Defining principles for mobile apps and platforms development in citizen science

Core concepts of apps, platforms and portals for citizen science

In December 2016, ECSA and the Natural History Museum in Berlin organised a  workshop on analysing apps, platforms, and portals for citizen science projects. Now, the report from the workshop with an addition from a second workshop that was held in April 2017 has evolved into an open peer review paper on RIO Journal.

The workshops and the paper came to life thanks to the effort of Soledad Luna and Ulrike Sturm from the Berlin Museum.

RIO is worth noticing: is “The Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal” and what it is trying to offer is a way to publish outputs of the whole research cycle – from project proposals to data, methods, workflows, software, project reports and the rest. In our case, the workshop report is now open for comments and suggestions. I’ll be interested to see if there will be any…

The abstract reads:

Mobile apps and web-based platforms are increasingly used in citizen science projects. While extensive research has been done in multiple areas of studies, from Human-Computer Interaction to public engagement in science, we are not aware of a collection of recommendations specific for citizen science that provides support and advice for planning, design and data management of mobile apps and platforms that will assist learning from best practice and successful implementations. In two workshops, citizen science practitioners with experience in mobile application and web-platform development and implementation came together to analyse, discuss and define recommendations for the initiators of technology based citizen science projects. Many of the recommendations produced during the two workshops are applicable to non-mobile citizen science project. Therefore, we propose to closely connect the results presented here with ECSA’s Ten Principles of Citizen Science.

and the paper can be accessed here. 


Crowdsourced: navigation & location-based services

toyosemite-mapOnce you switch the smartphone off from email and social media network, you can notice better when and how you’re crowdsourced. By this, I mean that use of applications to contribute data is sometimes clearer as the phone becomes less of communication technology and more of information technology (while most of the time it is an information and communication mixed together).

During my last year summer break, while switching off, I was able to notice three types of crowdsourcing that were happening as I was mostly using my phone for tourism:  the set of applications that I used during the period was mostly Google Maps, Waze, and Sygic for navigation (Sygic is an offline satnav app that uses local storage, especially useful as you go away from signal – as in the case of travelling to Yosemite above). I also used TripAdvisor to find restaurants or plan visits, and in a tour of Hollywood, we’ve downloaded a guided tour by “PocketGuide Audio Travel Guide”. There were also the usual searches on Google to find the locations of swimming pools, train schedule, boat tours and all the other things that you do when you’re travelling.

The first type of being crowdsourced that I knew was there but I couldn’t notice was with every action that I’ve done with the phone. Searches, visiting websites and all the other things that I’ve done as long as the phone was on. I know that they are there, but I have no idea who is collecting the traces – I can be quite certain that the phone company and Google were getting information, but I can’t tell for sure – so that’s hidden crowdsourcing.

The second type is being passively crowdsourced – I know that it happened, and I can sotosanjose-lastdayrt of guess what information is being recorded, but I didn’t need any action to make it happen. Checking the map on the way back to the airport at the end of the journey, show how geolocated images and information are being put on the map. Google Maps assume that I visited known locations, mostly commercials, along the way. It was especially funny to stay in a suburban place that happened to be the registered address of a business, and every time we went to it, Google insisted that we’re visiting the business (which doesn’t physically exist in the place). At least with this passive crowdsourcing, I am knowingly contributing information – and since I’m benefiting from the navigation guidance of Google Maps as I drive along, it is a known transaction (regardless of power relationship and fairness). screenshot_20160808-154540

the third and final type of process was active crowdsourcing. This was when I was aware of what I’m contributing, to which system, and more or less how. When I provided an image to Google Local Guides  I knew that it will be shared (I am though, hugely surprised how many times it was viewed, but I’ll write about Local Guides in a different post). I was also actively contributing to TripAdvisor about some place near Venice Beach. A certain surprise also came from Waze, which, in a day of experiencing Los Angeles famous traffic, provided me with a message that ‘I’m one of the top contributors on this route’ after 3 reports. Of course, I can’t tell if this message is real, but if 3 reports are enough to make you a top contributor, the number of reporting participants must be very low.

Few other observations: it was interesting to see how embedded is the consideration that you will be online all the time – Google Maps suggested to download a route when they had information that part of the journey will not be covered by mobile signal, but the application didn’t behave well with offline data (Sygic did). Both Waze and Google Maps behaved very erratically when I passed a blocked slip road and didn’t follow their navigation guidance. For quite a distance, they continue to suggest that I turn around and use the blocked road.

The other aspect that was very apparent is the built in methodological individualism of all these apps – even though I was only with my partner, we found the PocketGuide Audio Travel Guide awkward to use – we wanted to experience the tour (which is interesting) together. The app is just difficult to use when you try to go with other people and discuss things together. This is partially how phones are thought of, but touring is not only a solitary experience…


New paper: Usability and interaction dimensions of participatory noise and ecological monitoring

The EveryAware book provided an opportunity to communicate the results of a research that Dr Charlene Jennett led, together with two Masters students: Joanne (Jo) Summerfield and Eleonora (Nora) Cognetti, with me as an additional advisor. The research was linked to the EveryAware, since Nora explored the user experience of WideNoise, the citizen science noise monitoring app that was used in the project. There is also a link to the Citizen Cyberlab project, since Jo was looking at the field experience in ecological observation, and in particular during a BioBlitz. The chapter provides a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) perspective to the way technology is used in citizen science projects. You can download the paper here and the proper citation for the chapter is:

Jennett, C., Cognetti, E., Summerfield, J. and Haklay, M. 2017. Usability and interaction dimensions of participatory noise and ecological monitoring. In Loreto, V., Haklay, M., Hotho, A., Servedio, V.C.P, Stumme, G., Theunis, J., Tria, F. (eds.) Participatory Sensing, Opinions and Collective Awareness. Springer. pp.201-212.

The official version of the paper is on Springer site here.

New paper: Digital engagement methods for earthquake and fire preparedness

At the beginning of the Challenging Risk project, the project team considered that before we go out and develop participatory tools to engage communities in earthquake and fire preparedness, we should check what is available.

To achieve that, we have commissioned Enrica Verrucci to help us with the review, and later on other members of the team updated the information – including Patrick Rickles, David Rush, and Gretchen Fagg. We then thought about the development of a paper from the review, and an interesting interdisciplinary discussion ensue, with different potential emphasis and structures were suggested. It took us several iterations until we’ve agreed that the best way to communicate the purpose of the review is by linking the use of digital technologies to behaviour change, with the guidance of Gabriela Perez-Fuentes and Helene Joffe who are the psychological experts on the team.

The resulting paper have just been published in Natural Hazards. It is the first paper from the project that covers all the groups that are involved in the project. Here is the abstract:

“Natural or human-made hazards may occur at any time. Although one might assume that individuals plan in advance for such potentially damaging events, the existing literature indicates that most communities remain inadequately prepared. In the past, research in this area has focused on identifying the most effective ways to communicate risk and elicit preparedness by means of public hazard education campaigns and risk communication programmes. Today, web- and mobile-based technologies are offering new and far-reaching means to inform communities on how to prepare for or cope with extreme events, thus significantly contributing to community preparedness. Nonetheless, their practical efficacy in encouraging proactive hazard preparedness behaviours is not yet proven. Building on behaviour change interventions in the health field and looking in particular at earthquakes and fire hazards, the challenging RISK team has reviewed the currently active websites, Web, and mobile applications that provide information about earthquake and home fire preparedness. The review investigates the type of information provided, the modality of delivery, and the presence of behaviour change techniques in their design. The study proves that most of the digital resources focus on a single hazard and fail to provide context-sensitive information that targets specific groups of users. Furthermore, behaviour change techniques are rarely implemented in the design of these applications and their efficacy is rarely systematically evaluated. Recommendations for improving the design of Web- and mobile-based technologies are made so as to increase their effectiveness and uptake for a multi-hazard approach to earthquake and home fire preparedness.”

You can find the paper (which is Open Access) on the journal’s website:

You can find the list of websites and apps here.

UCL Institute for Global Prosperity Talk: Extreme Citizen Science – Current Developments

The slides below are from a talk that I gave today at UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

The abstract for the talk is:

With a growing emphasis on civil society-led change in diverse disciplines, from International Development to Town Planning, there is an increasing demand to understand how institutions might work with the public effectively and fairly.

Extreme Citizen Science is a situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world.

In this talk, I discussed the work of UCL Extreme Citizen Science group within the wider context of the developments in the field of citizen science. I covered the work that ExCiteS has already done, currently developing and plans for the future.

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.

Esri survey123 tool – rapid prototyping geographical citizen science tool

There are several applications that allow creating forms rapidly – such as Open Data Kit (ODK) or EpiCollect. Now, there is another offering from Esri, in the form of Survey123 app – which is explained in the video below.

Survey123 is integrated into ArcGIS Online, so you need an ArcGIS account to use it (you can have a short experiment if you register for a trial account, but for a longer project you’ll have to pay). The forms are configured in XForms, like ODK . The forms can be designed in Excel fairly quickly, and the desktop connection package make it easy to link to the Survey123 site, as well as testing forms.  I tried creating a form for local data collection, including recording a location and taking an image with the phone. It was fairly easy to create forms with textual, numerical, image and location information, and the software also supports the use of images to items in the form, so they can be illustrated visually. The desktop connector application also allow use to render the form, so they can be tested before they are uploaded to ArcGIS Online. Then it is possible to distribute the form to mobile devices and use them to collect the information.

The app works well offline, and it is possible to collect multiple forms and then upload them all together. While the application still showing rough edges in terms of interaction design, meaningful messages and bug clearing, it can be useful for developing prototypes and forms when the geographic aspect of the data collection is central. For example, during data collection the application supports both capturing the location from GPS and pointing on a map to the location where the data was collected. You can only use GPS when you are offline, as for now it doesn’t let you cache a map of a study area.

As might be expected, the advantage of Survey123 is coming once you’ve got the information and want to analyse it, since ArcGIS Online provide the tools for detailed GIS analysis, or you can link to it from a desktop GIS and analyse and visualise the information.

Luckily for us, Esri is a partner of the Extreme Citizen Science group and UCL also holds an institutional licence for ArcGIS Online, so we have access to these tools. However, through Esri conservation programme can also apply to have access to ArcGIS Online and use this tool.