Creating the true citizen scientist

16 November 2012 by Joel Winston, posted in citizen science

Citizen science is a powerful concept. Surely there’s no better way to engage the public in science than to include them in actual research. And already there are hundreds of projects all over the world, including conservation projects that depend on enthusiasts to count local wildlife populations, and internet-based projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, which make use of the human mind’s advantage over computers for recognising patterns in space images.

But is this the furthest citizen science can go? While such initiatives help engage people in scientific activities and make valid contributions to various fields, the citizen’s contribution to the research seems to be limited to repetitive data collection, or offering up their brain’s cognitive functions. There’s more to the scientific process than that - What about defining the question to be answered, making sense of the data you’ve collected, or coming up with that satisfying groundbreaking conclusion? Some might say that’s beyond the capabilities of an ‘average citizen’, but fortunately there are groups challenging that assumption.

“We spent most of the 20th century teaching people there are these scientist boffins, sitting in a university, and doing lots of clever stuff, and then there’s the rest of us,” says Muki Haklay, co-director of the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group at University College London. “But I think we need to accept that the population over the years actually went up in terms of education, and boundaries between scientists and non-scientists are very fluid, and we need to keep them fluid.”

The group describes ‘Extreme Citizen Science’ as the methodologies, techniques and tools that will allow any community, regardless of literacy, to start citizen science activity, collect data, analyse results and act on the outcomes. And through a variety of projects, the team are pushing citizen science to its limits.

Limitless citizen science: why is it important?

While many view science as exploration into ever-expanding theories on the universe’s complexities, science is actually a much more real, broad and powerful tool. It’s a basic method by which anyone, in any situation, can ask a question, gather information, critically analyse it, find an answer (maybe!), and act on the result.

If everyone could access such a toolkit, especially those in disadvantaged communities, then perhaps countless important issues around the world could be solved. Sounds ambitious and idealistic, but some of the ExCiteS projects are beginning to show promise.

While London is in many ways a highly-developed city, much of its population face extreme environmental inequality. In one project, residents in Deptford armed with noise meters, collected noise data around their area, mapped it with the help of the ExCiteS team, and were able to provide enough evidence to their local authority to revoke the license of a scrapyard producing excessive noise.

And where better to map noise levels than the most contentious transport hub in the UK – Heathrow Airport. Working with ExCiteS researchers Louise Francis and Christian Nold, over 250 ‘community researchers’ downloaded noise monitoring apps to their phones, and systematically mapped the noise around Heathrow, resulting in thousands of readings to be used in campaigning for noise-absorbing barriers around airport terminals.

Several projects have also involved air pollution monitoring, where residents use wipes to collect trace heavy metals, which are sent off to a lab for analysis, and used to build a local air pollution map. Such efforts have already convinced authorities to install air pollution monitors and speed up the retrofitting of buses with exhaust filtering devices.

Think global, act local

These might seem like small changes, but they help confirm that when communities are armed with evidence, it is much harder for authorities to dismiss their claims as anecdotal and ignore them.

Even far away from noisy and polluted cities, new citizen science activities have been showing their potential. ExCiteS co-director and anthropologist Jerome Lewis worked with Pygmy hunter-gatherer communities in the Congo Basin, and developed handheld GPS devices for them to map forest areas of cultural significance, to ensure these were protected from logging. This successful initiative inspired the community to tackle a further problem. The official park guards were victimising Pygmies about illegal poaching, which was often instead carried out by powerful gangs who the guards wouldn’t approach. So now ExCiteS members are further developing these devices to help communities record evidence of illegal poaching and prevent the guards from bothering them.

“So they actually had experience with a previous project, saw how it worked, and then in an ‘extreme citizen science’ way, they asked for an application to monitor illegal poaching,” says Muki Haklay. “We helped facilitate, but the request came from them.”

This is a key point for Muki, Jerome and his team, and is what sets these projects apart from some other citizen science initiatives. Not only do the citizen scientists collect the data, but the problem to be investigated comes from the community, meaning that the first stage of the scientific method is also involved – formulating a question.

While this demonstrates that citizen scientists can be more than just data collectors, it’s still far from the idealised concept of a ‘true’ citizen scientist, as participants remain dependent on scientists to provide the tools and then analyse the data. So ExCiteS are embarking on projects that are beginning to pass these aspects over to the communities too.

By introducing basic scientific methods and freely adaptable do-it-yourself tools, ExCiteS are now providing community researchers with what they need for open-ended research. Participants are asked what they want to do with the tools, and take complete ownership of the project from start to finish. The projects are starting modestly, with residents experimenting with balloon aerial photography kits to explore possibilities. But by providing the breathing space to allow communities to experiment and discover the process of question-development and exploration, they will gain an understanding of what science is and how they can use it for their needs.

We’ve yet to see whether every citizen scientist will find the whole scientific process within their reach, but projects like these will certainly help dispel myths around science, and most importantly, empower communities to start tackling important local issues.

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