Citizen Cyberlab Summit (day 1)

wpid-wp-1442503181050.jpgThe Citizen Cyberlab Summit is the final event of the Citizen Cyberlab project. The name might sound grand, but the event itself was fairly intimate and focused, with about 40 participants from across the world. The aim of the event was to share the learning from the project and compare them to similar activities around the world. It also provided an opportunity to consider, with experts from different areas, the directions that the project partners should progress beyond the specific ‘deliverables’ (outcomes and outputs) of the project. The meeting was held in the Confucius institute of the University of Geneva which has a mission to improve scientific diplomacy and international links between researchers, so it was a suitable venue for the such international scientific meeting.

 Introduction to Citizen Cyberlab was provided by Ariel Lindner (UPD) who is the main project leader. He noted that the starting point of citizen cyberlab is that we know that people learn better by doing, and that working with the public is also beneficial for scientists – both for becoming aware of public concerns as well as the moral obligation to share the results of research with those who fund it.  The citizen cyberlab project, which is in its final months, was based on 3 parts – platforms, pilots, and tools. Platforms that are aimed at lowering the barriers for participation for scientists and citizens (computation and participation platforms). The platforms are tested through pilot projects, which are then evaluated for creativity and learning – exploring learning behaviour, creativity and community engagement. We aim to share the successful experiences but also the challenges that emerged through the various activities. In the computation platforms, we developed CitizenGrid is aimed to allow running cloud-based projects; RedWire, a new way to consider game design – creating an open source game engine with open game analytics (the ability to measure what people do with the games). Example of this was in the development of science games; GeoKey is the final platform, and it allow people to share their concerns and control information. The project pilots included Virtual Atom Smasher which is about learning particle physics and helping scientists; GeoTag-X at UNITAR helping in disaster response; SynBio4All which open up synthetic biology to wider audience – with games such as Hero Coli and a MOOC on DIY synthetic biology (through iGEM) – with activities around ‘the smell of us’ about the odour that people emit and identifying the bacteria that influence it. L’Oréal is interested in developing this research further; There are several Extreme Citizen Science pilots, too. The tools that were developed in the project included creativity tools such as to explore and develop ideas, monitoring learning (CCL-Tracker), and EpiCollect+ system to allow data collection for a wide range of projects.
Aspects of creativity and understanding what people learn are both complex tasks – understanding the learning had to be done on other communities in citizen science, finally there is specific effort on community engagement through social media and media outlets (YouTube and Audio).

The rest of the event was structured as follows: after two short presentations from guest speakers from outside the project consortium, two demonstrations of specific platform, tool, pilot or learning was followed, and the session ended with discussion in groups, which were then shared back. In all, the summit had 4 such sessions.

wpid-wp-1442502888908.jpgFollowing this introduction, two guests gave Short Talks, first about World Community Grid (WCG) – Juan Hindo (IBM). Juan provided details of WCG which is part of IBM corporate citizenship group. WCG is philanthropic programme that support participation in science through distributed computing to allow scientists to access large scale computing by using unused processing in computers and mobile devices. The projects can be ‘the biggest and most fundamentally important activities in labs’ according to researchers who participate in the programme. Examples of success include new solar materials from Harvard university researchers, with thousands of candidate materials. Other breakthroughs happened in childhood cancer research and computing for clean water that was led by Tshinghua University in China – exploring the use of nano-tubes for water filtration. WCG are promoting Open Science – ask researcher to make the data publicly available, focus on humanitarian research, real tangible science, with IBM support. Using the corporate ability, they get lots of attention in media. They try to engage volunteers as much as possible – they carried out an extensive volunteers study 2 years ago. Demographic – mostly man, technical background, 20-40, who usually volunteer for 5 years, and people join because they want to help science. Learning about the science is a reason to stay. People want to understand the impact of the computations that they perform – beyond just statics and asking information to be understandable. WCG are trying now to build a more diverse volunteer base, more approachable scientific content and articulating the value of contribution. They see opportunity to reach out to young people, women and they try to engage people through the story about the science, and ensuring people that the process is safe – evaluating experience and design to take a short time. They also want to leverage existing volunteers – they set up a recruitment competition for existing volunteers – that led to very few new people joined. They also do use of social media on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. There is growing engagement with social media, but not enough conversion to volunteering. They also deal with layering of information with researchers, ask for consistent and regular updating on the research and give volunteer control over communication that they receive. Articulating contribution value is to highlight research stories – not just computations and number of volunteers and celebrating and promote scientific success – they lean on networks in IBM to share the word out. The campaign helped in doubling the registration rate to the system. They want to reach more volunteers, and they follow conversion rate – they are missing stories from volunteers and have a volunteer voice, remove barriers to entry, recruitment drive didn’t create. They want to expand research portfolio and want other areas that it can support. 

In the discussion that followed the important of IP, treating volunteers as individuals came up as a topic that worth exploring with volunteer computing project.

wpid-wp-1442566393048.jpgThe next presentation was Science@home –  by Jacob Sherson (University of Aarhus, Denmark). Jacob noted that in citizen science there are different difficulty level and opportunity to user innovation. In Science@home they are trying to extend the range of citizen science involvement with students. They are talking about the creativity research – trying to evaluate creativity with a positivist empirical framework – controlling different variables and evaluating creativity of output according to it. They run – with 3000 people participating in projects, with experiments ranging from cognitive science, to quantum physics, and business administration – and they have an interdisciplinary team from different areas of research to support the development of the system. An example for the type of project that they deal with is quantum computing – manipulations of electrons – they are sloshing around between states when moving them with laser beams. Using analogies to high school curriculum was useful way to engage participants and make it relevant to their studies. They have discovered that students can understand quantum physics in a phenomenological way through a game interface. They discover that gamers find areas of good region for solutions. The players localised area of the big parameters space – faster than computer simulation. They also studying the formation of strategies in people mind – Quantum Minds. With this programme, they are studying the process of learning the project and mastering it. They looked at the way to people who learn how to solve problems – to see if early performance help to predict the ability to learn the topic. Other games include trying to understand innovations in the Alien Game. They also have behavioural economics game about forming of groups. The educational part is about creativity – thinking of motivations for curriculum and fun with different resources. Game based education is assumed to improve the curriculum and can increase the motivation to learn. The general approach is to provide personalised online learning trajectories – identify types of students and learners and then correlate them and create personalised learning experience. Also want to train researchers to help them explore. 

The next part of the morning session were the 2 Demonstrations starting with EpiCollect – David Aanensen (Imperial College). EpiCollect was created to deal with infectious disease – who, what, where and when – getting the information about genetic make-up of diseases. They realised that there is a generic issue of metadata gathering and the tool evolved into generic forms collection and visualisation tool. The current use of EpiCollect includes a lot of projects in veterinary as GPS monitoring of animals is easier in terms of ethics. It was also used by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to monitor the provision of food to communities in different parts of the world. Also used in education projects in Bath university in field courses (building on evolution megalab project to collect information about snails) with students building questionnaire based on the information sheets of the project. They are starting to build longitudinal data. There are projects that link EpiCollect to other systems – such as GeoKey and CartoDB for visualisation.  

Red Wire  was presented by Jesse Himmelstein (University Paris Descartes) -Red Wire is a platform that is aimed at reducing the barrier of creating games for citizen science through a mash-up approach – code and games are open access to encourage reuse. It use functional programming language approach – in a visual programming environment. They are taking metaphors from electronics. There are examples of games that student developed during recent summer schools and other activities. 

CitizenGrid was discussed by John Darlington (Imperial College, London). Citizen Grid is a platform that enables replicating projects on cloud computing, specifically for volunteer computing projects. It can allow unified support to volunteer computing – support for the scientists who are setting a project, but also to the volunteers who want to link to the project. The scientists can map their resources through creation of both client and server virtual machines and register the application. They demonstrated it with projects that also use games – allowing to install the application on local machines or cloud computing.   

wpid-wp-1442502824236.jpgIn the breakout groups, participants discussed the complexity of the platforms and what are the next steps to make them more accessible. For Epicollect, there are challenges of identifying who are the users – they the both the coordinators and the data collectors, and helping them in setting useful project is challenging, especially with the need for usability and user experience expertise. Dealing with usability and user experience is a challenge that is common to such projects. For RedWire, there is a need to help people who do not have any programming experience to develop games, so these are scientists and teachers. Maybe even gemify the game engine with credits to successful game designers who create components that can be remixed. For citizen grid, there is a need for examples of use cases, with currently Virtual Atom Smasher as the main demonstrator.

The afternoon session explored Pilot Projects. CERN@School – Becky Parker (Langton Star Centre) described how she developed, with her students and collaboration with scientists the ability to do science at school. The project is a demonstration how students and teachers can become part of the science community. The project started years ago with students contributing to astrophysics research. The school is involved in fundamental research, with a 17 years old student publishing scientific paper based on theoretical physics research problem that was presented to the students from professional scientists. Her students also put together to put an instrument to detect cosmic rays on the satellite TDS-1. They can see where is their experiment through visualisation over Google Maps that the students developed themselves. Students also created analysis tools for the data. Students can contribute to NASA research on the impact of cosmic rays on International Space Station staff. CERN@School also include experiment in collecting radiation reading which help to map background radiation in the UK (by students at 14-15). Through their work, they discovered that there aren’t many radiation reading in the ocean, and they will do that by mounting a radiation sensor to sea UAV. All this helps students to learn to be scientists. They created the monopole-quest project within the zooniverse projects. It is possible to get young people involved in large scale science projects. It also help to encourage science teachers and to ensure job satisfaction for teachers. The involvement of girls in the project also lead to more participation in science and engineering after school with the school having a disproportionate share of the number of young women who go to study such topics in the UK. – From Volunteers to Scientists – Michael Weber (Uni Marburg). Michael describe how volunteers turned to scientists in the area of volunteer computing. Rechenkraft started in 2005 with a forum dedicated to all distributed computing projects around the world, and sharing the information about them among German speaking volunteers. Projects are now being translated to other languages, too. This led to the creation of an organisation, which is now involved in many projects, including  volunteers also created monitoring programmes that indicate the process and provide statistics about contributions. They also have yearly face to face gathering of volunteers from across Germany and beyond, with results of creating their own data processing racks and other initiative. Started in electronic sports league but then realised that there are opportunities to assist scientists in developing new projects, and that led to Yoyo@home that will allow the community to help scientists in developing BOINC projects. They regularly participate in conferences and exhibitions to promote the opportunity to other people interested in technology, and they became part of Quake-catcher network. They receive significant press coverage – eventually the city of Marburg (Germany) offered the organisation physical pace that became the Hackspace of the city. Once there is a steady place, they created more sophisticated cluster computers. They also set up the WLAN in the local refugee camp. Finally, they also develop their own scientific project- RNA world which is completely internal project. They encountered problems with very large output files from simulations so they are learning about running distributed computing projects as scientists who use the results and not only as volunteers. They also starting to run different projects about tree health with data recording such as location, photo and plant material.   Similarly, they map protected flowers – all this on volunteer basis. They participate in the effort of developing citizen science strategy 2020 for Germany, and they would like funding to be available to average person so they can participate in projects. There is risk that citizen science will be co-opted by scientists – need to leave space for grass-roots initiatives. There are also barriers for publications. The need for lab results in addition to the simulation encouraged the creation of the wet lab. 

The last short guest talk came from Bernard Revaz who suggested to create Massive Multiplayer Online Science – using game environments like WoW (World of Warcraft) to do science. His aim is inject science into projects such as Eve online – at a given time there are 40,000 users, median age 35, with 50% with degree in science. In Eve online they design an element from the human protein atlas that the gamers will help to classify. The stakeholders in their discussion include scientists,  the gaming company and players and all are very positive about the prospect. In Eve online there are many communities – they are creating a new community of scientists so people join it voluntarily. Working on matching the science tasks to the game narrative and to the game reward system.

After these two guest talks, there were two Demos. 

wpid-wp-1442502761020.jpgFirst, Virtual Atom Smasher (VAS) – Ioannis Charalampidis (CERN) – the VAS is about the way CERN develop the science cycle -observe the situation, lead to theory by theoretical physicists and then carry out experiments to test them. The process includes computer simulations that are explored against experimental data. They are trying to adjust the models until the model reflect the results.VAS evolved from a project by  15 years old student in 2010, who managed to create the best fitting results of a simulation. The VAS is about real cutting edge science, but it is also very challenging and created a game (but don’t use the word game – it’s a simulation). The VAS use CitizenGrid and RedWire for the game and CCL tracker to understand the way people use the platform. The analytics show the impact of training to the desired flow of the game. The VAS combines exploration with opportunities for learning. 

Geotag-X – Eleanor Rusack (UNITAR). This is a platform to crowdsource the analysis of images in humanitarian crises. They usually use satellite imagery to deal with crises, but there are limitations to some images – roofs, clouds etc., and there is a need to know what is going on the ground. The idea is to harvest photos coming from disaster , then analyse them and share the knowledge. A lot of information in photos can be very useful – it’s possible to extract structural information and other details in the image. They got a workflow, who set projects, they then develop the structure of the processing and tutorials, and tools for photo collection tools (from Flickr, Twitter, EpiCollect and Chrome extension). The photos are added to the analysis pool. They have created a project to allow people deal with Yemeni Cultural Heritage at risk as  a result of the way that is happening there. The syste is mostly based on self learning. Geotagging photo is a challenging tasks. It’s a specially an area that need more work. The experts are professionals or academics in specific domain who can help people to design the process, while participants are coming from different backgrounds. They are recruiting people through SciStarter, Mozilla science etc. The keep in touch with online volunteer groups – people who come from SciStarter tend to stay. Digital volunteers also help a lot and they encourage volunteering through presentation, but most important are data sprints. They use evaluation of agreement between analysts – agreement show easy to agree. There is a range of responses to agreement across standard deviation: they identify 3 groups – easy (high  agreement, low standard deviation), mid (high std div and median agreement) and complex (low agreement, low std div). Analysis of images against these agreement level help to improve designs. The want to move the questions up the curve and how to train large number of analysts when project leaders have limited time? 

The follow up discussion explored improvements to VAS – such as integrating arts or linking a BOINC project that will contribute computing resources to the VAS. For Geotag-X, the discussion explored the issue of training – with ideas about involving volunteers in getting the training right, run virtual focus groups or exploring design aspects and collaborations between volunteers.

Biohacking, iGEM and the limits of citizen science



On 25th September, the UCL iGEM team organised an event that was dedicated to demonstrating their work with the Biohacking enthusiasts at the London Hackspace, on the rights and risks on public participation in developing a biobrick. The event raised some fundamental questions about ethics and limits of citizen science, but first, some jargon entanglement is required.
Biobricks are segments of DNA that perform a specific function, been identified and submitted to a repository so other researchers can use them. They are being used in synthetic biology (synthbio) where an engineering approach is being used to construct genetically modified organisms. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is encouraging undergraduate students to develop biobricks and learn about synthbio. This year, the UCL iGEM team is focusing on finding ways to clean the oceans .
The London Hackspace is a place where people with various technical interests come to explore a wide range of technological experimentation through making them and trying them in different ways. This ranges from carpentry and laser cutting of metal and plastic, to computing and electronics. The members decide for themselves what topic they want to explore and how to go about doing that. A subgroup of the hackspace decided to focus on biohacking – the DIY version of synthbio. And this is where things get interesting from citizen science perspective. The group decided that they will focus on creating a biobrick which will act as ‘antifreeze’ for bacteria so it can survive in lower temperature environment, and started experimenting.
The link between UCL students and the hackspace members developed by sharing expertise of how to handle genetic experiments and the goal of creating an official biobrick that was created with significant public input. Generally, there are restrictions on who is allowed to submit them and they are not open to the public.
By attending the event and talking to people that were involved in the project, it transpires that this is a challenging example of citizen science. It opens up many ethical, practical and theoretical challenges and questions.
First, unlike the use of electronics or smartphones, interacting with a ‘wet laboratory’ involved many tacit skills and knowledge which are not easily recorded in the literature and are passed from one experienced user of the lab to another. How should these skills taught and should it be opened to amateur or hobbyists? Is it better to ensure that people are competent or is it better to have it as a barrier to entry?
Second, because a lot of the risks are not always visible to the naked eye and other senses, accidents with material that can be dangerous can happen. At the same time, the biohackers are concerned about these aspects and reported to be more attuned then some of the students, although accidents can happen out of lack of knowledge. Is it just an issue that they are taking a risk or should strong regulations apply?
Thirdly, synthbio is fairly much in the forefront of science – so side effects, risks, applications and policy decisions are open. Should that be a space where citizen scientists experiment and try in their kitchens?
There are many more questions and queries that this case is opening – but it was also an enjoyable and fascinating evening.