Harnessing Citizen Science


This first section of this post by James A. Bacon is cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog…

Recent years have seen the rise of what European Union officials are calling “citizen science,” a phenomenon in which amateurs, enthusiasts and others acting in a non-official capacity collect data (usually environmental data), participate in the design of projects and subject the data to analysis for public benefit. This trend is gaining momentum as the cost of acquiring environmental sensors drops for everything from CO2 levels to water quality, as mechanisms arise for citizens to share their data online and as activists in one location inspire citizens in another.

Indeed, there is so much activity that the European Commission Joint Research Centre convened a “Citizen Science and Smart Cities Summit” in Ispra, Italy, this past February. The Centre now has published a report, “Citizen Science and Smart Cities,” summarizing the main findings and recommendations.

There often is overlap between municipal smart-cities programs — an increasing number of European cities are setting up sensor networks to measure key environmental quality indicators — and grassroots citizens initiatives. Also, notes the report, there is “increasing recognition in the scientific community that to address the key challenges of the 21st century we need to move beyond the boundaries of discipline research and engage in research that is multi-disciplinary and participatory.”

Unfortunately, there has been little synergy between citizen and municipal initiatives. It is difficult to compare the results of citizen science and smart cities projects or translate findings from one context to another. Moreover, citizen data often disappears after the projects wind down, making it difficult to reproduce results.

The report makes a number of recommendations. One is to map citizen-science and smart-cities projects and generate a semantic network of concepts between the projects to facilitate searches of related activities. Another is to create a repository for data, software and apps so they can be maintained beyond the life of projects and be made shareable.

Bacon’s bottom line. The Euro-weenies are way ahead of most American metropolitan regions (especially Virginia metros) in applying sensors, wireless and Big Data — essentially, the Internet of Things — to the business of running their cities. Admittedly, much of Europe’s activity is top-down, fostered by national-government and European-Union subsidies, but a lot of it — especially the citizen science piece — is bubbling from the bottom-up. I see next to nothing here in Virginia, whether top-down or bottom-up.

The map at the top of this post comes from Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of Things (IoT). Each data represents a data set that someone has posted to Thingful. Follow this link to see the density of published data sets in Virginia compared to that of other cities around the world.

A region’s ability to compete in the global economy depends upon its collective capacity ability to boost productivity and innovation. The IoT is supplying a new set of tools by which to advance those aims. If we snooze, we lose.

While regions in Europe, Asia and even Latin America race to embrace IoT technology and reinvent themselves (the new Indian government has announced its intention to build 100 smart cities), I get the feeling that Virginia’s metropolitan regions are lollygagging along. The Internet of Things is not part of the public discourse. I see nothing written about it in our newspapers and magazines. Whenever I write about smart cities, I get next-to-zero feedback. If the readers of Bacon’s Rebellion aren’t interested — and you are indubitably the smartest and most perceptive citizens in the commonwealth — what hope is there?

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10 responses to “Harnessing Citizen Science”

  1. larryg Avatar

    Sorry – you cannot duplicate a Masters Degree or PHD in some hard science b reading a few blogs on the internet.

    we’re being overrun with would be armchair scientists these days – many of who don’t understand things like the simple difference between short term and long term historical trends in temperatures…

    People don’t understand other simple things – like how FICA and Social security work or how Medicare Part B is paid for.

    they don’t understand what a US signed highway is compared to a secondary road.

    40% believe in creationism… apparently

    I can go on and on… but when it comes to science – especially – you cannot become a scientist by reading the Drudge report or Newsmax or the Christian News Service…

  2. I imagine that people reading Drudge Report and Newsmax is a big problem in Europe. Can’t believe a word of the science coming out of there!

    On the serious side, you don’t need a Ph.D. to set up a monitor, collect the data and feed it into a database.

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: ” On the serious side, you don’t need a Ph.D. to set up a monitor, collect the data and feed it into a database.”

      well but you do… you have to understand what tests can be done with sensors and what still need a lab and what those measurements actually mean and what they don’t mean.

      read this and tell me that citizens are ready to measure phosphorous:


      there are many ways, for instance, to measure something like mercury or nitrogen in waterways or substances in the air… and you have to have sufficient knowledge to know the different ways and how to represent it in a way that it provides you with the knowledge you need to set policies.

      people seem to think that measuring is as simple as getting a sensor…and it’s not.

      If measurement with sensors was simple – we could put sensors in all the rivers in Virginia and measure the phosphorous and nitrogen to see where our efforts were being effective (or not).

      I’d love to see Virginia’s streams instrumented in that way and with telemetry that put’s it all on an internet accessible database – but alas it take scientists and professionals.. to do that.

      but how can you even get to that point when so many people can’t even tell the difference between year and decade temperature trends and trends over a century?

      we’ve entered the stupid instant gratification stage of the internet of things where people think if they are intelligent and can read – that they can be as capable as someone who has a PHD and a career in the field.

      how can people really be that stupid?

      it’s like – there is no reason to get a Masters or a PHD – just read some studies.

      people really think they can read a few studies and figure out what PHDs have been working on – for decades.

      it’s loony.

    2. larryg Avatar

      Maybe the euro-weenies have more common sense than the armchair whackobirds in the US these days… after all most of Europe actually believes the climate scientists …..

      the whole idea of “Citizen Scientists” in the US is a disaster waiting to happen these days.

  3. I understand that you can’t just throw a sensor at random into a creek. People have to follow a consistent methodology. That’s why these projects work as *collaborations* between real scientists and citizens. Citizens can act as a force multiplier for the scientists.

    1. larryg Avatar

      well.. you have to understand that a scientist is an educated person with a career worth of experience as opposed to a lying son of a “b” trying to mislead the public….


      … and that science is not something you “learn” by reading one or two studies on the internet..

      … second….

      and that some things are not measurable with sensors but need to go to an old fashioned lab.. like you see with existing water and air quality monitoring


      and.. that citizens involvement is not a _new_ thing…


      and once you actually do get data – someone with a real scientific background has to analyze it… someone who has a degree in a hard science.. and has written several peer-reviewed papers themselves – and someone who is despite words to the contrary is not some evil conspirator cooking the data to scare people into doing something about pollution that they don’t need to do.

      and finally – that the free market does not deal with pollution – that governments do and it takes citizen support for govt to do that.

      I apologize – but in today’s political environment – in the US – “Citizen Scientist” has a plethora of potential ugly meanings…and nothing good is coming out of much of it except for Luddite litanies of loony ideology.

      When DEQ has citizens monitor water quality and one of the main criteria for ANY substance in the water is “concentration” to indicate that naturally occurring substances are needed – in the CORRECT percentages for a healthy environment – and DEQ and the citizens accept that premise – as – “science” then we do have true citizen scientists but when the citizens start questioning how those percentages got set and why scientists say – for instance, that PH is vital in the RIGHT range… and actually be correct instead of lying SOBs…

      well. you get my point… this country … in this time ….. using the concept of “citizen scientists” is ..umm… problematic …. for many citizens.

      There is nothing I’d love better than to put nitrogen/phosphorous “sensors” all up and down every river in Va so we could generate an instantaneous interactive online map of the status of the Chesapeake Bay… and find those trouble spots and get them fixed, etc…

      I think it is a wonderful vision that perhaps will actually come true some day but I’m wondering how all these folks who have their hair on fire about climate science would also not suspect that kind of thing as bogus also.

  4. jasonmcg Avatar

    The value of citizen science programs is not in the “science” they produce but in the fact they keep citizens engaged, invested, and aware of what’s happening in their communities.

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: “engaged”… well in a way. We do river cleanups… and the folks that do them feel good about their efforts and I suppose that’s a good thing but most of them do not know the actual status of the river in terms of the things that are in it -the phosphorous, nitrogen, mercury, etc.. and thus we can no real local activism to work on those issues.

      I sometimes call this “feel good” citizen involvement. I’m not opposed to it and I do think it offers the opportunity for more involvement but getting the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay cleaned up requires citizens to get on their local officials to do the work necessary to get the job done – and that requires serious efforts at the sewage treatment plants and storm water facilities – which, for the most, part, the average citizen, has almost no clue about those things and their advocacy is mostly “rah rah” rather than serious interactions with the local govt.

      people generally do not understand the deeper issues on many things.. unless there is a local environmental group – AND that group is dedicated to providing the information that is needed… for understanding…

      We blame govt, but as citizens, we seldom put the real time and effort into really understanding the issues – and at the same time we do get into these “blame science” and “blame govt” conundrums…

      If one is truly serious about these things – they find out… they take the time and effort necessary to find out…. and then they DO _engage_ …

      If you asked one hundred thousand people across Va – what the nitrogen and phosphorous levels were in their local river – and whether or not that was good, bad or indifferent – 999,990 would not likely know. Some would know that they did not know but a lot more would not even know that they do not know.. they “think” they know until you ask a question requiring a knowledgeable answer.

  5. jasonmcg Avatar

    As a professional conservationist I know it’s frustrating, but I also realize it’s unreasonable to expect citizens to be that knowledgeable about all of the issues our communities face. That is why we have leaders, whether they are elected politicians, govt bureaucrats, NGO staff, for-profit businesses, or scientists. We expect our leaders to know the intimate details and to be watching out for us. The reason our leaders fail is because we have become jaded, apathetic, and stretched too thin. Much of this results from the breakdown of family and community, which are the pillars of any society. By keeping citizens engaged in their communities through projects like litter cleanups, stream monitoring, etc., we are not only providing them with some basic understanding of the issue — keeping them aware — but we are also providing a way to strengthen those pillars with family, friends, and neighbors. Engaged citizens elect better leaders, and do a better job of holding them accountable. Personally, I don’t know what the nitrogen and phosphorus levels of the James River are, and I really don’t care to know the specifics. All I know is that scientists who monitor these things tell me that they can be better and that we citizens can take steps to improve things, like reducing fertilizers or building rain gardens. It’s my responsibility to heed their advice as best I can and trust that my personal actions will move the needle in the right direction.

    1. larryg Avatar

      personally, I’ve never had a problem believing science even when I know it’s not perfect and mistakes are made – it’s still better than making up ones own reality….

      ” Personally, I don’t know what the nitrogen and phosphorus levels of the James River are, and I really don’t care to know the specifics. All I know is that scientists who monitor these things tell me that they can be better and that we citizens can take steps to improve things, like reducing fertilizers or building rain gardens.”

      if you don’t know yourself why would you trust scientists who we know – are not all perfect or truthful.

      If we think that climate science is a hoax… why not the Chesapeake Bay cleanup?

      how do we know the scientists working on the Bay aren’t scamming us just so they can get more grant money?

      if you think this is starting to sound a little looney… good!

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