The Sciences

Citizen Science at the White House

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science SalonBy Caren CooperSep 30, 2015 8:25 AM

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This past Wednesday, Pope Francis visited the White House. This Wednesday, it’s my turn. Although I won’t be welcomed by throngs of people, the under-tapped capabilities of throngs of people is the reason I’ll be there, along with two others from SciStarter: Darlene Cavalier and Hined Rafeh. In a gathering lower key than the pontiff’s, we will be joining government officials for a closer look into what citizen science can do for our country. The event is a citizen science forum hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Domestic Policy Council. Called Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, For the People, By the People,” the forum shines a spotlight on Federal agencies taking initiative with citizen science. Citizen science refers to people helping scientific endeavors in a non-professional capacity, such as bird watchers submitting their observations to eBird or kayakers monitoring water quality before going for a paddle. Citizen science has been emerging as a valuable tool across virtually every scientific field, including astronomy, biochemistry, marine biology, and microbiology. Throughout its growth, naysayers have questioned the ability of the public to collect reliable data. Publication after publication, new discovery after discover, and better conservation and management have demonstrated that the public not only can collect reliable data, but crowds can help bring about discoveries that professional experts cannot achieve alone. The White House event gives credence to citizen science as an essential ingredient to US leadership in the global frontiers of science. The oldest citizen science projects in the United States are run by Federal agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has relied on Daily Weather Observers in the National Weather Service since 1890. They also have volunteer Storm Spotters and recently they released mPING, an app that makes it easy for anyone with a smart phone to report the weather conditions they are experiencing. The moment the Internet enabled online data reporting by the public, the US Geological Survey was the first to create an Internet-based citizen science project: Did You Feel It? It began in 1997 in California under the name Community Internet Intensity Maps, and has been global in its reach since 2004. People report what they feel during an earthquake, and when crowds do this, the project produces intensity maps almost instantly. For disaster management and response, citizen seismology helps the USGS with rapid detection of quakes, speedy gathering of information for emergency response, and efficiently spreading the word. During a 2009 earthquake, Did You Feel It? received over 2,500 entries in one minute. The observations are astoundingly accurate. Observations by people are often best in combination with remote sensors and computer algorithms. For example, NASA’s SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) Satellite Mission involves volunteers on the ground in helping to calibrate the orbiting sensors. SciStarter’s program manager, Hined Rafeh, is coordinator of the SMAP project, and a graduate student at Drexel University’s Center for Science, Technology & Society. At the White House forum, she will give a short talk about SMAP volunteer activities, which include collecting soil samples when the satellite is overhead (it passes over every three days), weighing the sample, drying it, and weighing it again. Today over 40 US federal agencies belong to the Federal Community of Practice on Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing. These include National Park Service (Mercury in Dragonfly Larvae Project), the Federal Communications Commission (Measuring Broadband America), the National Archives (Citizen Archivist Dashboard), Environmental Protection Agency (Air Sensor Tool Box), the Bureau of Land Management (Site Stewards), and many preparing to harness the intellectual capital of the public (Department of Housing and Urban Development, National Endowment for the Arts, Department of Energy, etc.). There are legal obstacles impeding citizen science by the Federal agencies. Laws established to protect the public and improve the efficiency of government may make it difficult for our government to collaborate on research projects with the public and issues that lack precedent arise with new technologies. For example, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 requires federal agencies to plan far in advance, with requests, review, and public comment periods, if they want to collect information from more than 10 people. Also, citizen science can create privacy risks and so federal agencies have to conduct privacy impact assessments according to the e-Government Act of 2002 and the Privacy Act of 1974. With mobile technologies enabling citizen science apps, federal law may necessitate agencies developing their own terms of service rather than using the terms of service drafted by private companies. To deal with these layers of bureaucracy, as well as logistical and technological challenges, the Federal Community of Practice on Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing will soon release a Tool Kit to guide agencies in best practices. One resource in the Tool Kit is SciStarter, a research affiliate of Arizona State University's Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society. SciStarter helps thousands of people connect with more than a thousand citizen science projects. With new support from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation, SciStarter2.0 will make customizable versions of their database available and accessible to all communities through open APIs. Citizen scientists in the SciStarter2.0 community will soon be able to easily participate in multiple projects with a single sign-in, and manage and track their data contributions on a personal dashboard. In his speech on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday, Pope Francis said, “Humanity has the ability to work together in building our common home.” Citizen science facilitates the highest level of cooperation among people to build our common home. Follow me to the White House event, which will be live webcast here, with live tweeting (#WHCitSci, by @WhiteHouseOSTP and me @CoopSciScoop and @SciStarter).

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