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.

UCL Institute for Global Prosperity Talk: Extreme Citizen Science – Current Developments

The slides below are from a talk that I gave today at UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

The abstract for the talk is:

With a growing emphasis on civil society-led change in diverse disciplines, from International Development to Town Planning, there is an increasing demand to understand how institutions might work with the public effectively and fairly.

Extreme Citizen Science is a situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world.

In this talk, I discussed the work of UCL Extreme Citizen Science group within the wider context of the developments in the field of citizen science. I covered the work that ExCiteS has already done, currently developing and plans for the future.

Higher Education and Social Enterprise: feedback loops and interactions

Last week, I attended a round table discussion about Social Enterprise and Higher Education Institutions at the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The meeting was part of a larger event on social enterprise that was organised by Social Enterprise UK and UnLtd to mark Social Enterprise day.

The discussion explored different aspects in which universities operate and interact with the area of social entrepreneurship. It is just natural that when trying to argue a specific point, usually only one aspect of universities was in focus. So the discussion meandered through the areas of education, research, local economic impact and citizenship. The education aspects of teaching entrepreneurial skills and social commitment can be integrated in social enterprise activities. They are also hosting entrepreneurial staff who might want to extend their impact beyond scholarly contribution and spin-off activities that are based on their research. Universities are also a node in a wider knowledge and research network that can support social enterprises in the locality, beyond only working with students and staff. They are also large public bodies that can create significant impact through their contracts and procurement policies.

However, as the Universities UK report on social enterprise that was launched on the day demonstrated, the story is more complex. We have seen it at UCL in the report on staff engagement in third sector activities that was prepared for us by the Institute of Volunteering  Research.

The complexity is emerging because, inherently, the functions are not separated. Student education is closely linked to research, so if a student is participating in an enterprise society, and working on a research that will support a local social enterprise then we are mixing several of these functions. Staff members are also expressing this mix when they are viewing engagement with a social enterprise as part of their role as researchers and educators.The UCL SIFE society is working on a project they titled “UCL+” to explore the local impact of UCL and improve the impact.

In short, this complexity is not a bad thing – it shows that there is a lot of potential of embedding social enterprise in universities activities. It might be something that doesn’t obey clean taxonomies, but the more the various aspects are mixed, the better. 

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.


London Citizen Cyberscience Summit – new collaborations and ideas

The London Citizen Cyberscience Summit ran in the middle of February, from 16th (Thursday) to 18th (Saturday). It marked the launch of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group, while providing an opportunity for people who are interested in different aspects of citizen science to come together, discuss, share ideas, consider joint projects and learn from other people. The original idea for the summit, when the first organisational meeting took place in October last year, was to set a programme that would include academics who research citizen science or develop citizen science projects; practitioners and enthusiasts who are developing technologies for citizen science activities; and people who are actively engaged in citizen science.Therefore, we included a mix of talks, workshops and hack days and started approaching speakers who would cover the range of interests, backgrounds and knowledge.

The announcement about the summit came out only in late December, so it was somewhat surprising to see the level of interest in the topic of citizen science. Considering that the previous summit, in 2010, attracted about 60 or 70 participants, it was pleasing to see that the second summit attracted more than 170 people.

To read about what happened in the summit there is plenty of material online. Nature news reported it as ‘Citizen science goes extreme‘. The New Scientist blog post discussed the ‘Intelligent Maps’ project of ExCiteS in ‘Interactive maps help pygmy tribes fight back‘, which was also covered by the BBC World Service Newshour programme (around 50 minutes in) and the Canadian CBC Science Shift programme. Le Monde also reported on ‘Un laboratoire de l’extrême‘.

Another report in New Scientist focused on the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) development of a thermal flashlight in ‘Thermal flashlight “paints” cold rooms with colour‘. The China DialogueScientists and Citizens‘ provided a broader review of the summit.

In terms of blogs, there are summaries on the GridCast blog (including some video interviews), and a summary by one of the speakers, Andrea Wiggins, of day 1, day 2 and day 3. Nicola Triscott from the Arts Catalyst provides another account of the summit and her Arctic Perspective Initiative linkage.   Another participant, Célya Gruson-Daniel, discussed the summit in French at MyScienceWork, which also provided a collection of social media from the first day at http://storify.com/mysciencework/london-citizen-cyberscience-summit-16-18th-februar.

The talks are available to view again on the LiveStream account of ExCiteS at http://www.livestream.com/excites and there are also summaries on the ExCiteS blog http://uclexcites.wordpress.com/ and on the conference site http://cybersciencesummit.org/blog/ . Flickr photos from MyScienceWork and UCL Engineering (where the image on the right is from) are also available.

For me, several highlights of the conference included the impromptu integration of different projects during the summit. Ellie D’Hondt and Matthias Stevens from  BrusSense and NoiseTube used the opportunity of the PLOTS balloon mapping demonstration to extend it to noise mapping; Darlene Cavalier from SciStarter discussed with the Open Knowledge Foundation people how to use data about citizen science projects; and the people behind Xtribe at the University of Rome considered how their application can be used for Intelligent Maps – all these are synergies, new connections and new experimentation that the summit enabled. The enthusiasm of people who came to the summit contributed significantly to its success (as well as the hard work of the ExCiteS team).

Especially interesting, because of the wide-ranging overview of examples and case studies, is how the activity is conceptualised in different ways across the spectrum of DIY citizen science to structured observations that are managed by professional scientists. This is also apparent in the reports about the summit. I have commented in earlier blog posts about the need to understand citizen science as a different way of producing scientific knowledge. What might be helpful is a clear ‘code of ethics’ or ‘code of conduct’ for scientists who are involved in such projects. As Francois Taddei highlighted in his talk at the summit, there is a need to value the shared learning among all the participants, and not to keep the rigid hierarchies of university academics/public in place. There is also a need to allow for the creativity, exploration and development of ideas that we have seen during the summit to blossom – but only happen when all the sides that are involved in the process are open to such a process.

Knowledge Transfer Champion for Social Enterprise

At the end of 2010, UCL’s Office of the Vice-Provost (Enterprise) ran an internal competition to identify several Knowledge Transfer (KT) Champions across the institute.

‘KT Champions will distinguish themselves as leaders of knowledge transfer and research impact within their field, and contribute to UCL’s enterprise strategy as a whole… The activities of a KT Champion will include: (i) leading others through their own knowledge transfer work; (ii) building an understanding of opportunities and relations within their area and facilitating the growth of projects and partnerships; and (iii) supporting colleagues in developing their own knowledge transfer portfolios. KT Champions will be proactive and visionary in working with their counterparts and UCL Enterprise to develop the UCL enterprise strategy.’

Based on my work in setting up Mapping for Change and securing the UnLtd HE Development Award, I felt it was important that the area of Social Enterprise will be represented within the range of activities that KT Champions cover.

After a successful application, I am starting 2011 as the KT Champion in the area of Social Enterprise. During the coming year, I aim to develop this area within the wider UCL community. The activities that will be carried out over the year include: an implementation plan based on the findings from the Perception Mapping project in which the community that surrounds UCL told us what connection they would like to have with UCL; identifying existing third sector work at UCL – publicising it,  understanding barriers to growth and devising solutions; running a Social Enterprise ‘clinic’, with widely published opening times, to assist any member of the UCL community to start a social enterprise; and extending the activities of Mapping for Change.

During the launch of the programme, I was approached with questions about the concept of Social Enterprise, and my experience of establishing one, so I guess that it is going to be a busy year.

For more information about the UCL Knowledge Transfer Champions programme, see here.