Technology can play a role in helping people to collaborate – and increasingly participate - in areas previously inaccessible to the non-expert. For example, research projects relying on crowd-sourced data- collection by amateurs are being made feasible and accessible via mobile apps or websites. This new phenomenon, known as ‘citizen cyberscience’, is currently being deployed and investigated by a team at UCL.
Citizen science is a type of crowd-sourcing, where volunteers (‘citizen scientists’) collaborate with professional scientists to conduct scientific research. Amateurs have been contributing to science for many years now. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, involves volunteers counting birds in their local area. This population data provides valuable information for conservationists. Similarly, there is a long history of amateurs contributing to astronomy. The American Association of Variable Star Observers has been gathering data on variable stars since 1911. However, over the past decade, we have started to see citizen science projects take on a very different form to those of the past driven by a range of technological developments.
The use of mobile apps has made data recording easier, as data is digitised and sent to scientists immediately at the point of collection. For example, in Noise-Map1, volunteers download a mobile phone app, which they use to collect and send data about levels of noise pollution in their local area. Another example of a mobile app is iSpot2, where volunteers take a photo of a species and submit it to the project community for identification. This data is subsequently used for biodiversity research.
A further advantage of the internet is that there is potential for scientists to collaborate with volunteers from all around the world. It is also possible for scientists to ask volunteers to be involved in more complex tasks, such as data analysis. For example, Galaxy Zoo3 is an online astronomy project. Volunteers view pictures of galaxies and it is their task to classify the galaxies, judging from the images whether a galaxy is elliptical or spherical. This data is then used by scientists to determine how different galaxies are distributed, and how galaxies are formed.
We can also see similar projects in the humanities. For example, in Transcribe Bentham4, volunteers view digital images of unpublished manuscripts written by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and it is their task to transcribe the manuscripts. By digitizing Bentham’s manuscripts, this widens accessibility to Bentham’s papers and ensures that they will be preserved for future generations.
Extreme Citizen Science
Depending on the nature of the research project, some citizen science projects take a public engagement approach as a way to expand scientific endeavours of tremendous spatial and temporal magnitude requiring volunteer involvement. In these cases, the problem and questions are pre-defined, the data collection is crowd-sourced, and for the most part, the analysis and results are in the domain of the leading professional scientists. The UCL Extreme Citizen Science research group (ExCiteS) – led jointly by Prof Muki Haklay, Dr Jerome Lewis and Dr Claire Ellul – take a different approach. Their purpose is to develop methodologies, tools and platforms to support communities anywhere to participate and take a lead in scientifically valid data collection and analysis. The team at ExCiteS defines their practice as taking into account local needs and culture, as well as working with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world. Two of the recent projects at ExCiteS include a London community project and an Arctic community project.
The community project in London focuses on engagement in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) practices that link knowledge to action in scientific research initiated by the public. The aim is to identify and explore how groups and individuals engage in the creation and mediation of knowledge to ad- dress issues that are of concern to them, and how they translate this into publicly-led actions that bring about change. The DIY approach emphasises that technology is something anyone can develop – the ExCiteS approach in this initiative is to make scientific research something anyone can do well. Two initiatives have been undertaken: the first, at the Mildmay Community Centre (MCC) and the second, still ongoing, activities with Citizens without Borders using tools from the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. The latter involves co-developing prototypes and methodologies grounded in participant’s interest’s and which further develop and hone their skills.
A DIY citizen science approach to research is important because it allows for research to reflect the context and perspective of the local community. In addition, it provides community members the opportunity to engage in first- hand exploration of their potential for investigation, as well as access to tools and skills for research, which facilitate an enhanced understanding of their local environment. The outcomes of this project are expected to help support the acknowledgement of publicly-initiated research as valid ways conducting research, and thus foster the democratisation of the practice of science. The Touch|Play|Learn DIY mini-expo at the MCC enabled people to touch and explore DIY tools for environmental sensing, play with them and try them out, and by doing so, connect with ways they can learn about themselves and their surrounding environment5. One of the Public Lab workshops at Citizens with- out Borders workshops involved Kite-mapping6, a fully DIY and transferable technique working together to make kites from repurposed materials, flying them with cameras attached and then stitching the aerial photos to create their own maps using the Mapknitter.org open-source platform.
The community pilot project in coastal Arctic Alaska will involve the development of an application for mobile phones for use by indigenous subsistence hunters, which will enable them to map the changing condition of the sea-ice on which they must hunt. Due to climate change, indigenous sea ice users are experiencing prob- lems in forecasting the weather. The technology will allow subsistence hunters to capture the risks associated with travelling on sea-ice according to their knowledge, take photos and audio stories, and access information on current local conditions, reflecting the hunters’ ways of hunting, learning and knowing7. Over time, the data collected could reveal spatio-temporal patterns that could help in the understanding of broader issues of interest to both the climate change and geophysical communities. Such interests include the validation of remote sensing data and models, as well as understanding of marine mammals behaviour in relation to local sea-ice use. Lastly, the design of the technology and use process could facilitate and improve intercultural and inter-generational exchanges, highlighting the importance of co-developing technologies that support local and traditional practices.
Engagement, Learning and Creativity
In both typical citizen cyberscience projects and extreme citizen science projects, researchers that run the projects desire for their volunteers to have a positive experience. Questions that they may ask include: How can we attract more volunteers? What motivates volunteers to take part in a project? Are volunteers learning when they take part in our project – and what are they learning? Why do some people volunteer for a long time, and others only volunteer briefly? By using evaluation methods such as interviews, surveys and behavioural observations, we can investigate what it is like for volunteers who take part in projects.
In previous research exploring volunteers’ experiences in web-based citizen cyberscience projects, we found that gaming elements (points, leaderboards) and communication tools (forum, chat) were important for sustaining volunteers’ engagement in citizen cyberscience projects8. Feedback from the scientific team helped volunteers to feel that their contributions mattered9. It was also important to recognise which volunteers were most active in the project community and to give them an opportunity to take on more responsibility by ‘promoting’ them to more senior positions, e.g. forum moderators10. Some volunteers took it upon themselves to suggest ideas or create innovative ways to solve project problems10. Volunteers were also found to experience several different kinds of learning, including on-topic content knowledge (related to the task) and off-topic knowledge and skills (related to their interactions with other volunteers)11.
This year we will start to evaluate volunteers’ experiences in the ExCiteS projects. We suspect that the volunteers’ experiences in the ExCiteS projects will be very different to the ‘typical’ volunteer experience. There will be a lot of face-to-face interaction between scientists and volunteers in the ExCiteS projects. The ExCiteS volunteers have a say in what the research question will be, so they are likely to have a stronger motivation to participate. Also the ExCiteS volunteers are from different cultural back- grounds compared to ‘typical’ volunteers (who tend to be Western, middle class), so it is likely that their design needs will be quite different.
Another key question we aim to answer is ‘what do volunteers learn as a result of participating in the projects?’ The ExCiteS researchers primarily conduct their research to help communities pursue their own research questions; however, just by interacting with scientists, it is likely that volunteers will also learn something about science in the process. It will be interesting to explore what exactly it is that they learn, and also whether this experience encourages any of them to pursue science in the future.
Overall we hope that by studying volunteers’ experiences in these ‘extreme’ contexts and by comparing these to more typical kinds of citizen cyberscience projects, we will be able to uncover how different roles – co-design versus participation – affect a person’s experience of volunteering. This work will help us to develop a set of best practice guidelines for researchers designing their own citizen cyberscience projects, providing them with useful tips and insights into different ways to encourage engagement, learning and creativity for volunteers.
This research is being funded by the EU project Citizen Cyberlab, an EU-funded research project.