Spotlight on: Citizen Science
What kind of open work do you do?
My work focuses on citizen science. I work with people who want to be part of a science team. I pull together rigorous data parameters, then after people gather the data, I give it back out to the community. No one person owns this work, we’re all stewards of the process and the data is made open and available.
How would you describe your work to your colleagues vs. the community?
Sometimes I’ll use “ivory tower language” with colleagues—I slip into language with enough fancy words to be taken seriously. Generally, I try to use plain operational English. I once had a student advisor in my department who came with a background in English. We both used the word “research” but soon realized we meant two very different things. This is why I use metaphor and analogies in my talks regardless of the audience. It avoids creating walls or barriers.
How do you work open?
Two general concepts: I work with the philosophy that a good idea can come from anywhere, it doesn’t have to sprout from the mind of the most accomplished person in the room. I’ve experienced a number of pleasant disruptions within a large team of folks working on research. And, I like to create a framework where ideas can bubble up and ideas can be discussed without being attacked and everyone is contributing to a larger product. This extends to the grad students, postdocs and professional staff in my labs, but also to the approximately 1,000 participants in our citizen science program. Some of the most interesting ideas have come from this group.
What are the methods and tools you are using to make your work open?
I consider myself a luddite in the sense that I don’t include too much tech in my private life or in the science and education I conduct. However, my work has a huge geographic footprint (California to the Arctic) and electronic communication tools have been important in working with citizen science participants and the broader public. I like to follow this up with in-person time in real voice. If participants don’t get face-to-face time, they don’t have enough attachment to the project.
How do you identify participants for your citizen science work?
The Sea Grant network offices in Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska form a backbone of community involvement. Also, all sorts of people who live next to, or make their living in/on the ocean. The Audubon programs, tribal governments, state governments and word of mouth have also been helpful. New communities hear about our work and reach out to us, and approximately 30-40% of volunteers in the program have been recruited by others in the program. Most of the volunteers are from rural coastal areas and don’t have an academic background or a background in science.
How long did it take for you to build your citizen science network?
We’ve been doing this work for 17 years now. We started with a small group of 12 volunteers, some of whom are still collecting data for us. It has been a slow growth process, because adding new people takes resources. Citizen science is very efficacious for environmental research over large geographic areas and allows for high-touch work. We could never cover that much ground using traditional techniques. Citizen science isn’t free, time is donated, but in return we are providing deep services. When someone takes on a beach site, I take the time to go visit them, engage with them face-to-face. We work hard to maintain communications. We also have to verify all the data, the identity of roughly 10,000 birds a year they collect, and then get back to them, and this costs money. This is my part of the bargain. We try to work in the more rural or remote communities. It takes a while to understand the pulse and pace of working in coastal communities. They’re all different and I learn something new every day.
What barriers have you faced in trying to work open?
You can’t be a researcher and not face barriers. We’re at the edge of the field with not quite enough technology to do what we want do. That is exactly the place where academic research should be—at the edge, defining the edge. The place where we can store and visualize the data is on the edge. Bringing data in through a single portal and being able to easily manipulate and visualize it is hard. Funding is hard to find, we could always use more funding. Understanding how individuals find science learning personal and meaning-making is an important question in this work. This is a challenge—you have free-choice learners who are doing this work for reasons other than grades. Understanding the how and why people are recruited for citizen science and why they stay. Scaling that up to the community context from which they come is an interesting question. Some of the people attracted to citizen science may be attached to mainstream science or are antithetical to it. Understanding motivations is key.
What skills have you had to learn in order to work open?
One of the big ones that I’m still learning is humility. Also humor—it is important to not take yourself too seriously. As academics we tend to take ourselves extremely seriously, which doesn’t always go very far in a rural community. We do, however, get a lot of street cred for being a professor, but we always have to go back to humility.
Why do you work open?
I’ve always wanted to be involved in things that get me up in the morning and occasionally keep me awake at night. I want to make a change for the good and I hope that the work will help people or organizations out. I wouldn’t say I’m an excellent scientist but I’m really good at the intersection of science and the general public and public participation. This is where I’ve been able to make a mark.
How did you get started doing this work?
Like all careers, mine has been circuitous. I have always been interested in the natural world with a bent towards the marine environment. Why animals do the things they do in scale of the individual to the group. Seeing the patterns and cycles in nature are fascinating, scientifically, but especially numerically—a very visual kind of thing. I’ve done a lot of work around animal behavior. My work allowed me to become an expert in one marine bird in one location in one colony. I learned everything about that colony—where they nested, their predators–everything. Then I started wondering about this type of bird in other areas. Were they anomalous? Was this behavior the same everywhere? This is why my interest in citizen science developed and why it has involved birds.
What opportunities does working open offer that traditional scholarship does not?
In today’s world the speed of information transfer is astronomical compared to previous decades. The acceleration is almost beyond comprehension. This has resulted in changes to the landscape of science, where we gather data, and what we do with them. There is a tradition in academia of holding your cards close and not revealing what you what you’re working on until you have nailed it down in a treatise–publishing in peer-reviewed journals. In today’s world, we gather information so fast we don’t have time to use it all. We’re left with the question of whether we want to store data away and never get back to it or put it up openly. Open storage systems put together emergent wholes rather than parts and offer an exciting time to be in science. With traditional scholarship, there is a sticky intersection between the data you collect and what you think about it—your intellectual property. The question is do you own a unit of data or do you own your way of thinking or reasoning about it and presenting it. There is a concern that if you let information out too soon someone else might be thinking the same thoughts as you, or even thinking about it in a better or more creative way than you. In academia there is a tendency toward needing to make your mark by putting out some new part of a solution that makes the world a better, more efficient place. People feel the need to protect their ability to do that, and I agree, but I also believe there is enough information out there for everyone.
When I was in graduate school there was distinct tendency in the biological sciences to produce single-authored papers. In today’s world that is not true. The act of collaboration is more standard across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community and has allowed the doors of the data vaults to open up more.
Do you see a future where open scholarship/citizen science are valued equally with traditional scholarship?
Every discipline has its standards. Within the academy, certainly within science, one big standard is peer review. If peers can be positively critical, do I pass muster? It can be painful, but it’s a really good thing. To me it’s not an either/or question, but an “and.” Citizen science is the intersection of people and science, with a goal of production of novel data that is great for science. The participant plays an authentic role—they are not just “glass washing.” Citizen science is one tool in the toolbox of a scientist. We might use remote sensing for something and citizen science for something else. It allows us to make the insights that we do. Can it be accorded the same status as the other tools in the box? Absolutely. There are lots of ways to do that. Beyond that, to community-driven or -controlled science—where the community is asking questions without the mainstream science community. Will that be given the same status? I think so, provided the work can stand up to blind reviews in the same ways academic scholarship does.
Do you incorporate open methods into your teaching?
COASST has been incorporated into my classes over the years. We have a 200-level marine biology course that participates in a COASST beach survey. Citizen science participants help the students with their work. There have been graduate seminars based on citizen science as well. The time is ripe right now to form a group across the University to bring together those across disciplines who are involved in public work. Graduate students want to be involved in public work. There have been five PhD/Masters theses written about COASST from students in other R1 institutions across the country interested in how the citizen science program works and what participants get out of it.
What is your vision for an open future?
Citizen science will be practiced broadly and used to collect information and make deductions. Citizen science should be available to be picked up by everyone in the world. This is the century to get people directly involved or they will walk with their feet. It is a challenge but also an opportunity and we have the tech right now to do this well.
My vision would be that you could walk into your local coffee shop, Walmart, or other favorite gathering place and sit down next to someone you don’t know and hear about their data collection project, the data collected by their community and be able to take the data and create visually interesting spin-ups. Citizens are in the driver’s seat to use data to make informed decisions.
I was recently asked why middle school or high school students should study environmental science. They could go into a number of other fields with a clearly shaped career path. I look at students in communities affected by heat waves where dozens of people, usually elderly people, die. Why does this happen and what are the impacts on their community? We look at the extreme weather in Houston with hurricane Harvey or warming patterns that have caused places like the coastal town of Shishmaref, Alaska, to move their town due to rising sea levels. We look at the impact of drought on farming communities. These are effects of global warming and are all created by the same overarching impacts. Kids should have the idea they can have an impact. Imagine if all of those kids and communities could come together and collect and share information about their own communities. What a different world we would live in.