial technologies have already proven themselves invaluable for scientific research and understanding. But is there an opportunity for citizen scientists to leverage geospatial technologies in their quest for knowledge and entertainment, and still make valuable contributions to society?

Citizen scientists have a strong interest in some facet of science, but pursue this interest outside of mainstream academic, research, and industrial organizations. These self-directed individuals might very well be using their own resources, working in their garages to develop “the next big thing.” But more often they are networked, working together with fellow citizen scientists. And this is where they become a powerful force to be taken seriously within the scientific community.

Scientists, as well as “professionals doing science,” are often the ones organizing these citizen…

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ICTs and ecosystems


An excellent critique of why ICT is not an ecosystem – although I do recall a critique on the discourse of high-tech in which it is demonstrated how, from the mid 1980s, technology companies started appropriating concepts from sociobiology and a very bad interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution to justify business practices and actions. By coincidence, probably, the first time I’ve read about sociobiology was in an IBM-sponsored magazine in the early 1980s. ..

Originally posted on Tim Unwin's Blog:

david_stoddart As a young geographer, I had the privilege of learning from the extraordinary David Stoddart, and can never forget reading the numerous books and papers on small island ecosystems that he recommended to us in the mid-1970s – and being jealous that he was able to be doing research on beautiful far-away places such as Aldabra!  Likewise, Richard Chorley and Barbara Kennedy’s Physical Geography: a Systems Approach was required reading on several courses.  Although not quite as inspirational as David Stoddart’s physical presence,  I recall being enthused by this book to go back and read some of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work on General Systems Theory, and struggling to balance this with my own increasing interest in structuralism and Marxist theory.

Hence, I have always adopted a principled and historical understanding of the origins and development of the systems approach in academic discourse.  This has made me ever more infuriated by…

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