Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Extreme Citizen Science

Last week I attended the 2nd Citizen Cyberscience Summit on behalf of my employer, Ovum. It was probably the most exciting place I've been – at least in a work context – for the last ten years. The conference had been moved at the last minute to the Royal Geographical Society to cope with the unexpected number of attendees, and it was buzzing from the very beginning.

The crowd were mostly young, with a preponderance of postgrads, though there were a few greyheads too. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was fairly evenly balanced between men and women – much more so than most of the industry events that I attend. Everyone was really friendly, in the kind of open smiley way that I usually associate with music festivals. The discussions were lively and good-natured; I think I only heard one tetchy comment across the entire three days.

The fact that I'm writing this up now, having taking three days to digest, is of course a reflection of my age. Most of the other participants were blogging and tweeting as they went, as well as checking out the websites and blogs of the presenters as they spoke.

There was a trend towards the more weird and wonderful as the conference went on. The first day included some fairly mainstream citizen science projects, which were about crowd-sourcing effort and attention – using wannabee-scientists to do some heavy lifting on science projects that might otherwise be difficult to do. Examples included the rather wonderful Oldweather.org, which is about getting historic weather data for climate models. The data source is the logbooks of the Royal Navy, since ships' captains recorded detailed observations (along with time and position) every day of every voyage. The logbooks themselves have been scanned, but the images are not susceptible to machine reading – so volunteers do the reading and the data entry. The reward for this are only symbolic, but the results are fantastic. In one year 24,000 volunteers have transcribed 800,000 logbook pages. Similar projects included Planet Hunters, and Stardust@home.

Interesting to note that there were quite a few Israelis around – the conference was organised by Mordechai “Muki” Haklay of UCL – and his students, organised at the “Extreme Citizens Cyberscience network. Ofer Arazy from the University of Alberta spoke about citizen science as a peer production community, and invoked the spirit of another Israeli, Yochai Benkler. On the second day I found myself sitting next to Liora Malki-Epshtein, another lecturer from UCL. Given recent discussions I've had with friends about what a self-centred, materialistic and unequal society Israel is, I wondered whether the interest in co-production is a sort of protest against the loss of an earlier culture which was - at least ostensibly – committed to equality, sacrifice and voluntary participation.

By the second day – at UCL itself – the tone and the content were more radical and more avowedly political. Instead of focusing on getting citizens to support and participate in 'proper science', there was more emphasis on science that served community activists. There were projects on community noise mapping through smartphones and web apps, projects on community air qualitymonitoring through self-built connected sensors, and a DIY "satellite" imaging kit based on helium balloons and open source software from the US-based Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS).

The inspiration of open source, in terms of both hardware and software, was everywhere. One of the sponsors was the small Italian open source electronics company Arduino, and one of the most compelling speakers was Tom Igoe, a co-founder of the company as well as a lecturer in the completely wonderful Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. On the third day he led a workshop where those taking part (including yours truly, who hasn't made anything more complicated than a curry for years, and who last wrote a line of code in 1977) built their own sensors from scratch and then programmed them using C.

All around were people sharing things, making stuff together, swapping ideas. There were DIY sensors to monitor the levels in sewage outfalls – the fabulous Dontflushme project, which also included an internet-connected lightbulb.

A few times in my life I've had the sensation of a curtain being pulled back to reveal another world – where all sorts of great things have been going on, out of site, for a long time. I had the same feeling at the beginning of the 1990s, when I discovered the magazine Mondo 2000 and the first few editions of Wired. During the day I was writing reports about “value added network services” for telecoms companies, and in the evenings I read about what weird groups of scientists and 'hackers' were using the internet for. There was, of course, no connection between the two activities. The telecoms companies were not interested in the publication and knowledge-sharing tools of a bunch of particle physicists; they had serious networks to build and commercialize, running important services like EDI, X.400 email and store and forward fax networks.

I had the same feeling at this event. No-one here was likely to become rich from their inventions, and most of them had no interest in doing so. The stuff they are building isn't “enterprise-grade”, it isn't secure, and there isn't a viable business model. Pretty much the same sort of things that any expert would have said about the web in 1992. The tools that these people are making and using, though, will turn out to be important, and they will be part of the story of what the internet does next. 

There is so much more to write about, but I feel I want to post something now, if only so that I can begin to sleep at nights again rather than wondering how I am going to put this experience in to words. It's made me question so much, including what I am doing with myself, and why the practices of the industry analyst companies are all - without exception -- so wedded to outdated industrial-era production techniques and management styles. I can't help thinking that all sorts of businesses, but especially ours that is so much about knowledge production, can learn a lot from the motivations and behaviours of citizen scientists.

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