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The Everyman’s Science

Photo credit: Sam Geall. A hackday at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit, where scientists, engineers, hackers, and anthropologists met to discuss and devise solutions to scientific and environmental problems.

What connects a group of Bayaka pygmy hunters in the Congo Basin, opposed to illegal loggers encroaching on their land; residents of Deptford, in South London, concerned about a noisy scrapyard across the road from a school; and members of the website oldweather.org, transcribing century-old ship log books to gather information about historical weather conditions?

They all have become citizen scientists, on the frontiers of a field that harnesses the wisdom of crowds, a do-it-yourself approach to technology, and a radical approach to knowledge that blurs the traditional boundaries between local understanding and scientific expertise. In the words of Francois Grey, physicist at Tsinghua University in Beijing and coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, they all embody the spirit that: “Science is too important to be left to scientists alone.”

Science has never been wholly confined to the labs, of course: The self-taught English biologist T. H. Huxley transformed the public understanding of evolution through his advocacy of Darwin’s work. Amateurs across the Western hemisphere have taken part in a synchronized census of birds since 1900. And citizen stargazers have contributed significantly to our understanding of the heavens, not only by collecting scientifically useful data with telescopes, but also through popular websites like Galaxy Zoo, which crowdsources the classification of millions of faraway galaxies.

However, citizen science is currently undergoing a renaissance as it evolves into all kinds of new subspecies, such as extreme citizen science and DIYbio—the former, a radical, interdisciplinary approach that aims to produce tools for all sorts of users beyond conventional enthusiasts, the latter, an attempt to take the science of synthetic biology outside of institutional labs. This flourishing was in evidence last year at the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit—referring to another new subspecies—held at the Royal Geographical Society and University College London, where experts and enthusiasts, including scientists, engineers, hackers, and anthropologists, met to discuss and devise collaborative and innovative solutions to scientific and environmental problems.

One illustrative case is Mapping for Change, a London-based social enterprise founded by Muki Haklay, a professor of geographic information science, and Chris Church, a veteran environmental campaigner. Mapping for Change uses online maps as tools for communication and action on sustainable development. Its director, Louise Francis, a scientist who trained in molecular systematics, explained how the organization developed a methodology for collecting noise measurements with cheap, hand-held devices. Residents of Pepys Housing Estate in Deptford could then use these devices to create an online map of noise pollution in the area, as part of their campaign against an unpopular local scrapyard.

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Mapping for Change Residents of London’s Royal Docks neighborhood, inspired by similar work done across the Thames, discuss local noise pollution.

“For the first time, they had a visual way to show what they had been trying to say for the past eight years,” said Francis. At a public meeting, the community was able to present the authorities with the evidence. “It was the first time the local authority and the environment agency actually admitted there was a problem,” said Francis. After professional acousticians carried out a survey that largely confirmed the results of the residents’ study, the environment agency revoked the license for the scrapyard. “It was an amazing feat for the community,” said Francis. Although, she adds, it seems “bittersweet, insofar as the scrapyard has appealed against the revoking of the license and it’s currently being battled in court.”

The campaign acted as a catalyst. The same residents became concerned about local air quality and discovered that no pollution monitoring stations were maintained in the area. So Mapping for Change came up with a way to take measurements of a few key pollutants: nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone, and heavy metals. To measure NO2, for example, residents fixed small diffusion tubes—at a cost of only about $12 each, including lab analysis—to lampposts at particular locations. The local authority installed a monitoring station as a consequence. And across the Thames, in Royal Docks, local residents concerned about a planned extension to the nearby London City Airport made a similar map of noise pollution.

“It was just amazing,” said Francis, referring to the transformational effects of the campaign. “One of the ladies from the community [in Deptford], who hadn’t had any formal education to a certain level, said she felt so good about being able to do this that she went off and studied and got an NVQ [a work-based qualification]. She said it was because of her involvement in this process that she was able to do this.”

Mapping can serve a primary purpose of collating publicly available environmental information that residents may not have otherwise seen or been able to easily interpret. However, as these examples demonstrate, the process can also challenge official narratives about the places where we live. Asking how we perceive our own communities can begin “a discussion about what the official dataset says and how can we go about sharing our local knowledge to represent the community,” said Francis. “We need to collect our own data to represent a range of different things.”

The politics of data collection are even clearer in recent citizen-science projects in China, where access to environmental information is often restricted and official data is contested. FLOAT Beijing is a community art project that uses small pollution monitors fixed on kites, traditionally flown as a hobby by Beijing residents, to publish real-time air-quality data online, creating an open-source alternative to information published by the official bureaus. The Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle has also used portable handheld detectors to measure PM2.5, fine particulate matter that until recently wasn’t included in official statistics. A report from the Wilson Center noted how one green group based in Nanjing, in eastern China, had engaged local teenagers in crowdsourced water-quality monitoring.

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Photo credit:Mapping for Change. A map of noise pollution in the Pepys Housing Estate in London’s Deptford neighborhood.

Collecting our own data makes up the core of citizen science. At the Citizen Cyberscience Summit was a remarkable array of projects that rose to this challenge. Engineers, hackers, and anthropologists collaborated on how to develop discreet, hand-held devices for forest-dwelling pygmies to map the key resources—biological, cultural, and spiritual—they wanted to protect from poachers and illegal loggers. Others discussed the potential of community-based monitoring of chimpanzee habitats in Tanzania using Android smartphones.

Beyond such place-based interventions, citizen cyberscience, through its innovative uses of the Internet, has expanded the types of science that nonexpert citizens can engage in, wherever they are in the world. The data on historical weather variability collected by users of oldweather.org (part of the Zooniverse, which also includes Galaxy Zoo) helps to build better climate models that could tell us about future, potential impacts of climate change. In China, the country’s first cyberscience project is Computing for Clean Water. This initiative harnesses the computing power of many citizens to crunch numbers and better understand a process called ultrafiltration, which can help to make water purification cheaper and more accessible.

For many scientists and theorists, the most remarkable thing about these projects is not so much the data that is being collected, as the changing nature of scientific discovery and expertise. As Jonathan Silvertown, professor of ecology at the Open University, put it at the summit: “Citizen science is as much about the sociology of knowledge as it is about the data.”

Michael Nielsen is the author of Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, a book that characterizes this growing field as a new dawn in the scientific pursuit. “I think the day-to-day process of science will dramatically shift over the next few decades, speeding up the rate at which discoveries are made, and making possible whole new ways of attacking problems,” said Nielson in a recent interview in ScienceBlogs. “But that will only happen if the culture of science becomes much more open—to reach its potential networked science must also be open science.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in chinadialogue, February 24, 2012.

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