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Winter 2015

Newsletter Archive


Project update: Citizen Science 2015 Conference

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Danah and I were fortunate to attend the Citizen Science 2015 Conference in San Jose. There were over 600 delegates from 24 countries in attendance and the topics were as diverse. Citizen science is defined as "the engagement of volunteers and professionals in collaborative research to generate new science-based knowledge."

I got a bit lost in the diversity of different projects, and I realized there are a number of evolving camps falling under the citizen science umbrella and that integration of conversations and thoughts is something we need to foster and nurture. This makes sense as it is a relatively new interdisciplinary field and experts are coming at it from their different perspectives - maybe you're a "hard" scientist, a social scientist, an educator or maybe you're the non-expert or volunteer. Likely you are engaging in citizen science for very different reasons depending on who you are.

In my mind there were two extremes which I'll refer to as "grow big data" and "grow local action". I'm exaggerating these two extremes, and there are certainly lots of projects along this spectrum, but the "grow big data" group focused on large-scale data collection or information sorting (sometimes through on-line crowdsourcing projects like Zooniverse or on-the-ground Bioblitz efforts) of some natural feature (from monitoring sharks to sorting galaxies). The "grow local action group" focused on smaller-scale efforts aimed at growing a community around a social justice issue or conservation challenge to inform decision-making or result in some action on the ground. Neither extreme is inherently better than the other. They are just different approaches using the same type of framework - engaging volunteers in some way in the scientific process. But where are these two camps headed? How do they play to the strengths of citizen science and the ability to generate new knowledge, as well as engage and educate volunteers about the natural world and science in general?

At the conference, the "grow big data" group focused on citizen contribution to the scientific process as mainly contributory - volunteers play some role in helping a scientist generate data or sort data. Sometimes these projects require the volunteer to get outside and sometimes they engage volunteers through their computer interface. It felt like many of these projects were designed because there is a desire or need for a large amount of data to be collected or sorted, and volunteers can help do that efficiently especially with today's technology. The focus here is on the value to scientists of getting access to large datasets and many of the projects presented successfully achieve this goal. But I wonder about the ability of these projects to generate an engaged and action-oriented community? I look forward to social science research efforts into understanding how playing a game on-line or attending a Bioblitz leads to a more informed community and what that means as far as conservation outcomes.

The "grow local action" group talked more about the missing group at the conference - the volunteers - and the democratization of science. Science was a component of the projects but there was more of an appreciation of the role citizens can play to inform or lead to on the ground outcomes. Some of the projects presented did not involve scientists, but were examples of the use of do-it-yourself science kits that may lead to action or dialogue around an issue (e.g., Public Lab's air balloon camera kits). The value here is on the participants and what they are getting out of the experience and where that can lead. There might be less of a focus on providing something useful to a scientist.

In my opinion, both perspectives are important. We need science and sound research to inform decisions, but rarely are our decisions based solely on science. So, we also need a more engaged, action-oriented public. I have presented two extremes, and of course there are projects along that spectrum. As we continue to explore the vast potential and use of the citizen science approach it will be important to develop a common language that connects these groups of practitioners and values both the generation of data for scientific use and integrating volunteers in a meaningful way into the research process.

Tracy Lee