Thursday, June 9, 2016

The many shades of citizen science

Everyone is a citizen but not all have the same kind of grounding in the methods of science. Someone with a training in science should find it especially easy to separate pomp from substance. The phrase "citizen science" is a fairly recent one which has been pompously marketed without enough clarity.

In India, the label of a "scientist" is a status symbol, indeed many actually proceed on paths just to earn status. In many of the key professions (example: medicine, law) authority is gained mainly by guarded membership, initiation rituals, symbolism and hierarchies. At its roots, science differs in being egalitarian but the profession is at odds and its institutions are replete with tribal ritual and power hierarchies.

Long before the creation of the profession of science, "Victorian scientists" (who of course never called themselves that) pursued the quest for knowledge (i.e. science) and were for the most part quite good as citizens. In the field of taxonomy, specimens came to be the reliable carriers of information and they became a key aspect of most of zoology and botany. After all what could you write about or talk about if you did not have a name for the subject under study. Specimens became currency. Victorian scientists collaborated in various ways that involved sharing information, sharing /exchanging specimens, debating ideas, and tapping a network of friends and relatives for gathering more "facts". Learned societies and their journals helped the participants meet and share knowledge across time and geographic boundaries.  Specimens, the key carriers of unquestionable information, were acquired for a price and there was a niche economy created with wealthy collectors, not-so-wealthy field collectors and various agencies bridging them. That economy also included the publishers of monographs, field guides and catalogues who grew in power along with organizations such as  museums and later universities. Along with political changes, there was also a move of power from private wealthy citizens to state-supported organizations. Power brings disparity and the Victorian brand of science had its share of issues but has there been progress in the way of doing science?

Looking at the natural world can be completely absorbing. The kinds of sights, sounds, textures, smells and maybe tastes can keep one completely occupied. The need to communicate our observations and reactions almost immediately makes one need to look for existing structure and framework and that is where organized knowledge a.k.a. science comes in. While the pursuit of science might seem be seen by individuals as being value neutral and objective, the settings of organized and professional science are decidedly not. There are political and social aspects to science and at least in India the tendency is to view them as undesirable and not be talked about so as to appear "professional".  

Being silent so as to appear diplomatic probably adds to the the problem. Not engaging in conversation or debate with "outsiders" (a.k.a. mere citizens) probably fuels the growing label of "arrogance" applied to scientists. Once the egalitarian ideal of science is tossed out of the window, you can be sure that "citizen science" moves from useful and harmless territory to a region of conflict and potential danger. Many years ago I saw a bit of this  tone in a publication boasting the virtues of Cornell's ebird and commented on it. Ebird was not particularly novel to me (especially as it was not the first either by idea or implementation, lots of us would have tinkered with such ideas, even I did with - BirdSpot - aimed to be federated and peer-to-peer - ideally something like torrent) but Cornell obviously is well-funded. I commented in 2007 that the wording used sounded like "scientists using citizens rather than looking upon citizens as scientists", the latter being in my view the nobler aim to achieve. Over time ebird has gained global coverage, but has remained "closed" not opening its code or discussions on software construction and by not engaging with its stakeholders. It has on the other hand upheld traditional political hierarchies and processes that ensure low-quality in parts of the world where political and cultural systems are particularly based on hierarchies of users. As someone who has watched and appreciated the growth of systems like Wikipedia it is hard not to see the philosophical differences - almost as stark as right-wing versus left-wing politics.

Do projects like ebird see the politics in "citizen-science"?
Arnstein's ladder is a nice guide to judge
the philosophy behind a project.
I write this while noting that criticisms of ebird as it currently works are slowly beginning to come out (despite glowing accounts in the past). There are comments on how it is reviewed by self-appointed police  (it seems that the problem seems to be not just in the appointment - indeed why could not have the software designers allowed anyone to question any record and put in methods to suggest alternative identifications - gather measures of confidence based on community queries and opinions on confidence measures), there are supposedly a class of user who manages something called "filters" (the problem here is not just with the idea of creating user classes but also with the idea of using manually-defined "filters", to an outsider like me who has some insight in software engineering poor-software construction is symptomatic of poor vision, guiding philosophy and probably issues in project governance ), there are issues with taxonomic changes (I heard someone complain about a user being asked to verify identification - because of a taxonomic split - and that too a split that allows one to unambiguously relabel older records based on geography - these could have been automatically resolved but developers tend to avoid fixing problems and obviously prefer to get users to manage it by changing their way of using it - trust me I have seen how professional software development works), and there are now dangers to birds themselves. There are also issues and conflicts associated with licensing, intellectual property and so on. Now it is easy to fix all these problems piecemeal but that does not make the system better, fixing the underlying processes and philosophies is the big thing to aim for. So how do you go from a system designed for gathering data to one where you want the stakeholders to be enlightened. Well, a start could be made by first discussing in the open.

I guess many of us who have seen and discussed ebird privately could have just said I told you so, but it is not just a few nor is it new. Many of the problems were and are easily foreseeable. One merely needs to read the history of ornithology to see how conflicts worked out between the center and the periphery (conflicts between museum workers and collectors); the troubles of peer-review and open-ness; the conflicts between the rich and the poor (not just measured by wealth); or perhaps the haves and the have-nots. And then of course there are scientific issues - the conflicts between species concepts not to mention conservation issues - local versus global thinking. Conflicting aims may not be entirely solved but you cannot have an isolated software development team, a bunch of "scientists" and citizens at large expected merely to key in data and be gone. There is perhaps a lot to learn from other open-source projects and I think the lessons in the culture, politics of Wikipedia are especially interesting for citizen science projects like ebird. I am yet to hear of an organization where the head is forced to resign by the long tail that has traditionally been powerless in decision making and allowing for that is where a brighter future lies. Even better would be where the head and tail cannot be told apart.

Postscript: 

There is an interesting study of fieldguides and their users in Nature - which essentially shows that everyone is quite equal in making misidentifications - just another reason why ebird developers ought to just remove this whole system creating an uber class involved in rating observations/observers.

23 December 2016 - For a refreshingly honest and deep reflection on analyzing a citizen science project see -  Caroline Gottschalk Druschke & Carrie E. Seltzer (2012) Failures of Engagement: Lessons Learned from a Citizen Science Pilot Study, Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 11:178-188.
20 January 2017 - An excellent and very balanced review (unlike my opinions) can be found here -  Kimura, Aya H.; Abby Kinchy (2016) Citizen Science: Probing the Virtues and Contexts of Participatory Research Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2:331-361.

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