Happy Citizen Science Day!
As a co-founder of CitizenScience.Asia, it has been an interesting journey for yours truly over the past couple of years to get to this point now and there is no better day to share my (and Scott C Edmunds’) story to kick off the celebrations. But first off, to address the likely question in your mind — what is Citizen Science? In my words:
Citizen Science is the participation by non-professional scientists (everyone including you and me) in scientific activities, ranging from data gathering, research analysis, to general knowledge discovery!
It promotes intellectual curiosity and hands-on experience for science, encourages engagement by people otherwise not familiar with complex discussions about our daily surroundings, and leads to scalable solutions for quantifying issues in relevant contextual settings.
So how did an IT professional who has been in the financial industry for nearly two decades get involved in all of this you ask? You can safely assume that the term Citizen Science was not on my radar nor in my vocabulary. The story began 3 years ago at the outset of the Zika outbreak…
The Zika Scare
As the world panicked about the wide spread potential of the Zika virus ahead of the Olympics in March 2016, a group of enthusiastic volunteers organised themselves for a hackathon to understand what can be done to prepare HK. This Zikathon (if you will 😁) was led by Scott C Edmunds of Open Data Hong Kong and Cesar Harada of MakerBay. The goal was to solve the lack of transparency of Ovitrap locations in HK and it brought together citizens with diverse backgrounds including data analysts, medical students, teachers and makers. The group decided to focus on early detection and increase data capture of mosquito vector presence by involving the community-at-large. The obvious conclusion was to have a smartphone app and that is how I was brought in to help lead the effort by my good friend and team leader Abbie Jung-Harada.
We collaborated with a team of Spanish research academics led by Frederic Bartumeus and John Palmer who already had an established workflow/app — now known as Mosquito Alert — that was being used with the Spanish government. We worked closely with them to expand the project and app for an international audience and localised it specifically for the Chinese-speaking community. This effort paid off and resonated with local academics and health experts in HK on how & where the solution can be leveraged. Given the topical nature of the issue, Zikathon was picked up by well-known media channels in HK: The Pearl Report and the South China Morning Post as an exemplary effort by citizens to tackle a major issue.
Geneva & UN Environment
In the spring of 2017, the Zikathon team was invited by UN Environment to join a workshop in Geneva with other academics and experts to address the concern of mosquito-borne diseases. The Wilson Centre and the European Citizen Science Association along with the Mosquito Alert team led a discussion to define a globally open set of protocols and practices that can be leveraged at local level suitable to the locale and implementation strategy through the power of Citizen Science. Yes, and there it was, my first contact with the term and concept that kicked off this journey!
The Global Mosquito Alert Consortium (GMAC) was formed as an outcome of the workshop and continues to be an ongoing initiative and model for how disparate projects from across the world (grassroot or institutionalised) can work together and collaborate towards deployable solutions.
Hong Kong or Asia?
An important takeaway from the workshop was the severe lack of Asian representation in the discussion and in the ongoing citizen science dialogues. Because the rest of the Zikathon team could not attend the workshop, I was literally the only person in the room representing Asia. It was not that the people involved did not intend to be inclusive or for the lack of trying but the reality is that Asia as a region has a lot of complexities given the size and diversity — do you invite 40-odd nations? Should this even be about political borders?
As I looked around the table during the workshop and researched about the Citizen Science Association, the European Citizen Science Association and the Australian Citizen Science Association — all established organisations with institutionalised backing in the forms of universities or museums — it dawned on me that it would take someone based in Asia to pull it together if we want to be at the table. What I found was a long tradition and history of citizen science in my backyard and pockets of people running very exciting and worthwhile projects that should be highlighted. Where there was momentum for a community, it was focused on looking within its national borders, and the absence of regional conversations meant less coordinated dialogues at the global level. Scott C Edmunds and I decided that it made sense to tackle the concern and we founded CitizenScience.Asia in May 2017. The decision would play an important role as we met up with the GMAC participants as part of a global delegation for Citizen Science at the United Nations Environment Assembly.
Making a Global Impact
The Third United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA3) was held in December 2017. Proceeding the main event where the national delegates gather to discuss and make committments towards the UN Environment plan for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was an inaugurating Science, Policy and Business Forum. You can read all about this in Scott’s story. It was a clever move on UN Environment’s part to bring together the scientists, the policy makers, the civil societies and most importantly, the private companies to make headway on concrete issues as relating to SDGs. Resource is ultimately at the heart of the slow progress. This is where we come into the story. Given the relationship that was established with UN Environment (remember they sponsored the GMAC workshop! In large part, thanks to the UN Environment ex-Chief Scientist Jacqueline McGlade, who recognised the importance of Citizen Science), they had requested for a global delegation to be present at the Forum to help clarify why it is important to adopt Citizen Science for its approach, scalability and engagement nature.
It was a massive success and led to the commitment by the newly-formed delegation along with the active citizen science associations to form the Citizen Science Global Partnership to collaborate with the UN Environment in achieving the 2030 SDGs. This was monumental progress led by Johannes Vogel, Anne Bowser and Martin Brocklehurst.
As a network of regional networks, it was vital for Asia to have a representative in this partnership to connect the top-down and bottom-up effort in Asia and facilitate the solutions at scale alongside the rest of the world.
Building Community, Capacity and Consensus
So that is where my Citizen Science journey had started and led me down this path. There are more stories you can read about in The CitizenScience.Asia Journal on what the community has been doing around the region.
It has been exciting and refreshing — the people I have met, the passion that people have shown, the rekindling of curiosity of the world in nature, in society, in sustainability, and the positive satisfaction of knowing my effort is facilitating something much bigger than what I could possibly do myself but yet is making progress for a better world.
It is all just the beginning though as I look forward to working with our ever-expanding Leadership team to form the community, to develop capacity for problem analysis and to liaise with the necessary partners and policy makers towards agreed solutions leveraging Citizen Science.