Public Domain

#ECSA2018: Citizen Science Conference in Geneva

Last week was a special week at DITOs as many of us travelled to the ECSA conference in Geneva. UCL ExCiteS sent Muki, Alex, the other Alex, Dan, Cindy and Alice, who is writing this report on three very busy days. There will probably be several blogs from several of us in the coming days, and because several sessions were run in parallel and covered so much ground, each will be different.

As usual Muki has liveblogged many sessions so as to share them with everybody. Here they are:
"Science and Dissent" (a pre-conference workshop), Day 1; Day 2's morning session; Day 2's afternoon session.
Conference Day 1, including keynote talks by Bruno Strasser and Shannon Dosemagen
Conference Day 2, including keynote talk by Lionel Larque
You can also find the PDFs of the keynote presentations here.

Sunday 2nd June was a day not of talks but of activity. A BioBlitz was arranged out of town for those who wanted a lot of activity; at the venue, an area was opened to the public (and all participants!) of stalls full of citizen science activities. This is traditionally done at all three citizen science conferences I've been to so far, and local citizens are alerted - in this case with advertisements on the tram. Bioscope, one of our partners, was handing out free lenses to clip to our phones to enable us to take magnified pictures of local plants, as a challenge to discover local biodiversity:

"Hey, I got bugs in my bed from ECSA2018," joked one of the participants.

Cindy, meanwhile, was working at a stall run by Public Lab - of which we'll hear more later. Here she is, demonstrating a picavet. It is useful for keeping items such as cameras and recorders steady under a moving object such as a balloon or kite. Public Lab undertakes an activity called kite mapping, to get an aerial view of a large area - which is very useful when assessing pollution, for example. As a kite or balloon rocks in the wind, the strings are pulled so as to keep the picavet steady:

In the afternoon was a "Story Cafe" in which three international speakers told stories of citizen science in Cameroon, Ecuador and the SIDS (Small Island Developing States). This required some flexibility as they preferred to keep groups small, and allow for many difference languages. Nearly all the guests were most comfortable in English, but the speakers were fluent in French and Spanish. The solution was therefore not to plan the event in detail but to collect votes for languages, get people into groups, and draw up a timetable as follows:

The storytellers told of attempts to bring together schoolchildren or indigenous people and the importance of listening to a community before expecting any action. The developed world's concerns about the environment are not always of great importance to people struggling to earn a living within that environment, for example; as another example, some men were not immediately able to accept working in open science with women. Thomas Mboa, who told the story of Cameroon, explained that the first step for people was "decolonise our minds". A repeated theme was the importance of the local people taking ownership of a problem and its solution, rather than some outsiders arriving to explain and make rules. Another theme was the sadness of a project being temporary: what happens when the funds run out, or when another powerful outsider arrives to disrupt a carefully constructed solution, for example exploiting a marine species that the local community has recently found out how to protect? Many of such projects touch the local environment and the minds of citizens, but then come to an end without a long-term solution, and little is preserved, for the data from these faraway projects are not aggregated.

On Day 2 we were reminded that scientists do not make laws or decide solutions, nor even do governments; these are up to an entire population and it is our job to work with them. This address, by Thomas Zeltner, was followed by the keynote talk from Bruno Strasser, which I live-tweeted starting here. Bruno spoke about the familiar issues of the trouble with the phrase "citizen science" (community science? domestic science? leisure science? participatory research?) and public (and political) mistrust of science. He suggested five categories of people who take part in these activities: computers, analysers, observers, reporters and makers. The idea of a divide between scientists and everyone else, he pointed out, is a recent creation; science has only even been a job for less than two hundred years. (On the sidelines, people tweeted questions such as: was science accessible to everyone before it became a job? - to which the history enthusiasts responded with a loud NO; it was dominated by the privileged - much as a lot of citizen science still is.) There is a hopeful idea that the growth of citizen science will solve the problem of public ignorance, but it is unclear how this might happen and still feeds into a rather patronising version of the "deficit model" (the idea that simply explaining and educating people will fill a gap and quieten all their dissent and distrust, which in practice does not work). Rather than making citizens better scientists, should we not be concentrating on making scientists better citizens?

Who benefits from citizen science? What will it be a tool for? It is us, Bruno concluded, who will be answering that question.

We were also reminded that not everybody wants to take part in science, and need to listen before we start forcing our opinions about how great science is on people!

There were more talks, raising important points such as the finding that, in the past, citizens have been given poor quality instruments with which to monitor air quality, for example. Citizen science, on the other hand, has been held to more rigorous standards than professional, as we try to prove again and again and again that citizens' data is just as good. Exactly what is and is not "good enough" depends on downstream use of data - and the point came up again that all too often projects' data remains that of just one project, rather than being aggregated.

The afternoon keynote speaker was Shannon Dosemagen of Public Lab, who again I livetweeted, starting here. She recalled her grandmother's stories of playing on the beach whilst smelling the pollution from local factories. She (like Bruno) reminded us that after a major oil spill on the coast of Louisiana, it was the public, not those responsible or any government agency, who did most of the work to assess the damage. We learned that industries then - and some still do - release their emissions at midnight, after government agencies have stopped monitoring, and thus it is often up to the public to do the real monitoring. They have shown incredible expertise, such as using kite mapping - with equipment like Cindy showed me earlier - to take aerial photographs, and they amassed thousands of photographs showing damage. This amount of expertise, of which everyone has a different amount and type, is an indication that we should not be using dividing terms like "user" and "participant". (She also recommends "civic science" as a name for citizen science.) Communities can work with universities, and in the case of the oil spill they teamed up to sue the oil company to clean up their mess. She recommended giving people equipment to do their own monitoring and let them be in charge of creating their own projects - and making all data available, actively showing it to universities, governments, environmental activists and others, and working with agencies on topics such as fishing, and monitoring Louisiana's floods carefully to see what effect climate change is having. For all this, we need public data archives and accountability, and to invite questions.

Shannon also recommended finding out what makes a community strong, to have a code of conduct, to really pursue diversity rather than just to use it as a buzzword, and to credit whoever obtained a piece of data - not just those who publicise and disseminate it. (It is all too easy to get distracted from our purpose as scientists, and be so overwhelmed writing a grant proposal - a very time-consuming and competitive process - that we forget to talk to the very people we mean to work with. Then, when our work is successful, they feel co-opted, rather than really listened to or their work appreciated, or indeed of use.) This reminded me of Michael Nielsen's analysis in his book Reinventing Discovery, in which he points out that it is very dangerous career-wise for scientists to share data: the system rewards whoever publishes a paper, not who gathers the data; and if we are to truly open science, we need to change this system. But this was a wider context: not just scientists, but people who undertake extremely important, skilful work, usually without pay and around all their other commitments.

It was a microcosm of the wider feedback we had coming in about the conference in general. Lucy Patterson, who runs a DIY Science community in Berlin, pointed out that she was not able to go to this conference, despite being extremely active in citizen science - today, for example, she is today is "hacking the city", with an event looking at creating a circular economy, which is a system in which rather than repetitively creating, selling, buying and disposing of items, we find out how to maintain them and live more sustainably. In fact, one of the points made at the conference was "We don't need more stuff!") Lucy does not have the kind of academic job we do which pays our travel, hotels and conference fees, and treats our attendance as work hours: for her, it would have been not only expense, but also time off work. Furthermore, she did not feel that the conference was aimed at her, but more at academics talking to each other. Suddenly, Bruno's comment that "it will be us who decides" the big questions of citizen science, which had sounded exciting and moving this morning, felt ominous. How can we include more people - how can we actually be representative? There are, as Lucy tweeted us, a lot of stakeholders.

This reminded me of two, three, four years ago before I even started working at UCL ExCiteS. I had also been very active in citizen science - in a very different way, online - and had been giving enough talks about it that I had been invited to these conferences as a speaker. I remember feeling bowled over and a bit uncomfortable at the hotels, the glamour, the deferential demeanour of the caterers who handed us free food. During the slot I'd be given to give a talk from the citizen scientist's point of view, I would ask, "Is anyone else here a citizen scientist rather than an academic?" and would find out that I was alone in the room. "Why not?" I'd ask and everyone would nod, sincerely agreeing with me, but who had the funds to bring a million citizen scientists along? And now I wasn't even asking these questions, because it turns out that working as a scientist is indeed absolutely overwhelming - especially when you haven't got any training or a PhD, like me. I'd become one of the people I used to challenge.

We heard again and again that we needed to treat citizen scientists (or participants, or civic scientists, or any of the other preferred words) as equals. But the current model we have, of bringing "everyone" together for a conference, doesn't allow for a representative system: millions of people are involved. And there is no reason why us, the academics, should be the only ones to have a say. (Indeed, some groups do not want to work with academia.) Just like Reinventing Discovery points out opening data requires an overhaul of how we write scientific papers, in order to really open citizen science we need to find a much, much larger way of involving people at large, in academic institutions and out, in the whole process including the decision-making.

I think this can be done, because I saw several other people express similar interests in opening up our conferences and decision-making beyond simply having public events and stalls; and because several talks later in the conference were sharing stories of failure as well as success - we are starting to break down the barriers amongst ourselves, to be a bit more humble in order to aim higher. And whenever someone shared a failure story, I saw other people's eyes light up - not with schadenfreude, but with relief, because we can now all be more honest with each other as we grow.

For example, in the speed talks that afternoon, Kate Lewthwaite from the Woodland Trust told us her story of upgrading their data entry form for people's observations of their local woodland observations to modernise it and take more account of privacy. They thought that by holding a consultation and e-mailing all their volunteers (who were mostly older citizens) with warnings that it was going to happen, they were prepared. It turned out that many volunteers either did not read or did not understand the e-mails, were unable to use a mouse to copy and paste links as was now required, could not remember the long passwords that they now needed; and that many found it fiddly and bewildering, were not clear on the difference between making their personal data private and their phenology observations private, and some said they no longer liked the site and would not be continuing. In the talk immediately after Kate's, we learned of a project studying ants in Denmark (where children are - unusually - not brought into citizen science despite it being well known that interest begins early) which coincided with the wettest summer they had ever known!

There was of course a poster session with innumerable interesting posters about projects, such as this one, about Belt Compass, a project which works with Open Street Map to describe routes better for visually impaired people:

We heard talks at which we learned many more interesting things - what sort of things count as motivations being fulfilled (whether someone goes on to advocate the project to others, for example), the effects of having too much or too little information available, and what personal or social characteristics contribute to the likelihood that someone will wish to take part in a citizen science project. For example, we learned that introverts enjoy online citizen science projects where they can work alone (definitely me!) while extroverts are more likely to participate in a group activity at a museum; that people who engage in environmental projects are likely to be quite politically motivated or in touch with nature. We also learned that people who participate in cocreated projects are more likely to have extrinsic motivations (such as there being some problem in their locality or community they wished to solve) while those who participated in more crowdsourcing-based projects had intrinsic motivations, such as personal interest in the scientific topic. Significantly, we also heard some research about what makes people choose to stay in a project, or to leave. "I don't know anyone" was an important factor in leaving: having peers to talk to is important (my particular hobbyhorse). Other factors are a lack of knowledge or confidence, or a lack of time, or not knowing whether one's work is useful or what the results will be used for. The good news is that a project manager can influence all these factors. The bad news is that sometimes we ourselves do not yet know precisely what will happen to the data, and were warned, "Don't wait until you have 400 million records before you decide how to license them!"

I also got to see my friends from EyesOnALZ, who presented a poster and were involved in a gamification workshop - and also had the excellent luck to go for fondue on the lake just as a thunderstorm was starting. There is a lot of birdlife in Lac Leman, which caused me to nearly fall into the water a few times trying to iNaturalist some quick-swimming grebes, and a duck decided to come and join us for dinner.

One of the many privileges of being a scientist is that you have colleagues around you all the time, so with luck you can get the answers to some (definitely not all) of your questions. Occasionally, I would encounter someone who told me, "Hardly anyone knows about citizen science in my country, and I'd really like to get it started." This was especially the case if the country they had come from had ecological problems, for example. But if there's one thing I've learned from starting the Citizen Science Translation Hub, it's that it's much easier to join a project than to start one.

Geneva is a beautiful city, which I'd visited once before, in 2007, to go to CERN. I'm really grateful to have had a chance to go there again - thank you UCL ExCiteS and all the organisers of ECSA 2018. I look forward to writing many more Projects of the Week from the many people whose posters and stalls I visited and whose talks I heard (sorry I couldn't mention all of you). And, most of all, I hope to hear from and perhaps write about or with underrepresented groups on their ideas for making citizen science more equitable.