Feature Story

Open Data and the Next Evolution in Citizen Science

by Melissa Jun Rowley

A look at how the lowered cost of technology and open data is leading to collaboration and problem solving for citizen scientists.

If we were to cultivate and fully embrace a world where scientists, technologists, and developers could openly and freely collaborate and concentrate on rapidly prototyping solutions for environmental and social problems, we'd be reveling in a scientific utopia. We'd be enveloped in a day and age when crowdsourcing data is widely practiced and fine-tuned. As luck would have it, this is all happening Now—such an ideal time and place to thrive.

Citizen science, or networked science, has been in existence for most of recorded history. Before the 19th century, individuals were unable to pursue science as full-time careers, which led to people performing research in their spare time, and contributing data to projects.

Today, citizen science is jumping off from a different plateau, one swarmed with hackers, social media and open innovation. The World Science Festival, which took place in June in New York City, put the spotlight on this plateau with Science Hack Day, a two-day event of scientists, students, and scientific-minded citizens hacking and workshopping to create solutions.

Balloon & Kite Mapping and the Future of Digital Cartography

One of the featured groups participating in Science Hack Day was Public Lab, an open community of citizen scientists investigating environmental concerns. The organization held a balloon mapping workshop to demonstrate the value of their cost-effective method of taking high-resolution aerial pictures in tandem with their toolkits, open data and public domain.

Residents of the Gulf Coast have used balloon mapping to generate their own aerial imagers of the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. Public Lab's Director of Urban Development, Liz Barry, says without balloon mapping little to no documentation would have been done in that area.

How can the world benefit from low cost methods for making maps and aerial images?

"There was a total media blackout, and aerial photography wasn't allowed," said Barry. "So the fisherman said to us, ‘ok you crazy urban activists and people with weird cameras and children's kits, come on the boat. We're going to make our own aerial pictures of this oil sheen as it's approaching our island. We're going to get images of what our wetlands look like before they got covered in oil.'"

Barry said all the images have been released as public domain, and contribute to a global map of free areal imagery. The pictures are also currently being entered in the legal system now and used as evidence and open data for people to build urban projects. The images are so valuable that Public Lab provides data to Google that Barry says is "better" than what Google produces.

"Balloon mapping is a very simple repurposing of common consumer goods," Barry said. "Global demand for cameras has made really good imaging sensors really cheap. We take advantage of that for environmental research and make it something that anyone can do."

Beginner balloon kits cost approximately $100-$200, including helium. Additional materials needed include a good camera, a camera trigger (rubber band) or a time lapse smartphone app, and a simple housing from a plastic bottle.

What kind of impact can the civic influence of grassroots mapping have on society?

Historically, mapping has been practiced in cultures longer than writing, and like many story-telling techniques, cartography has long-been leveraged as a means of inserting power over regions. The participatory nature of grassroots mapping puts the power back in the hands of the people and facilitates the cultivation of communities. In recent years, mapping has been used for analyzing issues in public health, human rights and urban planning.

The Grassroots mapping movement and community, in which Public Lab is an integral force, uses maps as a means of open communication and evidence to support civic engagement. The imagery captured using balloons, kites, and remote-control airplanes can be used where traditional aerial or satellite photographs may fall short. In addition to this benefit, the mobility of kite and balloon mapping methods enable on-demand technology capabilities where events can be mapped at specific times. Putting a real-time, geographic lens on natural disasters and social issues allows community leaders to see relevant correlations where problems occur; thereby helping them come up with solutions.

The low-cost methods of balloon and kite mapping, as well as developments in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and web-based mapping are making data accessible for everyone. Networks harnessing the open source technology for social change include GeoCommons, Crisis Mappers - THE HUMANITARIAN TECHNOLOGY NETWORK, and Ushahidi, just to name a few.

From environmental campaigns to neighborhood events, the uses for mapping are just now being realized in the scientific community and among consumers. And, this is only one form of citizen science. Imagine what can be achieved when citizens are able to contribute to health and medical solutions on a grand scale.


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