Putting Citizen Science on the Map
Crowdcrafting, a web-based service that invites volunteers to contribute to scientific projects, defines Citizen science as “the active contribution of people who are not professional scientists to science. It provides volunteers with the opportunity to contribute intellectually to the research of others, to share resources or tools at their disposal, or even to start their own research projects. Volunteers provide real value to ongoing research while they themselves acquire a better understanding of the scientific method.”
As definitions go it is though a little unfair, for it somewhat trivialises the importance of the citizen scientist in achieving Sustainable Development Goals. We are in this together. If any has more importance than another then it’s the Citizen Scientist, it is the amateur, not the professional who is pivotal to our sustainable future. Without the citizen scientists most projects would be impossible or take decades to achieve a fraction of what the crowd can do in a matter of months. It is only because of the collective effort of the crowd that much of this data can be gathered and or analysed. With more and more data being generated then this volume is set to grow exponentially. As it does so the importance in recruiting citizen scientists will similarly grow, for without citizen scientists all efforts to turn this blue planet green will be little more than academic exercises: the half hearted efforts of fools and sycophants holding summits in capital cities.
Desk Top and Field Work
For Citizen Scientists the highs come from taking part and seeing completed projects, projects that can be divided into two distinct types: desktop, where citizen scientists look at images/data on a screen and then answer questions or annotate the image in some way; and field work, where citizen scientists take an active part in providing the data. Examples of desktop studies would be the analysis of satellite or drone images, the identification of insect or plant specimens, or the measure of lichen growth or plant populations. Examples of field work projects would be Open Street Map, mapping seaweed distribution along the UK’s shoreline or insect distribution inland.
There is though an ever growing number of citizen science projects that one can now get involved with. Below are links to some of the larger collections and larger projects. Most are built using open software platforms with those platforms similarly providing a platform upon which to promote the projects. They encourage anyone and everyone to create a project and so there are opportunities to volunteer ones services for everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. The last three sites provide search facilities to find more projects but this is in no way a complete list, for the complete list needs it’s own dedicated site.
Whilst Google’s Map, Earth and Street View projects are great applications they are similarly subject to copyright restrictions. Google owns the resources and whilst it currently allows ‘anyone’ to use them it retains the option to change its mind at some point in the future. An eventuality made more likely should google ever become the world’s sole cartographer; fortunately there’s the Open Street Map project.
The open source alternative to Google, OpenStreetMap is the largest and most contributed to citizen science project to date. Supported by the OpenStreetMap Foundation the OSM project is “an initiative created to provide free geographic data, such as street maps, to anyone”. A not-for-profit organization maintained by donations and membership fees (You can join here) the OSM foundation supports rather than controls the development of the OpenStreetMap Project. Over the last ten years, the OSM foundation has mobilised more than 2 million volunteers to create free open street maps across the globe. If you are looking to get involved and want to find a project in your area I have created a twitter list of all the OSM projects and resources. The list current contains over 50 country and city projects as well as resources to support OSM groups; if you know of anymore please advise.
Zooniverse declares itself as “the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research. Research made possible by hundreds of thousands of volunteers from around the world who come together to assist professional researchers in work that would not be possible, or practical, otherwise.” With just 46 projects in 11 categories (art, biology, climate, history, language, literature, medicine, nature, physics, social, science, space) that might seem like a hollow boast but Zooniverses software is used by some of the biggest scientific data projects in the World. This professionalism comes through in the projects Zooniverse showcases which are well documented and fun.
If Zooniverse is the biggest then Crowdcrafting, a “web-based service that invites volunteers to contribute to scientific projects developed by citizens, professionals or institutions”, with over 400 projects in 6 categories is the broadest. As with the previous two projects crowdcrafting uses and develops open source software to “help solve problems, analyze data or complete challenging tasks that cant be done by machines alone.” However it is non too discerning about the projects it promotes and some, whilst valid are perhaps a little too esoteric for most. If though odd and obscure is what you are looking for then crowdcrafting is a good place to start looking.
NASA’s Terra satellite, which they describe as being about the size of a school bus and falling about the Earth on a circular sun-synchronous polar orbit carries five imaging and monitoring instruments to aid understanding air and water processes and quality. There’s not too much I can say about this project after the successful planting of a mind gif containing a yellow school bus slaloming it’s way around the planet on an endless loop. If you live in the States and that idea doesn’t make you dizzy then you could help NASA by doing some essential ground measurements and observations in air and water quality to support the work of the school bus falling above you.
Just as the data from the Earth Observing Systems of NASA’s Terra Satellite is being used to map air and water quality in the USA, so data from the European Space Agencies Sentinel-2 satellite is being used to map Africa’s soils and habitats. Geosurvey in conjunction with the African Soil’s Information Service are currently running 30 desktop land use projects in over 10 African countries. Whilst geosurvey is built on the open source web framework Django the land classification survey is unique in that it has all been built in house. The net result is perhaps the most user friendly interface that I have so far come across. Geosurvey’s simple clean approach makes it a good place to begin citizen science mapping work.
The natural history museum have a mission to digitize their collection of 80 million specimens. They are similarly one of the big data collection holders who use Zooniverse software to harness the efforts of citizen scientists to digitize those collections. Current projects range from transcribing microscope slides from the comfort of your home to visiting the coast to map the distribution of seaweed or report whale and dolphin stranding. The natural history museum have eight projects currently in progress and provide a huge amount of support and educational material around those projects. If you want to get really active and turn trips to the seaside into science expiditions then the natural history museum is the place to go.
As with the Natural History Museum the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology uses Zooniverse software to power their citizen science projects. Taking further advantage of smartphone technology the CEH has been mapping the distribution of more than 10,000 insect species in the UK and in other projects giving volunteers a backpack containing a particle monitor and a GPS logger to monitor their personal exposure to air pollution. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology also offer guides on best practice and designing and executing citizen science projects. If the natural History museum’s citizen science projects are designed for kids then the centre for ecology and hydrology citizen science projects are designed for their grown up counterparts, those who can’t stop fiddling with their smart phones, drones or wearable tech.. now you can do it all in the name of science.
The BGS have been using crowdmap for amateur geologists to record observations and share images about temporary geological exposures for a number of years. The BGS also manage the mysoil app which allows citizen scientist to record soil properties and upload to the BGS database to refine the UK’s aging legacy soil maps.
The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) have been campaigning for the protection of birds for over 100 years. Conducting surveys amongst their members for over half a century they are perhaps the earliest adopters of citizen science and continue to be a major contributor with national birdwatch surveys. On the other side of the Atlantic ornithologically based citizen science projects are run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
If you haven’t found the perfect citizen science project to get involved in through any of the above links then Scistarter might be able to help. Scistarter has a mission to “bring together the millions of citizen scientists in the world,” a mission objective I share and support. It does however and despite being in receipt of a Mark Shuttleworth foundation fellowship/flash grant, have one of the most retro looking web sites I’ve seen in years; a real blast back to 1995.. It’s a great concept but it needs some serious web designing on top and some lateral thinking underneath.
Scientific American has a similar but somewhat smaller mandate than SciStarter. A little more discerning they want volunteers to “Help make science happen by volunteering for a real research project”. What qualifies as ‘real research’ is perhaps a little subjective however that said they do give citizen scientists the opportunity to engaged with 240 of what they determine to be real projects (i.e. coming from subscribing institutions). That’s not to say these projects are not valid, they are, they are as real as any that Scientific America feels it has the authority to say are not.
An EU funded initiative Socientize received 710,000 euro to fund a 2 year project with the “aim of creating a common forum for cooperation between e-Infrastructure providers and citizen science infrastructures providers.” Four years after receiving that funding Socientize have five projects listed and a simple list of links to other projects (most of which can be found through the previous links above). Whilst I don’t doubt that this was money well spent the results of the investment are not immediately apparent through the web site.
Paid or Voluntary
Whilst there are a great variety of projects that need the help of citizen scientists to be found in the above links nearly all have one thing in common; non of them pay citizen scientists for their efforts. Some, such as the the geosurvey website award points which are later converted into chances to win a prize. But I have yet to come across a site that pays even a nominal sum to citizen scientists for their efforts. It’s likely that millions of contributors to thousands of scientific projects to date have not even received an acknowledgement. The crowds contribution is both anonymous and voluntary but the researchers is likely neither. Whilst it’s not a fair deal on the citizen scientist it similarly shortchanges the research project. Paying citizen scientist would result in greater participation, greater accuracy and earlier completion. It’s also extremely cheap as a draft paper I created explains pay to map
A Common Framework
Whilst all the projects above conform to a single voluntary principal with respect to citizen scientists none make any real effort to conform when it comes to categorizing projects. None make it particularly easy to find or organize projects according to factors such as execution (desktop/field), geographical location, study subject or research objectives. In most cases the research objectives are not even shared suggesting that citizen scientists are either disinterested in the objectives of the projects they freely give their time and effort to, or that researchers are disinterested in the very people they want and need to engage. If researchers only looked after the citizen scientists.. then the citizen scientists would complete their project.
The Future of Citizen Science
Citizen Science, crowd mapping and collective distributed actions are unlikely to be passing fads. The technological and data driven path we now find ourselves on is not one we can choose to simply step off. Whilst individually we have the option to not engage and act only in a selfish capacity, as a society we don’t. It’s a whole new paradigm.
To take advantage of this and reap the collective rewards citizen science sites need to be highly functional. A dashboard that allows a visitor to easily see mapping projects according to geographical relevance, desktop or field, study and research objectives, and organized into environmental, social and economic categories. A dashboard that is interactive and visual.
Projects need to provide detailed information on the nature of the study, where is it based, who is running and who is sponsoring it. Once the study is finished if not before citizen scientist should be given access to the project data so that they can see the fruits of their labours.
Consideration should be given to identifying projects suitable for education of school children. To fully engage schools in citizen science projects additional educational material to assist teachers in using and contributing to projects as part of or in sympathy to the curriculum should be provided.
There is no such thing as free lunch that isn’t stale or lacking in flavour. To make and keep people more engaged a nominal payment system that allows citizen scientists to earn convertible value, such as a crypto currency, should be introduced. The payment does not need to be substantial but sufficient to allow an industrious individual to earn up to a $1 an hour. This would make participation attractive to groups who have the time and access to an interface but would not otherwise engage. Agency and zero hours contract workers, the unemployed, homeworkers, disabled, carers and the retired would all be more likely to engaged if they earned a nominal amount for their efforts. Paying contributors I would aver would result in higher recruitment and faster individual work rate shortening study periods considerably. Time and funds previously wasted on promotion can be reclaimed as the prospect of reward encourages viral promotion and longer participation. Overall paying contributors would likely result in lowering overheads and improving efficiency.
It’s a whole new Paradigm is this Citizen Science, Data Driven, Sharing, IoT Society Thingy…