EPA Offers up to $80,000 to Communities to Develop Air Sensor Data Best Practices

By Ann Dunkin, Chief Information Officer, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

medium_square4-EPA-sealSMART CITIES AIR CHALLENGE INFORMATION

  • Application Deadline: October 28, 2016
  • Announcement of Winners: Around December 1, 2016
  • Initial award: Up to $40,000 each to two communities to deploy air sensors, share data with the public, and develop data management best practices from sensors
  • Additional funding: Up to $10,000 each to the winning communities in 2017 based on their accomplishments and collaboration.

I came to the EPA with a firm belief that data can make a difference in environmental protection. Since I’ve been here I’ve found that communities are leading the way by using data to understand local conditions and operate efficiently. That’s why I’m excited to announce EPA’s Smart City Air Challenge.

This new challenge encourages communities to install hundreds of air quality sensors and manage the resulting data. EPA is offering two communities up to $40,000 each to work with their residents to crowdsource air quality data and share it with the public online. The projects will give individuals a role in collecting the data and understanding how environmental conditions affect their health and their community.

Air quality sensors are becoming less expensive and people are beginning to use them to measure pollution levels in their neighborhoods and homes. They’re developing rapidly, but most sensors aren’t ready for regulatory use. However, by networking these devices, communities can better understand what is happening at the local level. Communities will figure out where to place the sensors and how to maintain the devices. It’s up to each community to decide what pollutants they want to measure.

The prize funds serve as seed money, so communities will need to partner with other parties, such as sensor manufacturers, data management companies and universities. These partners can provide resources and expertise in topics where communities lack experience. In doing so, communities will learn how to use data analytics, which can be applied to other aspects of community life.

What does EPA get out of this? We’ll learn how communities collect, store and manage large amounts of data. We’ll also get a better understanding of the quality of data communities collect using sensors for non-regulatory purposes. We’ll see how communities transfer data from sensors to databases and visualize the results. Finally, the sensors will produce as much as 150 gigabytes of open data a year —data anyone can use.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy often says communities are “incubators for innovation.” We’re hoping the challenge will inspire communities to come up with innovative approaches for managing data so their residents and other communities can benefit. Show us how it’s done.

For more information: http://www.challenge.gov/challenge/smart-city-air-challenge/

For more information: https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2016/08/smart-cities-air-challenge

Reflections on Bridging the Gulf

By Christian Belcher, Departing Commons Lab Intern

EachChristian year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Christian Belcher is a rising senior at Georgetown University, majoring in Political Economy and minoring in Political and Social Thought. He hopes to shape public policy one day by employing the skills he has garnered in both the professional and academic settings.

Admittedly, I haven’t taken a science class since my freshman year of college – an introductory course in astronomy aimed at appeasing the “monkey on my back” that was general education requirements. To make matters worse, I’m about as fluent in Python or C++ as I am in Esperanto. So at first glance, I was perhaps the least-likely candidate for an internship with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Program. That said, the skill transfer from previous academic research projects, and the value of an “outsider perspective,” enabled me to feel that, despite being out-of-my-league at times, at least I was playing the same sport.

The initial unfamiliarity, and subsequent intimidation, that I felt during my first week on the job may in fact mirror how other laymen regard professional science as a whole. But if that is at all the case, then citizen science projects are perhaps the best way to address these inhibitions; they help bridge the gulf between the public and the ivory tower of academia. Citizen science is science democratized. As such, it presents us with many of the same opportunities and challenges that face our system of government today. Just as we should strive to increase voter turnout, we must encourage participation in community-based science. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the most politically-active demographics, and those most likely to participate in a citizen science project – neither of which offers an accurate depiction of the population as a whole.

I believe that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the tremendous potential that citizen science and crowdsourcing methods bare, for the citizen, the scientist, and society alike. Whether it’s documenting the effects of climate change, altered migratory patterns, or health diagnostics for epidemiological studies, anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can make meaningful contributions to revolutionary studies. The field is still in its adolescence; common vocabularies and standardization are on their way, along with federal policies aimed proliferating their implementation. The Holdren memo got the ball rolling, but what’s next? How about integrating a nation-wide citizen science project into primary school curricula? First-graders in Alaska have proven invaluable in the effort to document the spread of invasive species – imagine what fifty states’ worth of them could do.

Crowdsourcing has already begun to stand on its own, and proven profitable to the private sector, through platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Researchers and companies are starting to appreciate the “wisdom of the crowd,” and won’t need the training wheels of federal backing much longer. That said, I think that the role played by the federal government, and federally sponsored platforms like Challenge.gov and Citizenscience.gov, will only become more invaluable in time. And with ubiquity will come an even greater demand for accessible resources and best practices, the kind provided and promoted by groups like the CSA, ECSA, and ACSA. Who knows, maybe there will be a day when crowdsourcing and citizen science are seen not as novel or innovative, but normal and instinctive.

My Crash Course in Citizen Science: A Reflection

By Lauren Nally, a departing Commons Lab intern.

Each year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Thus far in my engineering education, the importance of social interaction has played little to no role; the customer is at the end of a long pipeline– sometimes literally– and their satisfaction is assumed as long as you have done your research and calculations correctly. It’s difficult to stay motivated if your scope of impact is limited to machinery and blue screens. I’ve noticed this sentiment among federally employed scientists and researchers. As employees of a democratic government, their work serves the American people, and should consequently benefit the shared concerns of the public. But, because science can be a highly technical profession and the educational pre-requisites are steep, there is a certain distance between the researcher and relevant communities.

Non-scientists can, and should, play a very powerful role in research, particularly when it comes to the Federal government. Local communities are the largest and most important stakeholders in their local environmental conditions, biodiversity of ecosystems, traffic patterns, and health concerns. In any regional project relating to these or other factors, the residents should be involved because they will be the most directly influenced by any results. But, self-doubt and unfamiliarity with the sciences or research can limit people’s confidence and interest in such projects.

Citizen science in the federal government is an excellent method of subverting that mentality by partnering scientists with interested citizens to perform research that both parties care about. Mobilizing citizens in this way allows them to feel empowered with regard to things that they typically wouldn’t. It increases science literacy, can produce rigorous data sets, and bridges the communication gap between research and community interests.

This methodology has proven its capabilities in regard to mass data collection and analysis across a wide range of fields in both the private and public sectors. But, there’s still room for improvement. My dream project is something along the lines of the latest international craze, Pokémon GO, but with wildlife as the subject of interest. Combining gamification with data collection through an engaging mobile application is a fantastic way to capture public interest on a wider scale. It could engage the 18-35 year old demographic that is the least likely to be involved in citizen science projects.

However, there are two distinct obstacles associated with this path:

  1. The need for an advanced and highly technological platform;
  2. Cybersecurity and the collection of information on people’s whereabouts and actions, particularly by any Federal agency

Citizen science is somewhat limited at the moment when it comes to technological scope. Many data collection apps, like iNaturalist, have been able to streamline wildlife observation projects, but beyond logging information and recording a geographic location, there is a lot of room for expansion. A bridge has yet to be formed between citizen science projects and the advanced capabilities of modern technology, particularly relating to smartphone apps. But, web-based projects like Eyewire and Foldit have proven that further expansion is possible.

Furthermore, with such advanced data collection methods involving the public, privacy concerns will rise to the surface. This draws our attention to legal, moral, and logistical problems that many organizations are facing in the Internet age, but that should not bar progress and innovation. There are many exciting new directions that citizen science could go in, but this requires new partnerships and the consideration of barriers very unique to the 21st century.

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Lauren Nalley is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, studying chemical engineering with a focus in materials science engineering. She is interested in the intersection of science and technology with public policy, and likes the idea of becoming an “engineer in context.” She hopes to continue combining these interests by pursuing a career related to the management of municipal water utilities.

White House to Host Arctic Science Ministerial

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

In spring of this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced plans to host the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial.  On September 28, science ministers from Arctic and non-Arctic nations alike will convene in Washington, DC.  Joining them will be representatives from various indigenous groups that call the Arctic home.  Together, the OSTP is hoping to “advance promising, near-term science initiatives and create a context for increased international scientific collaboration on the Arctic over the long term.”  The Ministerial will revolve around four key themes: arctic science challenges and their regional and global implications, strengthening and integrating arctic observations and data sharing, applying expanded scientific understanding of the arctic to build regional resilience and shape global responses, and of particular significance to us here at the Commons Lab, arctic science as a vehicle for STEM education and citizen empowerment.  Current citizen science projects in the Arctic both address this theme, and serve as powerful examples of the near-term initiatives the OSTP intends to highlight.

One doesn’t have to look hard to discover the abundance of citizen science projects already underway in the Arctic.  Because it is often difficult or expensive to reach, researchers rely heavily on the input of citizen scientists.  This dependency has contributed to the proliferation and long history of Arctic citizen science.  One such initiative, the Kachemak Bay CoastWalk, dates all the way back to 1984.  For more than 30 years, CoastWalk participants have helped remove debris from Alaskan beaches and record observations of flora and fauna.  In fact, a CoastWalk team member was the first to spot oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill on the beaches of Homer, Alaska.  And when it comes to keeping track of invasive species, one project has proven that no age is too young.  “Early Primary Invasion Scientists,” an article published in Science and Children, highlights the contributions of a first grade class, who helped document how climate change is affecting invasive species in the far North.

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Poseidon Expeditions, a Russian polar tourism outfit, recruits clients to make sea ice observations (photo credit: Lauren Farmer)

While the Inuit may have more than 50 words for snow, Arctic residents haven’t forgotten about ice either.  The SEARCH Sea Ice Outlook provides the scientific community, stakeholders, and the public with information on Arctic sea ice, and receives its funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationIce Watch, coordinated by the International Arctic Research Center out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, serves as an open source forum for data on Arctic sea ice.  By using their ASSIST software, anyone can collect, archive, and access Arctic sea ice data from around the globe.

Projects like these have cemented the role that citizen science plays in Arctic research, a field integral to monitoring climate change.  With temperatures rising twice as fast as the global average, permafrost is thawing, and glaciers are melting, at an alarming rate.  In conjunction with the Paris Agreement, the international collaboration displayed during the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit is invaluable to combating climate change globally, an issue with sobering local ramifications, especially for those in the Arctic.

Webinar on Citizenscience.gov

Interested in learning more about the Citizenscience.gov  platform?  Join the Wilson Center Commons Lab and the General Services Administration (GSA) for a webinar tomorrow afternoon from 11am – 12pm.  Hosted via DigitalGov University, topics of the webinar will include an introduction to the platform, a tour of the Federal Catalogue, and a few citizen science examples from federal practitioners.

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Whether you’re a seasoned citizen science practitioner, aiming to promote a current project within the federal community, or simply interested in what Citizenscience.gov, and the field as a whole, have to offer – all are welcome to attend.  By capturing the input and enthusiasm of the general public, citizen science and crowdsourcing projects are tackling the problems of today and tomorrow.  Citizenscience.gov serves as the hub for federal endeavors of this nature, providing the populace and federal practitioners with three pillars of support: a Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, a Federal Catalog, and a Community Page.

Presenting at the webinar are Elizabeth Tyson, a CoDirector of the Commons Lab, and Kendrick Daniel, a representative from the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, and the Program Lead for Citizenscience.gov.

Click here to register.

Brexit and the Future of Citizen Science in the U.K.

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

Britain’s departure from the European Union, and the resulting diplomatic maelstrom, has left more than a few things up in the air.  In the U.K., turbulent financial markets took their toll on the pound, while the country scrambles to hire foreign experts to renegotiate trade deals.  Meanwhile, Brussels has heard concerns voiced by other skeptical members of the E.U., who fear that Britain’s departure might become the thread that unravels the European sweater.  The tumult of the past three weeks will take a full two years to unravel, as per the probationary period allotted by Article 50 of the E.U. treaty, so any predictions at this stage are essentially speculation.  While economists and diplomats discuss the future of trade and the fate of the E.U., we at the Commons Lab would like to know how Brexit will shape the landscape of European, and specifically British, citizen science.

The U.K. is at the forefront of the citizen science movement, with projects ranging from The Shore Thing, which helps to document the effects of climate change on rocky shore species, to Cloudy with a Chance of Pain, a smartphone-based study of chronic pain.  But, since citizen science is a participatory venture, and many projects transcend national boundaries, it remains to be seen how future endeavors will respond to changes in the international funding and grant structure.

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The U.K. has won more H2020 projects than any EU nation (image credit: LSE)

Perhaps the greatest change, from a funding perspective, will be the U.K.’s reaction to the loss of Horizon 2020 grants.  H2020, the E.U.’s Research and Innovation program, provides an array of projects with nearly €80 billion (more than $88 billion USD) over a seven year period, ending in the year 2020.  Currently, more than 33 British projects are set to receive H2020 funding, more than any other country in the program.  Many of these projects, like DITOs and PROSO, are devoted to engaging the public in research and innovation-based endeavors, and receive most or all, as is the case with PROSO, of their financial backing from the E.U.  One citizen science project for instance, has seven partners within the U.K., including the Universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh.  The Citizen Observatory Web, or COBWEB for short, recruits everyday people (their words, not mine) to collect valuable information within UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.  COBWEB receives funding from H2020’s predecessor, the E.U.’s Seventh Programme (FP7).  How projects like COBWEB would proceed, potentially in lieu of readily available E.U. funding, has yet to be determined.  For the U.K. to continue participating in H2020, it would need to obtain associated country status, a label that would likely require a few concessions.  Of those concessions, freedom of movement could be a possibility, and a divisive one at that; limiting immigration was a driving force behind the leave campaign, and Switzerland’s decision to inhibit movement resulted in the drastic diminution of H2020 funding.  Given its dependence on international collaboration, it is likely that the U.K. will do what it can to secure associated country status, and the funding it entails.

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OPAL is among the U.K.’s most successful domestic citizen science networks

 

Many of the projects receiving E.U. grant money however, are European-wide initiatives, which is not to say that Britain has no funding schemes of its own.  Open Air Laboratories, or OPAL, is radiant proof of this fact; it’s enlisted nearly one million participants in environmental and natural projects, and led to the publication of more than 20 scientific papers, all through the domestic Big Lottery Fund.  And in fact, an additional three projects registered on SciStarter are based in the U.K.:  Treezilla, an ambitious campaign to map every tree in Britain; a British Trust for Ornithology nest watching project; and, Flusurvey, an epidemiological study mapping influenza patterns.  Domestic projects, by their very nature, are regional in scale.  This is both a limiting and empowering element of national projects.  On the one hand, something like mapping species migration across Europe might be off the table from an international funding perspective.  But by focusing on projects near and dear to local communities, participation should thrive, while the costs associated with long-distance travel and organizational management are avoided.  By staying close to home, many of these projects also qualify for funding from local museums and universities.  Some projects have even profited from providing access to their data; the British Trust for Ornithology, for instance, has secured roughly £100k in royalties.  With Britain’s departure from the E.U., the continuation, and perhaps proliferation, of domestic citizen science projects is likely.

A more cosmopolitan alternative exists as well.  The global Citizen Science Association (CSA) already has several members from within the U.K., engendering relationships across the Atlantic.  Perhaps citizen science projects in the U.K. will look west for new collaborations.  Treezilla received its inspiration from a similar project in the U.S., OpenTreeMap, which has since become a global community.  Should such collaboration and data sharing proliferate, by turning its back on Europe, Britain may have opened itself up to the world.

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.

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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, anne.bowser@wilsoncenter.org

Serious Games: A Key Player in the Years to Come

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

Serious games and citizen science – at a glance both appear somewhat unconventional in nature.  As relatively new fields attempting to establish themselves alongside more conventional counterparts, formulating an appropriate vocabulary can be a challenge.  While they are each busy trying to establish common terminology, they also face remarkably similar challenges from within.

Last week the Commons Lab sat down with Eric Church, a prolific game designer and Program Associate at the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative. As relative novices when it comes to serious games, having only dabbled with the Fiscal Ship, we asked him what factors determine the success of a serious game.  His reply was cut and dry: clearly set goals and immediate feedback to participants.  The two elements he highlighted are also evident in citizen science projects, especially as a means of inspiring and maintaining participation.

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The Fiscal Ship, a product of the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative, lets players craft the Federal Budget.

Every serious game worth playing has an objective, a clearly stated mission with which participants can understand.  For example Eyewire, a serious game developed by MIT, encourages players to help scientists map the neurons of the occipital lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for vision.  This charter is clearly advertised on their website, and directly referenced in the name of the game.  By engaging the public with their message, through the medium of an interactive game, they’ve successfully mapped more than 700 neurons.  Citizen science projects within the medical and health field have proliferated as well.  A UK-based app is doing its part to fight Parkinson’s disease globally; participants in the 100 for Parkinson’s program simply upload information on ten aspects of their health over a hundred day period, all in the aims of gathering data to learn more about the affliction.

Some projects require creative participants. Projects that follow an ideation model, like the U.S. Army’s SciTech Futures exercise, are examples of open-ended crowdsourcing. Last week, participants from around the world were asked to speculate what the future will hold by answering the question, “What technological emergence or sociopolitical trend will shape the year 2040?” For the Army, a successful crowdsourcing project in this model is one replete with diverse answers or original content. Using SciTech Futures as an example, the goal of a similar venture, e.g. answering an open-ended question on future sociological trends, should be made clear to participants. The specific methods used to reach that goal depend on the nature of the assignment at hand, in this case canvasing as many scenarios as possible.

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Ocean-based hydroponics, one of most popular concepts on the SciTech Futures Marketplace (photo credit: Forward Thinking Architecture)

Mr. Church’s second criterion for success is a reward system.  This is perhaps where citizen science and crowdsourcing-based serious games diverge most from one another.  While both revolve around the largesse of volunteers – citizens willing to spend time, and occasionally money, on assignments extracurricular of work and family life – each rewards participants differently.  Citizen scientists conducting research for Zooniverse might find themselves at the forefront of an incredible discovery, a thrill for amateur and professional scientists alike.  People participating in one of the National Park Service’s many BioBlitz events can rejoice in contributing valuable information to biodiversity databases, all while spending a day at the park.  Serious games, on the other hand, seem to yield more verifiable results, that is to say, the accuracy of a player’s answers can be readily determined.  Wrong answers can be addressed, while correct answers may be rewarded, either in the form of in-game progression, symbolized by achievement notifications and virtual medals, or a tangible remuneration, like cash or concept art, the prizes taken home by winners of the Department of State’s Fishackathon and the Army’s SciTech Futures events respectively.  At the end of the day however, both citizen science and serious games seek to educate and empower individual participants, whose contributions benefit their local communities and the world as a whole.

An integral part of any project though, citizen science and serious games alike, is the feedback provided to the participants.  For citizen scientists, this feedback can be a reward in and of itself; engaging in an open-dialogue with career experts in a shared field of interest is a marvelous opportunity.  Naturally, the amount of feedback depends on the nature of each task; those requiring methodological consistency would demand greater moderation, yielding a data set that’s easier to aggregate, while ideation exercises benefit from a high degree of independence, and subsequently provide more creative returns.

Moving forward, it’s safe to say that citizen science and serious games will face a few similar challenges on the road ahead, in the form of standardization, or maintaining legitimacy, but promising strides are being taken to address these obstacles.  Currently there is a team, of which the Commons Lab is a part, working to establish core standards for sharing data, and establishing metadata standards among citizen science projects.  Furthermore, in 2013 SRI and Concordia University conducted a study that highlighted the potential of serious games in the classroom: STEM students whose curriculum’s included simulations experienced a 25% improvement in achievement.  It’s steps like these that foment the open innovation movement, establishing citizen science and serious games as key players in the years to come.

Obama’s Legacy in Science, Technology, and Innovation

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

On Monday of this week, the White House Office of the Press Secretary released an Impact Report titled “100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.”  Upon entering office, Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and with less than 6 months left in his second term, the time has come to assess his commitment to that goal.  This list, catalogued by the affected field, serves as tangible evidence of his reinvestment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The role of science, technology, and innovation in society cannot be overstated; with a breadth of applications – from promoting economic expansion to combatting climate change – maintaining public interest in these three domains is essential.  A cornucopia of applications is on display in the report, with noted advancements and initiatives towards everything from breaking down gender stereotypes in toys and the media (#23) to safely integrating commercial drones into the national airspace (#35).

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Obama introduces the BRAIN Initiative (#45) to discover new methods of treating neurological disorders (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Roughly the first quarter of the list is devoted to detailing the broad brush strokes of the Administration, its goals for promoting STEM within the government, the education system, and the public.  And of particular note for us at the Commons Lab are the entries under the subheading “Promoting Innovation Nationwide”.  It’s there that items 14 and 15 laud the establishment of the prizes and challenges platforms Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov.  The former relies on, and monetarily rewards, the input of citizens in an effort to solve issues facing an array of government agencies.  The latter comprises a catalogue, toolkit, and community page for anyone interested in joining the citizen science movement.  By highlighting these platforms, especially CitizenScience.gov, which debuted in April of this year, the Administration is further fomenting its legacy of Open Innovation.

The legacy is also apparent in a host of other initiatives.  Obama and his team, namely staff within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and scholars on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), have worked tirelessly to foster participatory endeavors.  They’ve removed certain barriers-to-entry facing the prospective innovator: they’ve made the Research & Experimentation tax credit permanent (#10), increased research and development funding (#7), and opened up nearly 200,000 Federal datasets to the public (#12).  These strides, combined with those taken to cultivate future generations of STEM-savvy citizens (#16-25), have provided an optimistic trajectory for the years to come.  And by recognizing and appreciating the inextricable link between innovation and entrepreneurship, this Administration has aimed to pave the way for steady economic growth; it was in this vein that a network of nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes were established in 2012 (#30).  It’s also important to note efforts to catalyze advancements in fields as diverse as healthcare (#43-46) and space exploration (#84-87).  Of course, only the passage of time will allow for anyone to definitively measure the impact of the Obama White House on science, technology, and innovation, and their impacts on our nation in turn, but, according to the Office of the Press Secretary, we have at least 100 things to be thankful for.

Congregational Crowdsourcing

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

An exciting diversity exists in the nature and timeline of each citizen science program; from asteroid mapping to bird watching, there seems to be a project for everyone.  But those two examples also serve to expose a trend; to date the natural sciences have basked in the limelight of citizen science, while social sciences have been relegated to the shadows.

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Grace United Methodist Church, home to Citizen Science Belleville (photo by: Corey Coyle)

This point was stressed recently by an audience member at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) panel, “Citizen Science: Empowering a Robust National Effort.”  What role do the social sciences play in citizen science projects?  The answer, like the question itself, is two-fold.  The first role of social science, as it relates to citizen science, is to study the field itself, asking questions like, what motivates participants to join projects? Why do scientists use this method? And, what are the learning outcomes from participation?  On this front, members of the panel were quick to enumerate and laud the contributions of social science to projects currently underway.  In its second role however, as a subject of study, social science seems to falter.  It’s something that the career scientists and advocates of citizen science at the ACS event acknowledged: the scarcity of citizen science projects tackling social science problems.  For instance, on databases like scistarter.com and citizenscience.gov, it can be difficult to find anyone conducting studies in psychology. But, at a church in southern Wisconsin, one group is doing just that.

On the first and third Mondays of each month, a devout faction of Belleville, Wisconsin’s 2,385 residents meets at the Grace United Methodist Church.  It’s then and there that the pews are filled with ears eager for discussion, not a sermon.  The subject of discussion, as unlikely as the locale, is citizen science.  And, while the group participates in a variety of science projects from scistarter.com, most recently in the FDA’s Zika-related mosquito mapping campaign,the majority of its time is spent on social science, especially the replication of social psychology studies.  On the Open Science Framework (OSF) one can read through the entirety of their work, from proposals, to data sets and summaries, along with what amounts to a mission statement, “to conduct replication studies advancing health, relationships, and/or well-being.”

Some readers may doubt whether a church group from Smalltown USA can make meaningful contributions to citizen science.  These doubts are ill-founded.  At the pulpit is Chris Santos-Lang, founder of grinfree.com, who, along with a small team, is in the process of conducting their first replication study.  This work wouldn’t be possible without volunteer subjects from Belleville, and a framework that mirrors established, larger-scale citizen science projects: citizen input with expert instruction and supervision.

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Citizen scientist, Alfred Braceros, teaches volunteers how to monitor Belleville’s mosquito population (photo credit: Wolfgang Hoffman)

It’s also easy to imagine the imposition of an agenda; after all, many faith-based organizations have clear-cut stances on social issues – the same kind of issues that can be found under the microscope at Citizen Science Belleville.  In response to this potential concern, it is important to note that all faiths and creeds are welcome to these meetings, which, aside from their location, comprise an exclusively secular affair.  Furthermore, none of the studies published on their OSF page thus far have dealt with religion expressly. On the contrary, while some might opine that organized religion could hamper such a citizen science outfit, it may in fact be the only reason for its existence in the first place. Not only does the Grace United Methodist church provide a meeting space for amateur scientists, it also allows them to tap into one of the most established types of social networks in the world: the congregation.

For citizen science to work, you need volunteers.  But drumming up participation is easier said than done.  In fact, at the aforementioned ACS panel, this very issue was listed as one of the current limitations to citizen science.  Encouraging people to spend time or effort on projects, often with scopes vast enough to be disorienting, is challenging.  Whether or not a given individual participates in a citizen science project seems to depend on its relevancy to their daily life.  It should come as no surprise then, that some of the most successful undertakings thus far have been conducted within the field of healthcare, or in conjunction with hobbies people already enjoy, like birding.

A recent essay published in Theory and Practice, a journal run by the Citizen Science Association, highlighted the under-representation of certain socioeconomic and racial groups within the citizen science movement.  These discrepancies, the gaps between the general population and the people actively taking part in citizen science, affect both how projects are conducted and, more importantly, what questions are asked in the first place. Ideally then, every voice would be heard.  But in a myopic world, to elicit the sense of inter-connectivity that citizen science seeks to foster, people need commonalities to draw upon, ones that transcend social, economic, and racial barriers.  These unities abound in classrooms, on the playing field, and in churches as well. That’s why organizations like Citizen Science Belleville stand to gain from leveraging pre-existing social networks.  Simply put, congregations, and communities like them, might prove fertile soil for sowing the seeds of citizen science.