Monday, 7 April 2014

The Citizen Science Approach to Research: Report from GW4 Workshop, Bath

The idea of harnessing the collective or community input for a project is quite appealing to my African mind. Grassroots involvement fosters group ownership and often leads to better results. Movements such as GhanaThink, BloggingGhana and Enactus ride on the numbers and efforts of its members. When applied to science, public participation aids data collection and organisation, research design, and facilitates greater understanding of scientific phenomena. The active involvement of volunteers or "lay people" in the scientific enterprise, "citizen science", is a fast-growing paradigm in the scientific community and has the same essence as open source, open data and civic participation movements. It has wide applications ranging from social science research, through ecological studies, to unravelling the mysteries of the wider universe. I recently had the fortune to be part of a citizen science workshop organised by the United Kingdom's GW4 Universities at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, (BRLSI).
We were welcomed by Dr Helen Featherstone of University of Exeter who gave a brief intro of the day's activities. Dr Robert Simpson from University of Oxford, in the first presentation, gave an overview for the need and benefits of citizen science, drawing examples from the Zooniverse project.
He made an interesting point on validating crowdsource data- data contributed by the most accurate and least accurate volunteers are equally important because of the consistency. Thus you can tell whether the data coming in is accurate or inaccurate.

Dr Erinma Ochu from the University of Manchester then explored the topic from a social science perspective, with examples from the Sunflower Experiment and other projects. Here's a key point she made:
One of my favourite parts of the day was the structured networking session where the participants interacted about how they use citizen science in their work. In short three minute spells, I learnt briefly about projects such as mathMETicsIfOnly, and BodyTrack.

Next was a panel on citizen science case-studies featuring Lisa Austin (Bath, IfOnly), Alexander Todd (Exeter, CliMathNet), Dr Emma Rich (Bath, Citizen Journalism), Dr Jaap Velthuis (Bristol, HiSparc), and Dr Sarah Perkins (Cardiff, Project Splatter).

Panel discussion on GW4 citizen science projects
After the round-table, we broke for lunch amidst networking, followed by the breakout sessions. The breakouts focused on recruiting citizen scientists, methodological approaches and ethics. I was in the methodological approaches/ethics group and some of the issues raised include data ownership, blurring the line between academic and activist, limitations of institutional review processes, and citizen science governance.

Some useful technological and web resources for citizen science researchers were also shared among the group. Some of the less popular ones include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Storify, University Wiki pages, Open Street Map, Google tools (Maps, Apps, etc), Carto DB (for visualisation), Ushahidi (for crowdmapping) and Github (for open source code). 

I learnt a lot from what researchers are doing in the GW4 universities and other institutions. More than that, I enjoyed the brilliant opportunity to interact with the brains behind some really interesting citizen science projects. Hopefully we can do more with the larger public to piece together the puzzle that is life and derive better solutions for our pressing problems. Meanwhile, the conversation continues on Twitter via #GW4CS.