Get involved in the Sustainable Development Goals and create your own project!

This blog post originally appeared on, written by By Ruba Ishak, ONE Senior Research Assistant

We all have a role to play in creating a sustainable future for us and our planet. Tracking these 17 goals on eradicating extreme poverty, gender inequality, disease, and social injustice is not a small task. We need new ideas on how to do this and how to empower people to get involved.

A flag to represent Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, is raised in Sydney, Australia, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Shane Thaw
A flag to represent Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, is raised in Sydney, Australia, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Shane Thaw

That’s why the Open Seventeen challenge, an open platform that supports crowdsourcing projects, was launched in May this year. It’s about tapping into the power of your online community–or the one in your backyard—to help you sift through existing datasets (images, scanned text, tweets and more!) to find things that computers can’t pick up.

Today we’re putting out the call for the the second round of the Open Seventeen Challenge, looking for new ideas on how crowdsourcing can help tackle extreme poverty, corruption, and gender inequality. The winning ideas will receive online coaching and technical support to set up a crowdcrafting project and have it go live.

We had some great grassroots ideas come out of the first round and our two winning projects are getting ready to launch their crowdsourcing after graduating from their coaching program run by the GovLab Academy:

Promise 2030, led by John Ranford, is creating a “street guide to sustainable businesses.” Promise 2030 will be piloted in UK towns trying to reduce their CO2 impacts, tackling Global Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. By crowdsourcing information about local shops and businesses, Promise 2030 wants to accelerate the number of small and medium sized enterprises that record and publish information on their sustainability.
DATAFARMA, led by Janeth Cifuentes and Manuel Mejía, is looking to crowdsource to gather information on Hepatitis C and the use of generic medicines, to make that information easily accessible by people affected by this disease in Colombia and Mexico. The idea is to create a platform that maps disease outbreaks, while also having vital information on associated treatments and patient care. The project will focus on Global Goal 3: Good Health & Well-Being.

The new challenge will run until the end of December 2015 and the winners will be announced in the new year!

The Open Seventeen Challenge is a joint initiative of the research organizations Citizen Cyberlab and GovLab, The ONE Campaign, and the open-source company SciFabric.

Learn about the Global Goals, then find out more about the Open Seventeen challenge and get involved at!


New Report: Science Hack Day – Bridging the Hacking Community & Government

On May 16th & 17th of 2015 the Commons Lab hosted Washington, D.C.’s first-ever Science Hack Day in collaboration with ArtsEdge of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts. The event was attended by over 100 people and a handful of the hacks produced have continued on to form either a non-profit, limited liability company or submitted proposals to seek more funding.

The use of hackathon’s by the government, as a tool to engage top talent, apply new ways of thinking to seemingly intractable problems and increase public engagement and awareness has been growing over the past decade, especially in the past couple years. This exciting movement has incredible promise; however there are strategic research investments and best practices that could be made by the government to utilize this tool to its fullest potential. This case study analyzes the science hack day event itself, highlights some of the award winning hacks and explores some of the governments investments in concepts behind hackathon’s and offers suggestions for avoiding potential pitfalls of mass collaboration.

You can download the report here:


New Bill in Congress: The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 (3 of 3)

On September 30th, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015. The purpose of this bill is “to harness the expertise, ingenuity, and creativity of all people to contribute to innovation in the United States and to help solve problems or scientific questions by encouraging and increasing the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science methods within the Federal Government, as appropriate, and for other purposes.”

The man of the hour: Senator Chris Coons
The man of the hour: Senator Chris Coons. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

This is a bill worth celebrating.

Despite tremendous progress for crowdsourcing and citizen science in government—most recently recognition from the white house; and, the growth of an important federal community of practice—doubts about the legitimacy of crowdsourcing and citizen science remain. The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is still a barrier to timely implementation. The question of who will make initial and ongoing financial investments in citizen science is open. Passing this bill will help resolve lingering doubts about the value of citizen science in government agencies.

In addition to signaling progress, the bill highlights important considerations to stimulate future efforts.

  • Understanding ethics in citizen science and crowdsourcing. The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 defines a citizen science participant as “any individual or other entity that has consented as a volunteer in a crowdsourcing or citizen science project.” Beyond this, the Act points to considerations including mode of consent as electronic or written; data ownership and access rights; and, adherence to regulations for conducting human subjects research. Generally, the Act leaves decisions to agencies themselves (e.g., regarding consent) or lets difficult issues remain open (e.g., by failing to specify whether and when citizen science and crowdsourcing are human subjects research).
  • The importance of designing projects with motivation in mind. Motivation is one of the most commonly studied, yet least understood, concepts in citizen science. We are aware of a handful of high-level motivational factors (including learning; attribution and recognition; socialization; and, altruism, as highlighted in the Act). But less is known about how motivation changes between cultures, how motivation changes over time, how motivation depends on different application domains, and how technologies such as games may motivate new and different volunteers.
  • Documenting partnership models. Agencies are encouraged to cooperate with one another, and to work with organizations including for-profits, nonprofits, and NGOs to “share administrative duties” for citizen science. The federal citizen science projects that are most successful at achieving their goals typically forge partnerships with universities, museums, schools, and other institutions. Articulating successful partnership models that others may replicate will go a long way towards supporting sustainability for the field within and outside of government.

A smooth and expedient passage of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 will not only legitimize this important research paradigm, but usher in new research on these and other important issues.

White house memo has implications for DIYbio/Maker/Hacker communities (2 of 3)

Yesterday, John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for a variety of actions to be taken to fast track the use of citizen science and crowdsourcing in the federal government. Among the specific actions are (1) for each agency to appoint a citizen science and crowdsourcing coordinator and (2) for agencies to list citizen science and crowdsourcing projects in a new GSA website (similar to that lists prizes sponsored by agencies) to help the public find federally funded projects. This latter effort can build on the current Commons Lab database of federal projects.

Towards the end of the memo OSTP outlines suggestions for building capacity through five areas: policy, resources and staffing, technologies and scientific instrumentation, grant-making and rigorous research. While the recommendations are specific to federal employees, one area in particular, grant-making mechanisms, should be of particular interest to Do-It-Yourself biology and maker communities.

The memo states:

Create mechanisms for providing small grants to individuals and communities that may not be affiliated with universities or traditional government contractors

TechShop, a shared space with a variety of tools for woodworking, robotics making and 3D printing. Photo Credit: DARPA

It then highlights DARPA’s Fast Track Initiatives as a flagship model for funding that could be applied to citizen science and crowdsourcing. The Fast Track Initiative opens up small research grants to individuals instead of traditional institutions like universities and beltway contractors.

This call could have huge implications for all “grassroots” or DIY initiatives who have long been excluded from traditional science and engineering funding mechanisms. In 2012, the Institute on Science for Global Policy held a conference on “21st Century Borders/Synthetic Biology: Focus on Responsibility and Governance” which called for a similar reform:

Federal funding agencies should develop metrics and procedures to allow actors outside the traditional academic or business communities to apply for and receive federal grants. If we want to harness the intellectual power of this movement, federal funding agencies should rethink their mechanisms for awarding grants – Todd Kuiken, Wilson Center

This is good news that the cry’s for diversifying science funding mechanisms in the federal government have been heard and we look forward to watch the ripple effects unfold. Citizen Scientists, DIYbio, maker and hacker communities will no longer be restricted to crowd-funding platforms and should stay tuned and watch closely.



Citizen Science & The Law: A New Web-Enabled Policy Tool

court-house-25061_640Navigating legal and administrative barriers while implementing citizen science and crowdsourcing projects at the federal level can be complex and confusing. The Commons Lab published a report earlier this year, Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science and the Law: Legal Issues Affecting Federal Agencies, which examined in depth the legal issues, such as the Paperwork Reduction Act and Antideficiency Act, that federal citizen science initiatives will have to comply with. This excellent research produced a wealth of knowledge on the topic.

In order to make it more accessible we condensed the 116 page report into a web-enabled policy tool which allows federal project managers navigate and understand these issues before they embark on citizen science initiatives. The tool is hosted on the Wilson Center website and may be accessed here.

Research highlight: Citizen science in adaptive management

This post is the first in a series of research highlights published through the Commons Lab blog. These posts are designed to highlight new research contributions that we believe are particularly valuable for supporting citizen science and crowdsourcing within federal agencies, and among their collaborators.

Aceves-Bueno, E., et al. (2015). Citizen science as an approach for overcoming insufficient monitoring and inadequate stakeholder buy-in in adaptive management: Criteria and evidence. Ecosystems, 18, 3, 493-506.

In adaptive management, natural resources are managed through an iterative, short-term process where data about current conditions inform future decisions. While involving citizen scientists in adaptive management seems promising, potential barriers include inadequate project design and lack of stakeholder buy-in. Through a review and analysis of 83 citizen science projects, a group of 15 students and 2 faculty at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management argue that adaptive monitoring can overcome these barriers, while also shedding light on key questions—such as participant motivation—that face the field at large.

Image credit:

Researchers begin by breaking down barriers to “inadequate monitoring” and stakeholder engagement. For monitoring to be successful, the following conditions must be met:

  • Monitoring must take place
  • Data must be relevant to management actions, quantitative and subject to QA/QC controls
  • Monitoring must be cost-effective
  • Monitoring must occur at appropriate temporal and spatial scales

To ensure stakeholder engagement:

  • Community stakeholders must be identified and engaged
  • Managers must provide motivation and incentives for participation
  • Decision-makers must be accountable to stakeholders

Regarding criteria for monitoring, this research largely supports previous work. The authors find, for example, that 81% of citizen science projects use QA/QC mechanisms, and that data quality is largely a “minor” or “critical but fixable or workable” concern. These findings offer new supporting evidence to back up the common claim that volunteers collect data that is as accurate, and as actionable, as the data collected by professionals.

Analysis around stakeholder engagement is novel and through provoking. For example, Aceves-Bueno’s team differentiates between community members, “defined as those with a direct stake in management outcomes,” and volunteers, who “participate in citizen science even though they have no direct economic or health interest in the resource being managed” (p. 498). Based on this classification, 28% of the 83 studies surveyed involved community members, while 72% relied on volunteers. When community members are involved, building trust to support buy-in is a key consideration, achieved through mechanisms like involving participants in project design and in the identification of appropriate incentives. The authors also report that longer-term monitoring, such as the type supported by eBird, is more likely to be successful when volunteers, as opposed to community members, are involved.

Regarding volunteer motivation, five motivational categories were identified: knowledge (75% of projects), sense of place (49%), action (29%), tools and technology (25%), and economic incentives (22%). Analysis revealed an interesting connection between motivation and use of data for management: “The use of sense of place, technology, and action to encourage participants was associated with a higher likelihood of using the data for management…whereas the use of knowledge attainment to motivate participants was negatively correlated with the use of data for management” (p. 503). This is an especially interesting finding given that many projects have explicit goals of educating participants. Are educational and management goals truly at odds, or are projects simply designed to prioritize one impact over the other, instead of simultaneously addressing both?

The authors conclude that citizen science can address key shortcomings of adaptive management, provided that monitoring conditions are carefully designed and stakeholder buy-in is achieved. In addition, this paper suggests important ways for meeting both conditions, laying out a tentative blueprint for how citizen science may support adaptive management. More work such as this research, which examines the impacts of citizen science beyond supporting scientific registration or educational goals, is needed to support a growing and evolving field.

USGS, NPS and FWS Partner for “Catch, Click and Submit Contest”

The inaugural Catch, Click and Submit Contest begins on Feb 21st in honor of the National Invasive Species Awareness Week running Feb 22nd through the 28th. The contest, which calls on anglers to photograph and report non-native fish species caught during the derby, will award prizes to various categories such as “Most Unusual Catch” and “Most Species”.  Submissions from the contest will aid researchers in developing a better understanding of the distribution of fish species throughout Florida waterways.

Photo Credit: Vance Crain, Flickr

By engaging the existing angler community, the contest hopes to increase public awareness of the potential impacts that arise from non-native fish species. “The Catch, Click and Submit Contest offers anglers the opportunity to assist natural resource managers in finding nonnative species by doing what they enjoy – fishing!” said biologist Kelly Gestring. “The early detection of a new, nonnative species could provide a better opportunity to control or even eradicate a population.” The hope is that participants will choose to target non-native fish for consumption in the future, helping to control invasive populations.

The contest will be run in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and other local agencies.  The goal is to establish an annual event to create a continued monitoring program using the support of anglers as citizen scientist.

Why Citizen Science and Public Media Need to Get Together

lilybuiThis is a cross-post, originally published in Medium, by Lily Bui. She is ​a researcher and M.S. candidate for MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Most recently, she has been a STEM Story Project Associate at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX); the Executive Editor at SciStarter, PLOS CitizenSci, and Discover Magazine’s Citizen Science Salon. In her spare time, she ​tinkers with electronics and t​hinks of cheesy science puns.


Broadcasting, believe it or not, comes from farming.

In modern vernacular, “to broadcast” means to transmit information by TV or radio, but the verb’s original definition meant “to scatter (seeds) by hand or machine rather than placing in drills or rows.” It may or may not come as a surprise to you that broadcasting has just as much to do with farming and media as it has to do with citizen science.

[For this context, let’s regard citizen science as public involvement in inquiry, discovery, and construction of scientific knowledge, typically in the form of data collection, classification, or documentation.]

In 1792, Robert B. Thomas started the Old Farmers’ Almanac, a periodical circulated widely and regularly to farmers. Still in publication today, the Almanac serves two important purposes: (1) It acts as an objective reference for weather and astronomical predictions, sourcing its observations from the farming community. (2) It facilitates a space where the community can share advice, anecdotes, recipes, and more with each other.

(But what does this have to do with citizen science?)

Continue reading “Why Citizen Science and Public Media Need to Get Together”

How Terrorists Use Social Media: A Timeline

The Wilson Center’s Commons Lab just published an interactive timeline, using TimelineJS by the Knight Lab, on social media and terrorism with the assistance of scholar Gabriel Weimann and other collaborators.

Screenshot of an event from the interactive timeline.

This timeline highlights key events where terrorists and oppressive regimes used social media to spread propaganda, gather information, radicalize and recruit, coordinate activities, create panic and undermine stability. Manipulation of the public through social media presents new challenges for intelligence, law enforcement and humanitarian response organizations. Innovative responses and strategies will be needed to defend against these emerging cybersecurity and human security risks.

For further reading on this subject please see the following papers and infographic published by the Commons Lab:

Infographic on recruiting lone wolves online by Gabriel Weimann

Towards Trustworthy Social Media and Crowdsourcing by George Chamales

On Cybersecurity, Crowdsourcing and Social Cyber-Attack by Rebecca Goolsby