PhD studentship in Extreme Citizen Science – development of data collection tools with non-literate participants

For more information on ExCiteS and ECSAnVis, please visit here and here.

Studentship Description

The ExCiteS research group has been developing Sapelli since 2012 – this is a platform that facilitates data collection across language or literacy barriers through highly configurable icon-driven user interfaces. The successful candidate will join a team of anthropologists, ecologists, geographers,  computer scientists and designers and focus on extending the undertaken research work. This will include the design, prototype and implementation of Sapelli components that answer the needs and wishes of participants in citizen science projects. The research will mainly include aspects of data collection such as data validation, user authentication and designing user interfaces for non-literate participants. We will specifically focus on engagement of non-literate people and we need to understand how the process, from data collection to analysis, can be made meaningful and useful for their everyday life. The project will include working with non-literate forest communities in central Africa and seek to enable these vulnerable communities to conduct their own environmental monitoring or mapping. For more information, see papers by Stevens et al. 2014 ( and Vitos et al. 2017 (

Person Specification

The applicants should possess a good honours degree (1st Class or 2:1 minimum) in a relevant discipline such as Computer Science, Electronic Engineering or Human-Computer Interaction. The ideal candidate should also hold an MSc in Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, Human Factors, or Geographical Information Science and must have proven experience and skills in Software Engineering or Human Computer Interaction.

The ideal candidate should have excellent verbal and written communication skills and should be able to work as part of a team to design, develop and deploy software prototypes. Preferably, the candidate should have experience in programming in Java and Android and have a good understanding of code management systems such as GitHub. Skills in using Python would also be desired. Finally, since the case studies might involve travelling to central Africa, the candidate should have a willingness to travel in remote forest locations and thus French language skills would be desirable. The ability to be patient and understanding with local people is essential in this regard.


Applications are invited from UK and EU citizenship holders.

Start Date

Between September and December 2017, at time that is suitable to the candidate. A successful candidate will be asked to work with the Extreme Citizen Science group for two weeks (expenses covered) before registering to the PhD programme.

Application Procedure

Applicants should send a cover letter, 2-4 page research proposal, examples of academic writing (e.g. BSc or MSc dissertation), code outputs from past work and CV to Michalis Vitos ( and Judy Barrett ( The cover letter should include a personal statement explaining your interest in citizen science, why you are interested in our project and how you would see your work integrated into ExCiteS vision and activities. You are welcome to contact Prof Muki Haklay ( or Michalis or any other ExCiteS members with queries about your proposal or for an informal conversation. Deadline for application – 31st August 2017.

Funding Notes

Duration – 3 years

Funding –The scholarship covers UCL student fees at the Home/EU rate and provides a stipend of £16,553 per annum tax free. Travel expenses and research equipment will also be provided to the successful candidate.

Funding Body: European Research Council (ERC) and UCL.

Into the night – training day on citizen science

dscn1936Last December, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) awarded funding to UCL Extreme Citizen Science group and Earthwatch as part of their investment in public engagement. The projects are all short – they start from January to March and included public engagement and training to early career researchers.

“Into the Night” highlights the importance of light pollution, a growing environmental stressor to both wildlife and humans, through collaborative and co-designed citizen science research. The project aims to increase awareness of this issue through two public workshops exploring the potential of two citizen science focal points – glow-worms and human wellbeing – explicitly linking ecological and human impacts. The project will culminate with a set of public activities (pilot data collection and educational) to coincide with Earth Hour (25.03.2017).

The project aims to build public engagement capacity through PhD internships with Earthwatch (Europe), CEH, Natural England and UCL, and forms a dedicated training day on the design and implementation of citizen science for 50 early-career researchers and PhD students.

The project is led by UCL (in collaboration with North Carolina State University – NCSU) and Earthwatch, bringing together leading research and practice in citizen science. It is the result of two co-design workshops, with over 30 participants from environmental science, social science, public health, National Parks, and NGOs. Based on this preparatory work, and with active training of early career researchers, we will run two focused workshops which will take place in dark sky reserves. These workshops will focus on two preliminary ideas for citizen science projects: a countrywide survey of glow-worms and the impact of artificial light on their activities, and the influence of lightscapes and dark green spaces on human wellbeing while balancing safety and concerns.

The two projects will generate public awareness and provide the public with opportunities to have debate and dialogue on the subject, as well as involvement in data collection and analysis. Results will be shared through social and traditional media. The outcome will advance ideas for a national citizen science project, which UCL and Earthwatch will take forward.

The training day run in Oxford on the 2nd February and during the day I gave two 45 minutes sessions. First, I provided an introduction to the field of citizen science, how to design a project, and how to evaluate such a project.

The session provided a brief overview of the types of citizen science that are relevant in addressing environmental challenges. We looked at classifications of citizen science projects, explore their potential goals, the process of recruitment and retention as well as the need to start project evaluation from an early stage. At the end the participants engage in a short exercise to consider how these elements can be used in the design of a citizen science project.

The second talk focused on technology.

The talk aim was described as follows: Current citizen science seems effortless…just download an app and start using it. However, there are many technical aspects that are necessary to make a citizen science project work. This session provided an overview of all the technical elements that are required – from the process of designing an app, to designing and managing a back-end system, to testing the system end to end before deployment. Again, at the end of the session, a short exercise considered the design of an app for a citizen science project that addresses light pollution.


Podcast – discussion with Liz Killen and Alice Sheppard on citizen science

Several weeks ago, Liz Killen, who is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College organised an interview with me and Alice Sheppard about aspects of citizen science, for the I, Science the science magazine of Imperial College. This is the second time ExCiteS is covered in the magazine, after a report in 2013 by .

Crowdsourcing the Future?

About a month ago, on 7th December 2016, DR Kingsley Purdam (Manchester) organised a one day workshop on citizen science, and in particular on citizen science from a social science methodological perspective. The day organised with the support of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM).

The purpose of the workshop/conference was to explore the future of citizen science and citizen social science methods as research tools. In particular, understanding the different types of applications, methods, the data and the challenges posed. Because the point of view was based on methodologies in social sciences, issues about expertise, divisions of labour, different ways of seeing, data quality, questions about what might still be going undocumented and the ethical issues raised were all discussed.

The workshop was structured around two blocks of discussion – the morning around methods, data and ethics, while the after looked at issues of participation and working in the area of policy, as well as a discussion of the specific issues that need to be discussed for a citizen social science project.

As an introduction, both natural science and social science projects were presented. You can find a summary on twitter of some of the points that came up during the day with the hashtag #crowdfutures.

Some of the important tweets are captured here with comments (bit storify style).

Chris Lintott started the day with a discussion of large-scale, online citizen science projects, with the story of Zooniverse.

People participate in Zooniverse because they want to do something useful, and he pointed to the complexities of combining machine learning with citizen science effort while maintaining motivation and interest.

While I presented after Chris, and mostly talked about a more social theory explanation of what Extreme Citizen Science is – in particular, the creation of technologies that are embedded with a social participatory process. Many of the processes that I described were small-scale, and local. I have also pointed to the growth of citizen science and the Doing It Together Science project that we currently run.

However, in the discussion that followed we agreed that the nature of participation and many of the issues that come in these projects are similar across the scales even if the mechanisms for engagement are different.

Ben Rich (BBC), covered issues of engagement in weather observation that the BBC implemented successfully, with million observations and report in the first year

Hilary Geoghegan (Reading) & Alison Dyke (SEI)  talked about the UK EOF study on the motivation of participants and the ethics of participation, as well as the tensions between contributory and co-created citizen science in environmental research.

Will Dixon (Manchester) described the Cloudy with Pain project which engaged 12,000 participants and receives substantial information. The project also experiments with some access to data and opportunity for analysis by the participants themselves.

Kingsley Purdam (Manchester) talked about the complexity of citizen social science about begging, when the beggars are involved in data collection. Another Manchester-based project looked at linguistic diversity in street signs

The next set of talks raised some important point, including by Erinma Ochu on the process of creating the Robot Orchestra as a participatory DIY electronic and creative process, raising issues about expertise and success (the orchestra is in very high demand); Monika Buscher (Lancaster) emphasising that citizen social science is not about bigger torch to understand reality, but critique science & social science; and Alex Albert (Manchester), who run  project to encourage citizen reporting of empty houses and consider what should be done with them, highlighted the challenges of starting a project and recruiting participants. Liz Richardson (Manchester), talked about the interface between participatory action research and citizen science, and described her work with a community who collected data and asked for guidance on how to analyse it. The three talks by Monika, Alex, and Liz raised many issues about the participation of people in different stages of the research process, and the role of established researchers in such projects.

The last set of talks focused back on ecological and medical projects: Rachel Webster of Manchester Museum explained the museum digitising effort, and how they are making progress one MSc in computing student at a time – the integration of citizen science with small museum activities is a resource challenge, so the work with students require some compromises. There was also a demonstration of setting systems for citizen science and then discovering how they are used:

Lamiece pointed that a challenge with such approach is to get the app downloaded and to see continued use, although so far there are 1500 participants, 800,000 observations. There is also Data challenge of presence/absence reporting to make sense of what the data means.

Ian Thornhill fro mEarthWatch who coordinates the FreshWater Watch project demonstrate how simple data collection tools open up space for participant’s innovations in tools and in data collection. He also provided different models of how projects are run – corporate sponsorship, or by payment from interested communities.

Some of the points in the discussion include the need to balance scientific data collection and activism (especially for projects such as those that Liz Richardson described). Also balancing small scale, deep engagement or large datasets, wide engagement – e.g. for 3 years as researchers on projects that got limited funding and a goal. The need to consider what participation is doing to citizen science, and what science is doing to it? How to balance between the two? and in general, the wider societal impacts of projects cannot be ignored. There are also people that coming from a policy perspective, and try to push for procedural aspects, not interested in engagement issues.

There are also ethical issues such as those that relate to volunteer management – what should be done with contributors that are not doing good work? exclude them? train? ignore them? There is a constant need to think of useful roles and how making people valued for their contribution.

Another set of questions explored what citizen social science does to science? How are issues about ownership,  responsibilities to ensuring data quality integrated into project planning and management?

UCL Synergies podcast – Congo Citizen Science

The “UCL Synergies podcasts” is series of interviews with researchers who are working on a shared problem from two disciplinary perspective. It is part of the activities to demonstrate how UCL addresses the grand challenges. The series itself is an excellent  demonstration of the issues that come up in interdisciplinary research and you can find it here

As part of this series, Jerome Lewis and I had a conversation with Sue Nelson on our work. The podcast is about 10 minutes,  and you can listen to it here.

Esri Education User Conference talk: Citizen Science & Geographical Technologies: creativity, learning, and engagement

The slides below are from my keynote talk at the Esri Education User Conference 2016. The conference focused on creativity and its relevant to education and the utilisation of GIS (especially Esri software) at different levels of education.

My talk explored the area of citizen science and extreme citizen science and the way geographical technologies contribute to creativity and learning. As I continue to assume that many of the audience don’t know about citizen science, I start with a review of the field as a way to contextualise what we, as a group, try to do.

[The talk is similar, in parts, to other talks that are captured here on my blog (workshop on theory, practice and policy, standards and recommendation for citizen science, or the current developments in ExCiteS). I’m updating the slides with lessons on what seem to work or not in previous talks. Social media is helpful for that – I can see which points people found most useful/meaningful!]

The talk starts with an historical perspective of citizen science, continue with the societal and technical trends that are at the basis of the current growth in citizen science. Having done that, I’m using a typology that looks at domain (academic discipline), technology, and engagement as a way to introduce examples of citizen science activities. I’m using the trailer for the TV series ‘the Crowd & the Cloud’ to recap the discussions on citizen science activities. I also mention the growth of practitioners community through the Citizen Science Associations.

Next, on this basis, I’m covering the concepts and practices of Extreme Citizen Science – what we do and how. I’m using examples from the work on noise, community resource management and earthquake and fire preparedness to demonstrate the concept.

The last part of the talk focuses specifically on creativity and learning from the Citizen Cyberlab project, and I explain the next steps that we will carry out in the Doing It Together Science project. I complete the talk by giving examples for activities that the audience can do by themselves.

Throughout the talk, I’m showing how Esri technologies are being used in citizen science. It wasn’t difficult to find examples – Esri’s GIS is used in BioBlitzes, Globe at Night, links to OpenStreetMap, and support the work that the ExCiteS group is doing. Survey123 and similar tools can be used to create novel projects and experiment with them. ArcGIS Online will be linked to GeoKey, to allow analysis of community mapping efforts. In short, there is plenty of scope for GIS as an integral part of citizen science projects.

Alan Irwin talk on Citizen Science and Scientific Citizenship (JRC, October 2015)

The EU Joint Research Centre in Ispra has recently released the recording of a talk by Alan Irwin at the Joint Research Centre as part of the STS “Contro  Corrente” series of seminars from 15 October 2015, with Jerome Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz (famous for their post-normal science) as discussants. The talk, titled Citizen Science and Scientific Citizenship: same words, different meanings? is using the two keynotes at the Citizen Science Association 2015 conference (by Chris Filardi and Amy Robinson) as a starting point for a discussion about the relationships of citizen science to scientific citizenship.

If you are interested in the wider place of citizen science within the scientific enterprise, this seminar is an opportunity to hear from 3 people who thought about this for a long time (and their work influenced my thinking). It’s very much worth to spend the time to follow the whole discussion).

Two very valuable points from Irwin’s talk are, first, the identification ‘that the defining characteristics of citizen science is its location at the point where public participation and knowledge production – or societal context and epistemology – meet‘.

Secondly, the identification that scientific citizenship is having the following characteristics – focus on sociotechnical futures with specifically asking question about the relationship between knowledge and democracy; which highlights the political economy of knowledge and the changing nature of citizenship as practised engagement.

Also valuable is the linkage of knowledge, power, and justice and how these play out in citizen science in its different forms.

I’ll admit that I was especially interested in the way that my model of participation in citizen science was used in this seminar. However, having a blog is also an opportunity to respond to some of the points that were discussed in the seminar!

First, Alan Irwin note that scientific citizenship does not happen at the top level of participation but throughout the levels. This is something that I’m emphasising in every talk in which I use this model. As Silvio Funtowicz correctly identified, the model is (yet another) borrowing from Sherry Arnstein ladder of participation as I clearly indicated. However, it is wrong to put the value judgement that is at the centre of Arnstein analysis of participation into citizen science – there might be just as much engagement in volunteer computing as in ‘extreme’ citizen science.

Second, Funtowicz commented that the equivalent of ‘extreme citizen science’ in Arnstein ladder does not reach very high level of participation. I disagree. Arnstein top level is ‘Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power’. If in citizen science project we shift into more equal mode of knowledge production where the project is shaped by all participants, especially marginalised ones, and the scientists working as facilitators in service of the community, aren’t we at the same place?