Privacy in Participatory Research: Advancing Policy to support Human Computation

This summary has been written by Rohin Daswani, who is Research Assistant with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


The paper Privacy in Participatory Research: Advancing Policy to support Human Computation by Anne Bowser and Andrea Wiggins explains the important role played by privacy and privacy related policy in participatory research activities. The participatory research activities focused on in this paper are Citizen Science and Participatory Sensing. So what is Citizen Science and Participatory Sensing? Citizen Science (CS) is the involvement of volunteers in scientific research , which allows scientists to gather and analyze larger and more diverse data by using volunteers to crowdsource the data collection . In contrast Participatory Sensing (PS) uses mobile devices and phones to create interactive, participatory sensor networks that enable public and professional users to gather, analyze and share local knowledge. The applications are especially designed to provide direct utility to participants and external parties such as researchers.

Given that CS and PS are two models of human computation in which the privacy of the participant is a key concern, technological safeguards are only partial solutions for informing volunteers decisions regarding participation. Bowser and Wiggins point out that a holistic solution is required which would encompass technological safeguards along with a complete description of privacy related policies. They do this by surveying the policies of 30 participatory research projects to study how privacy related policies are presented and their alignment with actual practices. What they found was that the majority of projects had only a little understanding of the need for privacy policies. Many projects either hosted incomplete policies or described their practice inaccurately. A majority of the projects in the sample had published web content that Anne and Wiggins considered privacy policy, while a different majority had published content that the two considered terms of use.

The ethical implications of their findings for project management, design and research are plenty. The Belmont report suggests that research participants should be informed about the risks and benefits involved in participation. However, most projects did not inform participants about the types of information collected during registration and data collection nor how the information will be used. They either omitted the information or presented it in a confusing manner. These practices are contrary to respect for persons and participant primacy. Transparency is also a major legal issue that Bowser and Wiggins touch upon.

They conclude the paper by proposing a set of ethical practices for Participatory Research Design as guidelines to inform the development of policies and the design of technologies supporting participatory research. They suggest that project leaders should incorporate Ethical principles for Participatory Research Design into their decision-making process when establishing or revising policies and practices. Working with these principles will remind both project leaders and technology developers of the fundamental importance of respectful relationships with volunteers, without whom project goals cannot be achieved.

This is just a summary of the paper. To access the entire paper click here.

Citizen Science used in studying Seasonal Variation in India

The article was written by Rohin Daswani, who is a Research Assistant with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Climate change has started affecting many countries around the world. While every country is susceptible to the risks of global warming some countries, such as India, are especially vulnerable.

India’s sheer dependence on rainfall to irrigate its vast agricultural lands and to feed its economy makes it highly vulnerable to climate change. A report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts global temperature will increase between 0.3 and 4.8 degrees Celsius and sea levels will rise 82cm (32 in) by the late 21st century. But what effect will the changing rainfall pattern have on the seasonal variation?

One way to study seasonal variation in India is to analyze the changing patterns of flowering and fruiting of common trees like the Mango and Amaltas trees. SeasonWatch , a program part of the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), the biological wing of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, does exactly that. It is an India-wide program that studies the changing seasons by monitoring the seasonal cycles of flowering, fruiting and leaf flush of common trees. And how does it do that? It does it by utilizing the idea of Citizen Science. Anybody, be it children or adults, interested in trees and the effects of climate change can participate. All they have to do is register, select a tree near them and monitor it every week. The data is uploaded to a central website and is analyzed for changing patterns of plant life, and the effects of climate change on plant life cycle. The data is also open source so anyone can get access to it if they wish to. With all this information one could answer questions which were previously impossible to answer such as:

  • How does the flowering of Neem change across India?
  • Is fruiting of Tamarind different in different parts of the country depending on rainfall in the previous year?
  • Is year to year variation in flowering and fruiting time of Mango related to Winter temperatures?

Using Citizen Science and crowdsourcing, programs such as SeasonWatch have expanded the scope and work of conservation biology in various ecosystems across India. The program serves as an example of the extent to which Citizen Science and crowdsourcing can be used to understand and limit the effects of climate change and global warming around the word. While SeasonWatch just has 154 volunteers and 368 schools signed up currently, it is gaining traction. As it expands to different regions of the country, the data it collects will become even more useful to non-profits, municipalities and governmental agencies, who can use the information to study seasonal variation caused by global warming.

Dhau - Acacia Nilotica. Some of New Delhi's most beautiful trees that need help.
One of New Delhi’s most beautiful trees that need help. As SeasonWatch grows, such trees will get protection through the watchful eyes of India’s public. Source:

Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing Metadata Workshop Summary

Databases are compiled for a variety of different reasons and come in all different formats, metadata is critical to understanding the provenance and ability to share information across databases effectively. (Photo Credit: Michael Mandiberg, Flickr)

On July 9th & 10th, 2015, the Wilson Center’s Commons Lab in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, hosted a Citizen Science & Crowdsourcing Metadata Workshop.

Four databases of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects —  SciStarter, the Citizen Science Association (CSA),, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (the Wilson Center Commons Lab) — are working on a common project metadata schema to support data sharing with the goal of maintaining accurate and up to date information about citizen science projects.  The federal government is joining this conversation with a cross-agency effort to promote citizen science and crowdsourcing as a tool to advance agency missions. Specifically, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in collaboration with the U.S. Federal Community of Practice for Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing (FCPCCS), is compiling an Open Innovation Toolkit containing resources for federal employees hoping to implement citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. Navigation through this toolkit will be facilitated in part through a system of metadata tags. In addition, the Open Innovation Toolkit will link to the Wilson Center’s database of federal citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. These groups became aware of their complementary efforts and the shared challenge of developing project metadata tags, which gave rise to the need of a workshop.

The results of the workshop included 30 fields describing citizen science project metadata (found in the Workshop Summary Appendix). Seven of the fields will be applied in a demonstration of data sharing between the four databases. However, the current list of project metadata tags requires expansion, especially around concepts related to crowdsourcing.

This publication is a summary of the results from the workshop and a definition of the collaboration moving forward. Click on this link to download the file.

Eye On Earth Alliance Calling Citizen Scientists

Image Source: Eye on Earth Website

PRESS RELEASE, Abu Dhabi, 16 July 2015 – The Eye on Earth Summit 2015 launched its Data Innovation Showcase today, with two challenges calling on citizen scientists and designers to use open data for creative projects and captivating visualizations on the state of the global environment. An additional competition invites bloggers to write about how open data can enable a more sustainable future and healthier planet. The winners of each challenge will be given the opportunity to participate in the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi, on 6-8 October.

The Data Innovation Showcase invites citizen scientists to submit project solutions that use open data to fight food waste, manage forest ecosystems or boost biodiversity in cities. The scope of the projects depends on the ingenuity of their developers and can include anything from a food donation platform matching excess with need, to a crowdsourced map using open data to do tree inventory. Three finalists of the Citizen Science Challenge will be given the opportunity to present their project to the delegates at the 2015 Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi, where a final winner will be selected.

The Data Visualization Challenge invites artists, designers, and creatives from across the globe to submit data visualizations that interpret the social and economic effects of poor air quality, oceanic warming and natural disasters. Applicants are invited to build images, data animations, infographics, 3D models, computer simulations, interactive maps and diagrams and other types of visualizations. One finalist will be selected to present their data visualization at the Summit.

The Blogging Competition invites writers and bloggers worldwide to help catalyze the #DataRevolution and address one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time – how to enhance the availability of information and knowledge to enable a more sustainable future and healthier planet. Under the theme ‘A better world through knowledge and information’, entrants are being asked to submit an inspirational piece that looks at how data and information can make a difference to ordinary people’s lives. The winner will be named the “Official Eye on Earth Summit 2015 Blogger” and will be hosted at the Summit to report live on the event for a global audience.

The Commons Lab is excited to participate and will be entering the Blogging Competition. We hope to see fellow U.S. citizen science groups rise to the challenge(s)!


Australian Citizen Science Association Conference

When: 23rd-24th July 2015

Where: The Shine Dome, Canberra, Australia.

The Australian Citizen Science Association Conference is currently being held in Shine Dome, Australia. This annual conference brings together the global and Australian citizen science community to share skills and ideas and encourage collaboration amongst citizen scientists. In fact, the Commons Lab’s very own Anne Bowser is there right now presenting some of her recent work.

The conference bring together Australian and international experts to better understand best practices needed to create and deliver successful citizen science projects. Some of the presentations and workshops at the conference directly tie policy and citizen science together, while others aim to inspire communities around the idea of citizen science and its benefits.

One example of such a talk is “Data Deficiency in Australia and the role of Citizen Science” by Chris Sanderson. Here is a brief description of what the talk is about from the conference program :

Australia is a megadiverse country, with an extremely high level of endemism in its native species. Despite being a wealthy first world nation, many of our species are highly data deficient. Australia’s governments do not list threatened species that are data deficient, and do not provide them with protection. As a result of this, many of Australia’s threatened species are not protected because we don’t know enough about them. Citizen science has the potential to address this issue through a variety of approaches. This talk will discuss some areas that are in desperate need of attention and some of the ways in which citizen science may be employed to assist filling in these knowledge gaps.

Sanderson’s talk is a perfect example of how citizen science can be used to not only fill in knowledge gaps that exist in certain areas of study but also to effectively protect the environment and different communities.

One of Bowser’s talks takes a different approach. Her talk “Introducing PPSR_CORE: Standardizing metadata to support a growing community” will focus on creating a collaborative endeavor to share data and metadata about citizen science projects. Bowser argues that using PPSR_CORE as the standardizing protocol will facilitate easy and standardized data sharing. Such a standard will also develop a common vocabulary for discussing the different components of citizen science and will encourage greater collaboration in the community.

But these are just two of the many interesting talks and workshops that are taking place at the conference. If you were unable to make the trip down under, you can read more about the myriad presentations here.

The koala is a threatened species in Australia. Chris Sanderson argues that citizen science could provide better protections for koalas and other threatened spices.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
The koala is a threatened species in Australia. Chris Sanderson argues that citizen science could provide better protections for koalas and other threatened spices.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This post was written by Rohin Daswani who is a Research Assistant with the Commons Lab in the Science & Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Wilson Center.

The DC Climathon

This post was written by Rohin Daswani who is a Research Assistant with the Commons Lab in the Science & Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Wilson Center. It is a personal reflection offered as a form of participant observation in a hackathon.

Photo Credit-

A Climathon is a global 24 hour hackathon style climate change event in which participants develop innovative solutions to a predefined challenge and work collaboratively to implement it. The 2015 Climathon was simultaneously held on the 18th of June in major cities around the world, which included Beijing, New Delhi, Addis Ababa, Rio De Janeiro, Perth and many more. Hosted by George Washington University, the Climathon is an initiative of the Climate-KIC.  The DC event brought more than 30 innovators, entrepreneurs, and hackers together. The event was co-sponsored by the GWU sustainability office, and had corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Roti and Bertucci’s who provided the food and drinks. The challenge we had to address was: How can public-private partnerships reduce food waste/loss generated by the DC’s residential or commercial  sectors? The winning team would work with the city over a 6 month period to make the idea implementable and then travel to Paris in December to showcase it at the UN COP21 on Climate Change conference.

The Climathon was well organized and brought a diverse array of individuals together. It started off with a copious amount of information about the DC food waste problem and the current problematic systems in place to address it, which helped streamlining, narrowing and directing our thinking. After a brief presentation on Public-Private Partnerships, we were ready to move on to the fun part. We did an exercise in which each of us put our ideas in 2-3 words and read it out to the entire group. People with similar ideas came together to form a team and that’s it, the process was that easy. Once the groups formed we began a 10 minute rapid iteration phase in which groups received feedback and iterated through their idea to improve it.

Designed by Leah Walters (

The group I helped put together was formed around the idea of using a logistical network to transport wasted food from the grocery stores and restaurants to an enterprise that would add value to this rejected commodity. Seven of us (including myself) came together to work on this. Initially the experience was chaotic because as you can imagine it can be difficult to work in a team of 7. Two hours in, we had nothing substantial down on paper. With just ideas floating around in our heads we approached one of the GW professors who was there as a mentor. In the 30 minutes he spent with us, we solved 2 of our major challenges:

  • Creating an affordable and scalable transportation network and;
  • Creating public private partnerships that would make our business sustainable.

Good! It was 9pm and our team at least knew where we wanted to go. We spent the remainder of the night hashing out the details and implementation. The next morning when we came together it was unbelievable how quickly we put together a 10 minute presentation for the judges.

At the end, our team was selected to be one of the four finalists to work towards implementing their ideas. What we hope to accomplish is,  building a detailed business plan outlining the revenue and expense streams and then forging partnerships with NGO’s, restaurants and grocery stores which would validate our idea and lastly, secure funding to run a pilot.  The company would be called Raw Food Rescue, which  is a logistics management public-private partnership devoted to rescuing and repurposing raw food resources within the DC area. Our services would include sourcing from the commercial sector, partnering with non-governmental organizations for transportation needs, and connecting the dots for end-user consumers. By leveraging the power of public-private partnerships we will be able to create jobs in local communities, with target groups including veterans, elderly, and disabled individuals. By diverting raw food waste from landfills, we reduce harmful methane emissions. Our services will help DC reach its zero food waste goal and address global climate change.

The Raw Food Rescue Team
The Raw Food Rescue Team

The Sound of Deforestation, a Hack to Make Data Sing

The Hack won the Data Award at the Wilson Center’s first ever Science Hack Day. This post was first published on the Nasa Goddard Center’s website, here is the link-


May 28, 2015 • [By Clare Skelly, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] A hack transforms something to serve a new purpose, and sometimes simultaneously solves a tricky problem.

Science Hack Day, a two-day all-night event, encourages people of all ages to think creatively about science topics. More than 50 of these “hack-make-do-a-thon” events have occurred in 17 countries. The Wilson Center and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. hosted the first Science Hack Day event on May 16-17, 2015.

After learning about various topics attendees brainstormed hacks and formed groups. “Some people just got on the stage and said, ‘this is what I’m working on, if you think it’s cool you should come work with me,’” said David Lagomasino, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The sound of deforestation. Lagomasino sharing his hack, “If no one hears it,” which won the best use of data award at the competition. Photo credit: Commons Lab
The sound of deforestation. Lagomasino sharing his hack, “If no one hears it,” which won the best use of data award at the competition. Photo credit: Commons Lab

The free-to-attend event started with several “lightning talks”: five-minute talks meant to provide diverse subjects to explore and consider when brainstorming hacks.

In his lightning talk Lagomasino proposed a challenge to help study deforestation by linking satellite imagery and ground-images gathered via crowdsourcing.

The topic relates to Lagomasino’s work at Goddard, where he uses satellite data to create 3-D reconstructions of mangrove forests. He kept the short talk open-ended, hoping to spark hacker’s ideas about forest monitoring.

Other talks included connecting sensors to dance performers and developing a method to sample leaves from the tops of trees.

The middle portion of the event was loosely structured, allowing groups to work on their hacks. Some developed prototypes while others compiled presentations to explain their idea. Several attendees stayed through the night and continued hacking.

This wasn’t Lagomasino’s first hack event. He has hosted and judged similar competitions since 2012. Unlike the others, D.C.’s Science Hack Day linked science and art. The art component inspired Lagomasino to, for the first time, create his own hack to help the visually impaired understand satellite imagery. The prototype program sounds a chord that plays three notes simultaneously using pixel values from various Landsat bands for each geographic location on the image.

“I took this opportunity to learn a new language,” Lagomasino said. He and his fellow group member, Tracey Bell, created music chords using different bands of Landsat 5 data. Landsat 5 is one of the satellites in a joint NASA/U.S.Geological Survey program that provides the longest continuous space-based record of Earth’s land in existence.

Lagomasino and Bell took a Landsat image of the Florida Everglades and pulled sounds of water, undeveloped land and urban areas.

“We brought another audience to this data, such as the visually impaired who can’t necessarily see the change but can now hear the change of deforestation.” The hack, titled: “If no one hears it,” won the best use of data award at the competition.

Participants produced 14 different hacks ranging from “LickitySplit,” which 3-D prints and analyzes spit, to “PoliConnect,” an online forum where lawmakers and policy experts can anonymously connect to ask and answer questions.

Science Hack Day results in more than the hacks themselves. “The act of putting these ideas together and talking with people you probably would never talk to about these issues is unique,” said Lagomasino.


Efforts underway to share project metadata

This post was first published on the Citizen Science Association’s blog:

As the field of citizen science continues to grow, there is an increasing need to document information about different projects. Collecting and maintaining this information will help practitioners discover each other’s work, help projects recruit volunteers, and enable researchers to study “the science of citizen science” by accessing data about project goals, impacts, and practices.  With these needs in mind, a number or organizations with complementary goals are compiling repositories of projects in citizen science and related fields:

  • SciStarter helps projects recruit volunteers
  • supports professional networking between citizen science practitioners
  • supports projects by providing a technical infrastructure for data management
  • The Wilson Center focuses on projects supported by U.S federal agencies
  • Many other repositories detailing projects in geographical regions and/or interest areas

The PPSR_CORE data model is an agreement detailing common project metadata (data about projects) designed to facilitate easy and standardized data sharing, and to develop a common vocabulary for discussing the different components of citizen science.

While some metadata descriptions may be unique to projects of distinct types, we believe that there are core metadata descriptions that do apply to a majority of projects in citizen science and related fields. These are articulated in metadata format in the table below. Some fields describe projects themselves, while others are automated and serve to help organize data sharing. (View these fields in metadata format.)


We suggest that a common metadata structure will benefit the broad community of people interested in citizen science, which includes but is not limited to efforts like crowdsourcing, public science, community science, volunteered geographic information, and other forms of public participation.

From a data sharing standpoint, our aims include:

  • Basic information about projects can be shared and synchronized automatically across participating databases,
  • Project leaders will be able to add and edit information about their projects in a single place of their choosing,
  • Project updates in one database will be reflected across other databases serving different communities
  • Individuals searching for projects can be confident that results contain the most up-to-date information.

While we recognize that some project databases may utilize additional fields, we hope that the fields identified as core will be embraced by all.

Who is involved

This initiative began with the DataONE Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) working group, active from 2011 to 2014. Since that time, SciStarter,,, and the Wilson Center have continued building PPSR_CORE to support data sharing and a shared understanding of citizen science. Together, we are submitting a proposal to the Citizen Science Association for a metadata working group with the goal of further developing a standardized vocabulary for characterizing citizen science projects. We welcome any suggestions or contributions from the community at large. Anyone who wishes to be a part of these efforts should contact Anne Bowser via

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.

Science Hack Day DC Summary

PoliConnect, the Policy Award winners. In 31 hours the team created a platform to facilitate connection between policy makers and experts advice.


We are happy to announce an incredibly successful first-ever DC Science Hack Day!

Quick Statistics:

  • Over 100 people attended
  • Around 15 hackers stayed through the night
  • 13 hacks were produced — details can be found on the wiki here:
  • Incredible gender, age and race diversity. Ages 10 – 80!
  • Government employees were highly represented — with lightning talks from EPA, NIH, State Department, NASA and participants from Department of Commerce, different branches of the military, OMB and NARA

Commons Labs favorite hacks (but they were all so incredible….):

  • LickitySplit — citizen science to the rescue! This team 3D printed the casing for a spectrometer to analyze your spit instantly and visualize the data.
  • If no one hears it — NASA scientists and arts team up to bring you an sound landscape of deforestation using freely available landsat data. Each tone represents a different type of deforestation.
  • PoliConnect — a platform to anonymously connect policy makers with policy experts. The Commons Lab has invited this team to come back to the Wilson Center to demo their hack to a policy audience! Test it out here:

Worthy social media streams to check out:

In the coming weeks we will be putting out a publication highlighting each hack and why these types of open participation models are important to every field, not just to science and technology. Stay tuned.

Our amazing judges for the event (L-R): Lakita Edwards, NEA; Steven Kostant, TidePool Media; Ariel Waldman, Founder Science Hack Day; Beth Beck, NASA; Greg Godbout, EPA