Citizen Cyberscience Summit 2014: Day 3 – DIY Citizen Science

The session this morning on DIY Citizen Science brought together speakers talking about creators and makers thinking about how to use objects for unintended purposes to achieve something more. The message I gathered is that it’s not just about the “toys”, but what is truly possible with them – empowering people to collect information that used to only be possible through a limited few to make a greater impact.

Shannon Dosemagen (Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science) – Shannon’s work, which started with DIY balloon mapping to capture the damage done to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Oil, has moved on to Home Brew Sensing project, which has people measuring and cataloging the spectral signature of various components. The homemade spectrometers being made from various materials (e.g. broken bits of a DVD-R to refract the light) cost a phenomenally less than the hi-tech equipment that is used in labs and allows citizens to be part of the process. Check out the various spectral signatures that are being recorded at Spectral Workbench.

Ian Marcus (SynBio4All) – Ian described the project’s work about breaking down various biological products that already have functions to use their components for other purposes. His talk was aimed demystifying the process that currently sits solely within the ivory towers of academia and involving citizens in the scientific process. The project puts the citizen at the center of inquiry, to develop the hypotheses, test them, and then publish the results – where the citizen is also included in any publications, as it was their work to begin with. Check out some of his new work for helping to launch citizen science projects at

Ed Maklouf (Gather) – Ed showcased the Gather mobile app for data collection, allowing you to set up a citizen science project within minutes. The app, available on iPhone and Android, uses a flexible cloud database structure that’s been carefully engineered, allowing users to create whatever kind of data they want that matters to them for the purposes of their project. Some examples include Urban Skater to show great places to shred, Pollution Spotter to note areas of concern, Tuna Tracking to see which grocery stores are selling which brands (to name/shame stores with unethical suppliers on the shelf), and Conference Chat to keep note of you who talked to or may want to meet to help make that connection.

Paul Brannigan (Proactive) – Accountant by day, citizen scientist by night, Paul brought in a nifty air drone to fly around the front of the room and inspire us to start asking questions about what we can do with such a toy. Rather thank thinking about it as a play-thing, what if we were to start thinking about it as a tool? Where we would initially use a remote to control it, he used an app on his iPad to move it; then from there running a simple script to automate its movements. If you could take it one step further, and automate it to recognise commands and symbols, something like this could be used to deliver blood pacs between hospitals when supplies may be running low, or many other possibilities.

Francois Grey (Lego2Nano) – Francois bring with him a wealth of knowledge of citizen science initiatives and shared with us today his work with Chinese students at Tsinghua University, where students are extremely bright, but may not delve as deeply into the creative side of the scientific process as they could. Out of one of the Hackdays he had planned with students, they began to play with Lego to create tools for inquiry; out of which came parts of a simple, but effective (in theory) atomic force microscope. By releasing the design ideas, it was taken further by another citizen scientist and developed into a fully working model that cost a hundreds of pounds (sterling), rather than hundreds of THOUSANDS of pounds (sterling). The concept of using Lego to build further tools to look at and inquire about the world at a nano level continues to drive his work and outreach to others.

Panel Discussion (Jeff Howe) – We were privileged to have Jeff drive the discussion on what were the implications behind these technologies; early on a question of trust was raised in that would you feel comfortable flying in a plane that didn’t have a human pilot. A member of the audience, who bravely said he would very willingly do so also points out the short-comings of the fully automated approach, in that computer automation fails when an unexpected issue happens that is outside of the boundaries of its programming. Shannon was asked by a member of the audience about her work with low tech solutions and her reason for using them instead of high tech ones, which she responded stating that the former are more accessible to many. This was followed up with an inquire about their feasible use by government agencies and if they may possibly ever be close enough to the same caliber of high tech ones for data capture to be taken seriously by those who wish to use it in policy. Shannon did let the group know that they have already been approached by and work with government agencies and hopes that further volunteers and work can be done to drive down cost of sensors and increase their accuracy, but it takes people getting on-board with the movement and trying it out themselves (try it out yourself by purchasing your own Spectrometer kit for only $40). Jeff rounded out the talks by suggesting the we need to encourage the crowd to be more “read/write” rather than “read only” (to use computer terms as descriptors). Francois concurred with that, noting that though the complex, expensive sensors may be more sensitive than current DIY ones, they’re made of roughly the same components, so we can certainly make them, and make them better with the wisdom of the crowd.

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