Get involved in the Sustainable Development Goals and create your own project!

This blog post originally appeared on, written by By Ruba Ishak, ONE Senior Research Assistant

We all have a role to play in creating a sustainable future for us and our planet. Tracking these 17 goals on eradicating extreme poverty, gender inequality, disease, and social injustice is not a small task. We need new ideas on how to do this and how to empower people to get involved.

A flag to represent Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, is raised in Sydney, Australia, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Shane Thaw
A flag to represent Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, is raised in Sydney, Australia, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Shane Thaw

That’s why the Open Seventeen challenge, an open platform that supports crowdsourcing projects, was launched in May this year. It’s about tapping into the power of your online community–or the one in your backyard—to help you sift through existing datasets (images, scanned text, tweets and more!) to find things that computers can’t pick up.

Today we’re putting out the call for the the second round of the Open Seventeen Challenge, looking for new ideas on how crowdsourcing can help tackle extreme poverty, corruption, and gender inequality. The winning ideas will receive online coaching and technical support to set up a crowdcrafting project and have it go live.

We had some great grassroots ideas come out of the first round and our two winning projects are getting ready to launch their crowdsourcing after graduating from their coaching program run by the GovLab Academy:

Promise 2030, led by John Ranford, is creating a “street guide to sustainable businesses.” Promise 2030 will be piloted in UK towns trying to reduce their CO2 impacts, tackling Global Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. By crowdsourcing information about local shops and businesses, Promise 2030 wants to accelerate the number of small and medium sized enterprises that record and publish information on their sustainability.
DATAFARMA, led by Janeth Cifuentes and Manuel Mejía, is looking to crowdsource to gather information on Hepatitis C and the use of generic medicines, to make that information easily accessible by people affected by this disease in Colombia and Mexico. The idea is to create a platform that maps disease outbreaks, while also having vital information on associated treatments and patient care. The project will focus on Global Goal 3: Good Health & Well-Being.

The new challenge will run until the end of December 2015 and the winners will be announced in the new year!

The Open Seventeen Challenge is a joint initiative of the research organizations Citizen Cyberlab and GovLab, The ONE Campaign, and the open-source company SciFabric.

Learn about the Global Goals, then find out more about the Open Seventeen challenge and get involved at!


New Report: Science Hack Day – Bridging the Hacking Community & Government

On May 16th & 17th of 2015 the Commons Lab hosted Washington, D.C.’s first-ever Science Hack Day in collaboration with ArtsEdge of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts. The event was attended by over 100 people and a handful of the hacks produced have continued on to form either a non-profit, limited liability company or submitted proposals to seek more funding.

The use of hackathon’s by the government, as a tool to engage top talent, apply new ways of thinking to seemingly intractable problems and increase public engagement and awareness has been growing over the past decade, especially in the past couple years. This exciting movement has incredible promise; however there are strategic research investments and best practices that could be made by the government to utilize this tool to its fullest potential. This case study analyzes the science hack day event itself, highlights some of the award winning hacks and explores some of the governments investments in concepts behind hackathon’s and offers suggestions for avoiding potential pitfalls of mass collaboration.

You can download the report here:


Eye on Earth Summit: Enabling conditions – using data to accomplish the 2030 SDG agenda

Jim Toomey, author of the comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon” opened day three with tips on how to get the words climate change as many google search hits as Taylor Swift.

What are enabling conditions? Agar in a petri dish help grow bacteria to create cultures for studying microbes; using technology enables one to date in a pool wider than your social circle; small grants help fund the exploration of a big idea; learning Spanish not by classroom, but by living in Mexico helps facilitate faster learning; zoning policies requiring low-income housing in cities enables access and diversity. These are but a few examples of enabling conditions that can be found across multiple disciplines, industries and governments. Mae Jemison on day two quoted the phrase, “The future doesn’t just happen – it’s made.” The goal of day three was to explore the enabling conditions needed to make the future of creating and turning data into reliable environmental and societal information for decision-making.

Inger Anderson of IUCN, and a panel of distinguished experts on creating enabling conditions.

In the morning, Inger Andersen, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), provided an estimate of $5 million a year to maintain the IUCN Redlist, the canonical database for the state of the world’s endangered species. This amount is “peanuts” compared to other data collection initiatives, according to Andersen, who emphasized this by comparing it to the U.S. census, which spends $13 billion every 10 years to understand demographics. However, what’s consistently undervalued are the 300 years’ worth of volunteer time that goes into updating that database. According to Anderson, the biggest word of caution moving forward is to keep the spirit of volunteerism alive by providing contributors with credit. This is not only the code of ethics in science and writing, but it’s also basic human decency: Give credit where it’s due, and the 300 years of volunteer time will continue to grow to 600 years and beyond as the world becomes more connected.

Enabling condition: give citizen scientists credit where it’s due and see an increase in volunteer time.

Enrico Giovannini, an economist and statistician and member of the Club of Rome, called for a “single state-of-the-art system that should serve [the] international community and countries [with the goal of] efficiency and effectiveness.” In addition, Giovannini stated we should place pressure on the private sector to share their data. This could include national policies which require private companies operating in their country to disclose all data collected about their resources (natural resources, demographic, economic). Giovannini ended with a bold statement, for countries to write the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their constitution. While that is a tall order — in the United States, there have been only 27 amendments to the Constitution in 226 years — what might be a more digestible step is to incorporate them into the missions of governmental and non-governmental organizations that are affiliated with one of the 17 goals.UN Sustainable Development Goals icons

Enabling conditions: Prevent duplication through collaboration, pressure private companies to share data while respecting private personal information and build the SDGs into governance frameworks.

Following the opening plenary was a panel on the “Polices, partnerships and open data for sustainable development,” moderated by Willian Sontag, initiatives manager from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs. One notable part of this presentation was the big data ecosystem workshops, led by CODATA in developing countries to increase best practices and therefore increase accuracy of data.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 9.55.57 AM is a aggregate of information on people using drones to collect data for conservation.
Gabelschwanzseekuh Dugong dugong
The second-largest population of dugongs can be found in the UAE, a cross between a dolphin and a manatee.

The afternoon panels focused on cutting-edge technology and stories from the “feet in the field,” the people collecting the data or managing the volunteers who collect that data that make its way down the information pipeline. The feet in the field representatives all emphasized the tremendous power of technology for turning data into information quickly in order to act on priority conservation areas. However, Liam Pin Koh of said it best, in that technology enables us to collect better data faster, but the main goals are to acquire the data in any way possible.


Enabling condition: don’t rely solely on technology, continue to use all methods of data collection (oral, social, manual), but make an extra effort to digitize them and make them accessible to all.

Ayesha Yousef Al Biooshi of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency shared methods  of studying dugongs, of which the UAE is home to the second-largest population. The Conservation Leadership Programme advertised its capacity-building program for young, aspiring conservation leaders, and lastly, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund shared stories from their grantees. The fund provides small grants to young ecologists, biologists and conservation leaders to collect valuable data for their academic work.

Moving Forward

The importance of follow-ups from this conference will be revealed in the years to come, as governments begin to set up their monitoring and reporting systems of the SDGs. Delegates from the Eye on Earth Summit will continue to tackle the problems of harmonizing data demand, supply and enabling conditions. Each leader from the founding five organizations stated in the final panel their dedication to leveraging their own communities for generating information in tandem with each other in order to monitor the SDGs.

Jacqueline McGlade of UNEP demoed the organization’s web intelligence platform for tracking the SDGs, UNEP Live, which aggregates media stories about individual countries and their environmental initiatives among other environmental data, like citizen science. The media stories are particularly relevant because, as McGlade noted, “Governments are driven by what is written about them.” If that’s so, then the Eye on Earth Alliance, with its amazing leaders, will hopefully inspire governments as news gets out about this incredible Alliance.

One suggestion moving forward for the next Eye on Earth Summit is to emphasize the process of collaboration. The convening reason for this Alliance is based on the problem of “oceans of data but only drops of information” and executing collaboration processes is the solution to building a bridge. Because of this, all presenters should spend at minimum one minute on how they work with other stakeholders to create a system of information for environmental and societal indicators. That way, other organizations can learn from each other about best practices for collaboration.

I’ll leave readers with a thought from one of my favorite authors, Chimanadache Nigamonzi Adichie, about the “danger of a single story.” When we believe whole-heartedly in one single story, we lose focus and disregard the possibility of other stories that describe the same thing. By bringing together organizations and individuals who care about the same thing – equitable access for all to data to inform decision-making – but may approach it differently, we are able to listen to everyone’s story and leverage the information that they share.


I want to thank the organizers of the Eye on Earth Blogging Competition for this unique and amazing opportunity. While you might not have seen them, the media team are a crucial component to this Alliance, acting as the megaphone for communicating to the world what happened over the past three days.

I would also like to thank the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, the United Nations Environment Program, GEO, IUCN and the World Resources Institute for their visionary leadership in bringing together critical stakeholders. May this Alliance continue to be a driving force in equitable and reliable information-sharing in the age of meeting the SDGs by 2030.

Lastly, I will share my pledge: As a citizen science researcher with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars in Washington, D.C., our organization strives to be a bridge between academia and policy, informing people on matters of international importance with reliable and actionable information. I have the incredible privilege to take what I learned here and bring it back to the United States and share with academics, policymakers and relevant organizations. I look forward to signing up my organization as a member of the Eye on Earth Alliance.

Eye on Earth Summit: Data Supply

“When someone in my field [environment] says they have hope, listen to them, because we don’t say that often,” said World Resources Institute’s Vice President of Science and Research Janet Ranganathan on the potential of data visualization as a tool for catalyzing change.

Software systems are divided into two parts, the front end and the back end, to help identify issues, put a complex system into boxes and to simplify maintenance. Back end is usually associated with data scientists, engineers and databases, while front end is associated with users, designers, communicators and writers. Day two of the Eye on Earth Summit brought together both “ends” under the theme of data supply. The data supply back end? Data infrastructure investment, breaking down islands of information in the sea of the world wide web and citizen science. The data supply front end? Data visualization and mapping, education, communication and equal access.

Graphic credit: Digital Telepathy

The day opened with invigorating talks from Barbara Ryan, Secretariat Director of the Group on Earth Observations, who displayed an astonishing graph demonstrating the number of imagery downloads from the satellite LANDSAT once it was opened to the public, which jumped from 53 to 5,700. It’s easy to say that the increase is obviously due to access—and one would be correct—but the real insight came from the fact that a significant portion of the downloads were from other U.S. federal agencies. This fact emphasizes how open data reduces the amount of resources that each agency must allocate for information gathering and epitomizes the resource-effectiveness of open data. Muki Haklay of University College London and Director of the ExCITES program provided a history of citizen science and a call to action to move beyond citizens as just sensors, and emphasized a human-centered design approach when working with technology and communities. In other words, don’t just plop a cell phone in the community and expect results; work backwards from their needs.

Christopher Tucker, from Map Story, an open-source atlas of change, emphasized why policy-makers should care about these types of crowdsourced platforms. In ecology, usually the most resilient systems are those which have high biodiversity, or many different types of plants and animals in the system, and are therefore are more adaptable to changes in the environment. Tucker argued that open-source platforms like Map Story, among “official” sources of geospatial information, provide a key piece in the information ecosystem, therefore providing resiliency.

“I grew up during a time of rapid change, social and technical” Mae Jemison

The plenary closed with Mae Jemison, the first African-American astronaut and pinciple of 100-Year Starship, an organization dedicated to creating the future of human space travel. Jemison came to the realization in space that Earth will always be here, the question is, will we? Through studying other planets, we can learn more about our own and possibly gain insights to help us protect our life support, the environment.

Back End

The Global Network of Networks (GNON) is an initiative of Eye on Earth to create a technical supportive structure for individual projects with databases of environmental information to connect to other databases with similar or the same information. If a citizen science project is collecting water quality data and the field they use to describe “water quality” is “H20 goodness,” it will probably have significance to them, but won’t make any sense to say a UAE national organization like AEGDI. GNON, according to Rob Atkinson of meta-linkage, is NOT trying to create another set of standards. Instead, it aims to create a support system for these thousands of databases with crucial environmental information to explain what each field of data means to an individual project, and how it relates to a possibly similar field of data among these islands of information. If you’re interested in learning more, the Open Geospatial Consortium is soliciting projects for “testbeds,” where they will work with you and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to prototype their concept. GNON anticipates and expects to evolve with coming technology.

Funding, funding, funding! Its loud and clear coming from the community and echoed by Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, during a panel on “Data for Sustainable Development.” “You have to commit to open data, but none of the agencies [funding organizations] provide help or services to do it,” he said. While it’s noble to commit to open data principles, there are no line items in budgets for the support services needed to enable research projects to share their data. Building on GNON, what is the point of sharing your data if your information isn’t discoverable and/or meaningful to someone?

The big question becomes, what does this cost? What costs are associated with maintaining a database and keeping it open? A panelist made up of representatives from International Union for the Conservation of Nature, BirdLife International and United Nations Environment Program-World Conservation Monitoring Centre presented their databases during a panel on “Understanding the costs of knowledge: cost of data generation and maintenance.”

How much mula do you need to keep that database filled with bird observations going?

Following the case studies, Diego Juffebignoli, program officer for the Protected Areas program at the UNEP-WCMC, presented his research, which attempted to quantify how much it costs to maintain these cornerstone conservation “knowledge products.”The answer? It’s complicated. One of the notable issues in discerning costs was how to evaluate volunteer time, because a professional scientist volunteering her time is a different value than an interested and curious citizen. However Juffebignoli was able to provide a price range of investments over the last ~30 years—$116 – 204 million with an estimate of current annual investments of $6.5 million.

An incredible panel of individuals presented their efforts to incorporate citizen science for mobilizing policy action during “Crowdsourcing, citizen science: everyone is a supplier.” Tuntiak Katan J., arriving from Ecuador at 3am that day, presented his work with indigenous communities in monitoring carbon for the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Brian Sullivan of Google Earth Outreach presented Global Fishing Watch, a real-time feed of fishing boats in the world, and told a compelling success story of the nation of Kiribati, which was able to bring illegal fishers to court using evidence from this platform, eventually causing the perpetrators to settle out of court. Another argument that open data pushes transparency and ultimately to legal action.


The day ended with a plenary on data visualization and the citizen science award. A refrain heard again and again was “what gets visualized gets used.” We heard from some of the most prominent names in data visualization for decision-making. World Resources Institute (WRI) unveiled their prototype of Resource Watch, a platform developed with Vizzuality using a multiple-prong approach, from storytelling to accountability metrics. Craig Mills, CEO of Vizzuality added that while there are more than 7 billion cell phone subscribers, a large part of them don’t use smartphones. With Resource Watch, Vizzuality and WRI will move past data visualization for the first world and offer services to those who only have access to SMS and audio services, with a hotline to provide real-time data on your geographical region. This type of thinking will be vital to the #datarevolution, and should be praised and encouraged.

“The best part of the Ushahidi platform? Made in Africa!” – Angela odor Lungati

A panel filled with communicators, visualizers and data experts brings with it excellent metaphors, analogies and interactive content. However the most compelling metaphor was the simplest (not a coincidence). Ushahidi’s Angela odor Lungati, director of community engagement, described data, platforms and people as:

seeds = data

land = platforms, e.g. Ushahidi

farmers = people

Seeds and land are pointless without people to sow the land and care for the plants. Data and platforms are useless if they aren’t reaching the people who need them most.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 11.01.22 AM
You can contribute too! Visit to put perpetrators on the map

The last event was the award for the citizen science challenge. All three finalists were invited to attend the event. Biocaching gamified biodiversity observations using a mobile app. Hack the Rainforest, an initiative of Digital Democracy, brought developers to the Peruvian forest to aid communities in creating technological platforms for collecting and visualizing the data of deforestation. The winner, Logging Roads Initiative of Moabi, used Opens Street Map and Global Forest Watch to literally put illegal logging roads on the map in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

You can’t build a software system without people for the front-end and the back-end, and neither one is more important than the other. The Eye On Earth Summit 2015 has brought together the movers and shakers from both ends to build a software system for protecting our planet.

Eye on Earth Summit: Data Demand – from whom and for what?

H.E. Anwar Gargash the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs addresses the opening plenary

The Eye on Earth does not disappoint, with over 600 delegates representing different sectors of the information infrastructure. The first day of the summit was filled with where the data is needed most, from whom and best practices. However its worth noting, the irony of a summit focused on reinventing the information pipeline is that there is an incredible amount of information on information, you could almost say a meta-information pipeline. 

Opening Plenary: Aspirations and New Directions

H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency

There is no doubt, the Eye on Earth Summit has focused at least one eye on citizen science as a way to merge civil society, government and business to generate crucial environmental data across local, regional and global scales for informed decision-making. The opening plenary was graced by leaders from the United Arab Emirates such as, H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency and H.E. Anwar Gargash the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs followed by leaders from the Global Environment Facility, Global Footprint Network, Planet Labs and closed with a moving address from Pierre-Yves Cousteau on the future of oceans.  

Each speaker, in one way or another, mentioned citizen science as a key component to the data infrastructure that will inform environmental decision making and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals. Costeau announced the launch of the Hermes Project which aims to literally take the temperature of the ocean using the dive computers on scuba divers to create a dynamic data stream in real time of the ocean temperature, complimenting existing satellite and buoy data.  Strategic investments by the Emirate government demonstrated their commitment to building robust data platforms that incorporate the physical, social and economic indicators for decision-making. Examples of this are the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, a comprehensive project monitoring the UAE’s environmental indicators with a component focused on civic society input.

Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, provided an metaphor comparing the economy to piloting a plane, in which pilots have protocols, sensors and fuel indicators that ensure they have everything they need to take off and land without incident. Quite like a plane, our economy needs these sensors and fuel indicators if we are to remain in balance between our biocapacity (natural resources) and our ecological footprint (use of natural resources) – of which Global Footprint Network aims to provide the indictors. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sensors on a plane that provide the pilot with information that she can use to inform her action.  The good news? With mobile phone proliferation we have more than 7 billion sensors in every corner of the earth to provide us with a part of the information puzzle we need for accurate sustainable development.

A real success story was Robbie Shingler of Planet Labs, who brought the public good ethic of NASA’s open data and innovation in space to his company Planet Labs in the effort to democratize access to real-time geospatial data at unprecedented scales. To date they’ve launched 101 satellites, developed an autonomous work flow and created substantially smaller satellites which allows for incredible scalability. Shingler ended with announcing Planet Lab’s commitment of $60 million US dollars to create the first open geospatial country, stay tuned as they decide which country to partner with for this initiative.

Interspersed throughout the talks were captivating and emoting videos that expressed themes of shared responsibility, closing the data gap and equipping policymakers and decision makers with high quality and real-time data. 

Perhaps the talk that reframed the information paradigm the best was Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, who began with an image of the pale blue dot 40 years ago and our united realization that we live on such a fragile planet. Steiner noted that the age of understanding the environment as an add on is antiquated and being replaced with an understanding of the environment as the foundation for our survival. This reinvention of our economic infrastructure, with the environment as our foundation, will not come easily, but Steiner closed with this quote: “the best way to make dreams come true is to wake up” and the Eye on Earth is that wake up call.

Data for Policy Making

A demonstration of relational networks, a proof of concept for GNON

The day continued with incredible panels which ranged from “Donors demand for data”, “Measuring progress of sustainable development goals” and “Building knowledge to provide for healthy lives.” The “Data for policy making” panel provided fascinating insight on what policy makers want and need in terms of quality and actionable data in order to make informed decisions. Marcos Silva, secretariat of CITES, highlighted a citizen science data quality learning opportunity through studying how local police departments, who are the intermediaries for citizens reporting illegal animal and plant trade, handle judgement, accuracy and relevancy of these reports. These police departments are adept at filtering and judging citizen provided data points and communicating it to coordinating agencies such as INTERPOL. A lot of lessons could be learned from studying the information pipeline of illegal species trade.

Another theme from the data for policy making panel was collaboration and coordination in funding frameworks. If we want to envision a sustainable and interoperable “Eye on the Earth” data infrastructure then we must ensure that nations are funding complementary data projects. Large investments must be made in data centers and servers (infrastructure), longevity and sustainability to detect trends and supporting researchers open data initiatives with a framework for creating machine-readable and interoperable platforms for sharing data. Lastly, in the international standards realm, Silva noted that we must ensure a strong public-private partnership because a data behemoth like Google could come along and push their own information standards which could be fundamentally incompatible with public datasets.

Jaqeline McGlade, Chief Scientists United Nations Environment Program

After a long day of pitches, visualizations and catalyzing conversations Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist of UNEP and citizen science advocate, brought the day to a close at the gala dinner. McGlade presented the Eye on Earth winner of the Data Visualization challenge to Airscapes Singapore. Airscapes used citizen scientists, equipped with air quality sensors linked to their smartphones, to provide real-time AQ data to inform people of the healthiest transit routes in Singapore. The team plans to to expand to San Francisco and Beijing.

Its worth going back to Steiner’s metaphor of Eye on Earth as waking up from a dream. The dream is easy: a reliable, relevant and global network of environmental information accessible and digestible by all. But quite like an early morning alpine start, this dream will require getting rid of the snooze button and getting up. The Eye on Earth Summit is doing just that right now.

My excellent reporting team & UNEP’s data visualization sphere:


Eye on Earth Summit 2015: Day 1, Abu Dhabi, UAE

eyeonearth1Today marks the first day of the Eye on Earth Summit, an alliance dedicated to the Rio 10 Principle of access to reliable, scientifically accurate and relevant information for environmental decision making. The multi-stakeholder alliance is dedicated to utilizing big data, existing networks and tackling the difficult issues of interoperability to prevent silos of information. Among the eight initiatives are:

  1. Access for All
  2. Water Security
  3. Global Network of Networks
  4. Environmental Education
  5. Biodiversity
  6. Community Sustainability and Resiliency
  7. Disaster Management
  8. Oceans and Blue Carbon

logoConceived by the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency and their Global Environmental Data Initiative in partnership with the United Nations Environmental Programme, the alliance held its inaugural summit in 2011. The second summit, this October 6th – 8th in Abu Dhabi, coincides with the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals which will be the main theme for the event. The days are divided into “Data Demand,” “Data Supply” and “Enabling Conditions.”

Citizen science will play a crucial role in providing the scale and granularity necessary for informed environmental decision making. However many barriers still exist to translating this information to decision makers, known widely in the community as data quality and integrity, participation and motivation, sustainability and duplication prevention. This summit will focus on some of these issues and demonstrate possible solutions, new initiatives and technology that could tackle the information pipeline from civil society (citizen science) to local, regional, national and global environmental decision making.

Elizabeth Tyson, of the Commons Lab, won their blogging competition and has the honor of reporting for the event as the Official Eye on Earth Blogger. Follow along for daily blog posts on exciting panels such as:

  • Addressing policy making demand,
  • Donors demand for data and environmental data for business performance
  • Collaborative research and activist knowledge for environmental justice
  • Connecting networks to support environmental sustainability
  • Understanding the costs of knowledge: cost of data generation and maintenance
  • Reaching audiences through innovations in visualization
  • Citizen scientists and their role in monitoring of local to global environmental change
  • Policies, partnerships and open data for sustainable development

Additional media providing excellent coverage include, Muki Haklay’s of University College London’s blog, Po Ve Sham and @STIPcommonslab, #datarevolution, #EOESUMMIT15, @EKTyson.



New Bill in Congress: The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 (3 of 3)

On September 30th, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015. The purpose of this bill is “to harness the expertise, ingenuity, and creativity of all people to contribute to innovation in the United States and to help solve problems or scientific questions by encouraging and increasing the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science methods within the Federal Government, as appropriate, and for other purposes.”

The man of the hour: Senator Chris Coons
The man of the hour: Senator Chris Coons. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

This is a bill worth celebrating.

Despite tremendous progress for crowdsourcing and citizen science in government—most recently recognition from the white house; and, the growth of an important federal community of practice—doubts about the legitimacy of crowdsourcing and citizen science remain. The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is still a barrier to timely implementation. The question of who will make initial and ongoing financial investments in citizen science is open. Passing this bill will help resolve lingering doubts about the value of citizen science in government agencies.

In addition to signaling progress, the bill highlights important considerations to stimulate future efforts.

  • Understanding ethics in citizen science and crowdsourcing. The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 defines a citizen science participant as “any individual or other entity that has consented as a volunteer in a crowdsourcing or citizen science project.” Beyond this, the Act points to considerations including mode of consent as electronic or written; data ownership and access rights; and, adherence to regulations for conducting human subjects research. Generally, the Act leaves decisions to agencies themselves (e.g., regarding consent) or lets difficult issues remain open (e.g., by failing to specify whether and when citizen science and crowdsourcing are human subjects research).
  • The importance of designing projects with motivation in mind. Motivation is one of the most commonly studied, yet least understood, concepts in citizen science. We are aware of a handful of high-level motivational factors (including learning; attribution and recognition; socialization; and, altruism, as highlighted in the Act). But less is known about how motivation changes between cultures, how motivation changes over time, how motivation depends on different application domains, and how technologies such as games may motivate new and different volunteers.
  • Documenting partnership models. Agencies are encouraged to cooperate with one another, and to work with organizations including for-profits, nonprofits, and NGOs to “share administrative duties” for citizen science. The federal citizen science projects that are most successful at achieving their goals typically forge partnerships with universities, museums, schools, and other institutions. Articulating successful partnership models that others may replicate will go a long way towards supporting sustainability for the field within and outside of government.

A smooth and expedient passage of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 will not only legitimize this important research paradigm, but usher in new research on these and other important issues.

White house memo has implications for DIYbio/Maker/Hacker communities (2 of 3)

Yesterday, John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for a variety of actions to be taken to fast track the use of citizen science and crowdsourcing in the federal government. Among the specific actions are (1) for each agency to appoint a citizen science and crowdsourcing coordinator and (2) for agencies to list citizen science and crowdsourcing projects in a new GSA website (similar to that lists prizes sponsored by agencies) to help the public find federally funded projects. This latter effort can build on the current Commons Lab database of federal projects.

Towards the end of the memo OSTP outlines suggestions for building capacity through five areas: policy, resources and staffing, technologies and scientific instrumentation, grant-making and rigorous research. While the recommendations are specific to federal employees, one area in particular, grant-making mechanisms, should be of particular interest to Do-It-Yourself biology and maker communities.

The memo states:

Create mechanisms for providing small grants to individuals and communities that may not be affiliated with universities or traditional government contractors

TechShop, a shared space with a variety of tools for woodworking, robotics making and 3D printing. Photo Credit: DARPA

It then highlights DARPA’s Fast Track Initiatives as a flagship model for funding that could be applied to citizen science and crowdsourcing. The Fast Track Initiative opens up small research grants to individuals instead of traditional institutions like universities and beltway contractors.

This call could have huge implications for all “grassroots” or DIY initiatives who have long been excluded from traditional science and engineering funding mechanisms. In 2012, the Institute on Science for Global Policy held a conference on “21st Century Borders/Synthetic Biology: Focus on Responsibility and Governance” which called for a similar reform:

Federal funding agencies should develop metrics and procedures to allow actors outside the traditional academic or business communities to apply for and receive federal grants. If we want to harness the intellectual power of this movement, federal funding agencies should rethink their mechanisms for awarding grants – Todd Kuiken, Wilson Center

This is good news that the cry’s for diversifying science funding mechanisms in the federal government have been heard and we look forward to watch the ripple effects unfold. Citizen Scientists, DIYbio, maker and hacker communities will no longer be restricted to crowd-funding platforms and should stay tuned and watch closely.



White house highlights citizen science (1 of 3)

The Commons Lab will publish a three part blog series in celebration of the White House Event on Open Science and Open Innovation. Each article will highlight a different initiative announced during this forum. The first article in this series is an announcement of Citizen Science Day reposted from the Citizen Science Association.

The Citizen Science Association launched their new website today. Congratulations to all who worked on the white house forum, and also the CSA. 


Citizen Science Day announced

In conjunction with today’s White House forum, “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People,” we are pleased to announce efforts of the Citizen Science Association (CSA) to coordinate a nationwide Citizen Science Day.With support from SciStarter and in partnership with numerous national organizations, CSA will provide planning resources and promotional materials for sites around the country to host events to bring attention to citizen science impacts and participation opportunities.A major celebration will be held on April 16th, 2016, in conjunction with the National Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. This will kick off a series of citizen science “open houses” and activities to be locally-sponsored by science centers, museums, libraries, universities and schools, and federal agencies around the country.Imagine such activities as:

  • Zoos hosting a series of guest speakers addressing wildlife-related project research;
  • Parks conducting a bioblitz;
  • Festivals engaging visitors in citizen science and crowdsourcing activities;
  • Libraries displaying SciStarter on a kiosk to connect people with projects;
  • Science centers hosting a forum to discuss the implications of a project’s findings.

Already interested in hosting an event? Add your activities to SciStarter’s online calendar.

We are pleased to partner with the following organizations in planning and promoting Citizen Science Day celebrations:

Federal Community of Practice for Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC)
Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA)
Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE)
Astronomy Magazine
Discover Magazine