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Openness as participation: Notes from the first international conference of the European Citizen Science Association

Openness as participation: Notes from the first international conference of the European Citizen Science Association
Whether it’s citizens gathering data of species population movements, collecting meteorological or atmospheric data, classifying and mapping out their surroundings, translating or annotating texts, analyzing or visualizing data, or bringing their own perspective to the formulation of research questions, openness in Citizen Science (CS) is about more than accessibility or transparency: it means the participation and collaboration of citizens in the scientific process for the benefit of researchers, citizens, the economy and society.
From 19-21 May, the first international conference of the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) took place at Berlin “Kulturbrauerei” (culture brewery!), focusing on the links between CS and Open Science. In attendance were about 350 participants from various CS projects, from diverse organisations and institutions (governmental and nongovernmental, academic and as non-academic) attended. The theme of the conference was “Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy”.

IMG_20160519_115544The first day, focusing on policy impact and social impact, was kicked-off  by Jose-Miguel Rubio-Iglesias (European Commission Policy Officer) talking about the close connection of the EC’s Open Science Agenda and CS, highlighting the importance of the digital single market as a driver of Open Science, the work of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) as well as funding opportunities explicitly addressing CS.

This was followed by a series of podium discussions about successful initiatives, useful technologies (e.g. open hardware, web applications, flexible platforms), approaches to civic engagement, learning & education as well as CS as an input for better policy formulation and implementation. Regarding the latter, an interesting result of a short survey in the plenum was that influencing policies seems to be regarding as unimportant in comparison to changing people’s behavior, which is the key point for most.

The second day was about scientific innovation and opened with a lively presentation from Rick Bonney (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, USA) showing the power of citizen participation via the example of eBird. Lucy Robinson (Natural History Museum London, UK) continued, discussing the 10 principles of CS, followed by Muki Haklays (University College, London, UK) talk on Participatory CS, which addressed different kinds of participation, skill-level, degree of engagement and participation inequality. The following rich programme of parallel sessions offered an engaging mix of short talks, world-cafes and podiums about initiatives, tools, asks, engagement and impact.

The third and final day, meanwhile, dealt with modes of participation as well as questions of responsibility and quality. The day started with a keynote from Heribert Hofer (IZW Berlin, Germany) on the opportunities and difficulties associated with involving stakeholders in CS projects. While such a co-design can bring up truly relevant questions and great engagement and commitment, it also may include the "horror of not knowing the research question in advance" and – especially if not all stakeholders are involved – the danger of biases. Hofer therefore adivses that involving stakeholders requires "social competence, flexibility, patience, and ‘sales mentality.’”

[caption id="attachment_909" align="alignleft" width="300"]ecsa camp Images: Muki Haklay

The following panel discussion took a look at the roles and future strategies of museums – represented here by heads of different natural history museums – in CS. Museums’ dual task of doing and communicating science makes them important partners for CS. The afternoon offered sessions with different degrees of interactivity (short talks, discussions and thinkcamp) on modes of engagement like storytelling and gamification, responsible research and data quality. The conference was followed by the CS festival.

Some issues that recurred frequently during the event were:IMG_20160521_153906
  1. Joint understanding/self-identity: Although the whole event did a great job in demonstrating the unity of CS as a community, the scene is heterogeneous in its fields of work, in the degree and modes of participation. While this is certainly a strength, at the same time it is makes it harder to speak with one voice or even to form a legal entity.
  2. Data Quality: This point was discussed in two dimensions: How (a) reliable and (b) useful is data produced by Citizen Scientists? Trust in data derived via CS is sometimes lacking and this needs to be addressed. As for usefulness, the problem is heterogeneity. To really make data useful a minimum of standardization is necessary, which would be of benefit not only help in facilitating comparability and interoperability, but at the same time would help smaller projects maintain their independence while allowing them to integrate with wider analyses. Lea Shanley (co-Executive Director, South Big Data Innovation Hub, North Carolina, USA) links this point to another important topic, emphasizing that policy-makers want to make sure that data is valid and compatible.
  3. Funding: Financing projects seems to be a recurring problem. Although a growing number of national governments and research funders (including the EC through H2020) support CS, a lot of (potential) projects fail to receive adequate financing. A lack of trust in data collected by citizens is only one of the reasons for that.
  4. Engagement: Another big topic is engagement of participants and information literacy: what motivates people to engage in CS projects? Experiences show a variety of different motivations, with mostly personal reasons predominating. CS is self-selective, with the majority having a higher-education background (60-70%). This also leads to the question: How open is CS in the end? And, more practically, how can those without an academic background be involved?
Finally, from the perspective of OpenAIRE, a few points seem noteworthy:

[caption id="attachment_908" align="alignright" width="233"]Openaire Image: Florian Pappert (@lighthooked)

  1. Open Access to data and publication is an unquestioned basic idea of CS
  2. OpenAIRE indirectly supports CS through fostering and promotion Open Science, as well as offering services like Zenodo.
  3. Although CS is a specialised sub-domain of Open Science, there are obviously possible points of contact and collaboration with other areas of Open Science like Open Access - not least in fostering innovation as well as responsibility in research and work towards positive impact on society and economy.
  4. In particular, the discussions about standardization and storage of data and meta-data in CS parallel those in other areas of Open Science – the links between these should be further explored. Further possibilities of future engagement are seen in open peer review as a possibility of participation and alternative metrics for measuring impact.
In short, there is a lot of potential for OpenAIRE to become involved in advancing CS.


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