My Crash Course in Citizen Science: A Reflection

By Lauren Nally, a departing Commons Lab intern.

Each year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Thus far in my engineering education, the importance of social interaction has played little to no role; the customer is at the end of a long pipeline– sometimes literally– and their satisfaction is assumed as long as you have done your research and calculations correctly. It’s difficult to stay motivated if your scope of impact is limited to machinery and blue screens. I’ve noticed this sentiment among federally employed scientists and researchers. As employees of a democratic government, their work serves the American people, and should consequently benefit the shared concerns of the public. But, because science can be a highly technical profession and the educational pre-requisites are steep, there is a certain distance between the researcher and relevant communities.

Non-scientists can, and should, play a very powerful role in research, particularly when it comes to the Federal government. Local communities are the largest and most important stakeholders in their local environmental conditions, biodiversity of ecosystems, traffic patterns, and health concerns. In any regional project relating to these or other factors, the residents should be involved because they will be the most directly influenced by any results. But, self-doubt and unfamiliarity with the sciences or research can limit people’s confidence and interest in such projects.

Citizen science in the federal government is an excellent method of subverting that mentality by partnering scientists with interested citizens to perform research that both parties care about. Mobilizing citizens in this way allows them to feel empowered with regard to things that they typically wouldn’t. It increases science literacy, can produce rigorous data sets, and bridges the communication gap between research and community interests.

This methodology has proven its capabilities in regard to mass data collection and analysis across a wide range of fields in both the private and public sectors. But, there’s still room for improvement. My dream project is something along the lines of the latest international craze, Pokémon GO, but with wildlife as the subject of interest. Combining gamification with data collection through an engaging mobile application is a fantastic way to capture public interest on a wider scale. It could engage the 18-35 year old demographic that is the least likely to be involved in citizen science projects.

However, there are two distinct obstacles associated with this path:

  1. The need for an advanced and highly technological platform;
  2. Cybersecurity and the collection of information on people’s whereabouts and actions, particularly by any Federal agency

Citizen science is somewhat limited at the moment when it comes to technological scope. Many data collection apps, like iNaturalist, have been able to streamline wildlife observation projects, but beyond logging information and recording a geographic location, there is a lot of room for expansion. A bridge has yet to be formed between citizen science projects and the advanced capabilities of modern technology, particularly relating to smartphone apps. But, web-based projects like Eyewire and Foldit have proven that further expansion is possible.

Furthermore, with such advanced data collection methods involving the public, privacy concerns will rise to the surface. This draws our attention to legal, moral, and logistical problems that many organizations are facing in the Internet age, but that should not bar progress and innovation. There are many exciting new directions that citizen science could go in, but this requires new partnerships and the consideration of barriers very unique to the 21st century.

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Lauren Nalley is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, studying chemical engineering with a focus in materials science engineering. She is interested in the intersection of science and technology with public policy, and likes the idea of becoming an “engineer in context.” She hopes to continue combining these interests by pursuing a career related to the management of municipal water utilities.