Project BioD

New U.K. Report — Citizen Science Not as Easy as it Seems

UK Environmental Observation Framework's report on the state of Citizen Science

UK Environmental Observation Framework’s report on the state of Citizen Science

The UK Environmental Observation Framework recently released a report on the state of “Citizen Science”. You can read the full report here

The report reviews 234 citizen science projects, with case studies of 30, and focuses on:

  • the technology used
  • the quality assurance of data collected
  • the motivations of volunteers and, lastly,
  • the policy requirements of stakeholders.

“The greatest barrier to the uptake of citizen science, both perception and utility, is concerns over the quality of data,” the report says at one point.

BioD’s experience suggests similar concerns from its stakeholders; but the latest collective intelligence systems are incredibly good at verification (BioD’s founders have written US patents in this space). Whether or not the collected data will be useful to scientists, therefore, is less about feasibility or verification than about communicating how and why these systems really work, receiving feedback and quickly fixing issues that don’t work, and thus building trust.

It’s interesting to note that although an overwhelming majority of the 234 projects were designed to be open and contributory in nature, very few of the projects involved the public in the initial building stages of the project.

The authors conclude the report with several recommendations, including the warning that “project developers [must be] aware that by designing technology-based citizen science projects, they may be excluding people who do not have ready access or interest in technology. By increasing reliance on high-tech solutions, an increasing proportion of people will be excluded.”

We would add that what’s “high-tech” to one group may be “low-tech” to another. Absolute “no-tech” is increasingly rare on this planet. More important than “high” or “low” is popularity of engagement; that is, who’s using what, and how. People use communications devices in different ways — whether it be walk-in museums, or library-based internet computers, simple feature phones, or the latest iPads.

Whatever systems are used, the citizen science initiatives need to go to the user, not try to attract users to awkward, challenging, unfamiliar interfaces. We believe that, if anything, the risk of excluding people — be they “high” or “low” tech users — is not just a risk. It’s a massive oversight, much bigger than the authors of the “Citizen Science” report may realize.

Most “citizen science” projects focus on the activities of a very small (and getting smaller) subset of humans — namely, people who find greater pleasure interacting with a natural, outdoor environment than with an electronic one. But rather than building systems to attract “outdoorsy” people, there’s a much larger community of highly engaged citizen scientists texting on their phones, or communicating by Facebook, or playing online games.

Citizen science needs to enter their worlds, speak their language, offer the rewards they enjoy receiving, and in this way begin to guide these highly intelligent minds through the portals of the natural world.

Not the other way around.

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