Author: Ashley Rose Kelly

WEIRD Behavioral Research

Science can be WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), but researchers are working to change that.

Four years ago three researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia published an article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences entitled “The weirdest people in the world?” The authors, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan, reviewed research in behavioral sciences and found that 96% of research subjects were from what they dubbed WEIRD societies­—that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. As well, many of these participants came from a common pool of subjects: undergraduates at research universities. The article suggests some interesting implications when the subject pool is so limited, and there is further discussion about some of these implications by Greg Downey at Neuroantropology.

Making Science Less WEIRD Projects

Making Science Less WEIRD Projects

How might one go about making science less WEIRD? The Making Science Less WEIRD project is one initiative that hopes to find ways to include a more diverse group of people in behavioral research. One way they’ve identified is to make use of the web to connect with populations that researchers might not otherwise have access to in traditional studies.

A diverse participant pool is important, explains Joshua Hartshorne, one of the principal investigators of the Making Science Less WEIRD project, saying, “If we test a wide range of people of different backgrounds, cultures, languages, etc., on some task and they all behave more or less the same, then that’s pretty good evidence that people simply don’t differ along that dimension.” And what if researchers do suspect a difference? “Then we are in a good position to understand those differences,” says Hartshorne. Traditionally this kind of research has been difficult because investigators did not have access to such a large and diverse group of participants as the web affords. Of course, there are also cases where a homogenous population might very well be exactly the population one wants to study, Hartshorne reminds us. But what the web affords, and what the Making Science Less WEIRD project aims to capitalize on, is the ability to undertake those studies of diverse participants that have previously been so difficult.

While there are some 2.4 billion people online, the project investigators are very much aware of the current limitations of that sample. Obtaining a good sample is more complicated than access to more people. “We don’t need a representative sample in order to probe human diversity,” Hartshorne writes, but rather “we need a diverse sample.” The web affords access to more diverse participants than those undergraduate students who are so frequently studied.

However, there are some limitations. Projects currently featured by Making Science Less WEIRD are designed for English speakers. As the initiative grows, and more projects become involved, the principal investigators hope to make the site multilingual. Katharina Reinecke, another principal investigator at Making Science Less WEIRD and a co-lead at Lab in the Wild, said her team is “currently translating Lab in the Wild into five different languages” and hope to include more languages as the project grows. This kind of work is particularly important, Reinecke notes, because there is evidence “showing that people test differently in their native language as opposed to when they are being asked questions in a non-native language.” Even so, Hartshorne reminds us, there is still significant diversity in English speaking populations that has typically not been included in behavioral research studies. An interesting example of this is the vocabulary quiz Hartshorne has been running, which aims to understand differences in the size of vocabularies across English speaking nations. Visit Games with Words to participate in this study and others that help us understand language. As well, Lab in the Wild is working on creating “more usable and intuitive user interfaces for people around the world,” according to Reinecke, which they hope will eventually work to draw in populations that have been less likely to participate. The Visual Preferences Test is one way this kind of work is happening and one way to get involved.

All of the work being put into Making Science Less WEIRD helps develop better approaches to behavioral research. As well, the lessons for citizen science more broadly are many, including the careful consideration in developing a participant pool and considering the linguistic and technical barriers to access.

Category: Uncategorized | Comments Off on WEIRD Behavioral Research

Homebrew Sensing Project: DIY Environmental Monitoring

[This post was originally published on SciStarter on February 3rd, 2014]

The non-profit Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) previously won a Knight News Challenge in 2011 and received $500,000 to fund a tool kit and online community for citizen-based, grassroots data gathering and research. The second Knight News Challenge the group won, a $350,000 Knight award focused on health data, will allow the group to build and deploy inexpensive technologies for monitoring.

Connections between the hacker culture of the 1970s and emerging DIY science continue with the funding of the Homebrew Sensing Project. Born of Public Lab, this project aims to create low-cost sensor technologies for environmental research and monitoring. Following its namesake’s (the homebrew computer club) lead, this project’s participant composition complicates distinctions between expert and hobbyist or amateur.

The three individuals leading up the project are Shannon Dosemagen, Jeffrey Warren, and Mathew Lippincott. I was able to chat with Dosemagen, also a co-Founder of Public Lab, via email. Situating the Homebrew Sensing Project within the Public Lab’s effort tells us a lot about the motivations behind the project. “Public lab,” Dosemagen writes, “isn’t just a nonprofit that creates tools, we’re interested in creating a community.” Connecting with community organizations, NGOs, and research institutions they have created an extensive network that helps connect with a community and connect communities.

Connecting communities and providing a space for them to interact, Public Lab provides what Dosemagen describes as “a space where people with different expertise can interact.” This is a particularly important interaction among different kinds of expertise, including specialized technical as well as local knowledge, and reflects the efforts of Public Lab, Dosemagen tells us, to “recognize that not only researchers linked to academic institutions bring value and expertise to projects such as this, but that everyone can bring something to the table through the experience and knowledge sets that they have.”

Engagement among experts is demonstrated through the “barn raising” activities, events where members of the community come together to create something (be it tool or tutorials), Public Lab undertakes. Winning a another Knight Challenge means that the group can continue such efforts with the Homebrew Sensing Project. This project aims to address growing concerns about exposure to various human-made hazards and the associated risks, including health risks. To do this, the group wants to create inexpensive tools that can be used with mobile devices, allowing community members to take readings and analyze the information without the high costs associated with traditional lab testing. The group will undertake these efforts by refining their hardware and software platforms and developing new ones. As well, Dosemagen writes that a “portion of this grant will go towards supporting an outreach role and community partners,” which means that further community building and crossing of boundaries between communities will be part of this important initiative. If you’re interested in learning more about Public Lab or following this project you can find more information about the project in their news release.

Public Lab’s Homebrew Sensing Project extends their work on a DIY spectrometry project. The initial project, Dosemagen noted, began a few years ago and publicly “launched in 2012 with a Kickstarter” and the results have been impressive. To date, she tells us, Public Lab has ”over 2,000 accounts on, over 14,000 spectral samples uploaded, [and] 750 members in the spectrometry Google Group.” In addition to all of this work, the group has “shipped 3,500 spectrometers worldwide that range between a price point of $10 and $70,” with the price point being a particularly notable feature in how accessible that is when compared with traditional spectrometers that typically begin at several thousand dollars.

Category: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

More Gills or Eyes? The Purported Increase of Sevengill Shark Populations off the Coast of San Diego


Emerging technologies have a profound effect on how citizen scientists conduct their work. An underwater creature of ancient lineage helps to tell this modern story of technology’s importance to citizen science. Notorynchus cepedianus, the sevengill shark, of the ancient Hexanchidae family (cow sharks), features seven gill slits and a single dorsal fin, giving a prehistoric visage to this predator. Despite its uncanny appearance, this shark is one that has demonstrated little aggression toward humans, with fewer than five wild attacks accounted for since the 16th century.

In fact, divers have been increasingly encountering these creatures off the coast of San Diego. Harmless as these encounters are, they are spectacular and haunting, as Michael Bear, founder of the Sevengill Shark Tracking Project, would tell you. In the summer of 2009 he experienced the sevengill himself, after hearing rumors of its increased presence in the San Diego coastal area, when a giant seven-foot long (2.1 meters) sevengill glided between him and a dive-buddy. Describing that moment, Bear says that, “it is a humbling experience being in the presence of one of these large, apex predators­­––they have a grace and a majesty about them that is unforgettable.” But are these encounters an indicator of increasing sevengill populations or a product of increased numbers of divers––or perhaps divers with attentive eyes?

For many years few sightings were reported, but more anecdotal reports began to trickle in, and, Bear tells us, the “period that we really began hearing a significant increase in reports was 2009-2010.” Bear wanted to know more (and for good reason). The sevengill is a high-order or apex marine predator and therefore may be important to ecological structure, interactions, and ecosystem management (Williams et al., 2011 and 2012). In 2010 Bear’s project began to take shape.

The Sevengill Shark Tracking Project is a citizen science effort to collect baseline population data on the sevengill. Though it started out small, the project has grown, partnering with the Shark Observation Network. Now a single global database aggregates data on sightings to help determine baseline population information. Though a study of this kind can take many years, Bear’s project already has important insights for citizen science projects, especially in the use of new technologies.

Bear has developed the Sevengill Shark Tracking project’s smartphone app, called “Shark Observers.” It’s available for Android devices and allows divers to log sightings once they’ve surfaced and, presumably, dried off. While this particularly benefits sevengill tracking, the application actually allows users to submit logs for any kind of shark encounter to the Shark Observation Network database. This application can be downloaded through Google Play.

In addition to the app and database cataloguing the date, time, water temperature, and sightings––with separate databases for photographic and video recordings—the project has also started to use pattern recognition technology to identify individual sharks. This is an inexpensive alternative to costly and labor-intensive shark tagging.

With the I3S pattern recognition algorithm, which is also used for mapping star patterns on Whale Sharks, the sevengill project uses collected high definition photos to track individual sharks by their “freckling” pattern. Using the algorithm, Bear is able to identify the unique patterning on individual sevengill sharks. Eight individuals have been identified and tracked using this method, allowing Bear and other researchers to track the return of these sharks each year. What is crucial for this approach, Bear tells us, “is to have high resolution photographs where the freckling pattern is visible.” While crucial, this technological demand is not a significant barrier for most of the diver-citizen scientists, says Bear, since “most divers these days are using hi def cameras anyway.”

Since the motivation for Bear’s project was to determine baseline populations, knowing more about the number of sharks that are present and returning to the area becomes crucial. Tracking individuals helps to sort out the matter of whether the population of sharks or the population of divers (and therefore reported sightings) is increasing. Securing more data is essential to draw reasonable conclusions about these populations and so the Sevengill Shark Sightings project continues to collect sightings, including those with video and photographic data, submitted by divers in the San Diego area. Specifically, Bear’s project is interested in the population data over a 5- to 10-year period, asking whether the population density appears to stay relatively static or if there are notable changes.

In addition to these research interests, science education is built into this citizen science model. Bear hopes to train local divers in identification techniques for the sevengill shark. The Sevengill Shark Sighting project provides an interesting example of how technology can help citizen scientist organize anecdotal data into important scientific datasets.

(1) Michael Bear is Science Diving Editor for California Diver Magazine and Contributor to Marine Science Today. He lives and works in San Diego, California.


Williams, GD, Andrews, KS, Farrer, DA, Bargmann, GG, and Levin, PS. (2011). Occurrence and biological characteristics of broadnose sevengill sharks (Notorynchus cepedianus) in Pacific Northwest coastal estuaries. Environmental Biology of Fishes 91: 379–388. doi: 10.1007/s10641-011-9797-z.

Williams GD, Andrews KS, Katz SL, Moser ML, Tolimieri N, Farrer DA, Levin PS. (2012). Scale and pattern of broadnose sevengill shark Notorynchus cepedianus movement in estuarine embayments. Journal of Fish Biology 80(5): 1380–1400. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8649.2011.03179.x

Photo: via Michael Bear; photo credit Kelli Shaw, 2011.

This post originally appeared on SciStarter.

Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Citizen Science and Art: Exploring biohackers and bioartists


Image from the DYISect project

Back in January I met Glendon Mellow at Science Online. Since then I’ve been following his impressive work at the intersection of art and science and thinking a lot about where the relationship between the two might be found in citizen science. Scientific American’s Symbiartic blog has featured numerous articles about the intersection of science and art, from everyday science art, to visualizations from space, to scientifically literate illustrations with contemporary aesthetics, to exhibits about the intersection of art and science from around the nation.

Here at the intersection of art and science we find a space for rethinking the way that we communicate scientific information, what information is communicated, and what audiences we communicate with. Artists not only illustrate or otherwise create to communicate science, but also to provide insight into the relationship between science and society—productive tensions between scientific progress and critical questioning about what it means for us as humans.

Another place where we find productive tensions somewhere between tradition and radical innovation, following Thomas Kuhn, is in hacker, maker, and DIY communities. In these communities we find incredible technical innovation, interest in scientific research practices as well as critical engagement with the politics of our science and technology, especially concerning who is provided access. They’re also influencing science. Alessandro Delfanti’s new book reminds us that “Open biology is embracing values and practices taken from the world of hacking and free software,” which has some interesting implications for science and citizen science, because it suggests that “science is experiencing the same type of differentiation and complexity shown by hacker cultures” (p. 12).

Bringing together science art, amateur biology, and DIY and hacker ethics to explore emerging engagement with amateur biology, Mary Tsang and Benjamin Welmond have teamed up to create a documentary: DIYSect. Tsang studied biology and art and comes to the project as a bioartist, and Welmond studied film and comes the project as a filmmaker. Together, they will travel around the United States and Canada to document the work of biohackers, bioartists, citizen scientists, scientists, writers, and curators who participate in DIYBio and BioArt projects.

Map of DIYSect's planned travel

DIYSect’s planned travels

From the North East to the South East and across to the West Coast, the team will visit biohackers and bioartists and others as they begin several discussions about how these amateur enterprises are developing. Tsang and Welmond are especially interested in questions about how biology, biotech, and biohacking influence our social, political, and philosophical outlooks. Bioartists provide especially critical insight to these questions and so become an important part of the project. Wythe Marschall offers one argument for the importance of such work here.

These filmmakers hope to generate interest in biology and biotechnology, engage critically and without fear current trends these research spaces demonstrate, explore how bioartists are raising and engaging such questions, and also examine the range of applications and accessibility afforded by the uptake of biological and biotechnology research by the DIY community.

DIYSect will be a web-series of 8-10 minute episodes, available at no cost on Vimeo, with several topics focusing especially on citizen science and DIYBio (How to Build Your Own BioHackLab, DIYBiology: A Tale in Two Parts, and The Future of Citizen Science) and also on issues that are likely to generate some difficult but interesting questions for those participating in citizen science projects (Genes, Self, and Identity, PostNaturalism: New Breeds of Hybridity, and Putting Patents on Life).

While the documentary has yet to be made, you can check out some previews on DIYSect’s homepage, and support their project over at Kickstarter.

Delfanti, A. (2013). Biohackers: The politics of Open Science. London: Pluto.

Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Citizen Science and Art: Exploring biohackers and bioartists

Music, Mayans, Maps: Citizen science and the digital humanities

Notes from US Navy steamer Bear's log book. June 22, 1884. Photo credit: National Archives.

Notes from US Navy steamer Bear’s log book. June 22, 1884. Photo credit: National Archives. From the Oldweather project.

Teaching scientific and technical writing to undergraduate STEM students at North Carolina State University, a land-grant institution known for its engineering and agricultural programs, has forced me to think quite a lot about what C.P. Snow called the two cultures: the humanities and the sciences. I’ve come to think that citizen science projects are helping to challenge the division between these two cultures, while valuing the different traditions. In addition to the many citizen science projects that conduct, well, scientific research, there are some that conduct other kinds of scholarly research, including work done in the humanities and social sciences. In today’s post, I’d like to share some projects that advance research in the humanities and social sciences.

Image from the Ancient Lives project.

Image from the Ancient Lives project. “Studying the lives of ancient Greeks”

Ancient Lives Project, the one project filed under “humanities” in the Zooniverse, helps researchers transcribe Greco-Roman texts recovered from fragments of papyrus in Egypt to better understand the period’s culture. This is accomplished by taking the transcribed documents and determining if they are parts of already known texts or if they are new texts. In the latter case, then beginning to examine the texts further for the purposes of identification and, presumably, further analysis.

What’s the Score at the Bodleian? also asks volunteers to help with digitizing. By providing descriptions for their 19th century piano scores collection, the volunteers help to build a searchable collection open to the public.

Another project is the Maya Decipherment effort led by Mayanist David Stuart. Using a blog to share the enormous collection of artefacts, Stuart provides a space for both professional and amateur Mayanists alike to conduct analysis on inscriptions. Maya Decipherment isn’t the only archeological project in the citizen science sphere and scistarter lists many others.

A more familiar project to the citizen science crowd may be the Old Weather historical project. This tremendously successful and award-winning Zooniverse project is an effort to digitize weather observations to assist climate researchers.

Many other projects that take on a similar model are simply referred to as something other than “citizen science.” Typically they’re described as “crowdsourced” projects, such as the Your Paintings tagging project or Stanford’s Year of the Bay mapping and annotation project and broader study of crowdsourcing in humanities research, in the digital humanities—a contentious term, but generally referring to significant critical and material engagement with technology in humanities research.

Looking to these projects provides some insight about how humanities and social science scholars are both driving and participating in models of public participation in research that resemble citizen science. Certainly some reluctance to adopt the phrase “citizen science” is reasonable, after all, the humanities especially have a very different scholarly tradition, but the relationship between the two has much to tell us. For those working from a scientific tradition, this expanded notion of citizen science projects is useful in exploring the kinds of research in which citizens might participate, what is at stake for public intellectual engagement, and what the possibilities are for educational outreach. For humanist and social scientific researchers, there is a growing body of literature and debate in citizen science that considers appropriate acknowledgments and crediting, relationships among professional and amateur researchers, and methodological concerns.

Further work to bridge the research conducted under the banner of citizen science and that conducted under the banner of crowd-sourcing in the digital humanities (pdf) offers a promising site for humanists, social scientists, and scientists to bridge the two cultures in the interest of research, teaching, and a public intellectual engagement.

Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Music, Mayans, Maps: Citizen science and the digital humanities

Hackerspaces and Hacking Science

Photo credit: Sean Bonner, Safecast Hackathon.

Photo credit: Sean Bonner, Safecast Hackathon.

A little over two years ago the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan was crippled by a massive undersea earthquake and subsequent tsunami. As the accident unfolded there were questions about how much radiation was being released and how to determine what levels of radiation are safe. Initially, information was scarce, but one citizen science effort changed that. Safecast, a non-profit that seemed to spontaneously form following the accident, began collecting and publishing radiation readings, developing measurement tools, and analyzing data. Logo

Photo credit:

Safecast is an interesting example of citizen science for a number of reasons. First, Safecast is participant-driven. The group originated as an email thread among friends inquiring after their loved ones. Soon the discussions turned to ways to aggregate and then collect and distribute data. The Safecast network quickly grew and its fascinating history is documented here and in this short documentary. Second, Safecast built tools to measure radiation readings when the tools were not available or adequate. Sean Bonner, Safecast co-founder, connected with contacts at the Tokyo Hackerspace to help with the design and development of devices. One of their devices, the bGeigie, allows measurements to be taken while driving. Or flying. Third, and relatedly, Safecast founders amassed a network of experts, including folks at the Tokyo Hackerspace, to obtain the expert knowledge they needed to ensure their project was successful. Fourth, they’re not content to collect and share data, but also analyze the data. The list of interesting and important work Safecast is doing goes on and includes visualizing of data and advocating and publishing under a CC0 license.

Hackers on a Plane logo

A visit to German and Australian hackerspaces ignited a new movement. See Farr’s account. Photo credit:

Safecast illustrates an emerging space for citizen science: hackerspaces. Hackerspaces, in their current form, have taken shape since 2007. Despite their recent development, more than a thousand hackerspaces (and counting) exist around the world. Hackerspaces are, according to the wiki, “community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects.” Many of these spaces provide access to expensive manufacturing tools, such as laser cutters and 3D printers, as well as access to expert knowledge, such as software and hardware development techniques. Others have begun to provide access to scientific equipment and scientific expert knowledge. The San Francisco-based Noisebridge hackerspace, for example, has a project to launch photographic equipment into the stratosphere, with a particular emphasis on the educational value of the project. A success or failure of the project doesn’t change the important engagement with science, they remind us. Ah-ha, education. BioCurious, in the Bay Area, is a hackerspace for biotech. The space is open to anyone from amateurs to entrepreneurs and includes an autoclave, PCR machines, microcentrifuges, vortexes, and common supplies including pipettes, glassware, tubes and more. Similarly Genspace, in New York, is a non-profit hackerspace that is “dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology.” Of course, there is also the work of Safecast through the Toyko Hackerspace.

Safecast’s ability to develop a network of expertise, manage collecting and sharing of massive amounts of data, and analyze the data illustrates that what is possible in hackerspaces goes far beyond tinkering. Scientific work is being done. Other spaces and projects, such as the Spacebridge at Noisebridge, show us that some are also engaged in important science education work. These hackerspaces are, among other things, educational spaces.

While biohacking appears to be somewhat more established than other kinds of science hacking, Safecast demonstrates that the possibility for extending scientific work in hackerspaces. Like many citizen science projects, the research these groups are undertaking is only part of what we might learn from them. Organization of individuals and resources, rapid mobilization and response, crowd-sourced funding and technical solutions, and strategies for educational engagement are all embedded within the work going on in hackerspaces around the world. Scientific hacking also throws into question of notions of expert, non-expert, and expertise. Safecast reminds us that the citizen in “citizen science” is something more akin to Sagan’s “citizen of the Cosmos” than a citizen of a nation.

If you are interested in the work going on in hackerspaces, check out the Wiki and see what is going on in your community. There is a list of hackerspaces around the world on the wiki. If you are interested in supporting the efforts of Safecast, check out their page, and donate to them through their global giving project page.

Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

International Citizen Science for Indian Tiger Conservation

Guest post by Kenny Walker and Ashwin Naidu, with Ashley R. Kelly.

Wildlife camera shot. Photo credit: HyTiCoS and Nityata Foundation.

Wildlife camera shot. Photo credit: HyTiCoS and Nityata Foundation.

It’s an early Thursday morning at the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh and members of the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HyTiCoS) are on the lookout for any sight of a tiger. A tropical dry forest with dense deciduous teak, thiruman, maddi, and bamboo, the sanctuary is a reserve for tigers, leopards, sloth bears, wild dogs and other endangered and threatened species. The HyTiCoS members spot a clearing in Dayyam Vagu, a perennial water source, where they set a digital camera to photograph endangered tigers and their sympatric carnivores. Imran and Asif Siddiqui, brothers and co-founders of HyTiCoS, and animal tracker Shankar crouch in the brittle leaves, set a GPS point, and harness a camera to the trunk of a large teak tree. With any luck, observations from this camera will reach people across the globe–helping to preserve a key indicator of the health of this forest, the legendary wild tiger.

Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary

A map of Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary made by Imran Siddiqui, HyTiCoS

Poachers, losses of prey, and habitat destruction have taken their toll—there are an estimated 1400 wild tigers remaining in India. Twenty years ago a group of ragtag individuals responded to this crisis by organizing around a concern for tiger conservation. After years of building a network of citizen stakeholders—residents from the city of Hyderabad, international conservationists, and locals living near forest areas—they formed HyTiCoS, a completely volunteer-run organization of about 30 members who work exclusively to conserve tigers in the Andhra Pradesh region. Since becoming a non-profit in 2000, they have trained Andhra Pradesh Forest Department staff and local citizens, called “animal trackers,” to conduct tiger and leopard monitoring research. HyTiCoS emphasizes community capacity building as they simultaneously undertake GIS-based habitat analyses, collect DNA evidence, and track numbers and behaviors of tigers and other carnivores. Their systematic local observations aim to build complex and multi-layered data sets that both reveal and protect the lives of wild tigers. Despite not receiving any donations or reimbursements in the past decade for their time and money spent in the field, they’ve built an organization of citizen scientists acting as, among many other things, the curators of the forest.
Continue reading »

Category: Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Science and Society: Voices from the Humanities and Social Sciences

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael.

Recently Dr. Holly Menninger, Director of Public Science for N.C. State’s Your Wild Life project nicely summarized themes relevant to citizen science emerging from the Science Online 2013 conference. I’d like to add to this discussion by including issues raised for the humanities and social sciences (HSS). Several sessions at Science Online posed questions that have been central to HSS studies of science, including science popularization, science communication, the deficit model, policy questions, and ethical concerns. Session participants called for increased collaboration with HSS researchers to help build strong interdisciplinary programs addressing complex issues of communication, policy, ethics and so on. But what might that look like in practice?

Humanities and social sciences are those fields of study that concern studies of human experience and human nature. There are some distinctions between the two, especially in methodological approaches, but they can be productively blended for interdisciplinary social studies of science. HSS can also be blended with the sciences. A new NSF IGERT-funded Ph.D. program in Genetic Engineering and Society at N.C. State has already begun to form such an interdisciplinary enterprise. The program—now up, running, and recruiting—brings together students from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Faculty range from entomologists to philosophers, science communication experts, political scientists, Science, Technology, and Society (STS) scholars, and historians. That’s a lot of folks from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

This kind of training and work becomes increasingly important in global contexts, when matters of cultural variation, colonial history, linguistic difference, political structures, and so on, all must be included in the preparation of students for field studies. Experts in HSS can work with professional scientists to improve student preparation and study design to ensure not only excellent data, but good relationships and ethical conduct (an important issue that DNLee at SciAm Blogs recently discussed) in their professional endeavors. Where are some areas that HSS connections could be made through citizen science? Participants at Science Online had a few suggestions especially relevant to citizen science.

Science Studies
Including science studies researchers: “Science studies” is a broad enterprise in HSS. Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS) are probably the most familiar vein of science studies. In addition to this well-established program of science studies, there are also studies situated in other disciplines such as communication and English (rhetoric of science, risk communication, and environmental communication), history (history of science across eras or disciplines), philosophy (philosophy of science and philosophies of particular scientific traditions, such as the philosophy of biology).

While these areas of research have some cross-fertilization, they each have particular theoretical traditions, methodological orientations, and critical interests. What might they offer to citizen science projects? Each area of study is rich with literature considering how scientific ideas have been formulated, argued for and against, and shared with the public. Science communication studies, including environmental and risk communication, explore what has been effective and what has been ineffective in communicating with publics, across professional domains, and even internally to science. Existing research on the social, cultural, and rhetorical dimensions of science communication fills journals devoted to the topics of professional and public scientific discourses.

Institutional Review Boards (IRB)
Collecting data on citizen-participants: this kind of data collection should immediately lead to questions about Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. The goal of IRB is to protect any participants in biomedical or behavioural research from harm. Before beginning research, before recruiting participants even, researchers submit an application to their respective institutions where a benefit-risk analysis is conducted by experts who ensure participants will not be harmed and that good human-subject research practices are followed. With citizen science it is important to consider whether or not IRB is required. If there is data about humans, odds are that you must be talking to your institution’s IRB office.

Research Methods
Designing for data collection: because HSS researchers are primarily concerned with human participants, many will have some experience in the process of IRB. Importantly, they will also have some experience with designing a study where the data collected supports the kinds of questions we might be interested in asking. Given the nature of this research, there are many perspectives on how to collect the best data, how to ensure a research doesn’t bias a sample, etc. These approaches vary when one might be trying to measure perceptions of risk (as risk communication experts do) or measure learning outcomes (as work in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning does).

Educational Outcomes
Educational goals and outcomes: formal and informal education in science is an ongoing site of interest. For the sake of space here, I’d encourage anyone interested in the topic to take a look at Jean Flanagan’s overview of science education topics at Science Online 2013 on the Sci-Ed PLOS Blog.

Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Citizen Science in Crisis Situations


In a recent post, Caren Cooper focused on scientist-driven citizen science. This perspective offers a framework for many citizen science projects. Citizens participate in established research agendas to assist scientists collect, aggregate, and/or analyze large data sets. But citizen science can also be participant-driven.

My research concerns participant-driven responses to crisis situations, as they are facilitated by mobile and web technologies. The increased ubiquity of sophisticated technologies such as GPS-enabled mobile phones, web-based sharing and aggregation tools for data, and social networking platforms such as Twitter have all changed the ways in which crisis information is communicated. I’m interested in how citizens are able to participate in, as well as initiate, scientific research given the dramatic changes we have seen to the distribution of scientific knowledge, expertise, and tools.

The distinction between scientist-driven and participant-driven citizen science is a bit of an oversimplification. When scientists initiate research projects in response to crises they might also act as community organizers, in addition to researchers. Their work might contribute both to their own research agenda as well as a better understanding of community impacts and strategic responses.

Whether professional scientists or citizen scientists drive the response, there has been a good deal of crisis monitoring and response through citizen science. Perhaps the most memorable in 2012 were responses to hurricanes. When Hurricane Isaac made landfall, there were a number of citizen science projects monitoring the storm. A few months later when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Caribbean before moving through the mid-Atlantic up the coast of the United States and Canada, citizen scientists were ready to take measurements, make observations, and collect samples. Here are a few examples of the projects responding to Sandy.

One project, from, asked volunteers to collect and send water samples from across the Eastern coast during the hurricane. Another project, Send Us Your Dirt from Sandy (SUDS), asked volunteers to send samples of sediment in flooded areas. Earth science researchers were not the only ones interested in studying the impact of this massive and devastating hurricane. Yet another Sandy-related project sought to better understand the impact on traffic by mapping post-Sandy traffic patterns.

For a more expansive look at how citizens put technology to use in response to Sandy, head over to the Wilson Center’s Commons Lab discussion of Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping. Even more information, including an estimate of over 50 crowd-sourced projects relating to Sandy, check out the HurricaneHackers blog post about data crowdsourcing.

In addition to disasters, citizen scientists respond to industry pollution, energy development and extraction, and other environmental concerns or hazards with crisis monitoring. There are the crisis that rivers face and the many monitoring efforts undertaken to respond to this serious need. Both 2011, and again in 2012, fracking became a point of contention and citizen scientists, such are those working with FrackTrack, who have begun monitoring efforts for both scientific interests and policy-based interest. You can read more about these efforts and their importance from Andrew Revkin over at the NY Times DotEarth blog.

Citizen science in response to crisis situations is fascinating because of its variety and often innovative approaches. There are the efforts of citizens in the impacted communities and the efforts professional research scientists. Efforts of both the scientist-driven and participant-driven citizen science serve to develop better responses to these events as well as better strategies to prevent similar destruction. In all of these examples, and from all of these orientations, citizen science comes as a banner to articulate the important monitoring and research work.

As we move toward increased public participation in crisis-based scientific research, there are a number of questions to raise and address. Beginning with questions about the relationship between the role of citizen as scientist and as concerned member of a community to questions about liability and policies governing ad-hoc citizen science responses. More questions might be asked about data quality or even honesty in reporting. Crisis response is a domain of citizen science pregnant with questions for scientists, citizens, and social researchers.


Photo courtesy of NCDOTcommunications on Flickr.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Category: Citizen science | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments