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Citizen science — a power for change that’s here to stay

One of the youngest delegates gets the chance to hack a drone. Image courtesy James Doherty.

February saw London host the Third Citizen Cyberscience Summit, a three-day event dedicated to the expanding field of citizen science. More than 300 delegates from around the world assembled to network, share ideas, and get creative. The event provided fascinating insight into how computers, mobile phones, and other devices are helping to mobilize the citizen science community. Attendees were left with the distinct impression that citizen science is no passing fad but a movement on the forefront of a fundamental shift in how we approach science and education.

For the uninitiated, citizen science is scientific research conducted in whole or part by amateur or non-professional scientists. There is a spectrum of different kinds of citizen science from ‘crowdsourcing’, in which citizens analyze data, to ‘extreme citizen science’, where scientists collaborate with citizens in problem definition, data collection and analysis.


Citizen science stars

On day one of the summit, keynote speeches from the heavyweights of citizen science left delegates with no doubt that citizen science is a big deal. The crown jewel of citizen science remains the Zooniverse, a top-down crowdsourcing platform where citizens analyze large sets of data, such as pictures of galaxies that need to be classified as elliptical or spiral. The Zooniverse has reached the significant milestone of one million contributors and plans to use human input to program computers for data analysis.

Other leaders in the field include Eyewire, an addictive game in which participants help scientists map neural connections in the brain. Erinma Ochu delivered a heart-warming account of her sunflower project, in which participants grow and help to analyze sunflowers, and Daniel Lombraña González reported on how CrowdCrafting has helped interest groups in the US monitor fracking activities.

World Community Grid, which uses spare capacity on computers and mobile devices to power scientific research on health, poverty and sustainability, was also featured at the summit. Sophia Tu and Juan Hindo of IBM, which sponsors and supports World Community Grid, announced a major scientific breakthrough in childhood cancer. Donated computing capacity has enabled researchers of childhood cancer to discover seven drug candidates that are highly effective at destroying tumors without any apparent side effects. This may also have applications for adult cancers, including breast and lung cancer.

The atomic force microscope hacked by students. Image courtesy James Doherty.

Tu and Hindo also talked at the summit about their experience launching an Android mobile app in partnership with BOINC of the University of California, Berkley, US, last July, becoming one of the first volunteer computing initiatives to go mobile. They found that many citizen scientists are more comfortable downloading a mobile app than installing software on their computer: signups jumped ten times the week of launch and the app quickly reached ‘Top 5 Trending’ status in the Google Play store.

Citizen science’s expanding influence was evidenced by a series of talks on policy and engagement. Jacquie McGlade’s video presentation highlighted the importance of inclusiveness and keeping the gates of citizen science open to all. A recurring theme emerged that citizens are enjoying more autonomy in defining the projects to which they contribute. And Kaitlin Thaney of the Mozilla Science lab argued that the wider researcher community should draw inspiration from citizen science and the web’s open-source revolution to itself become more open and collaborative.


Engaging and empowering citizens

On the second day, the summit moved to less formal surroundings in University College London (UCL), UK, for workshops, panel discussions, and short presentations. A panel debate with five female citizen scientists highlighted the commitment of people engaged with citizen science and the empowerment they experience from contributing to projects.

At a series of talks on DIY citizen science, Francois Grey, coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, described how the Lego2nano summer school program mobilized a group of students to construct an atomic force microscope for a fraction of the price of those found in modern labs. Grey argued that because so much can be learned from making and programming technology, young people should be encouraged to become makers, engineers, and programmers.

In the evening, the Citizen Science Cafe also afforded those not attending the conference the opportunity to pop-in after work to mingle with others passionate about citizen science.


What can you do for your community?

By day three of the summit, delegates were chomping at the bit to start doing some citizen science themselves. Saturday’s ‘hackdaychallenge’ provided an opportunity for collaboration on a number of different projects, including: constructing an application that enables citizens to analyze photographs from the International Space Station; making the most of solar panels installed in Ghanian schools; and an application developed by child psychologist Caspar Addyman for analyzing baby laughter. The winning project was the Pulse Sensor Textile Challenge, which aims to measure the impact of textiles on emotions.

Hackday team discusses how photographs taken on mobile phones may be used in disaster response. Image courtesy James Doherty.

The closing keynote presentation was delivered by journalist-turned-academic Jeff Howe, who first coined the term ‘crowdsourcing’. In this entertaining and insightful talk, Howe noted that the most successful crowdsourcing projects are often a gift from an individual to the community, and provided as an illustrative example. He argued that the cardinal rule of crowdsourcing is that one should ask ‘what can you do for your community, not what your community can do for you’. Like Grey, Howe suggested that citizen science has the potential to bring about a fundamental change in how young people are educated.


More than a passing fad

A recent article in Nature hinted at a certain decline in citizen science, but little evidence of this trend was on display at the summit, which was saturated with energy, enthusiasm and love for citizen science. Grey described the event not as a “thin broth with just one intellectual ingredient but a rich stew of ideas with spices from far-away fields”. This is, indeed, reflective of the pervasive nature of citizen science: there is a vibrant community across the globe analyzing data, playing games, growing sunflowers, posting pictures, monitoring pollution, and more.

So, citizen science seems to be much more than a passing fad that is now in decline. Rather, it is a movement that empowers its participants. That demands openness, collaboration and accessibility. That has the potential to bring about change. And most importantly that recognizes, as Howe puts it, that “everyone has something to offer”.


The full programme of the Citizen Cyberscience Summit may be viewed here.

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