Several years of running a thriving online citizen science community has turned out to bring many unexpected results a long time later – working with UCL ExCiteS and DITOs, for one. The most recent was a very glamorous chance to contribute to the LERU Summer School, whose focus this year was Citizen Science.
LERU, the League of European Research Universities, is a partnership of universities interested in promoting research to inform policy across Europe. It currently has over 20 universities, one of which takes a turn each summer to host a graduate summer school. This year it was Zurich.
One of UCL ExCiteS’s PhD students, Sophie, attended the summer school and their blog post about it is here. My part was to assess the students' final task: after learning a great deal about citizen science, the students got into groups and had 24 hours to invent a project! I and six other “jury members” chose our best project – and provided feedback to everyone about how to improve theirs. (The hilarious photograph of me is from a citizen science workshop! )
The ideas were glorious: experimenting to find everyone’s ideal alarm clock noise; getting hundreds of people to try different methods to grow the perfect tomato; using citizen scientists to draw healthy and diseased cells to promote machine learning and more engagement with the medical profession; presenting people with different facts and ideas about immigration to see what makes people more receptive to established facts; digitising old film records to reconstruct a famous but lost film from the 1930s; making a Pokemon Go-like game of photographing your local flora and fauna to feed a bee character and meanwhile gather phenological data; and photographing local buildings you suspect have asbestos, assessing the photographs and sending the likely culprits to the local council.
We listened to the students’ presentations in the morning, in the same room in Zurich where I gave a talk and first met Muki. The jury then spent lunch time eating the vegan sandwiches of the Graduate Campus and going through each project making notes on criteria we’d agreed over breakfast: whether there was a good science question, room for serendipitous discoveries, ethics, privacy, accessible technology, whether it would be enjoyable and easy to participate, what participants could learn, what the world could learn …. There is a huge amount to think about and not all science questions are best answered with citizen science. We also had to tell several of them – somewhat unfairly, given their assignment – that a good citizen science project starts with asking a science question and assessing whether or not citizen science would be suitable, rather than deciding to do a citizen science project for the sake of it.
The winners we picked were “LetsWakeApp”, the alarm clock study. The students had also voted for their own winner, which was AsbeSTOP, the asbestos photography project. After that announcement, each jury member spent an hour or two with one of the groups. I chatted with the bee gamers, whose project, I was pleased to tell them, had been ranked very highly. It looked great fun and original. I told them at the start that I couldn’t be entirely objective as I personally dislike gamification of citizen science (I love games, but I know they’re designed to be manipulative and I don’t like this coming from something for which I’m volunteering my time), so they ought to do an experiment on me with and without gamification to see where I responded better! I warned them that too much competition can lead to people working against each other rather than together, and that in some cases, where a community has been very concerned about a local issue such as air pollution, they find games insulting. This is not to say that gamification never works, I added firmly: it has been an integral part of FoldIt and StallCatchers. Just be sure you choose when and when not to use it. They could also consider aspects such as accessibility – someone with very little time, or health problems, could be excluded from their project. In fact, they could have camera traps in various areas and have people classify the photos like in Snapshot Serengeti. They answered this last point very well: that local people will know areas that visiting scientists might not, and might photograph places a camera trap might not thus reach. A further point raised by the jury was that their science question was unclear: what exactly were they trying to find out? This understandably frustrated some of them because they had been trying to leave room for serendipitous discoveries. I hope I was empathetic and supportive (I told them about my background and work and they all took my e-mail address so we could have future chats), and I hope I was able to support them to see that you can start very specific (which funders prefer) while leaving lots of “wiggle room”. Sadly, you can’t really escape contradictory demands sometimes!
It was my first time ever judging someone else’s work or really providing feedback of this type to students, so my academic friends recommend I put it on my CV. I’m very new to academia: my main work has been as a citizen science participant and community leader – and, as I keep being told, this provides a different perspective that is useful to researchers. If you’re a researcher and you’d like me to look over your idea – or if you simply like citizen science and you’d like a helping hand with anything – please reach out.
I’m extremely grateful to LERU Summer School for giving me such valuable experience. Thank you so much for this and your hospitality! If you found this interesting, please check out the Twitter hashtag #lerusummerschool.