Launching a citizen science course – week 1

Today, I gave the opening lectures of the new UCL course ‘Introduction to Citizen Science and Scientific Crowdsourcing‘. In a way, it was more work than I originally thought, but I also thought that I’m underestimating the effort – so it’s not completely unexpected.

Although I am responsible for the first installation of Moodle, the virtual learning environment, at UCL in 2003, I have not used it in the context of an online course for remote learners. I have experienced the development of the Esri Survey123 module with Patrick Rickles and the excellent team at Esri that done most the work. It’s actually quite a challenge. Luckily, the e-learning support team of UCL was happy to guide us and set us on an appropriate path of developing the material for the course.

Having the course materialising is also closing a part of the original ExCiteS proposal that was left open. Here what the proposal for Challenging Engineering said: “In the fourth year, the research group will begin to consolidate the technology (with the first PhD students completing their studies) and will develop a further focused research proposal utilising the lessons from Adventure 2… In this year, a module on Citizen Science will be offered for MSc and PhD students at UCL.”. The project officially started in September 2011, so the fourth year was 2016 – so launching it in early 2018, within the 2017/2018 academic year should be considered to be on time in academic proposal terms!

Compared to things that I’ve done in the past, I have to note that the evolution of what is considered as boring technology – e.g. Microsoft PowerPoint (MSPP) – is instrumental to the ability to put this course together. Below you’ll see the opening segment. In actual terms, the extra effort to turn it into online teaching material was not huge – record voice over in MSPP, save as a video, upload to YouTube, link to Moodle (or here). I do hope that we’re getting it right with the course, but I’ll see as we develop it.

The rest of the lecture is available on UCLeXtend.


Long-running citizen science and Flynn effect

If you have been reading the literature on citizen science, you must have noticed that many papers that describe citizen science start with an historical narrative, something along the lines of:

As Silvertown (2009) noted, until the late 19th century, science was mainly developed by people who had additional sources of employment that allowed them to spend time on data collection and analysis. Famously, Charles Darwin joined the Beagle voyage, not as a professional naturalist but as a companion to Captain FitzRoy[*]. Thus, in that era, almost all science was citizen science albeit mostly by affluent gentlemen and gentlewomen scientists[**]. While the first professional scientist is likely to be Robert Hooke, who was paid to work on scientific studies in the 17th century, the major growth in the professionalisation of scientists was mostly in the latter part of the 19th and throughout the 20th century.
Even with the rise of the professional scientist, the role of volunteers has not disappeared, especially in areas such as archaeology, where it is common for enthusiasts to join excavations, or in natural science and ecology, where they collect and send samples and observations to national repositories. These activities include the Christmas Bird Watch that has been ongoing since 1900 and the British Trust for Ornithology Survey, which has collected over 31 million records since its establishment in 1932 (Silvertown 2009). Astronomy is another area in which amateurs and volunteers have been on a par with professionals when observation of the night sky and the identification of galaxies, comets and asteroids are considered (BBC 2006). Finally, meteorological observations have also relied on volunteers since the early start of systematic measurements of temperature, precipitation or extreme weather events (WMO 2001). (Haklay 2013 emphasis added)

The general messages of this historical narrative are: first, citizen science is a legitimate part of scientific practice as it was always there, we just ignored it for 50+ years; second, that some citizen science is exactly as it was – continuous participation in ecological monitoring or astronomical observations, only that now we use smartphones or the Met Office WOW website and not pen, paper and postcards.

The second aspect of this argument is one that I was wondering about as I was writing a version of the historical narrative for a new report. This was done within a discussion on how the educational and technological transitions over the past century reshaped citizen science. I have argued that the demographic and educational transition in many parts of the world, and especially the rapid growth in the percentage and absolute numbers of people with higher education degrees who are potential participants is highly significant in explaining the popularity of citizen science. To demonstrate that this is a large scale and consistent change, I used the evidence of Flynn effect, which is the rapid increase in IQ test scores across the world during the 20th century.

However, while looking at the issue recently, I came across Jim Flynn TED talk ‘Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents (below). At 3:55, he raise a very interesting point, which also appears in his 2007 What is Intelligence? on pages 24-26. Inherently, Flynn argues that the use of cognitive skills have changed dramatically over the last century, from thinking that put connections to concrete relationship with everyday life as the main way of understanding the world, to one that emphasise scientific categories and abstractions. He use an example of a study from the early 20th Century, in which participants where asked about commonalities between fish and birds. He highlights that it was not the case that in the ‘pre-scientific’ worldview people didn’t know that both are animals, but more the case that this categorisation was not helpful to deal with concrete problems and therefore not common sense. Today, with scientific world view, categorisation such as ‘these are animals’ come first.

This point of view have implications to the way we interpret and understand the historical narrative. If correct, than the people who participate in William Whewell tide measurement work (see Caren Cooper blogpost about it), cannot be expected to think about contribution to science, but could systematically observed concrete events in their area. While Whewell view of participants as ‘subordinate labourers’ is still elitist and class based, it is somewhat understandable.  Moreover, when talking about projects that can show continuity over the 20th Century – such as Christmas Bird Count or phenology projects – we have to consider the option that an the worldview of the person that done that in 1910 was ‘how many birds there are in my area?’ while in 2010 the framing is ‘in order to understand the impact of climate change, we need to watch out for bird migration patterns’. Maybe we can explore in historical material to check for this change in framing? I hope that projects such as Constructing Scientific Communities which looks at citizen science in the 19th and 21th century will shed light on such differences.

[*] Later I found that this is not such a simple fact – see van Wyhe 2013 “My appointment received the sanction of the Admiralty”: Why Charles Darwin really was the naturalist on HMS Beagle

[**] And we shouldn’t forget that this was to the exclusion of people such as Mary Anning