Back in October, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) kicked off their conference about Citizen Science for Planetary Health, which took place at Museum für Naturkunde (among dino fossils!) and Langenbeck-Virchow-Haus (a century-old science and culture venue), in Berlin. With dozens of oral, interactive and poster sessions, and hundreds of participants from the citizen science sphere, the multi-day event hosted speakers from at least 4 continents, which is arguably what citizen science needs the most today: joining global efforts to make as big an impact as possible.
Even the “inclusive” food is worth mentioning, being purely vegan-vegetarian and taking into consideration special needs such as lactose and gluten intolerance. It tasted amazing, too! Speaking of, the coffee and lunch breaks between sessions filled the place with a vibrant atmosphere where attendees and speakers mingled and shared their experiences, something that web conferences simply can’t offer.
With so many sessions happening simultaneously at Museum für Naturkunde and Langenbeck-Virchow-Haus, we covered as much talks as possible, and you can also find the full-day recordings of everything that took place in the Audimax, as well as other resources, at the end of this article.
October 5: Opening of the Conference
It all started in the dino hall at the museum when Brigitte Baptiste (Universidad Ean, Colombia), a transgender woman and an LGBTQI activist, gave a plenary lecture about transecology: considering that ecology has “helped to understand the role of diversity in evolution and innovation”, transecology draws upon the fields of gender studies and ecological studies to “explore the role of identity, exclusion, connection, intimacy, and emplacement to understand our relationship to nature and environment”.
October 6: Conference Day 1
During her keynote the next day, Sabine Gabrysch (PIK, Germany) mentioned the anthropocene which is defined as the geological era that started when humans became the most influential factor on planet Earth, as drivers of climate change and of the world’s sixth mass extinction. Sabine went on to say that the anthropocene may rather be called “capitalocene” to imply that capitalism is the culprit behind climate change. She also stressed that we’re in an urgent planetary situation which requires urgent action, enumerating trains versus avian travel and non meat-based diets as potential remedies. She then pulled some interesting stats about carbon inequality: the poorest 50% countries only contribute to 10% of global emissions, while the richest 10% emit 50%!
Oral Session: Apps and Sensors
• Zivko J. Zonta (CREAF, Spain) presented the Mosquito Alert app, and listed 3 main challenges that prevent scaling up:
1. Coverage: validate as many reports as possible.
2. Surveillance: validate as soon as reports are uploaded.
3. Reliability: guarantee data quality: the app uses artificial intelligence (AI) to measure the accuracy of the data that’s being reported by citizen scientists – the Mosquito Alert team is hoping to increase that accuracy, because then they would only need to validate the same data with 2 rather than 3 volunteers per record, which allows them to process more records with the same number of participants.
• Gregoire Lois (from France-based “SPIPOLL” and “Vigie-Chiro” citizen science projects) stated that, for a project to have solid data, it needs 3 validations (per record), thus confirming Zivko’s claims: when it comes to AI-based engagement, data quality and ethics, Gregoire admitted that each of these criteria has its own promises and pitfalls, and while it might pose an ethical concern to assign volunteers classification tasks which can be done by a computer, AI capabilities aren’t there yet. This brings “hybrid intelligence” to the table as an ideal middle ground to combine the strengths of human intelligence and artificial intelligence to guarantee the best research outcomes.
• The same oral session continued with Kaori Otsu (CREAF, Spain): Based on data from the Cos4Cloud (a co-designed Horizon 2020 project that aims at boosting citizen science technologies), Kaori debated how projects that benefit from AI can rely on deep learning (DL), machine learning (ML) or both. She went on to enumerate the current gaps of using AI, including:
1. Transparency of automated processes.
2. Accuracy of results based on AI.
3. Balance of using both AI and human intelligence, and resistance against AI technologies.
• According to Minh-Xuan Truong’s presentation (SLU, Sweden), not only is using automated species identification tools the more efficient way to classify such data but, coupled with citizen science apps, it can break barriers by eliminating linguistic constraints and the mastery (or lack thereof) of scientific vocabulary, which helps lower the users’ required age and skills to benefit from these technologies. While responding to a “contrasting” question from the audience (as Minh-Xuan described it), he stated that there should be a balance between creating an enjoyable app to draw in more participants, and making sure at the same time that the research question is being answered.
• Linda See (IIASA, Austria): what sets Picture Piles apart from other image classification projects, are the following approaches which demonstrate the ability of citizen science to pivot as challenges arise, and to stay relevant as new technologies emerge:
1. Being a commercially self-sustaining platform, it escapes the funding anxiety dilemma which many research projects face. Not only that, but anyone can set up a pile and run their own campaign, and if the campaign manager doesn’t want the collected data to be publicly available, the participant gets paid $0.003 for each classification: to put things into context, and according to the claim that 92% of classifications are taking users less than 2 seconds to submit, it’s theoretically possible for a participant to reach the minimum wage of $7.25/hour (in some US states) by submitting a classification every one-and-a-half seconds.
2. Planning with Web3 in mind cements the idea that citizen science is here to stay: the blockchain can be used to create a system for contributions from citizen scientists, and data can be “minted” by contributors as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and rewarded by soulbound tokens (SBTs), which are stored on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS).
Oral Session: Citizen Science in Education and Schools
• Zacharenia Daskalaki (EEL/NKUA, Greece) started off this session with the topic of “Children as young researchers and inter-generational ambassadors of citizen observatories: A case study of a pedagogical use of Pl@ntNet within an environmental education project”: consent forms were signed by the parents who were aware of the whole process, and they even supported their children’s efforts by personally overseeing their participation.
• Stating that “despite evolution being central to biology, very few biology citizen science projects relate to evolution”, Dusan Misevic took SciStarter’s database as a reference to back his claims: of the 1587 projects on SciStarter, he said, 664 are in “ecology and environment”, and only 19 of those relate to the subject of evolution. To increase scientific literacy in evolution, he recommended four learning goals:
1. Content knowledge: A grasp of key facts and concepts.
2. Procedural knowledge: Many evolutionary processes cannot be directly observed or subjected to experimentation, so knowledge of analyzing data and discussing evidence is also key.
3. Epistemic knowledge: An understanding of the characteristics of scientific knowledge and the way that it is produced. This understanding is key, considering that the debate over new results on evolutionary mechanisms has been conflated with whether or not evolution happens.
4. Knowledge application: Transfer evolutionary knowledge learned in one project or other topics and apply it to everyday life discussions and decisions.
• Heidi Ballard (UC Davis CCS, California, USA): Co-funded by the NSF, this project ran a study about how kids interact with projects across multiple CitSci platforms (iNaturalist, Zooniverse, etc.). Heidi also mentioned that at times, the parents were with the kids during participation, which strengthens what Zacharenia said about the importance of involving parents to increase CitSci adoption, namely among young generations.
• Maria Daskolia (ErgPE-EKPA, Greece) introduced the “Environmental Education for Sustainability and Citizen Science” network in the context of the Horizon 2020 project “Cos4Cloud”: Making use of Pl@ntNet and OdourCollect, the project aim is to integrate citizen science in Greek schools, and she mentioned that teachers can make the biggest impact and therefore should be open towards learning new practices.
• Claire Murray (ECSA, on behalf of the SEEDS Consortium): A joint effort between several European countries, SEEDS Makeathons are co-creation events for adolescents who will use citizen science to create new experiments for healthy lifestyles, and these experiments will run for 6 months in schools in 4 European countries, including control schools. Four takeaways:
1. Makeathons can be a great way to empower and engage the youth in the decision-making process.
2. As mentioned above, parents’ consent is essential (although COVID made it hard to see the parents to persuade them and get their approval).
3. Rules for successful prototyping: Make it fast. Fail fast. Iterate.
4. Advice to project leaders: When designing projects for schools, think cheap, because after the implementation phase, the schools will have to maintain the projects, and failure to do so will dissipate the previous efforts.
• Kamel Labibes (RAISE-CS project, Erasmus Maris) exhibited concerns about microplastic pollution in marine environments, and proposed solutions which may be facilitated by schools:
1. Kamel confirmed Maria’s statement, above, that training the teachers is the first step towards having pupils who are able to monitor the environment.
2. Schools can help by making their labs available to scientific research institutions, since robust methods for assessing microplastic pollution can be implemented in upper secondary school labs, for the preservation of the marine environment.
3. Relating to Minh-Xuan’s above-mentioned example about balancing between creating an enjoyable project (for the sake of users) that’s also scientifically valuable (for the sake of researchers), Kamel proposed to create a framework that facilitates the co-creation of scientific campaigns at the EU scale with a fair balance between scientific and pedagogical goals.
Oral Session: Monitoring the environment together: from practitioners to policy makers
• Michael K. Poulsen (NORDECO, Denmark) delivered an eye-opening talk entitled “Mobilizing local communities and expedition cruise passengers in the Arctic to address issues of planetary health”:
1. Arctic environment monitoring is challenging, which is why expedition cruises can play a crucial role in obtaining data from remote areas, by turning travelers into citizen scientists. As a result, The Polar Citizen Science Collective was created to facilitate ship-based citizen science projects on IAATO and AECO vessels, with Hurtigruten being one of the cruise operators that are deeply involved in developing citizen science in the Arctic.
2. Among the most overlooked gaps in citizen science is when scientists falsely think that data is enough, while in fact, having people contribute (from arctic vessel, in this case) to too many citizen science projects means that each project is getting a small share of the total contributions, hence the need to combine all the data to make a bigger impact, with help from intermediate organisations (AECO, SSSI and The Polar Citizen Science Collective) which would then “translate” data to appropriate formats for policy makers.
3. The presentation featured several projects that are on SciStarter (eBird, GLOBE Observer: Clouds, iNaturalist and Secchi Disk study).
• Mariela Yevenes (University of Concepción, Chile) presented her publication called “Citizen Science as a Co-Creative Measure to Water Quality: Chemical Data and Local Participation in a Rural Territory”: one of the slides stood out with the following statement: “Only data originating from citizen science projects covers the spatio-temporal scale necessary to evaluate a large-scale policy instrument such as the SUP Directive”, proving that citizen science can help answer questions which “conventional science” cannot by itself. The SUP (single-use plastics) directive aims at reducing the impact of plastic products on the environment, especially when it comes to marine littering, through a legislative framework across the EU.
October 7: Conference Day 2
• Plenary Talk: rather than showcasing a citizen science project, Peter Elias (University of Lagos, Nigeria) presented a case study from Africa about the need for citizen science and the challenges it’s currently facing, some of which are listed below:
1. Low adoption of technology.
2. Limited access to the internet.
3. Need for a digital lab, to engage with participants and to act as a data repository.
4. Data apartheid.
5. Institutional bureaucracy.
6. Different partner ideologies at the local, national and global levels.
7. Lack of funding.
Oral Session: Human Health: Patient Research, Epidemiology, & Foresight
• Josep Perelló (University of Barcelona, Spain) introduced CoAct for Mental Health, and the standout feature of this “EU Horizon 2020” funded project is the self-claimed first ever citizen science chatbot:
1. Despite being called “chatbot”, the responses actually come from the citizen scientists.
2. Participants from around the world have wildly diverse perspectives and sets of beliefs.
3. Therefore, everyone is encouraged to take part through the Telegram app.
4. Volunteers are then sent brief stories written by people that experience mental health issues.
5. The chatbot will ask for the user’s personal and unique perspective, anonymously, and the user will only get messages from the chatbot, not from other participants.
6. The aim of the study is to acquire very detailed knowledge about how social support networks currently work and propose actions to improve them.
7. The chatbot isn’t meant to be a psychological support tool, but an instrument to carry out citizen science research.
• John R. B. Palmer showed off Mosquito Alert, a gamified app-based project which feeds the results to public health agencies, which is a crucial step for citizen science to play a role in public policy: “Local public health agencies need high resolution, real-time information about human-mosquito encounters in order to make decisions” and “traditional surveillance is slow and low-resolution”.
• Lawyer and biologist Timo Faltus (MLU Halle, Germany) shed light on citizen science in the legal context of medico-ethical contradictions, and offered advice that’s particularly valuable to project leaders (at least with respect to German laws):
1. Medicinal product law: if a citizen scientist tests on themselves a “chemical substance” which is assumed to have therapeutic effects, it’s usually considered as a legally irrelevant self-experiment; however, if the substance was tested on someone else (even if the latter gave their consent), then it’s a possible pharmaceutical law and criminal law issue.
2. Medical device law: seek legal advice prior to modifying a medical device that’s legally available on the market.
3. Patent law: “think before you talk, and think when to talk” because speaking too early in public about medical inventions could infringe the novelty status, thus precluding (preventing) the patenting of the invention.
Interactive Session with Andrea Isabel Troncoso Quilaqueo: A hands-on workshop on plant conservation through storytelling and citizen science
• Just like citizen science connects laypeople to science, storytelling connects science to policy makers!
• This interactive session started with the imaginative statement that “we are multiverses”, and continued with terms like “science of happiness” and “garden of stories”, before teaching us a storytelling technique called “elfchen” (an “elfchen” is a short poem consisting of 11 words, sorted in a specific format of words per line).
• Clearly, the main focus here was to ignite our creativity to show the importance of storytelling in science policy:
1. A great story can make people think differently, but also feel and act differently.
2. Decision makers are humans, after all, and the above applies to them as much as anyone else.
3. Therefore, a great story is a way of engaging others in your vision, and inspiring wider change.
• According to one of the slides, a story’s power lies in the connections when “data” becomes “information”, and “information” becomes “knowledge”, which in turn becomes “patterns and insights” and, finally, “wisdom”.
Oral Session: Ways to preserve healthy oceans and fresh water
• Maria Vicioso (Observadores del Mar, Barcelona, Spain): when it comes to environmental monitoring, one way for citizen science to make a dent in the policy-making process, is to fill data gaps for target species included in EU directives, and this claim has been further reinforced later in this article, by Anna Berti Suman (in the CS Track section).
• Tania Jenkins (Geneva, Switzerland) proved with CoFish that lake fisheries can be sustainable, and that project co-creation is possible when fishermen (including over 8,000 anglers) and professional scientists combine efforts to collaborate (and create DIY data/water collection equipment), with many learned lessons that could help scale up other similar CS projects. The chosen location was lake Geneva (or “lac Léman”) which is shared between Switzerland and France.
October 8: Satellite Symposium with CS Track
• A Horizon 2020 project that aims to broaden knowledge about citizen science and its impact, CS Track investigates a large and diverse set of citizen science activities, disseminating good practices and formulating knowledge-based policy recommendations.
• CS Track believes that there is still work to be done to standardize the data structure and metadata of citizen science platforms/projects, and to obtain extra information by applying advanced computational analysis techniques regarding research areas, SDGs, skills of CS practice, and learning outcomes.
• One of the slides read: “In a context of post-normal science, new legitimized actors emerge” (i.e., the citizen scientists).
• After examining the forum data of CS project Chimp & See, it has been found that the top 5% of users (in total 28) contributed to around 87% of the forum posts (in total 24,531 posts, distributed over 3,218 forum threads): the roles were almost equally distributed between the top users (8 moderators, 9 scientists and 11 volunteers).
• The presentation of Aaron J. Peltoniemi (Finland), “Sociomateriality and citizen science”, elaborated on the entanglement of sociality and materiality, and on how we use technology and it uses us.
• CS initiatives that aim to take part in the legislative process also had their word, with Anna Berti Suman explaining how SensJus, short for Sensing for Justice, aims to resist informational monopolies by using citizen science as a source of evidence in environmental litigation – Anna suggested that this can lead to the creation of a new right, i.e. the right to contribute to environmental information when official data is scarce.
Final thoughts: a bright future for citizen science
That’s a wrap!
• Considering that most participating projects are less than a decade-old, it can be an indication of the recent surge of citizen science in the world.
• It’s worth noting that, in November 2021, UNESCO adopted the Recommendation on Open Science in which it acknowledged citizen science practices as “important agents of interaction”.
• Last but not least, the 5-year old Citizen Science Global Partnership is also worth mentioning, for having an international steering committee that’s composed of US-based Citizen Science Association (CSA), European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) and Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA). Multiple partners have joined forces, including CitizenScience.Asia and the CitSci Africa Association serving as institutional observers.
• Conference proceedings (PDF).
• Final program (PDF).
• Audimax recordings: October 6 / October 7 (YouTube).
• Photo album.
Upcoming ECSA conference
Being a biennial event, and coinciding with ECSA’s 10-year anniversary, the next conference will be held in 2024 in Vienna (Austria), adopting “Change” as the event motto.
The Austrian Citizen Science Platform “Österreich forscht” (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna) and the Natural History Museum (Vienna) are joining up in organizing and hosting #ECSA2024.