COST Energic Summer School on VGI and Citizen Science in Malta

Vyron Antoniou covering VGI foundations
Vyron Antoniou covering VGI foundations

COST Energic organised a second summer school that is dedicated to Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and citizen science. This time, the school was run by the Institute for Climate Change & Sustainable Development of the University of Malta. with almost 40 participants from across Europe and beyond (Brazil, New Zealand), and, of course, participants from Malta. Most of the students are in early stage of their academic career (Masters and Ph.D. students and several postdoctoral fellows) but the school was also attended by practitioners – for example in urban planning or in cultural heritage. Their backgrounds included engineering, geography, environmental studies, sociology, architecture, biology and ecology, computer science. The areas from which the participants came from demonstrate the range of disciplines and practices that are now involved in crowdsourced data collection and use. Also interesting is the opening of governmental and non-governmental bodies to the potential of crowdsourcing as evident from the practitioners group.

The teachers on the programme, Maria Attard, Claire Ellul, Rob Lemmens, Vyron Antoniou, Nuno Charneca, Cristina Capineri (and myself) are all part of the COST Energic network. Each provide a different insight and interest in VGI in their work – from transport, to spatial data infrastructure or participatory mapping. The aim of the training school was to provide a ‘hands-on’ experience with VGI and citizen science data sources, assuming that some of the students might be new to the topics, the technologies or both. Understanding how to get the data and how to use it is an important issue that can be confusing to someone who is new to this field – where the data is, how do you consume it, which software you use for it etc.

Collecting information in the University of Malta
Collecting information in the University of Malta

After covering some of the principles of VGI, and examples from different areas of data collection, the students started to learn how to use various OpenStreetMap data collection tools. This set the scene to the second day, which was dedicated to going around the university campus and collecting data that is missing from OpenStreetMap, and carrying out both the data collection and then uploading the GPS Tracks and sharing the information. Of particular importance was the reflection part, as the students were asked to consider how other people, who are also new to OpenStreetMap will find the process.

Using meteorological sensors in Gozo
Using meteorological sensors in Gozo

The next level of data collection involved using sensors, with an introduction to the potential of DIY electronics such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi as a basis for sensing devices. A field trip to Gozo in the next day provided the opportunity to explore these tools and gain more experience in participatory sensing. Following a lecture on participatory GIS application in Gozo, groups of students explored a local park in the centre of Rabat (the capital of Gozo) and gained experience in participatory sensing and citizen science.

Learning together The training school also included a public lecture by Cristina Capineri on ‘the fortune of VGI’.

The students will continue to develop their understanding of VGI and citizen science, culminating with group presentations on the last day. The most important aspects of any training school, as always, is in the development of new connections and links between the people on the programme, and in the conversations you could notice how these areas of research are still full of questions and research challenges.

Citizen Science in the Research Evaluation Framework impact studies

In the UK, every 5 years or so, there is a complex and expensive process that evaluates the work of academics in research institutions across the country, and rate them in terms of quality (see the infographics). The last round of this process was called ‘Research Evaluation Framework’ or REF for short. You don’t need to look far to find complaints about it, the measures that are used, the methodology and so on. I think that a lot of this criticism is justified, but this post is not about the process of the REF, but about the outcomes.

The REF included a requirement from universities to demonstrate their wider societal impact – beyond teaching, publishing academic papers or sharing research results. The societal impact includes lots of aspects, and while academics and evaluators are fixated on economic outcomes, impacts also include policy, influencing health and wellbeing, and engaging the public in scientific research. The writing of impact case studies was a major task for the academics that were selected to write them (about 1 in 10) and universities invested money and effort in picking up the best examples that they could find. When looking at these examples, we need to remember that they were submitted in 2013, so they cover the work done by universities until then.

According to a study that looked at these impact descriptions, out of the 6,975 cases, 447 (6.5%) are classified as ‘public engagement’ of all forms (e.g. a lecture). Within these cases, the database of impact case studies provides about 731 that use the term ‘public engagement’, 260 that use the term ‘participatory’, about 60 which include ‘public participation’ and 33 that include the ‘citizen science’ with few more that did not but are about it. While this is a tiny group (0.5%), it is still interesting to see what projects are included.

It is not surprising to find that  ecological projects such as Conker Tree Science, invasive species & the ladybird surveyThe Black Squirrel Project, or observing ants and spidersgrassland fungi, stag beetles, birds, and amphibians  were included. As expected, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project is noted by the Universities of Central Lancashire, Birmingham, UCL, and the Open University (but surprisingly missing from the university that coordinated the effort – Imperial College). There are also apps such as the WildKnwledge recording app or the iSpot app. Related environmental projects include monitoring peatland erosion or community volcanology. Also Community Archaeology and involvement in archaeology excavations can be considered as outdoor activities.

Volunteer thinking in the form of Zooniverse appeared several times from the Universities of Oxford, Portsmouth, and Sussex , while volunteer computing in the form of  is noted by two departments of University of Oxford – physics and computing). There are other astronomy projects such as Aurora Watch, or Gravitational Waves.

Other examples include our participatory mapping activities while UCL Anthropology highlighted the indigenous mapping activities, while DIY biology and DNA testing are also mentioned, and even projects in the digital humanities – the Oxyrhynchus papyri  or The Reading Experience Database.

What can we make out of this? I’d like to suggest few points: The 30 or so projects that are described in the case studies offer a good overview of the areas where citizen science is active – ecology, volunteer thinking and volunteer computing. The traditional areas in which public participation in science never stopped – astronomy, archaeology, or nature observation are well represented. Also the major citizen science projects (OPAL, Zooniverse) also appear and as expected they are ‘claimed’ by more than one unit or university. More specialised citizen science such as participatory mapping, digital humanities or DIY biology is not missing, too.

On the downside, this is a very small number of cases, and some known projects are not listed (e.g. Imperial College not claiming OPAL). I guess that like many evaluation activities, the tendency of those evaluated is to be conservative and use terms that the evaluators will be familiar with. Maybe over the next five years citizen science will become more common, so we will see more of it in the next round.

Life on Mars – new blog on citizen science and interaction


Jess Wardlaw, who have just completed her PhD at the Extreme Citizen Science group has started blogging about her new project which involves imagery of Mars, citizen science and studies of interaction. Her blog can be found at and the post below.

Originally posted on The GeographiGal:

It’s now a week since my viva, which flouted all my expectations in every possible way. I could not have prepared myself for so many of the questions I was asked or being so lost for words. I will forever be grateful to my examiners for reading my thesis and their suggestions/corrections; as its writer I often felt like I was stirring a sauce that would never thicken. Now that it’s thickened I can have some fun over the summer with the flavouring as I work through the corrections they gave me. My arms might ache like crazy from all the stirring but I can finally say that I’m just a few seasonings short of being able to let other people eat it and move on to making the next course.

By this I mean my new project. So far I have really enjoyed immersing myself in fresh literature (recommendations will be forthcoming) and playing…

View original 137 more words

COST ENERGIC meeting – Tallinn 21-22 May

TallinnThe COST Energic network is progressing in its 3rd year. The previous post showed one output from the action – a video that describe the links between volunteered geographic information and indigenous knowledge.

The people who came to the meeting represent the variety of interest in crwodsourced geographic information, from people with background in Geography, Urban planning, and many people with interest in computing – from semantic representation of information, cloud computing, data mining and similar issues where VGI represent an ‘interesting’ dataset.

Part of the meeting focused on the next output of the network, which is an Open Access book which is titled ‘European Handbook of Crowdsourced Geographic Information’. The book will be made from short chapters that are going through peer-review by people within the network. The chapters will cover topics such as theoretical and social aspects, quality – criteria and methodologies, data analysis and finally applied research and case studies. We are also creating a combined reference list that will be useful for researchers in the field. There will be about 25 chapters. Different authors gave a quick overview of their topics, with plenty to explore – from Smart Cities to concepts on the nature of information.

COST ‘actions’ (that’s how these projects are called), operate through working groups. In COST Energic, there are 3 working groups, focusing on human and societal issues,  Spatial data Quality and infrastructures, and Data mining, semantics and VGI.

Working Group 1 looked at an example of big data from Alg@line –  22 years of data of ferry data from the Baltic sea – with 17 millions observations a year. Data from  that can be used for visualisation and exploring the properties. Another case study that the working group consider is the engagement of schoolchildren and VGI – with activities in Portugal, Western Finland, and Italy. These activities are integrating citizen science and VGI, and using free and open source software and data. In the coming year, they are planning specific activities in big data and urban planning and crowd atlas on urban biodiversity.

Working Group 2 have been progressing in its activities linking VGI quality with citizen science, and how to produce reliable information from it. The working group collaborate with another COST action (TD1202) which called ‘Mapping and the Citizen Sensor‘. They carried out work on topics of quality of information – and especially with vernacular gazetteers. In their forthcoming activities, they contribute to ISSDQ 2015 (international symposium on spatial data quality) with a set of special sessions. Future work will focus on quality tools and quality visualisation.

Prof. Cristina Capineri opening the meeting
Prof. Cristina Capineri opening the meeting

Working Group 3 also highlighted the ISSDQ 2015 and will have a good presence in the conference. The group aims to plan a hackathon in which people will work on VGI, with a distributed event for people to work with data over time. Another plan is to focus on research around the repository. The data repository from the working group – contains way of getting of data and code. It’s mostly how to get at the data.

There is also a growing repository of bibliography on VGI in CiteULike. The repository is open to other researchers in the area of VGI, and WG3 aim to manage it as a curated resource. 

VGI and indigenous knowledge – COST Energic Video

The COST Energic network has been running now for 3 years, and one of the outputs from the network is the video below, which explore a very valuable form of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). This is information that is coming from participatory projects between researchers and indigenous communities, and this short film provide examples from Bolivia, British Columbia, and the Congo Basin, where researchers in the network are working with local communities to collect information about their areas and issues that concern them.

The video was produced by Lou del Bello, and include some stock photos and footage. The images that are marked with titles are from COST Energic Activities. Lou has also created a short video on the work of the Extreme Citizen Science group in her report on Mapping the Congo on SciDev

The video is released just before a meeting of the COST Network, held in Tallinn, and hosted by the Interaction Design Lab of Tallinn University.

Spatial Conversation – #VGIday #COSTEnergic

The COST Energic network (see ) is running a 2 day geolocated twitter chat, titled ‘Volunteered Geographic Information Day’ so the hashtag is #VGIDay. The conversation will take place on 14th and 15th May 2015, and we are universalists – join from anywhere in the world!
Joining is easy – and require 3 steps:

  1. Follow the @COST_Energic profile
  2. Enable your phone to disclose your position – this will allow to geocode your tweets.
  3. To participate to the discussion, use at least one of the dedicated hashtags in tweets: #COSTEnergic, #VGIday

What are we trying to do?

Discussions will be started by @COST_Energic. Through this twitter handle, we will share resources, results and ideas about the topic of VGI and geographic crowdsourcing. You can join the discussions, bring your ideas and links, and involve your contacts, and this will spread this event through the Twittersphere (and beyond?).
At the end of the experiment, we will produce a report of the generated discussion for our ENERGIC repository, and the dataset of tweets can be then used by researchers who want to visaulise, analyse and try to do things with it. It might end up as teaching material, or in IronSheep

Citizen Science and Ethics session (British Ecological Society – Citizen Science SIG)

As part of the activities of the Citizen Science Special Interest Group of the British Ecological Society (BES), Michael Pocock organised “A training event for citizen science: What you need to know, but no one told you!”. I was asked to lead a 30 minutes discussion on ethics and citizen science. This is a wide area, and some discussion about it is already happening.  In addition, there is an emerging working group within the Citizen Science Association (CSA) that will be dedicated to this issue, and I have summarised the session about ethics in the CSA conference in another post.

For the training event, and especially considering that the participants are more likely to be with a background in ecology, I have decided to focus on 4 documents with ‘codes of ethics’ that are the most relevant to ecology & citizen science, with 2 extra for comparison. Three of these are official – the codes of ethics of the Ecological Society of America – (ESA, available here), the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management – (CIEE, available here), the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE, available here). Finally, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) principles of citizen science (the latest draft available here). In the comparative group, I used the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of Civil Engineers codes.

What is noticeable in professional codes of ethics (ESA, CIEEM) is that the profession, its reputation and the relationships between members are the top priority. This is common to almost all professional codes of ethics – and it demonstrate that ethics is about self-preservation. Later on, come the responsibility to the other stakeholders, the wider public and to non-humans that the activities can impact. Commonly, wider issues are covered in the principles, or in a preamble, but not within the code itself – although the Royal Geographical Society actually codified  “due regard to the need to protect the environment, human rights, and to ensure efficient use of natural resources” and the Institute of Civil Engineers also codified “due regard for the environment and for the sustainable management of natural resources.”. It is somewhat ironic that ecologists have not codified this aspect.

The two other documents are especially interesting from the point of view of citizen science. First, the ISE code of ethics is not mostly about the researchers and their professional standing, but “to facilitate ethical conduct and equitable relationships, and foster a commitment to meaningful collaboration and reciprocal responsibility by all parties.” it continues with “The fundamental value underlying the Code of Ethics is the concept of mindfulness – a continual willingness to evaluate one’s own understandings, actions, and responsibilities to others. The Code of Ethics acknowledges that biological and cultural harms have resulted from research undertaken without the consent of Indigenous peoples.” and it has a much stronger stance on the duty of care of the researcher as the powerful actor in the situation.

The code is especially relevant in bottom-up citizen science activities, but a lot of it seem to match the concepts behind ECSA principles of citizen science. The principles are calling for a meaningful activities with mutual respect and recognition of the scientists and the volunteers that working with them.

Will the ethics of citizen science evolve along this more inclusive lines, with an understanding that following this will also help to grow and preserve the field as a whole?