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Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

The Data Practices of Citizen Science


It was fitting that the citizen science roundtable, held this week as part of the Design and Social Sciences Data Practices seminar series, took place around a square table. Citizen science is often heralded as a conciliatory, or at least intermediary, space between public concerns and authoritative knowledge production. In this imaginary of citizen science, in which those without scientific pedigrees are robustly brought into the fray of scientific practice (hypothesising, collecting data and disseminating results), the table would indeed be round. Yet, as the presenters noted, citizen science is most often configured in a passive contributory form, in which citizens are deployed as unpaid sentinels of environmental or astronomic phenomena with little room for educational benefit. In this common set-up, where citizens are not privy to the formation of research questions or data analysis and “citizen engagement” is often justified within the financial logics of cost-effectiveness, the perpendicular lines of a square table did appear appropriate.

The internal paradoxes of citizen science practices prompted the moderator, Noortje Marres, to ask if one has to choose between being a citizen and a scientist. Tom August, one of the presenters and a computational ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, wears multiple hats as both a professional analyst of crowd sourced data on moth damage to plant leaves for the Conker Tree Science project, and as an amateur tinkerer and citizen contributor to research on bat locations (his presentation can be viewed here). What remained unclear was whether both of his roles could be engaged simultaneously. Dan McQuillan of Goldsmiths’ Computing Department also bears a hybrid identity as he holds a PhD in experimental particle physics and is a critic of what he called the “hermetic practices” of scientific orthodoxies that hold the “observer and observed as distinct.” The third presenter Christian Nold, a PhD candidate at the Extreme Citizen Science Group at UCL, side-stepped the citizen vs scientist debate by following a noise-sensing smart phone application (and not the prerogatives of scientists or the public) as it traveled from the labs of technologists to the research protocols of environmental scientists and finally into the hands of citizens. Nold concluded that, as a result of technical imprecision and the demands of the various actors involved, his app of study ultimately cultivated a sense of ambiguity as much as it sensed the environment.

Jennifer Gabrys, Nerea Calvillo, Helen Pritchard, Tom Keene and I, at the Citizen Sense project, are investigating the use of low-cost digital sensors purportedly to aid environmental citizenship. In the course of the first phase of our project, and as mentioned in the previous post, we have trialled numerous devices designed with citizen scientists in mind and encountered similar issues of sensor instability and opaque calibration processes. But as Michelle Murphy (2006) reminds us, environmental uncertainty is not an analytical end point but rather the starting point for empirically unraveling the multitude of materials, histories, and socio-technical practices that constitute scientific imperceptibility.

One of the more thought provoking questions from the audience re-framed citizen science as a means of enrolling the public into the worldview of science. In other words, citizen science could be read as an institution of subjectivizing lay individuals to the norms of science. This critical outlook is a helpful reference point for interrogating the tacit logics of citizen science but it is also worth noting that the ‘science’ of citizen science is not monolithic, as was made clear during the panel. Stark differences emerged between McQuillan’s experience in experimental physics and August’s experience in ecology, both have very different histories of professionalisation and amateur involvement.

Participants of the Isleworth Noise Map. Christian Nold, 2013.

Both McQuillan and August made passing mentions of an organization, Public Lab, that poses a possible exception to the somewhat missionary reading of citizen science noted above. Public Lab members, drawing on Kim and Mike Fortun’s ethnography of toxicologists in the US, define themselves as practitioners not of citizen science but a ‘civic science’ that ‘questions the state of things rather than a science that simply serves the state’ (.pdf). [For full disclosure, I’ve been developing an indoor air quality project with Public Lab for the past year or so. While I can’t detail the work here, as we are still moving the particulars into place, the work, like most Public Lab projects, involves a hodgepodge of expertise: designers, computer programers, an epidemiologist, an anthropologist and hundreds of mobile home residents across the US.]

While certainly not representative of the mainstay of citizen science, Public Lab’s practice and philosophy are not alone, as feminist maker/hacker spaces are beginning to proliferate and more established citizen science projects are beginning to discuss their shortcomings. The work ahead is not solely on the part of platform designers, device makers and scientists. During the round table August, as the token scientist that remains loyal to science, was actively attempting to respond to constructivist and feminist critiques and recalibrate his own definition of what constitutes a citizen versus a scientist. All the while the orthodoxies of social scientific critique as voiced by both audience members and other panellists remained relatively steadfast. Perhaps the question to end with is how can McQuillan’s call, following Funtowicz and Ravetz, for a “post-normal science” also be reflected upon and taken up within the social sciences and design? Such an endeavour would be inline with Foucault’s desire for a criticism not predicated on reprimanding but on “scintillating leaps of the imagination” that would “multiply not judgements but signs of existence” (.pdf). Instead of focusing on what is excluded from science, which is rather well documented, the process of rounding out the table involves actively imagining and re-imagining what citizen science could be, a task for both critic and practitioner. Such a provocation is the upshot of the form of this seminar, which sought to explore the interstitial spaces between design, ecology, sociology, and computing to provoke reflection on both the topic at hand and our various analytic inclinations.

By Nick Shapiro

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