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.

Citizen Science Data & Service Infrastructure

Following the ECSA meeting, the Data & tools working group workshop was dedicated to progressing the agenda on data & infrastructure.

Jaume Piera (chair, Data and Tools working group of ECSA) covered the area of citizen science data – moving from ideas, to particular solutions, to global proposals – from separate platforms (iNaturalist, iSpot, GBIF, eBird) but the creation of different citizen science associations and the evolution of ideas for interoperability, can allow us to consider the ‘Internet of People# which is about participatory sharing of data. We can work in similar way to standards development in the area of the internet, and starting to consider the layers: interoperability, privacy/security, data reliability, infrastructure sustainability, data management, intellectual property rights, engagement, Human-Computer Interaction, Reference models and testing. By considering these multiple layers, we can develop a roadmap for development and consider a range of solutions at different ‘layers’. The idea is to open it to other communities – and aim to have solutions that are discussed globally.

Arne Berra explained the CITI-SENSE platform. There is a paper that explains the architecture of CITI-SENSE on the project site. He proposed that we use the European Interoperability Framework — legal, organisational, semantic and technical. in the technical area, we can use ISO 19119 and OGC – with 6 areas: boundary, processing/analytics, data/model management, communication, systems. We can use reference models. Also suggested considering the INSPIRE life cycle model. There is a challenge of adapting standards into the context of citizen science, so in many ways we need to look at it as conceptual framework to consider the different issues and consider points about the issues. In CITI-SENSE they developed a life cycle that looked at human sensor data services, as well as the hardware sensor application platform.


Ingo Simonis (OGC) – a standardised encoding to exchange citizen science data. He describe work that OGC is doing in sensor web for citizen science, and they collected data from different projects. Through citizen science data, information come from different surveys, in different forms and structures. The requirements are to have citizens + environment + sensor. Who did particular measurement? We want to know about the environment – e.g. that it was rainy while they collected the data, and then know about the sensor. So OGC O&M citizen observatories model is conceptual. It’s an observation model – assigning a value to a property – they also look at standards for sensors – OGC SensorML. He used the ISO 19100 series of standards. The observation model is trying to address issues of observations that are happening offline and then being shared. The model also deal with stationary and mobile sensing activities, and allowing for flexibility – for example having ad-hoc record that is not following specific process.


Alex Steblin – The Citclops project includes applications such as Eye on Water (eyeonwater.org). The Citclops have a challenge of maintaining the project’s data once the project finished.

Veljo Runnel covered EU BON work (www.eubon.eu) – mobilising biodiversity ata is challenges. They want a registry of online tools for citizen science projects – tool that will allow people who work with citizen science to record information about the project as related to biodiversity – such as link to GBIF, recording DNA, use of mobile app. Finding the person that run the tool is difficult. On EU BON they have ‘data mobilization helpdesk’, the elements of the standard were discussed within the the EU BON consortium and how they are going to explore how to provide further input.

JRC is exploring the possibility of providing infrastructure for citizen science data – both metadata and the data itself.

Translation of technical information into a language that is accessible is valuable for the people who will be using it. We need to find ways to make information more accessible and digestible. The aim is to start developing reference material and building on existing experiences – sub divide the working group to specific area. There are many sub communities that are not represented within the data groups (and in ECSA) and we need to reach out to different communities and have including more groups. There are also issues about linking the US activities, and activities from the small-scale (neighbourhoods) to large organisations. As we work through information, we need to be careful about technical language, and we need to be able to share information in an accessible way.

Environmental information: between scarcity/abundance and emotions/rationality

The Eye on Earth Summit, which was held in Abu Dhabi last week, allowed me to immerse myself in the topics that I’ve been researching for a long time: geographic information, public access to environmental information, participation, citizen science, and the role of all these in policy making. My notes (day 1 morning, day 1 afternoon, day 2 morning, day 2 afternoon, day 3 morning & day 3 afternoon) provide the background for this post, as well as the blog posts from Elisabeth Tyson (day 1, day 2) and the IISD reports and bulletins from the summit. The first Eye on Earth Summit provided me with plenty to think about, so I thought that it is worth reflecting on my ‘Take home’ messages.

What follows are my personal reflections from the summit and the themes that I feel are emerging in the area of environmental information today. 

wpid-wp-1444166132788.jpgWhen considering the recent ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs by the UN Assembly, it is not surprising that they loomed large over the summit – as drivers for environmental information demand for the next 15 years, as focal points for the effort of coordination of information collection and dissemination, but also as an opportunity to make new links between environment and health, or promoting environmental democracy (access to information, participation in decision making, and access to justice). It seems that the SDGs are very much in the front of the mind of the international organisations who are part of the Eye on Earth alliance, although other organisations, companies and researchers who are coming with more technical focus (e.g. Big Data or Remote Sensing) are less aware of them – at least in terms of referring to them in their presentations during the summit.

Beyond the SDGs, two overarching tensions emerged throughout the presentations and discussions – and both are challenging. They are the tensions between abundance and scarcity, and between emotions and rationality. Let’s look at them in turn.

Abundance and scarcity came up again and agin. On the data side, the themes of ‘data revolution’, more satellite information, crowdsourcing from many thousands of weather observers and the creation of more sources of information (e.g. Environmental Democracy Index) are all examples for abundance in the amount of available data and information. At the same time, this was contrasted with the scarcity in the real world (e.g species extinction, health of mangroves), scarcity of actionable knowledge, and scarcity with ecologists with computing skills. Some speakers oscillated between these two ends within few slides or even in the same one. There wasn’t an easy resolution for this tension, and both ends were presented as challenges.


With emotions and scientific rationality, the story was different. Here the conference was packed with examples that we’re (finally!) moving away from a simplistic ‘information deficit model‘ that emphasise scientific rationality as the main way to lead a change in policy or public understanding of environmental change. Throughout the summit presenters emphasised the role of mass media communication, art (including live painting development through the summit by GRID-Arendal team), music, visualisation, and story telling as vital ingredients that make information and knowledge relevant and actionable. Instead of a ‘Two Cultures’ position, Eye on Earth offered a much more harmonious and collaborative linkage between these two ways of thinking and feeling.

Next, and linked to the issue of abundance and scarcity are costs and funding. Many talks demonstrated the value of open data and the need to provide open, free and accessible information if we want to see environmental information used effectively. Moreover, providing the information with the ability of analyse or visualise it over the web was offered as a way to make it more powerful. However, the systems are costly, and although the assessment of the IUCN demonstrated that the investment in environmental datasets is modest compared to other sources (and the same is true for citizen science), there are no sustainable, consistent and appropriate funding mechanisms, yet. Funding infrastructure or networking activities is also challenging, as funders accept the value, but are not willing to fund them in a sustainable way. More generally, there is an issue about the need to fund ecological and environmental studies – it seem that while ‘established science’ is busy with ‘Big Science’ – satellites, Big Data, complex computer modelling – the work of studying ecosystems in an holistic way is left to small group of dedicated researchers and to volunteers. The urgency ad speed of environmental change demand better funding for these areas and activities.

This lead us to the issue of Citizen Science, for which the good news are that it was mentioned throughout the summit, gaining more prominence than 4 years ago in the first summit (were it also received attention). In all plenary sessions, citizen science or corwdsourced geographic information were mentioned at least once, and frequently by several speakers. Example include Hermes project for recording ocean temperatures, Airscapes Singapore for urban air quality monitoring, the Weather Underground of sharing weather information, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team work in Malawi, Kathmandu Living Lab response to the earthquake in Nepal, Arab Youth Climate Movement in Bahrain use of iNaturalist to record ecological observations, Jacky Judas work with volunteers to monitor dragonflies in Wadi Wurayah National Park  – and many more. Also the summit outcomes document is clear:  “The Summit highlighted the role of citizen science groups in supporting governments to fill data gaps, particularly across the environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. Citizen Science was a major focus area within the Summit agenda and there was general consensus that reporting against SDGs must include citizen science data. To this end, a global coalition of citizen science groups will be established by the relevant actors and the Eye on Earth Alliance will continue to engage citizen science groups so that new data can be generated in areas where gaps are evident. The importance of citizen engagement in decision-making processes was also highlighted. ”

However, there was ambivalence about it – should it be seen as an instrument, a tool to produce environmental information or as a mean to get wider awareness and engagement by informed citizens? How best to achieve the multiple goals of citizen science: raising awareness, educating, providing skills well beyond the specific topic of the project, and democratising decision making and participation? It seem to still be the case that the integration of citizen science into day to day operations is challenging for many of the international organisations that are involved in the Eye on Earth alliance.

Another area of challenging interactions emerged from the need for wide partnerships between governments, international organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), companies, start-ups, and even ad-hoc crowds that respond to a specific event or an issue which are afforded by digital and social network. There are very different speeds in implementation and delivery between these bodies, and in some cases there are chasms that need to be explored – for example, an undercurrent from some technology startups is that governments are irrelevant and in some forms of thinking that ‘to move fast and break things’ – including existing social contracts and practices – is OK. It was somewhat surprising to hear speakers praising Uber or AirBnB, especially when they came from people who familiar with the need for careful negotiations that take into account wider goals and objectives. I can see the wish to move things faster – but to what risks to we bring by breaking things?

With the discussions about Rio Principle 10 and the new developments in Latin America, the Environmental Democracy Index, and the rest, I became more convinced, as I’ve noted in 2011, that we need to start thinking about adding another right to the three that are included in it (access to environmental information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice), and develop a right to produce environmental information that will be taken seriously by the authorities – in other words, a right for citizen science. I was somewhat surprised by the responses when I raised this point during the discussion on Principle 10.

Final panel (source: IISD)

Finally, Eye on Earth was inclusive and collaborative, and it was a pleasure to see how open people were to discuss issues and explore new connections, points of view or new ways of thinking about issues. A special point that raised several positive responses was the gender representation in such high level international conference with a fairly technical focus (see the image of the closing panel). The composition of the speakers in the summit, and the fact that it was possible to have such level of women representation was fantastic to experience (making one of the male-only panels on the last day odd!). It is also an important lesson for many academic conferences – if Eye on Earth can, I cannot see a reason why it is not possible elsewhere.

Being philosophical about crowdsourced geographic information


This is a post by Renee Sieber and myself, providing a bit of a background on why we wrote the paper “The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique” – this is in addition to what I’ve written about it in this blog post

Originally posted on Geo: Geography and Environment:

By Renée Sieber (McGill University, Canada) and Muki Haklay (University College London, UK)

Our recent paper, The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique, started from a discussion we had about changes within the geographic information science (GIScience) research communities over the past two decades. We’ve both been working in the area of participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and critical studies of geographic information science (GIScience) since the late 1990s, where we engaged with people from all walks of life with the information that is available in GIS. Many times we’d work together with people to create new geographic information and maps. Our goal was to help reflect their point of view of the world and their knowledge about local conditions, not always aim for universal rules and principles. For example, the image below is from a discussion with the community in Hackney Wick, London, where individuals collaborated to…

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Eye on Earth (Day 2 – Afternoon) – Cost of knowledge, citizen science & visualisation

The first afternoon session was dedicated to Understanding the Costs of Knowledge – Cost of Data Generation and Maintenance (my second day morning post is here)

DSCN1220The session was moderated by Thomas Brooks (IUCN) – over the last couple of days we heard about innovation in mobilisation of environmental and socio-economic data. All these innovations have price tag, and some are quite large. Need budget for it and pay for it accordingly. Establishing costs for knowledge products in biodiversity is important. First, four products are explored and then the costs analysed.

DSCN1221Richard Jenkins – IUCN read list of Threatened Species. He explain the list and the essential procedures and components that created it. The red list is a framework for classifying threatened species with different classifications with vulnerable, engendered or critically engendered are included in the list. It’s critical source for conservation – over 75,000 species, with over 3,000,000 people visiting the website each year to find information. The foundation of the information is a structured process with ongoing cycles of evaluation and analysis. They are based on donor support – volunteer time in data collections, as well as professional time to evaluate the information and running an on-line database. Costs include workshops, training and travel, for professional time there is communications, researchers, developers, fund raisers and ICT costs: hosting, maintenance, software licensing, hardware etc. The costs can be one-off (setting new system), recurring costs (evaluations) and annual costs (systems and people). Need partnerships, voluntarism – essential and need to be recognised. Re-assessment are needed and also developing tools & uptake

DSCN1222Jon Paul Rodriguez – IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, as an emerging product – ecosystem collapse is transformation beyond typical situation. Example for this is Aral Sea – with impact on wildlife and human life around it. They use a risk model for ecosystems with 4 symptoms as criteria. Similar categories to the species red list. They do global assessment at continental scale and national scale. Costs: compilation of data which are spatial information is complex, time consuming and challenging. There is economy of scale is you do it at regional / global analyses, and first assessment is costly, but updates will be cheaper. The benefits: ecosystem mapping can be used for other knowledge products (e.g. protected areas), capacity-building model, and doing it with open access data. The potential of integration with the two red lists there is a more effective products. Commercial users will need to pay.

Ian May – birdlife international –  key biodiversity areas (KBAs). Set of information about sites that are identified for biodiversity conservation using standard criteria by a range of bodies. There are important bird areas, critical ecosystem partnership fund areas (particular hotspots in multiple taxa). Future direction is to standardise the KBAs. They are used into IFC Performance Standard 6 that force development banks to take them into account, they are integrated in Natura 2000 Birds Directive and in CBD Aichi Targets.

DSCN1224Naomi Kingston – WCMC – protected area (Protected Planet product) – it’s a project about deliver, connect, analyse and change – world database on protected areas. Have been in development since 1959, evolving from list of national parks and equivalent reserves. There are 700 data providers globally but also NGOs and community groups. Database that evolved over time need to be treated carefully and consider what each polygon and point mean. There is 91.3% polygon data, and grown from 41,305 sites in 1998 to 200,000 today. They raise profile through different activities. There is a website – www.protectedplanet.net . Data is supposed to be updated every 5 years, and is used in SDGs, academic research and strategic plan for biodiversity. They want to see decisions that are based on it – e.g. IBAT that support business. There is direct connection between resources that are available to the ability to provide training, outreach and capacity building .

DSCN1225Dieggo Juffe – costing the knowledge products – he assessed the financial investment in developing and maintaining biodiversity information. evaluating development costs to 2013, maintenance and future costs. The datasets that were covered are used in decision making, academic research and more. They developed methodology to evaluate primary data collection costs, network supporting costs, national red lists of species, and the costs of producing scientific papers. They looks on different aspects: personnel, infrastructure, workshop & travel and publication and outreach, looking at all the funding – from donors, private sector, government, NGOs etc., including volunteer time and converted it to USD in 2014. Looked at data since the 1980s to 2013. Today, investment between $116 to $204 USD in development and maintenance. 67,000 to 73,000 volunteer days – almost 200 years. Annual investment 6.5 Mil and 12.5 volunteer days/year . Most was funded from philanthropy (53%) and government 27%. Very large investment in personnel. They exect that future investment to 2020 will be in the range of 100 mil USD. That will give us a comprehensive baseline. Without data we can’t make decision, This is very small compare to census running to other systems. Some of the open questions: what’s the impact of this investment? are there better way to make the products even more cost-effective? what is the real cost of volunteer time? How to avoid duplication of effort?

wpid-wp-1444253313774.jpgA second afternoon session focused on Everyone is a supplier: Crowd-sourcing and citizen science and indigenous knowledge. Craig Hanson (WRI) opened with a comment that there is a lot of data from remote sensing, professional scientists – but what the role of citizens? there are 7 billion mobile phone and worldwide and with near global Internet connectivity, citizens anywhere are now capable of being the eyes and ears of the planet.  The session looked at successful approaches for engaging people to crowd-source data and contribute to citizen science, and how indigenous knowledge can be systematically integrated into decision-making. With applications from around the world. WRI is  also involved in this process, and in global forest watch – started from partners processing data, but satellite can’t see everything, and JGI and WRI use ODK  to provide ground truth on forest clearing.

Jacquie McGlade covered UNEP Live – citizen science mentioned many time in the summit, but now we need to make voices heard. We need alternative models of how the world operate. All UNEP assessment will include alternative views of mother earth – a challenge for western science point of view. UNEP Live was designed to give citizen access to data that was collected by governments, but now it also include citizen science – there are now legislations that include rights for people to gather data and making sure that these data are used in decision making. It’s all about co-production of knowledge. From the structured world with metadata and schema to the unstructured data of social media and NGOs. The idea of co-prodcution of knowledge, require management of knowledge with ontologies, and noticing 23 different definition of legal, many definition of access or forest and this is a challenge. SDG interface catalogue is providing the ontology. Example from climate change in the Arctic or in species monitoring in ecosystem capital account that involve forest communities. Motivating people is important – air quality is a great opportunity for citizen science with local interest with information. People in Kibera were willing to pay for access to air quality equipment as they see it as important for their children.

Brian Sullivan (Google Earth Outreach) – everyone is supplier. Indigenous groups using tools for telling stories, environmental monitoring and the protected area of the Surui is been included in partnership with Google. They’ve done cultural mapping with the Surui and worked with other communities who decide if they want to make it public or private. Environmental monitoring was another activity – using ODK. They build resource use and other information that help to protect the land. They are working with other groups in Brazil. Another project is Global Fishing Watch – visualising fishing fleet. Using machine learning, they have been monitoring fishing, and it also allow you to zoom in to specific ship. Monitoring areas when there are limited resources and they can’t enforce by sending ship.

wpid-wp-1444253326705.jpgTunitiak Katan looking at his tribal territory in Ecuador – the national context, indigenous people, in climate change and measurement. Ecuador have many indigenous groups – 11 different cultures. He was involved in carbon estimation and ecosystem assessment. Working with different groups using traditional ecological knowledge (ancestors knowledge). The explore the issues of climate discussions with different groups from 9 cultures, with 312 people discussing REDD/REDD+. They carried out measurements in the Amazon demonstrating carbon capture. Now they carry out a project at Kutukú-Shaim region for conservation, restoration and management, selected because the area got a lot of rivers that feed the Amazon river. They aim to achieve holistic management. “We and the forest are one”.

Nick Wright from @crwodicity – belief that in each organisation or community that are transformative ideas that are not seeing the light of day. We are more connected than ever before. Technology change the way people link and interact and becoming the norm. Connectivity make technologies part of the solution, and the vast majority of the world will benefit from this connectivity. It’s about not just collecting the information but also to connect the dots and make sense of it. Increase connectivity is challenging hierarchy. How can citizens participate in decision making and opportunity to participate. The crowdsourcing is a way to strengthen relationship between government and the people. Crowdicity worked with Rio to explore the Olympic legacy. They created Agora Rio to allow people to discuss issues and make the city better. They started on-line and move to the real world – pop-up town hall meetings – coordinate community groups and reach out from the on-line to those who didn’t access.They had a process to make it possible to work on-line and off-line. Led to 24 proposals for projects, of which 4 are going forward and done in cycle of 12 week. The importance is to create social movement for the period of time – sense of energy. Crowdsourcing can work in the UN system – post-2015 development agenda, help to amplify the conversation to 16 million people around the world – take views from across the world – BYND 2015 is the first ever crowdsourced UN declaration.

Andrew Hill of @cartodb covering the importance of citizen science in Planet Hunters, but wanted to mostly wanted to talk maps. How to engage people who can contribute code or technical skills. GitHub is a system that is central to technology working. Successful project can have many participants. It’s a community of 10 million users. How can we find coders for my project? But lots of time there is lack of contribution apart from the lead? We need to engage people to create technologies for communities. Hackathon can be problematic without thinking beyond the specific event. Need to consider small grant, and also thinking about people somewhere between code and use. Maps might be the data visualisation type that change people behaviour most often. Maybe a tool to make things easy – it should be a map? Website like timby.org can allow people to tell their story. CartoDB also make it possible for people to take data and show it in different ways.

Discussion: getting to the idea is possible, but then there is a challenge is to keep them engaged. Suggestion: give information back and see the value in information. Need to have feedback loop for people to see what they learned, building expertise, A personal journey of learning is important.

The final plenary was Reaching audiences through innovations in visualisation for people to act on information, they need to understand it. Visualisation can increase that understanding. Bringing together leading experts and practitioners, this plenary will showcase innovations in data visualisation and application that advance sustainable development.


Janet Ranganathan shown the WRI Resource Watch. There is a gap between data provision and data use – a lot of open data portals – you get lost. Need to help people to listen to the signal of the planet and act on it. The opportunity is the whole data that is coming out. Based on global forest watch, they focus on the Nexus: water, food, energy, forests. Provide access to data, but also analysis and then sharing the insights.

Craig Mills talked about visuality experience – it’s not data revolution but it’s about presenting information. Need to create fusion between data and story telling. He provided a walk through of ResearchWatch showing how to make information personal and need to redefine of displaying maps – following convention from GIS. There are ways of thinking about visualisation principles. Stop to think about sharing – see the connection before things are displayed on the map. How to get your data to where people are already using. Make it easy to embed in other places – make a big share button. Use emotions and feeling in terms of connection. Context is the secret – expect people to use things on phones, or tablet. Actually thinking about information as mobile first. Also voice activated and SMS and we can reach everyone

Angela Oduor Lungati – Ushahidi – explore the marginalisation is not from scarcity, but poverty, power and inequality (UN Human Development Report 2006). She show how privatisation of water reduce access to water. Usahidi is a platform that allow ordinary citizens to raise their voice and share information. Information can use SMS, web or smartphone – whatever people have. Allowing data collection, management, visualisation and alerts. Pothole theory – there is an event that trigger your action – and need to be local and personal. Kathmandu Living Labs use Ushahidi to find proper assessment in QuakeMap.org. The tool is also used by theLouisiana Bucket Brigade. Usahidi was used by 18M people and 159 countries, and it is made in Africa. Suggest the metaphor of data = seeds; land = platforms and farmers are the people. Technology just 10% of the solution.

Trista Patterson – NewMedia Lab at GRID-Arendal – history of many reports and viral graphics. NewMedia Lab is to invigorate radical experimentation & rapid prototyping – moving beyond paper focus design. Connecting people with data, the audience and emotions. Dependence on technology increase, instead of envisioning what it is that we deeply need most – our need for envisioning, and we need to exercise this capability. They explore relationship with artists, envisioning with children. Data + emotions = decisions and actions. Iterations and endurance in experimentations.

The last side event Citizen Scientists and their role in monitoring of local to global environmental change – explored project in Abu Dhabi that involves divers in recording data about sharks and a project in Bahrain – regional movement of Arab Youth Climate Movement. Citizen Science programme, choose to use iNaturalist in Bahrein as a way to make people less blind to nature. Use iNaturalist, small session open to the public in a natural world heritage site – introduce the concept of citizen science which is not known to the public, and let them use the app to help to identify species, and would like to see people engage from a younger age in citizen science. Challenge in Abu Dhabi with an engagement with divers monitoring sharks when the Gulf is major exporter of fins. Initiatives take time to develop, and in Abu Dhabi they have challenge that divers are ex-pat who stay for some years and then leave, so require to continue to recruit people.

Eye on Earth (Day 2 – Morning) – moving to data supply

Eye on Earth (Day 2 – Morning) – moving to data supply The second day of Eye on Earth moved from data demand to supply . You can find my posts from day one, with the morning and the afternoon sessions. I have only partial notes on the plenary Data Revolution-data supply side, although I’ve posted separately the slides from my talk. The description of the session stated: The purpose of the the session is to set the tone and direction for the “data supply” theme of the 2nd day of the Summit. The speakers focused on the revolution in data – the logarithmic explosion both in terms of data volume and of data sources. Most importantly, the keynote addresses will highlight the undiscovered potential of these new resources and providers to contribute to informed decision-making about environmental, social and economic challenges faced by politicians, businesses, governments, scientists and ordinary citizens.

The session was moderated by Barbara J. Ryan (GEO) the volume of data that was download in Landsat demonstrate the information revolution. From 53 scene/day to 5700 scene/day once it became open data – demonstrate the power of open. Now there are well over 25 million downloads a year. There is a similar experience in Canada, and there are also new and innovative ways to make the data accessible and useful.

The first talk was from Philemon Mjwara (GEO), the amount of data is growing and there is an increasing demand for Earth Observations, but even in the distilled form of academic publications there is an explosion and it’s impossible to read everything about your field. Therefore we need to use different tools – search engines, article recommendation systems. This is also true for EO data – users need the ability to search, then process and only then they can use the information. This is where GEO come in. It’s about comprehensive, effective and useful information. GEO works with 87 participating organisations. They promote Open Data policies across their membership, as this facilitate creation of a global system of systems (GEOSS). GEOSS is about supply, and through the GEO infrastructure it can be share with many users. We need to remember that the range of sources is varied: from satellite, to aerial imagery, to under-sea rovers. GEO works across the value chain – the producers, value added organisation and the users. An example of this working is in analysis that helps to link information about crops to information about potential vulnerability in food price.

Mary Glackin (the Weather Corporation), reviewed how weather data is making people safer and business smarter. The Weather Company is about the expression of climate in the patterns of weather. Extreme events make people notice. Weather is about what happen in the 100 km above the Earth surface, but also the 3.6 km average depth of the oceans, which we don’t properly observe yet and have an impact on weather. There are 3 Challenges: keep people safe, helping businesses by forecasting, and engage with decision makers. Measuring the atmosphere and the oceans is done by many bodies which go beyond official bodies – now it includes universities, companies, but also citizens observations which is done across the world (through Weather Underground). The participants, in return, receive a localised forecast for their area and details of nearby observations. It’s a very large citizen science project, and engagement with citizen scientists is part of their work. Forecasting require complex computer modelling – and they produce 11 Billion forecasts a day. Engaging decision makers can be individual fisherman who need to decide if to go out to sea or not. There is a need for authoritative voice that create trust when there are critical issues such as response to extreme events. Another example is the use of information about turbulence from airplanes which are then used to improve modelling and provide up to date information to airlines to decide on routes and operations. Technology is changing – for example, smartphones now produce air pressure data and other sensing abilities that can be used for better modelling. There are policies that are required to enable data sharing. While partnerships between government and private sector companies. A good example is NOAA agreeing to share all their data with cloud providers (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) on the condition that the raw data will be available to anyone to download free of charge, but the providers are free to create value added services on top of the data.

Next was my talk, for which a summary and slide are available in a separate post.

Chris Tucker (MapStory) suggested that it is possible to empower policy makers with open data. MapStory is an atlas of changes that anyone can edit, as can be seen in the development of a city, or the way enumeration district evolved over time. The system is about maps, although the motivation to overlay information and collect it can be genealogy – for example to be able to identify historical district names. History is a good driver to understand the world, for example maps that show the colonisation of Africa. The information can be administrative boundaries, imagery or environmental information. He sees MapStory as a community. Why should policy makers care? they should because ‘change is the only constant’, and history help us in understanding how we got here, and think about directions for the future. Policy need to rely on data that is coming from multiple sources – governmental sources, NGOs, or citizens’ data. There is a need for a place to hold such information and weave stories from it. Stories are a good way to work out the decisions that we need to make, and also allow ordinary citizens to give their interpretation on information. In a way, we are empowering people to tell story.

The final talk was from Mae Jemison (MD and former astronaut). She grow up during a period of radical innovations, both socially and scientifically – civil rights, new forms or dance, visions of a promising future in Start Trek, and the Apollo missions. These have led her to get to space in a Shuttle mission in 1992, during which she was most of the time busy with experiments, but from time to time looked out of the window, to see the tiny sliver of atmosphere around the Earth, within which whole life exist. Importantly, the planet doesn’t need protection – the question is: will humans be in the future of the planet? Every generation got a mission, and ours is to see us linked to the totality of Earth – life, plants and even minerals. Even if we create a way to travel through space, the vast majority of us will not get off this planet. So the question is: how do we get to the extraordinary? This lead us to look at data, and we need to be aware that while there is a lot of it, it doesn’t necessarily mean information, and information doesn’t mean wisdom. She note that in medical studies data (from test with patients) have characteristics of specificity (relevant to the issue at hand) and sensitivity (can it measure what we want to measure?). We tend to value and act upon what we can measure, but we need to consider if we are doing it right. Compelling data cause us to pay attention, and can lead to action. Data connect us across time and understanding a universe grater that ourselves, as the pictures from Hubble telescope that show the formation of stars do. These issues are coming together in her current initiative “100 years starship” – if we aim to have an interstellar ship built within the next 100 years, we will have to think about sustainability, life support and ecosystems in a way that will help us solve problems here on Earth. It is about how to have an inclusive journey to make transformation on Earth. She completed her talk by linking art, music and visualisation with the work of Bella Gaia

After the plenary, the session Data for Sustainable Development was building on the themes from the plenary. Some of the talks in the session were:

Louis Liebenberg presented cybertracker – showing how it evolved from early staged in the mid 1990s to a use across the world. The business model of cybertracker is such that people can download it for free, but it mostly used off-line in many places, with majority of the users that use it as local tool. This raise issues of data sharing – data doesn’t go beyond that the people who manage the project. Cybertracker address the need to to extend citizen science activities to a whole range of participants beyond the affluent population that usually participate in nature observations.

Gary Lawrence – discussed how with Big Data we can engage the public in deciding which problem need to be resolved – not only the technical or the scientific community. Ideas will emerge within Big Data that might be coincident or causality. Many cases are coincidental. The framing should be: who are we today? what are we trying to become? What has to be different two, five, ten years from now if we’re going to achieve it? most organisations don’t even know where they are today. There is also an issue – Big Data: is it driven by a future that people want. There are good examples of using big data in cities context that take into account the need of all groups – government, business and citizens in Helsinki and other places.

B – the Big Data in ESPA experience www.espa.ac.uk – data don’t have value until they are used. International interdisciplinary science for ecosystems services for poverty alleviation programme. Look at opportunities, then the challenges. Opportunities: SDGs are articulation of a demand to deliver benefits to societal need for new data led solution for sustainable development, with new technologies: remote sensing / UAVs, existing data sets, citizen science and mobile telephony, combined with open access to data and web-based applications. Citizen Science is also about empowering communities with access to data. We need to take commitments to take data and use it to transforming life.

Discussion: lots of people are sitting on a lots of valuable data that are considered as private and are not shared. Commitment to open data should be to help in how to solve problems in making data accessible and ensure that it is shared. We need to make projects aware that the data will be archived and have procedures in place, and also need staff and repositories. Issue is how to engage private sector actors in data sharing. In work with indigenous communities, Louis noted that the most valuable thing is that the data can be used to transfer information to future generations and explain how things are done.

New paper: The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique

Considering how long Reneé Sieber  (McGill University) and I know each other, and working in similar areas (participatory GIS, participatory geoweb, open data, socio-technical aspects of GIS, environmental information), I’m very pleased that a collaborative paper that we developed together is finally published.

The paper ‘The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique‘ took some time to evolve. We started jotting ideas in late 2011, and slowly developed the paper until it was ready, after several rounds of peer review, for publication in early 2014, but various delays led to its publication only now. What is pleasing is that the long development time did not reduced the paper relevancy – we hope! (we kept updating it as we went along). Because the paper is looking at philosophical aspects of GIScience, we needed periods of reflection and re-reading to make sure that the whole paper come together, and I’m pleased with the way ideas are presented and discussed in it. Now that it’s out, we will need to wait and see how it will be received.

The abstract of the paper is:

Numerous exegeses have been written about the epistemologies of volunteered geographic information (VGI). We contend that VGI is itself a socially constructed epistemology crafted in the discipline of geography, which when re-examined, does not sit comfortably with either GIScience or critical GIS scholarship. Using insights from Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology we offer a critique that, rather than appreciating the contours of this new form of data, truth appears to derive from traditional analytic views of information found within GIScience. This is assisted by structures that enable VGI to be treated as independent of the process that led to its creation. Allusions to individual emancipation further hamper VGI and problematise participatory practices in mapping/geospatial technologies (e.g. public participation geographic information systems). The paper concludes with implications of this epistemological turn and prescriptions for designing systems and advancing the field to ensure nuanced views of participation within the core conceptualisation of VGI.

The paper is open access (so anyone can download it) and it is available in the Geo website .