Tag Archives: citizen science

Geothink Newsletter Issue 13

Issue 13 of the Geothink Newsletter has been released!

Download Geothink-Newsletter-Issue-13.

In this issue, we celebrate the start of a new year by reflecting upon five successful Geothink&Learn webinars and highlighting exciting new Geothink research.

We catch up with Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa about her work on data deficits
in the sharing economy; Geothink Collaborator Muki Haklay about his new open course
on Citizen Science; former Geothink student Julia Conzon about her recent appointment
at Employment and Social Development Canada; and other grant news.

If you have feedback or content for the newsletter, please contact the Editor, Sam Lumley.

Crowdsourcing for better science and governance?

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Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s E-Bird Web site allows citizen scientists to contribute data on birds for real scientific research as one novel application of crowdsourcing.

By Drew Bush

At Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, scientists have long benefited from the legions of enthusiasts who find joy in observing and reporting the birds they see during their daily routines. In 2002, the lab worked with the United States National Audubon Society to launch eBird, an online database where scientists and amateur naturalists can submit real-time observations of the birds they see and their behavior. Since 2013, scientists have benefited from more than 100,000,000 observations and data for over 10,240 species in the program generated by more than 100,000 users.

Often hailed as an application of crowdsourcing that democratizes science by giving citizens the power to contribute, E-Bird is emblematic of a recent trend in applying crowdsourcing to problems outside the for-profit, business sectors where it began. In Canada, a new Community Fishers application allows citizen scientists to collect oceanographic data for Ocean Networks Canada and a number of Canadian cities use PlaceSpeak to collect public opinions on topics related to given locations. In the United States, this trend has led to the introduction of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act. The bill’s author, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, wrote in a Wired article this past September that his bill makes explicit “that executive branch agencies, commissions, and all military branches have the explicit authority to make use of crowdsourcing and citizen science projects, utilizing the resourcefulness and innovation of the public to solve problems.”


Geothink researcher Daren Brabham is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism.

Geothink researcher Daren Brabham, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism, has long worked on research that supports this development. He is also widely credited as being the first to publish scholarly research that utilizes the word crowdsourcing. (Although he himself notes that one-time Wired editor Jeff Howe actually coined the term in a June 2006 issue where he wrote about Threadless.)

“I’ve got this kind of crazy idea for a citizen science kind of hub, you know call it for lack of a better term a [United States] citizen science corps for instance, or a North American citizen science corps,” Brabham said. “It would be a big program where all these scientific organizations could host—and also museums and researchers at state universities—could host their challenges that they want online communities to go do and solve these problems and gather scientific data in the community or whatever it might be. To post those in one single hub and find a way to gamify that where people can earn badges or level ups or even prizes for donors, or whatever it might be, to get people engaged in helping these organizations.”

Brabham believes crowdsourcing represents not only a tool to help scientists or the government do their work, but an opportunity to redefine what it means to provide service to one’s country—which in the past has been synonymous with military service. He envisions a future where if the United States National Aeronautics Administration (NASA) needs help analyzing water levels or categorizing stars by galaxy, they could involve thousands of citizen scientists in the project much like E-Bird does today.

Today’s trends in crowdsourcing mirror the evolution of his work. In particular, Brabham’s early work focused on applying crowdsourcing to uses in government, non-profits, and in public health. Many of these uses have since become common with, for example, the United States Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies using DigitalGov to provide “information and services to the public anywhere and anytime.” In particular, one of its recent products, The Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS), works across the government to share lessons learned and develop best practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives.

Design Matters

Some of the key concerns for any crowdsourcing initiative, whether it be for urban planning, policy-making, or a for profit venture, is how to build a committed online community, sustain interest in it, and handle dissent amongst its users. Researchers on this subject seek to answer the question of what drives these communities to form and if design issues inhibit or accelerate this process.

For example, it’s difficult to know whether crowdsourced citizen science might succeed best if it involves primary school students in projects that count butterflies or instead utilizes iPhones to measure soil samples. It also helps to figure out why certain types of web-based platforms succeed at engaging communities while others have struggled. Brabham calls this type of assessment work “user-experience design,” which was a particular focus during Geothink’s 2015 Summer Institute.

In work he’s completed with other researchers, Brabham has found platforms that are easy to use, enjoyable, and have an intuitive interface have higher success rates. This may sound obvious but it’s more than just establishing a set of best practices for how all platforms should be designed. Instead, online sites must be organized according to the different tasks users are asked to complete or the different roles they might play.

For example, Brabham often talks about Threadless, a crowdsourced clothing and apparel site, and not just because his early involvement with it set him on his current research path after his now wife suggested he write a paper during his doctoral work applying this approach to sociocultural issues. In particular, he cites how Web sites like it give users a very clear idea of what audience it’s intended for, the activities the site allows users to undertake (shop, submit designs, or rate designs), and also includes a clear, user-friendly interface.

“I think when people are asked to contribute content or ideas or whatever it might be to a web site or organization in a crowdsourced arrangement, they really do care about how easy it is to convey their idea to you and figure out how it’s going to be used,” he said.

He points out that all too often researchers and critics focus on examining bad crowdsourcing initiatives rather than on what makes a given effort work. As crowdsourcing continues to be used in the public realm to help with citizen science efforts, paying attention to the details will become increasingly important. In particular, designers must provide users with multiple entry points, web sites with component parts organized based on tasks, and clear front pages that don’t overwhelm the average person.

A plethora of other issues surround both the implementation of crowdsourcing in public policy or for citizen science, and with its possible future uses. Brabham writes more about recent trends in the use of crowdsourcing in his recently published book: Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector. His earlier book, Crowdsourcing, is often cited for its importance in tracing crowdsourcing’s origins, future applications, and potential research paths.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Citizen Science and Intellectual Property: A Guide for the Perplexed

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Citizen scientists help researchers transcribe historical climate records and photograph natural phenomena.

By Naomi Bloch

The concept of the science hobbyist —­ the backyard astronomer staring up at the sky or the amateur ornithologist taking part in the annual Christmas bird count — is hardly a new one. What is notable today, however, is the scale and scope of new collaborations between research institutions and volunteer citizen scientists. These kinds of citizen science partnerships have inspired a new study by Geothink co-applicant Teresa Scassa and doctoral candidate Haewon Chung, called “Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science: A Guide for Researchers and Citizen Scientists.”

Chung, now a Geothink Ph.D. student researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, is interested in intellectual property (IP) law with a particular focus on digital ethics. Scassa is a Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa. The two researchers will participate in a panel discussion and launch of their new work at the Wilson Center Commons Lab, in Washington, D.C., on December 10.

Teresa Scassa head shot

Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa

“Part of the point of the guide is to encourage people to take a proactive approach and think about what they want to get out of the citizen science project, and what they need to get out of the citizen science project,” Scassa said. “For example, if you need to publish your research results, or if you need to keep your data confidential because you’ve got private sector funding that requires that, how do you structure the IP side of things so that you can do that?”

Citizen science, broadly construed, involves the participation of non-professional scientists in scientific data gathering and the production of new scientific knowledge. In the realm of Geothink, this generally takes place in the context of volunteered geographic information (VGI) and contributions to geographic knowledge. Some projects may involve volunteers helping with laborious tasks such as transcribing historical climate data. In other cases, participants may be sharing geocoded photos or video footage, recording audio, or producing text narratives. In countries like the U.S. and Canada, such original, creative efforts are inherently protected by copyright law — something participants themselves may not even realize.

Do you copy?

The 80-page report is divided into three parts, beginning with a concise review of relevant areas of intellectual property law including copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret law, as well as specific considerations involved in the protection of traditional knowledge. Though copyright law differs around the world, essentially copyright grants certain exclusive rights to the authors of creative works. These rights usually include the right to control how work is distributed, reproduced, and re-used. “It’s also significant because it arises inadvertently,” said Scassa.

Unlike other types of intellectual property such as patents, in many countries the creator is automatically granted copyright protections without taking any specific legal actions. “There are going to be copyright issues with respect to any website that’s created, and with respect to many different types of contributions that users might make, whether they’re text-based or photographs or video clips or whatever they might be,” Scassa said. “There are copyright issues with respect to compilations of data. And then, of course, those copyright issues are relevant if, for example, the researcher decides to publish in a closed access journal and the participants want access to those research results, and all these sorts of things.”

When institutional researchers initiate citizen science projects, there are commonly expectations regarding eventual publication of findings, data sharing, posting information online, as well as educational and civic aims. “Depending on the nature of the project, the users may expect to have total access to the research results — to any publications, but maybe also to all of the data that’s been gathered,” said Scassa. “So we encourage the researchers who are creating citizen science research projects to think about what the user community may be expecting from them in terms of the project design.”

Ethics and law in the balance

In the second section of the study, the authors explore some of the ethical issues that arise in light of IP law. This includes everything from appropriate attribution to uses of participants’ contributions as well as research output. “If you’re going to be collecting stories or traditional knowledge from a community, for example, then that’s going to result in some intellectual property,” Scassa said. “And the ethical requirements may be different from the bare legal requirements. Part of it is being aware of what the legal defaults are and how those might need to be altered in the context of the relationship that you have with your participants.”

Scassa notes that researchers’ relationship with citizen scientists is generally one among many. “Researchers at universities have a complex web of relationships,” Scassa said. “Their universities have IP policies; those IP policies might provide that all IP stemming from this research may belong to the university and not the researcher, so they may not be able to promise certain things in their projects. Their funders may have expectations, and their publishers may have expectations. They may also have expectations in terms of the ability, perhaps, at some point in the future to patent some of their research. So they have this complex web of relationships and their relationship with citizen scientists is one of those relationships. We encourage them to think about this web of relationships and these expectations and try and design accordingly.”

To help with this process, the third section of the study guides readers through the various types of licensing options that can be applied. The authors provide diverse examples from real-world citizen science projects both local and global, and a toolset to help project designers as well as participants understand their options. “We don’t want to create barriers,” Scassa said. “It’s a really complex area. We’re trying to make it as accessible and as useful as possible, just to try to get people thinking about these ideas.”

The Wilson Center panel discussion, “Legal Issues and Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science,” takes place at the Wilson Center Commons Lab, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Dec. 10, 11am –12:30pm ET. There will be a live webcast of the event.

Interested in learning more about intellectual property law and citizen science? Reach out to Teresa Scassa on Twitter: @TeresaScassa.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.