[Civic conference] Citizen science, sensing, mapping | MIT Center for Civic Media

[Civic conference] Citizen science, sensing, mapping

With contributions from Heather Craig (@_hhcraig)

The citizen science panel began with with four lightning talks by Sean Bonner (@seanbonner) from Safecast, David Manthos (@DavidManthos) of SkyTruth, Jeff Warren of Public Lab, and Catherine D'Ignazio (@kanarinka), who leads the Open Water Project. Bonner and Manthos' projects harness the power of citizens to collect data, from radiation levels in specific neighborhoods to verifying objects from satellite imagery. In 2011 following the Fukushima power plant leak, Bonner and his friends were inspired to buy Geiger counters in bulk to measure radiation around Fukushima. However, Geiger counters were hard to come by, so instead, Bonner and his friends taped a counter to a car window and drove around the city. This first prototype was successful, and the project has grown since then with better open source code and hardware improvements. They now hand out hardware to anyone who wants to help with environmental data collection.

Where it once took a lot of resources and funds, SkyTruth has made satellite imagery more accessible. Volunteers identify objects in the imagery, and anyone can request satellite images. Public Lab is a community of about 4,000-5,000 people around the world developing cheap sensors and many other tools together. While the software and hardware are useful, Public Lab's deeper goal is to develop communities of practice. Warren generally explains it as “Wikipedia crossed with Homebrew Computer Club crossed with Greenpeace.” Ultimately, Public Lab’s environmental endeavors are tied directly with people’s health, affecting friends, family, and community. Public Lab also incubates the Open Water Project, led by D'Ignazio, which wants to make water quality information through a mantra of openness (open hardware, open software, open data, open education, open community).

After the lightning talks, the Knight Foundation's John Bracken (@jsb) invited the presenters back to the stage for a panel discussion. Earlier during his talk, Warren described his Chrome extension that scrubbed through sites for the term “scientist” and replaced them with “‘scientist.’” This seemed to resonate with the crowd, and Bracken asked the panelists just how they think about scientists. For Warren, his goal is not to diss scientists but, rather, to help people think about the power dynamics. Earlier, Warren explained that pyramidal data collection—where everyday people collect information for a small group that does the analysis—emphasizes these experts who get to make decisions for everybody else because they have asymmetric power in the decision making process. As a society, citizens rely more and more on science and data to make decisions, Warren explained, so that just a few people make decisions on behalf of a distributed public is problematic. In fact, lots of people in the Public Lab network are formal scientists and could explore some of the research questions in labs, but they want to contribute to the consensus making process.

Manthos and Bonner had a similar answer in discussing how scientists can build off their collected data because they can rely on the integrity of the data. SkyTruth points volunteer reviewers to what needs attention, and several volunteers review each picture. This redundancy creates reliable information that scientists can build on. Sean agrees that the integrity of the data is really important. Without it, Safecast would be a waste of many people’s time and resources. Meanwhile, Catherine and Open Water Project draws on scientist and engineers’ knowledge to create open hardware, software, and other accessible tools. Open Water Project’s theory of change is to stage encounters in space and time for audiences—scientists and a public that is interested in water safety—to come together.

When asked how they work with journalists, Warren explained the role of environmental sensors in reducing data collection costs for journalists. This cost reduction presents an opportunity for partnerships between Public Lab and journalism institutions. Bonner sees journalists referencing data from Safecast, some of whom have contacted Safecast. There are also journalists and others whom he has never spoken with. This suggestion of data penetration indicates that Safecast information is useful to journalists. 

National Geographic's Jeremy Gilbert (@jeremygilbert) was in the audience, and he asked the participants to go further than just how they locate themselves in relation to scientists and journalists; how do each of their projects approach education? While Manthos talked about volunteers' "subliminal education" as they interact with images, D'Ignazio emphasized a more active approach. The OWP team thinks programmatically about how engagement and education happen rather than just getting the science done. The discourse of “citizen ---” is empowering, "but getting people to that point—especially if people have casual interest—takes social design. It’s not just about putting 'it' out there, but thinking concretely about engagement."

(Original liveblog notes here)