How Citizen Scientists Are Revolutionizing Data Collection

Sep 30, 2015 · 5 min read

Throughout the world, citizen scientists are developing tools to better manage world’s resources. Meet four such innovators who will be featured in an upcoming data innovation showcase in Abu Dhabi.

Women conducting community mapping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo courtesy of Leo Bottrill of Moabi.)

Documenting science has never been more visible or democratic. Entwined with scientists and activists from the Congo Basin to the Peruvian Rainforest to innovation labs at MIT — crowdsourcing technology has created new data capacities.

Airscapes Singapore, crowdsourcing air pollution

With her team at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, Environmental Epidemiologist Marguerite Nyhan visualizes crowdsourced air quality data so people can make informed decisions about their daily habits and avoid exposure to high levels of pollution.

“Our work has the potential to inform urban populations of the health impacts of air pollution, which is now recognized as the world’s most pressing environmental and human health threat,” says Nyhan.

Her project, Airscapes Singapore, is the winner of the Data Visualization Challenge for Eye on Earth, a major environmental Summit coming up in Abu Dhabi. Nyhan says the Summit aims to promote dialogue to revolutionize the way scientists collect, access, share, and use data for affecting real-world change on environmental issues.

Screenshot from Airscapes Singapore. Data scientists and engineers at MIT’s Senseable City Team create crowdsourced visualization around air pollution

“We would like our project to be recognized internationally as having the potential to make a significant positive impact on the health of urban populations all over the world,” Nyhan says.

Logging roads in the Congo Basin Rainforest

In the Congo Basin, geography students, activists, scientists and local officials are using crowdsourcing to monitor forests. Leo Bottrill is the Founder and project leader at Moabi, an organization that collaboratively monitors natural resource use in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through Moabi’s leadership, citizen mappers have made over 5,000 edits to a crowdsourced map of logging roads on OpenStreetMap , an open geographic database.

“The validated DRC logging roads provide a vital dataset to determine whether logging companies have committed violations,” Bottrill explains.

Bottrill notes that all data collected goes through a validation process to ensure the accuracy of user contributions. Once it has been validated, the data can be used by independent monitoring organizations and government authorities to determine whether logging companies have committed any violations to their forest management plan. Bottrill is also looking at developing broader national resource monitoring tools in collaboration with local and international partners.

Hack the Rainforest, combining new technology with indigenous wisdom

Deep in the Peruvian Amazon, indigenous communities are also holding governments and companies accountable for illegal logging and oil contaminations. The team at Hack the Rainforest is bringing together environmental monitors and collaborating with software developers and designers to prototype a mobile data collection app to monitor environmental abuses in remote areas.

Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Rainforest are finding collaborative ways to document, manage & share the environment challenges in the Amazon. (Photo courtesy of Hack The Rainforest.)

Back in February 2014, participants from four indigenous communities and 12 countries including Chile, the U.S. and Israel spent five-days in the city of Tarapoto known as the cloud forest of northern Peru. This unprecedented hackathon took place in coordination with Digital Democracy, an organization that works with marginalized communities around the world on technology solutions to local environmental challenges.

“This iterative design process is improving how local communities gather evidence of oil spills, deforestation and illegal mining,” say Emily Jacobi of Digital Democracy.

Hyperlocal Biodiversity Data Collection Game

Say you’re walking with your kids in the woods and come across an interesting plant or insect, you take a photo and upload it to Biocaching, a data game that allows your information to be shared with national and international databases.

Biocaching is an outdoor gaming app (currently in prototype phase) to encourage people to discover and share the nature around them. Photo courtesy of Biocaching.

“Your single sighting of an insect may not seem to have scientific significance,” says Bjørn Hjelle, Founder of Biocaching. “But as part of a larger dataset each observation is a valuable contribution to big data analytics performed by scientists to discover trends and to better understand the dynamics of nature,” Hjelle adds.

Hjelle notes that players are also rewarded with points and ‘likes’ and can compete or cooperate with others. The Biocaching team met in June 2015 at a hackathon in Norway. Their project took home an award for “Most Useful for Society”. They are currently focused on developing the concept, studying available biodiversity web services, and prototyping.

These four project teams will present at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi October 6–8, 2015 as part of the Data Innovation Showcase presented by the Eye on Earth Alliance. They’ll showcase their work and emphasize the importance of data in measuring not only progress towards sustainable development but also ways to hold companies and governments accountable. During the Summit, the winner of the Citizen Science Challenge will be announced.

Abu Dhabi’s Secretary General for Environment, Razan Al Mubarak says it’s imperative to close the data gap by engaging civil society with scientists and governments around the world.

Razan Al Mubarak, Abu Dhabi’s Secretary General for the Environment.

In a recent editorial in Nature, doubts were raised about the rise of citizen scientists and the potential motive some might have to use data for political purposes. “Opponents of fracking, for example, might help to track possible pollution because they want to gather evidence of harmful effects,” the Nature editorial states. What’s emerging ahead of the Eye on Earth Summit however, is a sense that public-private collaborations around data innovation might well be the wave of the future. Keep your eyes on #DataRevolution and #EOESummit15 to discover more about these and other innovators.

About the authors: Davar Ardalan is the Director of Storytelling and Engagement at SecondMuse. Lena Delchad is the Engagement Manager for Eye on Earth’s Data Innovation Showcase. SecondMuse is one of the partners in this open innovation endeavor.

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