The Crowd & The Crowd: The Director’s Take

By Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, Project Director and Producer of The Crowd & The Cloud documentary series premiering across America, April 6th on public TV’s WORLD Channel. Originally posted on Informal Science.

Geoffrey Haines-Stiles

“Citizen Science” has a long and distinguished past. Court officials in ancient Japan documented dates of cherry blossoms, and 14th century French vintners carefully recorded temperature and humidity, data now invaluable as today’s researchers look back at how Earth’s climate is changing. In the 19th century, amateur naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace made revolutionary discoveries. Citizen Science is also as American as apple pie, with Founding Fathers Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson meticulously noting wind, rain and temperature daily.

With The Crowd & The Cloud, we hope that viewers will be motivated to become do-ers, intrigued by seeing how others are using sensors and mobile devices to record aspects of their environment that interest them (birds, butterflies, bees) or anger them (pollution, species loss). They can then use our online resources to take the next step, whether to find out more, or to join up with others in the real world of local action, or the virtual world of crowdsourcing projects such as EyesOnALZ or Snapshot Serengeti.

Bucket Brigade volunteer with air quality sensor.

From my first science-focused adventure, Carl Sagan’s original 1980 Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (on which I was a Senior Producer and Series Director), I’ve been impressed by how wide and deep public interest is in the world around us. Then, 13 hours of television, protected by copyright and with no VOD (video on demand), was normal. Now user-generated content is everywhere — on phones and tablets as much as on TV screens — and being “shared” is perhaps even more important than airing on a broadcast channel. As a project funded by NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, we wanted to explore whether substantial content could still gather large audiences in today’s fragmented communications ecosystem. We thought the intersection of Citizen Science, often using mobile devices and ranging from birders to community activists, with Big Data — insights from supercomputers and satellites — would be an interesting area to explore. Could using a wide range of new communications platforms share substantial science content, or are valuable messages drowned out by media overload?

Philly Unleaded volunteer with water testing kit.

On September 30, 2015, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House convened a daylong conference on Citizen Science and Open Data. President Obama’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, issued a memo to all government agencies requiring them to name a point of contact responsible for Citizen Science, and encouraging all agencies to explore ways to include Citizen Science data. I’m pleased that The Crowd & The Cloud (C&C), (NSF Award №1422198) is riding this wave of growing interest in Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing, and plans to showcase many diverse and engaging stories in four hour-long programs appearing on public television in Spring 2017.

Waleed Abdalati

The Crowd & The Cloud is hosted by former NASA Chief Scientist, Waleed Abdalati (now director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder) who gave the closing keynote at the White House event. The series has been filming in Uganda, Kenya, China, India, Nepal, Spain, England, Canada and all across the United States. Stories range from America’s longest-running Citizen Science project, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, to startups such as Smartfin, which plans to use sensors on surfboards to capture ocean acidification data.

Propeller Health sensor on an inhaler.

C&C also includes “Crowdsourcing”, by showing how Propeller Health’s sensors placed on top of asthma inhalers can generate real time data that’s useful to patients, their doctors and local health professionals. An example of “Community Science” is the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), where local activists counted trucks (rather than birds) and used that data to help convince the Port of Oakland and city government to re-route traffic away from schools and daycare centers.

Alzheimer’s patient and her caregiver daughter.
EyesOnALZ researchers

One new project, EyesOnALZ, builds on two proven “puzzle-games” — EyeWire (with more than 250,000 “players” worldwide) and Stardust@Home — to invite large numbers of the general public to identify stalls in blood vessels in the brain, thus reducing one year of labor by academic researchers to two weeks of online analysis by “the Crowd.”

Trout Unlimited volunteers fishing in and monitoring the health of streams they love to visit.

C&C has adopted an pretty Open Source definition of Citizen Science. We include projects like Trout Unlimited’s “Angler Science”, and profiles of Wyoming residents using “Bucket Brigade” tools to document air quality around fracking sites. We show how apps like Nature’s Notebook are being used by the National Phenology Network in New Mexico, as well as how park rangers are supporting pollinator gardens in New York’s Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge and engaging local teens in recovery efforts after SuperStorm Sandy.

Nature’s Notebook volunteers in the Gateway National Recreation Area

In terms of innovative technology, we look at how MedicMobile is using low-cost SIM-apps to give simple phones ‘smart’ capabilities to support Community Knowledge Workers in Kenya.

CoCoRaHS volunteer

And since we reference Ben Franklin’s weather data, we also profile today’s 20,000 plus volunteers of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) whose data is now considered potentially life-saving information by the National Weather Service, sometimes triggering flood alerts and warnings.

Red Cross first responder (left), who uses OpenStreetMap to find current road data after disasters; Nepalese woman and child.

With its focus on innovative uses of information technology, C&C has also been experimenting with social media in advance of its public television air dates, using Medium for blog posts, Instagram for high resolution images, Facebook and YouTube (of course) for videos, and even Snapchat. An initial website (CrowdAndCloud.org) debuted in April 2016, to support the first of a monthly suite of Google Hangouts featuring Citizen Science project leaders and other experts. The first Hangout, hosted by Waleed Abdalati and SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier, debuted on April 16, 2016, which was designated “Citizen Science Day” by the Citizen Science Association (CSA). This kick-off event included appearances by NSF’s Joan Ferrini-Mundy and CSA’s Jennifer Shirk. June 2016 Hangouts featured “Sherpa Science” including Facebook Live! posts from an expedition looking at melting glaciers and the impact of black carbon on the Himalayas. As our host, Waleed Abdalati, says in the introduction to Program One, ‘For years you’ve watched science on public television. Now you’re invited to do science.’

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count volunteers.

Project evaluators, Rockman et al., will be studying the effectiveness of social media and how the combination of the website and other platforms broadens the reach and impact of the video programs. Through focus groups on several rough cuts, we learned that audiences really did want to know how they could perhaps join some of the projects seen on screen. Where else did those projects operate? What were the real world impacts? Those comments have shaped our scripts, our on-screen graphics (more maps!), and especially the design of our website and social media platforms.

C&C has embedded SciStarter’s API (also an NSF-supported project) in an updated website which debuted March 3, 2017. SciStarter’s database of some 1,600 Citizen Science projects will enable anyone, anywhere across the USA to find activities of interest, from Astronomy to Zombees!

The Crowd & The Cloud, Episode 1, premieres on public television’s WORLD Channel April 6, 2017, at 9pm ET (with a re-feed at 9pm PT), with Episodes 2, 3, and 4 showing at the same times on April 13th, April 20th, and April 27th, respectively. The episodes will be airing simultaneously in most major markets, teeing up live, post-broadcast online interactions (similar to Bill Maher’s OVERTIME) with Citizen Science participants seen on camera during the preceding hour, Waleed Abdalati, and series producers. (To follow that live interaction, check out #CrowdCloudLIVE) National carriage will continue on PBS stations nationwide, via American Public Television’s Exchange network, in following months. All programs will also be accessible via C&C’s website as of April 2, 2017, allowing anytime, anywhere viewing. During the WORLD broadcasts, customized Tweets and Facebook posts will further inspire “view-ers to become do-ers” by linking them to local opportunities to participate, and encouraging messaging about program content to friends and colleagues.

Peggy Liu demonstrates China’s Blue Map app, developed by Ma Jun’s IPE environmental NGO.

We had considered a so-called “2nd screen” app, but the rapid evolution of how people are using social media triggered a mid-course correction from what we originally proposed, relying instead on Twitter and Facebook rather than a custom app. And we anticipate there will be more twists and turns as the project evolves, responding to viewer feedback with online inventions.

We’re trying to be responsive to this rapidly moving communications environment. In fact, rather like riding a wave, as our friends at Smartfin do, we’re more like surfers!