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Extreme Citizen Science

citizen science project of forests

Forest-based villagers have been able to isolate, prioritize and map out sacred resources. Image courtesy Muki Hakley.

For the majority of citizen scientists, contributing to projects is seen as a worthwhile and rewarding pastime, but a recent development called ‘extreme’ citizen science has the potential to make it even more participatory, open, and collaborative, empowering communities to identify, and eventually solve, their own local problems.

Last April, University College London (UCL) established an international center for ‘Extreme Citizen Science’ (ExCiteS) with a central aim of driving citizen science to the next level, encouraging wider participation, and providing a set of tools that can be used by any user, regardless of their scientific knowledge and level of literacy.

The multi-disciplinary ExCiteS group has been collaborating with a number of communities across the globe. ‘Extreme’ in this context means extremely collaborative science, which is where a community identifies and defines their own problems, and collectively finds a solution (via data collection and analysis) using adaptable scientific tools and methods.

ExcCiteS co-founder is Muki Haklay, a Senior Lecturer of Geographic Information Science at the Department of Geomatic Engineering. At the Citizen Cyberscience Summit in February this year, Haklay explained that extreme citizen science is about enabling any community around the globe to start a citizen science project that will help them deal with issues that concern them. “It’s about trying to bring in citizen science and practical science to any community, regardless of their literacy. The tools will be available in many more places for people to solve problems at different levels.”

One of the most ingenious projects, developed by ExCiteS co-director and UCL social anthropologist, Jerome Lewis, is supporting conservation efforts in both the Congo and South Cameroon by helping local forest communities to better represent themselves to outsiders. Jerome has helped the local communities describe their issues and specific problems via simple and easily translatable tools such as maps and icons, and to record data using hand-held devices (for example, GPS instruments). So far, forest-based villagers have been able to isolate, prioritize, and map out sacred resources thereby mediating conservation efforts so forestry companies can avoid destroying their local resources.

For eons (about 8,000 years), maps have provided a universal medium for translating complex information that can be easily understood by people with different linguistic and educational backgrounds. Another ExCiteS project, called Mapping for Change, is a social enterprise that utilizes mapping tools to support the development of sustainable communities.

The Mapping for Change project helps disadvantaged urban dwellers in North and East London develop community maps to address urban environmental concerns and monitor their surroundings (for example, noise pollution, air quality). “Deprived communities are often the most affected by environmental problems,” said Louise Francis, who is Director of Mapping for Change.

Participatory sensing and environmental monitoring have been simplified by projects such as EveryAware (also established by ExCiteS researchers), which allows urban dwellers in different cities to monitor their urban landscape through the use of internet-enabled, smart mobile devices.

Individuals can download an application (for example, for monitoring decibels for noise levels) and collect multi-modal data streams from their surroundings and share this using existing communication infrastructure (for example, 3G service or Wi-Fi access points). The data contributed from multiple participants can be combined to build a spatiotemporal view of the phenomenon of interest and also to extract important community statistics.

Haklay hopes that the ExCiteS team can develop analytic tools accessible to all citizen scientists in order to realize their potential. Although collection devices are now a reality, analysis still tends to be dominated by scientists.  Methods for motivating and ensuring effective participation also have to be addressed, as those groups most in need of support are still largely excluded - for example, rural, semi- or non-literate, and people living in vulnerable communities.

As the scope of citizen science widens, those involved are faced with many new challenges in broadening accessibility. While some scientists still remain wary of engaging in ‘amateur’ pursuits, others gladly embrace its potential but highlight the necessity for a ‘science of citizen science’ to be established.

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Hi Zara,

Great article. I thought you'd also be interested in an iPhone application developed by IBM researchers that allows citizens to contribute valuable information to water officials about local creeks and streams. By snapping a photo and answering three questions about the condition of the water, anyone passing by a waterway can become a citizen science to improve water.
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