The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science

‘The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science’ is a fairly slim and small format book. Darlene Cavalier and Eric B. Kennedy edited this short collection of papers that cadsc_0117me out earlier in 2016. The book is part of a series, from the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University. The series aims are for ‘These books are brief, clear, and to-the-point, while at the same time tackling urgent topics across a range of complex techno-scientific subjects. The overall aim is to deliver thought-provoking contributions that explore the complex interactions among science, technology, politics, and society.and Citizen Science is clearly successful in doing this.

The book’s 6 chapters provide an excellent, and indeed, thought provoking, introduction to the field of citizen science. Darlene Cavalier introduce the topic with her personal journey into citizen science, and how local interest, career opportunities, and useful suggestions that led her to come up with initiatives such as Science Cheerleaders and SciStarter.

Eric Kennedy’s chapter provides an overview of citizen science, and importantly, addressing the all too often common question about the quality of the information, emphasising that it’s fitness-for-use that matter. The chapter is written from a perspective of science and policy studies and pays particular attention to the use of citizen science for policy – including the challenges that it faces, the multiple goals that a project might be expected to fulfil, as well as unintended outcome (e.g. undermining government led monitoring). He also highlights the need for policy to support citizen science – from a national level to the institution ethics committee level. This chapter is fairly dense with potential ‘hyperlinks’ and issues that you would want to explore more (including conceptualisation of science in society) and is doing this introduction mostly well.

In an excellent chapter by Caren Cooper and Bruce Lewenstein, the two meanings of citizen science are explored. The one that originate from the Alan Irwin (1995) book, emphasising the responsibility of science to society, which they call ‘democratic’ citizen science, while at the other end of the spectrum they position ‘participatory’ citizen science as practice in which people mostly contribute observations or efforts to the scientific enterprise, which originated with Rick Bonney (1996) work at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. While I’m not 100% convinced that ‘participatory’ is the correct word for the more top down citizen science that is closer to crowdsourcing, citizen science, the chapter is doing a very good job by providing concrete examples for each type of citizen science as well as demonstrating that this is not a dichotomy, and things are more mixed.

Robert Dunn and Holly Menninger chapter on turning learning the life sciences into research through citizen science, as well as David Coil on Citizen Microbiology, provide a vivid demonstration of the potential of citizen science to change existing processes, as well as making the complex process of taking samples and ensuring their quality, more transparent and open. Both chapters provide a lot to consider on how processes of teaching can be enhanced through active participation – such as Dunn and Menninger provocation to turn dissections into outlier detection in physiological studies.

In another outstanding chapter, Lili Bui discusses the important aspects of communicating a project, and what are the necessary ways by which project owners need to consider how their project will be promoted. She is pointing to public service broadcasting as a natural ally of citizen science, and show how such collaboration might work. This is something to watch as the Crowd and the Cloud series is getting ready to be broadcast. The chapter is providing the practical information, but also the first stages of conceptualising how people are going to hear about a given project.

Gwen Ottinger is also providing an excellent summary of social movement based citizen science. These are projects that are sometimes named civic science, and surely fall into either action research or cases of community led project. Ottinger shows the special characteristics of this specific version of citizen science, including the need to allow methods to be ‘hacked’, legitimacy, the consulting role of scientists, and other critical issues. She also demonstrates how tensions between doing the science right, and achieving results with good enough science can, and will, emerge in these situations.

In the final chapter, Cavalier and Kennedy are developing the themes of the book and suggesting the places where citizen science can play a role in decision-making processes.

Overall, the book provides a light introduction to citizen science – not all citizen science is captured, but by reading it you can find what is citizen science and how it can play a role in policy decision. Its chapters are the perfect length to serve in teaching or discussion about citizen science, and the book itself is inexpensive (about £7).

Reading ‘Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction’ in place

9781615192434At the beginning of the year, I received an email from Mary Ellen Hannibal, asking for a clarification of the ‘extreme citizen science’ concept. Later on, Mary Ellen provided me with an early copy of ‘Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction‘, and asked if I will be willing to recommend it. I read the first part of the book before travelling to Sci Foo Camp, and was happy to provide a statement (I wouldn’t overstate the value of my endorsement when she received ones from Bill McKibben and Paul Ehrlich).

The part that I read captured my interest, and I finished reading it on the way to Sci Foo and shortly after it. I’ve enjoyed reading it, and at many points I stopped to think and absorb the rich information that Mary Ellen provided within it. At the beginning, I was expecting an account of the personal experience of doing citizen science and understanding its place in the world – much like Sharman Apt Russell ‘Diary of a Citizen Scientist’ (a wonderful book which I highly recommend!). However ‘Citizen Scientist’ is a very different type of book, with a much richer internal ‘ecology’. The book is weaving five themes – the impact of the mass extinction that we are experiencing around us; a very personal account of losing a parent; the history and development of ecological knowledge of coastal California; Joseph Campbell’s literary framework of the ‘hero’s journey’, and the way it can be linked to John Steinbeck and Ed Rickets work around Monterey; and the current practice of citizen science, especially around the Bay Area and coastal California. These themes are complex on their own, and Mary Ellen is doing a great job in exploring each one of them and bringing them into interaction with each other. As I went through the book, each of these was explained clearly from a well researched position, with the experiential aspects of citizen science – including the frustration and challenges – beautifully expressed. As you read through the book, you start to see how these themes come together. It most be said that most of these themes are worrying or raise the notion of loss. Against this background, citizen science plays the role of ‘hope’ at the corner of Pandora’s box – offering a way to connect to nature, nurture it and redevelop a sense of stewardship. A way to preserve the cultural practices of the Amah Mutsun tribe, nature, and a sense of connection to place.

Near Yosemite I felt very lucky that Mary Ellen got in touch and shared the book with me – it was just the right book for me to read at the time. After the Sci Foo Camp, I have stayed in central California for 4 weeks, touring from Mountain View in the Bay Area, to Ripon in Central Valley, to Oak View in Ojai Valley, near Ventura and Los Angeles. Reading the book while travelling through places that are linked to the book gave the visits deeper and richer context and meaning. Many of the encounters throughout journey were linked to the topics that I mentioned above – you don’t need to be any kind of hero to experience these! Some of these encounters include the following.
DSCN1924First was the fascinating session at Sci Foo Camp, in which Tony Barnosky discussed the issue of global tipping points (which are discussed in the book) and their wider implications, with few days later travelling towards Yosemite and experiencing the change in very large landscapes following fires and thinking ‘is this a local ecological tipping point, and the forest won’t come back?’. Then there was a visit to San Francisco Golden Gate Park, and passing by the California Academy of Sciences (Cal Academy, the San Francisco Natural History Museum), whose story is covered in the book. Another reminder of extinction came while travelling down the famous California State Route 1, which was eerily quite and empty of other cars on a weekend day, because of the Soberanes Fire that was devastating the forest nearby (and has not stopped). Or stopping by the Mission in Santa Barbara and thinking about the human and natural history of the coast, or just looking at the kelp on the beach and appreciating it much more…

I’ll try to write more about citizen science and its hopeful aspects later, but as for the book – even if you don’t travel through coastal California, I am happy with what I’ve said about it: ‘an informative, personal, emotional and fascinating account of a personal journey to ecological citizen science. It shows how our understanding of our environment and the need for urgent action to address the mass extinction that is happening in front of our eyes can be addressed through participatory science activities’.

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.

Review of OpenStreetMap books

This post reviews the two books about OpenStreetMap that appeared late in 2010:  OpenStreetMap: Using and Enhancing the Free Map of the World (by F. Ramm, J. Topf & S. Chilton, 386 pages, £25) and OpenStreetMap: Be your own Cartographer (by J. Bennett, 252 pages, £25). The review was written by Thomas Koukoletsos, with some edits by me. The review first covers the Ramm et al. book, and then compares it to Bennett’s. It is fairly details, so if you want to see the recommendation, scroll all the way down.

OpenStreetMap: Using and Enhancing the Free Map of the World is a comprehensive guide to OpenStreetMap (OSM), aimed at a wide range of readers, from those unfamiliar with the project to those who want to use its information and tools and integrate them with other applications. It is written in accessible language, starting from the basics and presenting things in an appropriate order for the reader to be able to follow, slowly building the necessary knowledge.

Part I, the introduction, covers 3 chapters. It presents the OSM project  generally, while pointing to other chapters wherever further details are provided later on. This includes how the project started, a short description of its main interface, how to export data, and some of its related services such as OpenStreetBugs and OpenRouteService. It concludes with a reference on mapping parties and the OSM foundation. This gives all the necessary information for someone new to OSM to get a general idea, without becoming too technical.

Part II, addressing OSM contributors, follows with chapter 4 focusing on how GPS technology is used for OSM. The balance between the technical detail and accessibility continues, so all the necessary information for mapping is presented in an easily digested way even for those not familiar with mapping science. The following chapter covers the whole mapping process using a very comprehensive case study, through which the reader understands how to work in the field, edit and finally upload the collected data. Based on this overview, the next chapter is slightly more technical, describing the data model followed by OSM. The information provided is necessary to understand how the OSM database is structured.

Chapter 7 moves on to details, describing what objects need to be mapped and how this can be done by using tags. The examples provided help the user to move from simpler to more complicated representations. The importance of this chapter, however, is in emphasising that, although the proposed tagging framework is not compulsory, it would be wise to do it as this will increase the consistency in the OSM database. The chapter ends with a suggestion of mapping priorities, from ‘very important’ objects and attributes to ‘luxury’ ones. Chapter 8 continues with map features, covering all other proposed mapping priorities. The split between the two chapters guides the user gradually from the most important features to those covered by expert OSM users, as otherwise mapping might have been far too difficult a task for new participants.

Chapter 9 describes Potlatch, an online editor which is the most popular. The description is simple and complete, and by the end the user is ready to contribute to the OSM database. The next chapter refers to JOSM, an offline editor designed for advanced users, which is more powerful than Potlatch but more difficult to use – although the extensive instructions make the use of this tool almost as easy as Potlatch. Chapter 11 concludes the review of editors by providing basic information on 5 other editors, suitable for desktop or mobile use. Chapter 12 presents some of the tools for mappers, designed to handle the OSM data or perform quality assurance tests. Among the capabilities described are viewing data in layers, monitoring changes in an area, viewing roads with no names, etc. The second part ends, in Chapter 13, with a description of the OSM licensing framework, giving the reader a detailed view of what source of data should be avoided when updating OSM to save it from copyright violations.

Part III of Ramm et al. is far more technical, beginning with how to use OSM on web pages. After providing the necessary information on tiling used for the OSM map (Mapnik and Tiles@Home servers), chapter 14 moves on to the use of OSM with Google Maps or with OpenLayers. Code is provided to assist the learning process. Chapter 15 provides information on how to download data, including the ability to download only changes and update an already downloaded version, explained further in a following chapter.

The next three chapters dive into cartographic issues, with chapter 16 starting with Osmarender, which helps visualising OSM data. With the help of many examples, the reader is shown how this tool can be used to render maps, and how to customise visualisation rules to create a personal map style. Chapter 17 continues with Mapnik, a more efficient tool than Osmarender for large datasets. Its efficiency is the result of reading the data from a PostgreSQL database. A number of other tools are required to be installed for Mapnik; however, they are all listed with basic installation instructions. The chapter concludes with performance tips, with an example of layers used according to the zooming level so that rendering is faster. The final renderer, described in chapter 18, is Kosmos. It is a more user-friendly application than the previous two, and the only one with a Graphical User Interface (GUI). The rules used to transform OSM data into a map come from the wiki pages, so anyone in need of a personal map style will have to create a wiki page. There is a description of a tiling process using Kosmos, as well as of exporting and printing options. The chapter concludes by mentioning Maperitive, the successor to Kosmos to be released shortly.

Chapter 19 is devoted to mobile use of OSM. After explaining the basics of navigation and route planning, there is a detailed description of how to create and install OSM data on Garmin GPS receivers. Additional applications for various types of devices are briefly presented (iPhones, iPods, Android), as well as other routing applications. Chapter 20 closes the third part of the book with an extensive discussion on licence issues of OSM data and its derivatives. The chapter covers the CC-BY-SA licence framework, as well as a comprehensive presentation of the future licence, without forgetting to mention the difficulties of such a change.

Part IV is the most technical part, aimed at those who want to integrate OSM into their applications. Chapter 21 reveals how OSM works, beginning with the OSM subversion repository, where the software for OSM is managed. Chapter 22 explains how the OSM Application Programming Interface (API) works. Apart from the basic data handling modes (create, retrieve, update or delete objects and GPS tracks), other methods of access are described, as well as how to work with changesets. The chapter ends with OAuth, a method to allow OSM authentication through third party applications keeping the necessary user information. Chapter 23 continues with XAPI, which is a different API that, although offers only read requests and its data may be a few minutes old, it allows more complex queries, returns more data than the standard API (e.g. historic versions) and allows RSS feeds from selected objects. Next, the Name Finder and Nominatim search engines for gazetteer purposes are covered. Lastly, GeoNames is mentioned, which, although not an OSM relative, can be used in combination with other OSM tools.

Chapter 24 presents Osmosis, a tool to filter and convert OSM data. Apart from enabling read and write of XML files, this tool is also able to access PostgreSQL and MySql databases for read and write purposes. It also describes how to create and process change files in order to continually update a local dataset or database from the OSM server. Chapter 25 moves deeper into more advanced editing, presenting the basics of large-scale or other automated changes. As such changes can affect a lot of people and their contributions, the chapter begins with ‘a note of caution’, discussing that, although power editing is available to everyone, a contact and discussion with those whose data is to be changed should be made.

Chapter 26 focuses on imports and exports including some of the programs that are used for specific data types. The final chapter presents a rather more detailed overview of how to run an OSM as well as a tile server, covering the requirements and installation. There is also a presentation of the API schema, and alternatives to the OSM API are also mentioned.

The book ends with the appendix, consisting of two parts, covering geodesy basics, and specifically geographic coordinates, datum definition and projections; and information on local OSM communities for a few selected countries.

Overall, the book is accessible and comprehensive.

Now, we turn to review the second book (Bennett) by focusing on differences between the two books.OpenStreetMap - Bennet

Chapters 1 and 2 give a general description of the OSM project and correspond to the first three chapters of Ramm et al. The history of OSM is more detailed here. The main OSM web page description does not include related websites but, on the other hand, it does describe how to use the slippy map as well as how to interact with data. The chapters also focus on the social aspect of the project, briefly presenting more details on a user’s account (e.g. personalisation of the user’s profile by adding a user photo, home location to enable communication with other users in the area or notification of local events).

Chapter 3 corresponds to chapters 4 and 5 of the first book. There is a more detailed description of how GPS works, as well as of how to configure the receiver; however, the other ways of mapping are less detailed. A typical mapping example and a more comprehensive description of the types of GPS devices suitable for OSM contribution, which are provided in Ramm et al., are missing.

Chapter 4 corresponds to chapters 6, 7 and 8 of the first book. Some less than important aspects are missing, such as the data model history. However, Ramm et al. is much more detailed on how to map objects, classifying them according to their importance and providing practical examples of how to do it, while in this chapter a brief description of tags is provided. Both books succeed in communicating the significance of following the wiki suggestions when it comes to tagging, despite the ‘any tags you like’ freedom. An interesting point, which is missing from the first book, is the importance of avoiding tagging for the renderer, explained here with the use of a comprehensive example.

Chapter 5 describes the editors Potlatch, JOSM and Merkaartor, corresponding with chapters 9, 10, and 11 of Ramm et al. Having the three editors in one chapter allows for a comparison table between them, giving a much quicker insight. A practical example with a GPS trace file helps in understanding the basics operation with these editors. More attention is given to Potlatch, while the other two editors are described only briefly. No other editors are described or mentioned.

Chapter 6 provides a practical example of using the three editors and shows how to map objects, which was covered in chapters 6, 7 and 8 in the first book. While the first book is more detailed and includes a wider range of mapping cases, here the reader becomes more familiar with the editors and learns how to provide the corresponding information. In addition to the material in the first book, here we have an example of finding undocumented tags and using OSMdoc.

Chapter 7 corresponds to chapter 12 of the first book, with a detailed description of the four basic tools to check OSM data for errors. However, Ramm et al. offers a broader view by mentioning or briefly describing seven other error-checking tools.

Chapter 8 deals with map production, similar to chapters 2, 16 and 18 of Ramm et al. The Osmarender tool is described in detail in both books. Kosmos renderer, however, is described in much more detail here, although it is no longer developed. The chapter’s summary here is very useful, as it presents briefly the 3 rendering tools and compares them. What is missing from this book, however, is a description of Mapnik (chapter 17 of Ramm et al.) and also the use of tiling in web mapping.

Chapter 9 corresponds to chapters 15, 22 and 23 of Ramm et al. Regarding planet files, Bennett provides a description of a way to check the planet file’s integrity, which can be useful for automating data integration processes. Moving on to OSM’s API, this book is confined to describing ways of retrieving data from OSM, unlike the first book that also includes operations to create, update or delete data. XAPI, however, is more detailed in this book, including how to filter data. In this chapter’s summary a brief description and comparison of the ways to access data is helpful. On the other hand, Ramm et al. briefly describes additional APIs and web services that are not covered here.

Chapter 10 matches chapter 24 of the first book. In both cases Osmosis is described in detail, with examples of how to filter data. The first book includes a more complete description of command line options, classified according to the data streams (entity or change). This book, on the other hand, is more explanatory on how to access data based on a predefined polygon, and further explaining how to create and use a customised one. The first book mentions additional tasks, such as ‘log progress’, ‘report integrity’, ‘buffer’, ‘sort’, while here only the latter is used during an example. An advantage of Bennett’s book, however, is that the use of Osmosis with a PostgreSQL database, as well as how to update data and how to automate a database update procedure, is explained more comprehensively and extensively.

The last chapter talks about future aspects of OSM. The OSM licence and its future development is explained in a comprehensive way, corresponding to the end of chapter 20 of the first book, with the use of some good examples to show where the present OSM licence is problematic. However, throughout Bennett’s book, licence issues are not covered as well as in Ramm et al. (chapters 13, 20), and the reader needs to reach the end of the book to understand what is allowed and what is not with the OSM data. Moving on, MapCSS, a common stylesheet language for OSM, is explained in detail, while in the first book it is simply mentioned at the end of chapter 9 during a discussion of Potlatch 2. The book ends with Mapzen POI collector for iPhone, covered in chapter 11 of the first book.

When compared to the first book, what is missing here is the use of OSM for navigation in mobile devices (chapter 19), large-scale editing (chapter 25), writing or finding software for OSM (chapter 21) and how to run an OSM server (chapter 27). Another drawback is the lack of coloured images; in some cases (e.g. chapter 7 – the NoName layer) it is difficult to understand them.

So which book is for me?

Both the books more or less deal with the same information, as shown by the chapters’ comparison and sequence.

Although there are areas where the two books are complementary, in most cases Ramm et al. provides a better understanding of the matters discussed, using a broader and more extensive view. It addresses a wide range of readers, from those unfamiliar with OSM to the advanced programmers who want to utilise it elsewhere, and is written with a progressive build-up of knowledge, which helps in the learning process. It also benefits from the dedicated website where updates are provided.  Bennett’s book, on the other hand, would be comparably more difficult to read for someone who has not heard of OSM, as well as for those in need of using it but who are not programming experts. There is a hidden assumption that the reader is fairly technically literate. It suffers somewhat from not being introductory enough, while at the same time not being in-depth and detailed.

As the two books are sold at a similar price point, we liked the Ramm et al. book much more and would recommend it to our students.