Open Geospatial Consortium Formally Approves Citizen Science Domain Working Group

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The international project on citizen science data and metadata interoperability, supported by the Commons Lab and organizations like the U.S. Citizen Science Association, has a new partner.  At the closing plenary of the Open Geospatial Consortium’s (OGC) recent technical committee meeting on June 23rd, the OGC formally approved the creation of a Citizen Science Domain Working Group (DWG).

The OGC’s mission is “to advance the development and use of international standards and supporting services that support geospatial interoperability.”  Simply put, whenever someone asks “where?” the OGC is there, helping more than 500 universities, government agencies, and private entities make the most of location-based information.  The organization helps researchers, public-sector, and private-sector employees alike by acting as an open-access forum for technology developers and users, each of whom benefit from implementing OGC-compliant policies and procedures.


With over 20 years of experience, it should come as no surprise that OGC members have engaged in a host of exciting initiatives.  From monitoring Climate Change to laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s Smart Cities, the group meets each challenge head-on.  Work through OGC is undertaken collaboratively through interoperability testbeds, where standards ae developed and best practices identified by experimenting with concrete use cases, and by individual members.  For example, a consortium of OGC researchers collaborated on a recent citizen science project, entitled the Citizen Observatory Web, or COBWEB for short.  Acting as a liaison between a variety of European Biosphere Reserves, the initiative aims to address data quality issues by integrating citizen and professional spatial data.  Ideally, by complying with OGC standards, the species distribution input from a citizen scientist in Greece’s Mt. Olympus Biosphere Reserve would be accessible by, and intelligible to, a Zoologist in Wales’ Dyfi Biosphere Reserve.  The toolkit and set of models the OGC is creating will help make potential citizen science projects a reality, in European Biosphere Reserves and beyond.

Given its immaculate track record and incredible potential, the OGC has plenty to offer the citizen science community.  With the launch of the COBWEB initiative, a precedent was set for supporting and advancing citizen science through OGC channels.  Now, with the establishment of the formidable team of researchers and professionals comprising the Citizen Science DWG, anyone trying to engage in citizen science data collection and sharing will have a new organization to turn to for guidance.  Geospatial data saturates the citizen science field, and while collecting it can be a challenge, making sure the results gleaned are accessible can prove to be a logistical nightmare.  That’s why this new DWG plans to underscore the importance of interoperability, eliminating the nuances that isolate projects by establishing best practices and promoting open standards.  Citizen science projects rely on their communities, and now project leaders have a new resource of their own.

For more information about the OGC Citizen Science Domain Working Group (DWG), please contact Anne Bowser,

Event Recap: Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science, and the Law

With the inherent role that open data and open science plays in crowdsourcing and citizen science, understanding how intellectual property rights (IP) and legal issues could impact federal citizen science project designs becomes critical. In December, the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center hosted an expert panel addressing these IP and legal issues. Additionally, the Commons Lab created a web-enabled policy tool that allows federal agencies to better navigate the different legal barriers surrounding citizen science.

Experts on the panel include Teresa Scassa (Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa); Haewon Chung (Doctoral candidate in law at the University of Ottawa); Jay Benforado (Office of Research and Development at US EPA); and Robert Gellman (Privacy and Information Policy Consultant).

Open Data in the President’s Budget for 2017

FY17budget  Image-page-001

The Obama administration seems serious about open data. The administration’s recently released budget for fiscal year 2017 highlights the federal government’s commitment to open data, not only for the science community but also for economic development. Specifically, the section titled “Economic Growth: Opening Government-Funded Data and Research to the Public to Spur Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Job Growth” focuses on how federal government investments in making federally funded research and development (R&D) projects accessible to the public will lead to technological innovation, job growth, and industry creation.

In the budget, the administration argues that granting the public access to intellectual property and scientific knowledge leads to innovation. With the open data from government-funded projects, citizens and businesses can build upon pre-existing research, resulting in technological development. The website, for example, offers more than 188,000 data sets on topics ranging from healthcare to agriculture. Using this information, external groups have created applications to improve accessibility for people with disabilities and help food truck vendors improve their sales. Currently, the government has already taken the first step in expanding the public’s access to datasets with initiatives like Project Open Data, but the additional investment proposed in the FY2017 budget could allow for further independent research and innovation.

Second, the increased availability and accessibility to open data will create new jobs and industries, according to the FY2017 budget. Moreover, federal R&D data is oftentimes successfully leveraged by academics and entrepreneurs. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long collaborated with the private sector to conduct experiments on the International Space Station. After NASA granted private researchers access to their findings, the researchers were able to create a whole new industry in small satellites.

Continue reading “Open Data in the President’s Budget for 2017”

Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values

Each day, humans upload more than 500 million photographs documenting every aspect of their lives. But while striking, this statistic pales in comparison to the vast quantity of information created not by humans, but about them. These data come from technologies as diverse as GPS-enabled Smartphones, wearable pedometers, and information captured in web logs and cookies.


Figure 1: Personal health devices such as Fitbit track metrics including distance walked, steps climbed, calories burned, and hours slept each night. Image credit:

This generated information is big data, defined as “large, diverse, complex, longitudinal and/or distributed datasets generated form instruments, sensors, Internet transactions, email, video, click streams, and/or all other digital sources available today and in the future.” Big data brings tremendous potential for advancing scientific research. One researcher studying 35,000 schizophrenia patients demonstrated a genetic variant that eluded previous researchers working with smaller sample sizes. But big data also sharpens the potential for subtle, or even invisible, forms of discrimination. For example, algorithms determining which audiences receive offers for student loans could be so finely tuned that they target only people of a certain, gender, race, or income bracket. Continue reading “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values”

EVENT: Environmental Information – The Roles of Experts and the Public

Muki Haklay, University College London
Muki Haklay, University College London

Access to environmental information and its use in environmental decision-making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2011); and information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public. At the same, there has been unprecedented change in information is accessed and shared.

Please join us for a discussion with Muki Haklay about how this information informs environmental decision-making, with special attention to the role of geographical information and citizen science. Haklay is a professor of Geographical Information Science at University College London and he co-directs the Extreme Citizen Science group. More information can be found here.


April 29, 2014
10:0-11:30 am
5th Floor Conference Room
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20004
RSVP here:
Directions to the Wilson Center:

The event will be live webcast, for which you do not need to RSVP.  To watch during the event follow this link here:

This event is co-hosted with the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center.






Deadline Nears for Presidential Innovation Fellows Program

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

The deadline is looming for the third round of Presidential Innovation Fellows! The third round of the program is focused on addressing three initiatives:

1) Making Digital the Default: Building a 21st Century Veterans Experience

2) Data Innovation: Unleashing the Power of Data Resources to Improve Americans’ Lives

3) By the People, for the People: Crowdsourcing to Improve Government

“This highly-competitive program recruits talented, diverse individuals from the innovation community and pairs them with top civil servants to tackle many of our nation’s biggest challenges, and to achieve a profound and lasting social impact,” according to the White House. Since August 2012, fellows have teamed up with those in government to develop new solutions to all manner of problems.

Think you’ve got what it takes? Applications are due April 7, 2014 — you can start the process here.

And be sure to check out our report on citizen science and government here.


The Open Data/Environmental Justice Connection

The Riffle is an open-source data logger that can be put into streams to measure water quality. Photo Credit: Public Lab
The Riffle is an open-source data logger that can be put into streams to measure water quality. Photo Credit: Public Lab

Open data and transparency are becoming full-fledged movements in government, and initiatives such as the Sunlight Foundation and Chile’s Intelligent Citizen project demonstrate that data transparency has as much to do with civic engagement as with accountability. 

These flows of data, however, are increasingly portrayed as one-way streets. Open data initiatives seem to assume that all data is born in the hallowed halls of government, industry and academia, and that open data is primarily about convincing such institutions to share it to the public. 

It is laudable when institutions with important datasets — such as campaign finance, pollution or scientific data — see the benefit of opening it to the public. But why do we assume unilateral control over data production?

The revolution in user-generated content shows the public has a great deal to contribute – and to gain—from the open data movement. Likewise, citizen science projects that solicit submissions or “task completion” from the public rarely invite higher-level participation in research –let alone true collaboration.  Continue reading “The Open Data/Environmental Justice Connection”

House Bill Raises Questions about Crowdsourcing

source: Wikimedia Commons
source: Wikimedia Commons

A new bill in the House is raising some key questions about how crowdsourcing is understood by scientists, government agencies, policymakers and the public at large.

Robin Bravender’s recent article in Environment & Energy Daily, “House Republicans Push Crowdsourcing on Agency Science,” (subscription required) neatly summarizes the debate around H.R. 4012, a bill introduced to the House of Representatives earlier this month. The House Science, Space and Technology Committe earlier this week held a hearing on the bill, which could see a committee vote as early as next month.

Dubbed the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014,” the bill prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” If the bill is passed, EPA would be unable to base assessments or regulations on any information not “publicly available in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis.” This would include all information published in scholarly journals based on data that is not available as open source. Continue reading “House Bill Raises Questions about Crowdsourcing”

Connecting Grassroots and Government through the 2013 Open Government National Action Plan

Have you ever wondered what the weather is like on Mars? Now you can find out — Sol, the galaxy’s first interplanetary weather application, integrates weather data collected by the Curiosity Rover on Mars with earth data, displaying weather on both planets in real time.

This app, used by astronauts and space enthusiasts alike, was developed for a challenge hosted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Founded in 2012, the annual Space Apps Challenge asks volunteers to solve real-world problems using open data. NASA’s Space Apps challenge was founded in response to the President’s 2011 Open Government National Action Plan, designed to engage the public in government activities.

The White House renewed the plan earlier this month, issuing The Open Government Partnership: Second Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America. This report outlines 23 action points for supporting open government to increase public integrity, effectively manage resources, and improve public services. This final category includes a commitment to “Promote Innovation through Collaboration,” by creating an open innovation toolkit, offering new incentive prizes and challenges, and generally increasing crowdsourcing within the federal government. Continue reading “Connecting Grassroots and Government through the 2013 Open Government National Action Plan”