Can we improve ‘citizen science’?

Can we improve ‘citizen science’?

Can we improve 'citizen science'?

In a paper published last spring, Northeastern University professor Damon Hall argues that citizen science partnerships have historically been uneven, with researchers taking more from participating communities than they give back. Credit: Renee Zhang/Northeastern University

During a sweltering heat wave in August 2021, 80 volunteers from communities along the Mystic River in Massachusetts attached sensors to their car windows and bicycles. They rode along 19 predetermined routes, recording ambient temperature and humidity along the way.

The data collected, part of the Wicked Hot Mystic project, contributed to a growing understanding of how the effects of extreme heat play out in cities. Along Mystic River communities such as Cambridge, Somerville, Everett and Malden, heat fluctuated most dramatically in historically “redlined” areas, with lower-income residents and less green space. Similar trends have been seen across the United States.

But the project didn’t end—or even begin—with the data.

In partnership with the Mystic River Watershed Association, a local nonprofit, Wicked Hot Mystic researchers took the community’s temperature in advance and analyzed what locals hoped to achieve with the research.

“We asked the residents what they really wanted us to discover,” said David Sittenfeld, a Northeastern University graduate and director of the Center for the Environment at the Boston Museum of Science, which led the project.

“We spent a lot of time listening and interviewing resilience planners about their priorities. And we worked closely with them to explore things in ways that aligned with those priorities and ideas.”

The project also included an app interface for citizens to capture observations that go beyond the numbers. The combination of qualitative and quantitative data allowed city planners to precisely target their heat mitigation efforts to the most vulnerable areas.

That reciprocal dynamic is a model for how researchers like Sittenfeld and Damon Hall, a professor of environmental science and public policy at the Northeast Coast, are trying to reimagine “citizen science” — bringing in community volunteers to help conduct field research and collect data.

Scientists have long relied on public contributions in a wide range of fields, from early AIDS research to counting insect populations. But in a paper published in the journal Life Sciences In March, Hall and his collaborators argued that such partnerships have historically been uneven, with researchers taking more than they give back.

“Citizen science is personal,” the article’s abstract states. “Participation depends on citizens’ connection to a topic. But … scientists seem to have an acquisitive, data-centric relationship with citizens.”

By tweaking that dynamic, however, Hall, Sittenfeld and others are working toward a model of citizen science that can be both more rigorous and more beneficial to the communities in which it takes place. That’s especially true for climate change research, where participants are directly affected by the local warming trends they help document.

“We can engage people to collect data in the communities they know best, but they can also help us understand their hopes, dreams and aspirations,” Sittenfeld said.

The seeds of citizen science are older than the United States itself: In 1776, Thomas Jefferson had ambitious plans to collect weather data by distributing thermometers to local officials in Virginia and having them measure temperatures twice a day. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists relied on volunteers for data on everything from whale populations and meteor sightings to sea turtle nests and ocean currents. One of the longest-running citizen science projects, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, has been active since 1900.

The rise of big data, consumer technology, and the ubiquity of inexpensive GPS devices such as pedometers and fitness trackers have led to a dramatic increase in the quantity and diversity of material that community-funded projects can draw on in recent years.

“The computational power to deal with the amount of observations and data is what a lot of this is about,” Hall said. “There are some impressive numbers coming out of astronomy. There are games being developed by molecular biologists that look at the ways that different[molecular compounds]can be structured, so that the public can just play with them and see what kind of innovations come out of them. That’s pretty cool.”

And in the Internet age, the opportunities for volunteers to contribute are endless. SciStarter, which Sittenfeld describes as “” for aspiring citizen scientists, lets users sift through a searchable database of projects based on their interests, from counting squirrels in the neighborhood to monitoring nitrate levels in drinking water.

But the Life Sciences The article argues that researchers who work with citizen scientists owe it to them to ensure they are more involved, especially when the data impacts their homes and livelihoods.

“Where citizen scientists have a stake in a shared resource, scientific teams should be required to share data outputs,” the article reads. “Researchers take data but do not always make the effort to close the loop by returning the research results to their collaborators. … Scientists question the ethics of this open-loop approach, particularly for research involving public funding or shared natural resources.”

In addition to ensuring a reciprocal working relationship, Hall advocates adding a qualitative dimension to this new wealth of statistical data, in the form of building relationships with citizen scientists, soliciting their observations, and teasing out the kind of unique expertise they can offer. This, he argues, has powerful benefits for researchers.

“It’s helped with the data analysis: we have more hands and eyes to judge what are normal conditions and what are abnormal conditions (in that particular study),” Hall says.

Furthermore, when the community participates in research, it has a greater stake in its success. “Public ownership of science creates more support,” Hall says. “Most of our funding is federal or state, so it’s important that voters see the value of the work we do. Explaining our work to lay audiences forces new conversations.”

Hall argues that involving the community from the beginning, as was done in the Wicked Mystic project, can also help scientists better communicate their ideas overall.

He gives an example from his early career, when he spent a lot of time studying the riverbanks of rural communities. On a trip in 2006, he found himself in a small Montana town and talking about water management with the mayor and the public works administrator, a “jack of all trades” for fixing things in town, Hall says.

“The mayor was highly educated, well-spoken,” Hall recalls. “And the janitor was very rude. But I saw how much he really knew about that area that she didn’t.”

Yet, as the slick politician spoke, Hall sensed that the administrator, who had far less formal training, was withdrawing from the conversation. Sensing an opportunity was being missed, he began to cheer the man on.

“I remember saying, ‘Sir, you have tremendous expertise that I can never get from books; (your family) has lived here for generations.’”

The new public works official shared what he knew about the river and its surrounding banks. He coined a term that Hall and others who study river shorelines still use today: the meandering area, the riparian area directly adjacent to a river’s edge.

“He gave us one of the best terms to describe a complex ecological system,” Hall says.

He believes that scientists would be remiss if they ignored such detailed insights.

“It’s great to involve citizens in collecting and analyzing data. But what else can they offer? And what else can we offer them? There’s mutual aid here that makes their lives better, and it makes our science better.”

More information:
Damon M Hall et al, Civil silence: missed opportunities in citizen science, Life Sciences (2024). DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biae020

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