Thursday, May 7, 2015

Part 1 Citizen Science + Civic Hacking: Overview

Citizen science appears to have almost as many definitions as civic hacking. Wikipedia identifies it quite simply as "scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists." A recent US White House blog post talking about citizen science says it is "a form of
open collaboration in which members of the public participate in the scientific process, including identifying research questions, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, and solving problems."

Much scientific research around the world in the past few centuries was done by 'citizen scientists,' people who were not formally trained as a scientist or were not trained for the topic they were researching. They weren't doing research because they worked for a company who could make money from what the scientist discovered, they weren't doing it for a university or other research center, and they weren't doing the research for the government. They did their citizen science because they were curious about the topic and because they enjoyed it.

Personal computers and the Internet have created a resurgence of citizen science. The computers allow you to store and retrieve a lot of scientific information, they give you inexpensive access to programs and peripheral equipment that make research possible or easier, and they enable you to connect to the Internet. The Internet makes it much easier to learn what scientific research others have done, makes it easier to let others know what you've done, makes it easier to collaborate on projects and makes it easier to communicate with others working on the same topic as you are.

Here is a sampling of the leading citizen science websites and organizations.

  1. Zooniverse
  2. Citizen Science Association and its citizen science journal, Theory And Practice
  3. Scientific American citizen science page
  4. National Geographic citizen science page
  5. Citizen Science Alliance
  6. SciStarter
  7. Public Lab
  8. Citizen Cyberscience Centre
  9. Constructing Scientific Communities

Individual agencies and organizations with narrower scopes of interest also have citizen science initiatives:

  1. US Environmental Protection Agency
  2. US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  3. US National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  4. Smithsonian Institute
  5. National Wildlife Federation
  6. The Field Museum of Chicago
  7. Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- Citizen Science Central

Citizen science covers many fields, including astronomy, ornithology (especially bird counts), space, climate, ecosystems, biochemistry, rare or alien species of plants and animals, water and air pollution, and many more topics. Looking at some of the citizen science projects on Zooniverse or SciStarter will show you the wide variety of topic and scale for citizen science projects.

Citizen science projects can be started and managed by a scientist, a university, or some organization that does scientific research as part of their official mission. Or the research or project can be started by a citizen who is very interested in the subject of their research, even though not 'officially' trained and extensively educated to do the research.

As to why someone would want to be a citizen scientist, in the Guardian article "Brian Cox’s guide to becoming a citizen scientist," Cox says,
"The real thrill of citizen science is being able to look at something no one has ever seen before, or discover something that no one knew about...It’s important to remember that there is so much still to find out – 25 years ago, we hadn’t discovered any planets around other stars and now we’ve found thousands...I once met a man in New Zealand who decided to note one example of everything he could see in his garden. He found a new species of beetle. The number of undiscovered species out there is vast, and you can do great things just by studying your garden, seashore, or local park...Becoming a citizen scientist will introduce you to the joy of discovery. "
So now you have an overview of what citizen science is. How, you ask, is citizen science relevant to civic hacking?

Well, I think there are a variety of ways in which the science and hacking are connected, but the two I'm highlighting today are (1) huge amounts of scientific research data (big data) that are generated by citizen science, and (2) research about citizens' environmental conditions which governments are responsible for monitoring and ensuring safe conditions, such as water and air contaminants.

Civic hackers can be helpful in transforming mountains of scientific research data into meaningful knowledge so people can make informed decisions about topics being researched. Those thousands or millions of data points might mean invasive species are becoming more prevalent or more destructive, and public money should be spent reducing the impact of the invasive species. Citizen-monitored air pollutant data might give early warnings for local areas of contaminants which people with asthma should avoid, or the Department of Natural Resources personnel should investigate for potential illegal emissions from a business.

Civic hacking with citizen science is just one more way for residents to make their city, county, state or country a better place to live.

A blog post on Civic Innovations titled "Making Room For Science" talks about how some civic hackers are incorporating or leveraging citizen science in their hacks.
"Increasingly, participants at local events are opting to work on what would best be described as “citizen science” projects – projects not focused on the development of an app as a final product, but where an app or device constructed at the event is the means to a loftier end. The goal of these projects – a better understanding of how our city works and ways that we can improve it. Some great examples of these citizen science projects being worked on by Philly hackers are:
  • Project GreenSTEM – Originally developed as part of last year’s AT&T EduTech Hackathon, this project is focused on the development of an Arduino-powered urban sensor network... 
  • Climate Tracker – Another mobile sensor network project, this one is focused on bus-mounted devices that will collect climate and air quality information from around Philadelphia...
These citizen science projects still make up a minority of the things worked on at hackathons and local hack nights, but understanding why participants are opting to work on them can give us insights into how we might alter the structure of hackathons – to make them more effective and to help ensure the work being done at these events is sustained over the long haul...The reasons that we are seeing more citizen science projects turn up at hackathons is the result of a couple of different factors. First, the availability of cheap, powerful microcomputers and sensors technology. Products like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, Ninja Blocks others are making it incredibly cheap to obtain, work with and create powerful new devices. It’ also becoming easier for mainstream programmers to start to work with hardware, robotics and other kinds of physical device technologies...We need to rethink the typical weekend hackathon and the focus on building narrowly focused apps...We need to encourage projects that are focused on collecting data, from all over our city, that can help us better understand how it works – data that can be used by others to conduct research, or build apps of their own...One notable example here is the upcoming EcoCamp event being sponsored by Azavea...– a pretty cool idea that I hope leads to some interesting citizen science projects.""
In the post "Anthony Townsend on Hacking Into ‘Smart Cities,’" the author talks about new connections between civic hacking and citizen science which are being enabled by open hardware and low-cost sensors and microcontrollers.
"...civic hacking projects...are leveraging the platform Arduino to get people engaged in citizen science. Not surprisingly, a lot of these projects relate to urban problems like air quality. Air Quailty responding to the fact that while ozone pollution varies greatly block by block, most cities — NYC and Paris, I know — only have a dozen ozone monitoring stations. Technology like this is about people identifying local problems that are shared across communities, taking advantage of democratized technology and open networks, and stepping in to craft and deploy their own solution...It’s one reason that even as the U.S. falls behind in so many other areas, I think we’ve got a real edge in smart urban tech, especially the self-organized grassroots variety."
On the National Day of Civic Hacking in Harpswell, Maine, local organizers launched a new citizen science initiative which includes grassroots mapping of invasive aquatic species threatening the local ecosystem.

In addition to the three accounts above, there are many more examples of civic hacking and citizen science intersecting and overlapping.

In Part 2: Citizen Science And Civic Hack Projects, I'll provide a short summary of some projects to help get potential citizen scientists thinking about different science research areas they might want to consider for a civic hack.

In Part 3: Citizen Science And Civic Hacks -- OpenWater And OpenAir, I'll talk in-depth about two specific projects which seem useful and which I'd enjoy working on with other northeast Wisconsin civic hackers.

If you want to launch a citizen science project (or join one) as part of the civic hacking activities in Appleton, Wisconsin on June 6, 2015, REGISTER for the event today. It's free, it will be enjoyable and you'll meet some great people!


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