Developing mobile applications for environmental and biodiversity citizen science: considerations and recommendations

The first outcome of the December 2016 workshop on apps, platforms, and portals for citizen science projects was the open access paper “Defining principles for mobile apps and platforms development in citizen science“, which came out in October 2017.

Lunaetal2018Fig3.pngThe workshop, which was organised by Soledad Luna and Ulrike Sturm from the Berlin Museum for Natural History, has led to a second output – a chapter in the book Multimedia Tools and Applications for Environmental & Biodiversity InformaticsThe invitation for contributions came at the right time with the first workshop in December 2016. The Chapter was completed in August 2017 and finally came out at the beginning of the month. A year from submission to getting it in press, which is fairly common in academic publications.

The chapter is different from the journal article, in providing more detailed examples of applications, and summarising aspects of systems in use and data standards that can be applied.

The abstract of the paper is:

The functionality available on modern ‘smartphone’ mobile devices, along with mobile application software and access to the mobile web, have opened up a wide range of ways for volunteers to participate in environmental and biodiversity research by contributing wildlife and environmental observations, geospatial information, and other context-specific and time-bound data. This has brought about an increasing number of mobile phone based citizen science projects that are designed to access these device features (such as the camera, the microphone, and GPS location data), as well as to reach different user groups, over different project durations, and with different aims and goals. In this chapter we outline a number of key considerations when designing and developing mobile applications for citizen science, with regard to (1) interoperability and data standards, (2) participant centred design and agile development, (3) user interface & user experience design, and (4) motivational factors for participation.

The chapter can be accessed using the following link Luna et al 2018 Developing mobile applications for citizen science – enjoy reading!

 

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Citizen Science & Scientific Crowdsourcing – week 2 – Google Local Guides

The first week of the “Introduction to Citizen Science and Scientific Crowdsourcing” course was dedicated to an introduction to the field of citizen science using the history, examples and typologies to demonstrate the breadth of the field. The second week was dedicated to the second half of the course name – crowdsourcing in general, and its utilisation in scientific contexts. In the lecture, after a brief introduction to the concepts, I wanted to use a concrete example that shows a maturity in the implementation of commercial crowdsourcing. I also wanted something that is relevant to citizen science and that many parallels can be drawn from, so to learn lessons. This gave me the opportunity to use Google Local Guides as a demonstration.

My interest in Google Local Guides (GLG) come from two core aspects of it. As I pointed in OpenStreetMap studies, I’m increasingly annoyed by claims that OpenStreetMap is the largest Volunteered Geographical Information (VGI) project in the world. It’s not. I guessed that GLG was, and by digging into it, I’m fairly confident that with 50,000,000 contributors (of which most are, as usual, one-timers), Google created the largest VGI project around. The contributions are within my “distributed intelligence” and are voluntary. The second aspect that makes the project is fascinating for me is linked to a talk from 2007 in one of the early OSM conferences about the usability barriers that OSM (or more general VGI) need to cross to reach a wide group of contributors – basically about user-centred design. The design of GLG is outstanding and shows how much was learned by the Google Maps and more generally by Google about crowdsourcing. I had very little information from Google about the project (Ed Parsons gave me several helpful comments on the final slide set), but by experiencing it as a participant who can notice the design decisions and implementation, it is hugely impressive to see how VGI is being implemented professionally.

As a demonstration project, it provides examples for recruitment, nudging participants to contribute, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, participation inequality, micro-tasks and longer tasks, incentives, basic principles of crowdsourcing such as “open call” that support flexibility, location and context aware alerts, and much more. Below is the segment from the lecture that focuses on Google Local Guides, and I hope to provide a more detailed analysis in a future post.

The rest of the lecture is available on UCLeXtend.

Defining principles for mobile apps and platforms development in citizen science

Core concepts of apps, platforms and portals for citizen science

In December 2016, ECSA and the Natural History Museum in Berlin organised a  workshop on analysing apps, platforms, and portals for citizen science projects. Now, the report from the workshop with an addition from a second workshop that was held in April 2017 has evolved into an open peer review paper on RIO Journal.

The workshops and the paper came to life thanks to the effort of Soledad Luna and Ulrike Sturm from the Berlin Museum.

RIO is worth noticing: is “The Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal” and what it is trying to offer is a way to publish outputs of the whole research cycle – from project proposals to data, methods, workflows, software, project reports and the rest. In our case, the workshop report is now open for comments and suggestions. I’ll be interested to see if there will be any…

The abstract reads:

Mobile apps and web-based platforms are increasingly used in citizen science projects. While extensive research has been done in multiple areas of studies, from Human-Computer Interaction to public engagement in science, we are not aware of a collection of recommendations specific for citizen science that provides support and advice for planning, design and data management of mobile apps and platforms that will assist learning from best practice and successful implementations. In two workshops, citizen science practitioners with experience in mobile application and web-platform development and implementation came together to analyse, discuss and define recommendations for the initiators of technology based citizen science projects. Many of the recommendations produced during the two workshops are applicable to non-mobile citizen science project. Therefore, we propose to closely connect the results presented here with ECSA’s Ten Principles of Citizen Science.

and the paper can be accessed here. 

Google Research Award – Identifying Learning Benefits of Google Earth Tours in Education

Image representing Google Earth as depicted in...

It is always nice to announce good news. Back in February, together with Richard Treves at the University of Southampton, I submitted an application to the Google’s Faculty Research Award program for a grant to investigate Google Earth Tours in education. We were successful in getting a grant worth $86,883 USD.  The project builds on my expertise in usability studies of geospatial technologies, including the use of  eye tracking and other usability engineering techniques for GIS and Richard’s expertise in Google Earth tours and education, and longstanding interest in usability issues.

In this joint UCL/Southampton project, UCL will be lead partner and we will appoint a junior researcher for a year to develop run experiments that will help us in understanding of the effectiveness of Google Earth Tours in geographical learning, and we aim to come up with guidelines to their use. If you are interested, let me know.

Our main contact at Google for the project is Ed Parsons. We were also helped by Tina Ornduff and Sean Askay who acted as referees for the proposal.
The core question that we want to address is “How can Google Earth Tours be used create an effective learning experience?”

So what do we plan to do? Previous research on Google Earth Tours (GETs) has shown them to be an effective visualization technique for teaching geographical concepts, yet their use in this way is essentially passive.  Active learning is a successful educational approach where student activity is combined with instruction to enhance learning.  In the proposal we suggest that there is great education value in combining the advantages of the rich visualization of GETs with student activities. Evaluating the effectiveness of this combination is the purpose of the project, and we plan to do this by creating educational materials that consist of GETs and activities and testing them against other versions of the materials using student tests, eye tracking and questionnaires as data gathering techniques.

We believe that by improving the techniques by which spatial data is visualized we are improving spatial information access overall.
A nice aspect of the getting the project funded is that it works well with a project that is led by Claire Ellul and Kate Jones and funded by JISC. The G3 project, or “Bridging the Gaps between the GeoWeb and GIS” is touching on similar aspects and we surely going to share knowledge with them.
For more background on Richard Treves, see his blog (where the same post is published!)

Some important questions about the usability of geospatial technologies

At the beginning of May, I gave a lecture at the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC) seminar titled ‘Interacting with Geospatial Technologies – Overview and Research Challenges’. The talk was somewhat similar to the one that I gave at the BCS Geospatial SIG. However, I was trying to answer a question that I was asked during a UCLIC seminar in 2003, when, together with Carolina Tobón, I presented the early work on usability of GIS for e-government applications. During that talk, the discussion was, as always is in UCLIC, intensive. One core question that remained with me from the discussion was: ‘What makes geospatial technology special or is it just another case of a complex and demanding information system that you should expect difficulties with and spend time to master?’

Over the years, I have been trying to improve the answer beyond the ‘it’s special because it’s about maps‘ or ‘geospatial information comes in large volumes and requires special handling‘ or similar partial answers. In the book Interacting with Geospatial Technologies different chapters deal with these aspects in detail. During the talk, I tried to cover some of them. In particular, I highlighted the lag of geospatial technologies behind other computing technologies (an indication of complexity), the problems of devices such as SatNavs that require design intervention in the physical world to deal with a design fault (see image), and the range of problems in interfaces of GIS as were discovered in the snapshot study that was carried out by Antigoni Zafiri.

There was an excellent discussion after the presentation ended. Some of the very interesting questions that I think need addressing are the following:

  • In the talk, I highlighted that examples of spatial representations exist in non-literate societies, and that, therefore, the situation with computers, where textual information is much more accessible than geographical information, is something that we should consider as odd. The question that was raised was about the accessibility of these representations – how long does it take people from the societies that use them to learn them? Is the knowledge about them considered privileged or held by a small group?
  • For almost every aspect of geospatial technology use, there is some parallel elsewhere in the ICT landscape, but it is the combination of issues – such as the need for a base map as a background to add visualisation on top of it, or the fact that end users of geospatial analysis need the GIS operators as intermediaries (and the intermediaries are having problems with operating their tools – desktop GIS, spatial databases etc. – effectively) – that creates the unique combination that researchers who are looking at HCI issues of GIS are dealing with. If so, what can be learned from existing parallels, such as the organisations where intermediaries are used in decision making (e.g. statisticians)?
  • The issue of task analysis and considerations of what the user is trying to achieve were discussed. For example, Google Maps makes the task of ‘finding directions from A to B’ fairly easy by using a button on the interface that allows the user to put in the information. To what extent do GIS and web mapping applications help users to deal with more complex, temporally longer and less well-defined tasks? This is a topic that was discussed early on in the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) and GIS literature in the 1990s, and we need to continue and explore.

In my talk I used a slide about a rude group in Facebook that relates to a specific GIS package. I checked it recently and was somewhat surprised to see that it is still active. I thought that it would go away with more recent versions of the software that should have improved its usability. Clearly there is space for more work to deal with the frustration of the users. Making users happy is, after all, the goal of usability engineering…

G3 – Bridging the Gap between the GeoWeb and GIS

The G3 Project, is a new project led by Claire Ellul and  Kate Jones and funded by the JISC geospatial working group.  The project’s aim is to create an interactive online mapping tutorial system for students in areas that are not familiar with GIS such as urban design, anthropology and environmental management.

The project can provides a template for the introduction of geographical concepts to new groups of learners. By choosing a discipline specific scenario, key geographic concepts and functions will be presented to novices in a useful and useable manner so the learning process is improved. Users will be introduced to freely available geographic data relevant to their particular discipline and know where to look for more. G3 Project will create a framework to support learners and grow their confidence without facing the difficult interfaces and complexity of desktop mapping systems that are likely to create obstacles for students, with the feeling that ‘this type of analysis is not for me’.

Check the project’s blog for regular updates and developments.

Maps are wonderful, but GIS are hard to use. What can we do about it?

These are the slides from the presentation that I gave to the BCS Geospatial SG.

The talk abstract is:

Here is a useful party trivia: as a form of human communication, maps pre-date text by thousands of years – some early spatial depictions are 25,000 years old, whereas writing emerged only 4000 years ago. When it comes to computing, the reverse is true: the first wide use of computing is from the early 1950s, whereas the first effort to create a GIS only started in 1966. There are good reasons for this, chief among them is the complexity of handling geographical information in digital computers. An adverse impact of this challenge is that for many years geospatial technologies developers focused on functionality and not on the interaction with end-users. The result of this focus is that while word processors and spreadsheets became popular in the early 1980s, only with the emergence of ‘Web Mapping 2.0’ in 2005, GIS and geospatial technologies became more popular, albeit far from universally usable.

The talk covered interaction and user aspects of geospatial technologies, pointing to issues that permeate the usability and usefulness of geographical information itself (e.g. why ESRI shapefile is a popular format despite its drawbacks?), the programming of geospatial technology (e.g. why OGC WMS did not spark the mashup revolution, while Google Maps API did?) and the interaction of end users with desktop and web-based GIS.

And the talk happened at the same day in which the excellent Third Workshop on the Usability of Geographic Information was running at the Ordnance Survey.