Extreme Citizen Science

A group of researchers at University College London are pushing the boundaries of citizen, helping people transform their communities.

Citizen science is new? In a fascinating paper for the Woodrow Wilson Center, Muki Haklay, Professor of Geographic Information Science at University College London (UCL), traces some elements of citizen science such as weather and nature observations, back to the 17th century. 

Professor Haklay is also co-director of UCL’s Extreme Citizen Science, a research group drawing experts from many different departments – computer science, geography, anthropology, urban planning, art and design. 

Each citizen science project they conduct requires a different combination of disciplines. Indeed, Professor Haklay’s paper for the Woodrow Wilson Center notes that, ‘from 2007 to 2014, over one million people participated in classifying images of galaxies, listening to bat calls, transcribing World War I diaries, and identifying animals in the Serengeti in a Zooniverse project.’ Not only has citizen science grown (its first notation in Wikipedia was 2005) its subject matter has become more diverse and the terms under which citizens engage with it have become more sophisticated. 

The definition of extreme citizen science as recounted by Professor Haklay highlights citizen science as a dynamic set of relationships, ‘it is a practice that engages people. It is “situated”, which means we care about specific places. It’s a bottom-up practice, it emerges from the groups we are working with. It’s really important for us that it takes into account local needs, practices and culture, those things integrate into science.” Most of all he explains, the point is to create new devices and processes that will have an impact on the world.  

Community review

Professor Haklay gives a more informal definition in public presentations, ‘we enable any community regardless of literacy to initiate, run and use citizen science. Any community from hunter gatherers in the Congo basin, to tribes in Brazil to the community in the Pepys estate in London – everyone can do that.’ 

The UCL Extreme Citizen Science blog is a rich resource of case studies showing how each engagement is painstakingly considered by all parties. In the blog post, 'Building Community Protocols with the Ashaninka from Apiwtxa', anthropology PhD student Carolina Comandulli documents some of her work with the Ashaninka people on the border between Brazil and Peru. Their lands are under threat from loggers and hunters, and Comandulli helped train the local people to track illegal activities – using smartphones and other tools. Comandulli’s blog entry from 29 September this year highlights two essential features of citizen science, when she updates the community on the progress of the project. She writes about ‘the free, prior, and informed consent with the community, the iterative construction of the monitoring application and the training given to the monitors in using the application and in transferring data to the computer and visualizing it.’ 

Professor Haklay explains the dynamic within which people engage with science and scientists, ‘the principle there is that although there is a lot of technology, there are a lot of sensitivities with what’s called traditional ecological knowledge. We are very careful about it, and the whole process of engaging people with what’s called free and informed consent. Discussing with them who do they share this information with, what they are going to do with it, how are they going to use it.’

Pushing boundaries

He explains that prefacing citizen science with the word ‘extreme’ is useful to fire the imagination. It’s also a descriptor of how they are pushing the boundaries of the area. They want to extend it to the broader population. Even when people less-educated in science are engaged, the fact is that traditionally, ‘you’re still not engaging them in the problem definition – the scientists are the ones who set it up’ explains Haklay. Their process is changing that. Equally in the other stages of the process, while citizens are involved in data collection, in classification, sometimes in analysis, but rarely in what the group defines as ‘action’. Action he says, can be anything from writing a paper to citizens going to Transport for London asking them to introduce buses with more stringent emission standards – the latter example emerged from a citizen science project on the Pepys Estate in London. 

Equally, his angle on the current debate on smart cities is driven by a belief that city dwellers have the best insight into their world. ‘You have sentient, clever, intelligent humans going around, and to think you can glean all the information just from sensors sounds very bizarre’, he says. ‘Especially in an era when there is Twitter and other activities. All the things we are developing is to enable this bottom–up, local, problem-solving issue, because the local communities will be the cleverest about what it is that they can collect. But not just collect, but also be able to do something with it.’ 

Citizen science has come a long way from the late 1990s, when lending your personal computer to become part of a distributed computing network crunching data was actually pretty cool. Now citizen science generates a learning process, engaging and enabling people to transform themselves and their communities.