Citizen Science day at the Open University: Learning about the nQuire platform

Early on the morning of Tuesday 2nd July, Alice and Alex A at UCL ExCiteS took the train to Milton Keynes to attend an all-day knowledge exchange workshop at the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology.

The workshop was for anyone involved in citizen science, and to work on a new platform called nQuire. This is a platform being developed by the Open University with the BBC. It is the fourth incarnation of a program the OU has been running for about a decade to get people involved in citizen science. Like the Zooniverse and SciStarter, nQuire is a place where you can start a project of your own, with a “big question” you want answered, and where you design a series of questions which other people can answer. (Some projects are officially endorsed by and shown on the site and you might work with the team, depending on the quality of the science; some projects are just run as personal projects by individuals, in which you have the tools, but you’d have to provide a direct link for people yourself.)

nQuire front page
The nQuire home page, at Anyone can take part in the above projects, and several others.

The idea of the day was to introduce people to nQuire and let us start some projects of our own. For us, it meant a new platform to learn about and test out, and the opportunity to network and exchange ideas with more people in our field; for the Institute of Educational Technology (IET), it was a way to test and get useful feedback on their new platform, and of course to disseminate its existence!

The day started with a highly amusing icebreaker in which we got some of the obvious questions (“What is your favourite thing about citizen science?”) to more interesting ones, such as “If you could live anywhere, where would it be?” and “If you were sitting on a bench in a forest, who would you have sitting next to you – living or dead – and why?”

We were then introduced to the history of the platform. The original idea was to fuse citizen science, crowdsourcing and pedagogy: “Once students learn how to ask good questions and find valid answers, they can become active learners in any subject”. It’s currently in its fourth incarnation. The first version was aimed at schoolchildren: it gave them the opportunity to do a citizen science project on their phones, which would work around the playground or at home, and which they could then bring back to their teachers. The problem with this was that the teacher would then have a short time in which to review nearly thirty different projects! The second version attempted to put less pressure on the teacher, and introduced “self-managed investigation”, but they found that this involved an 8-stage inquiry process. The third version aimed to take the inquiry-based learning out into wider communities and become self-sustaining – people set up public projects to which other people could contribute. They found very much what I found with my Galaxy Zoo work: that a community needs to be well-supported. However, the investigations were becoming fascinating by this time: cloud watchers were working with with Mars climatologists!

The current stage is similar to the third version, but at a larger scale, and this is where the BBC comes in. The BBC has also been in citizen science – the programmes often called “missions” – but these did not have a standard platform, which the IET has been able to provide. nQuire is a collaboration between the BBC and nQuire, and each project developed on nQuire is called a “mission”. Missions can be “social” or “confidential”. In a social one, anyone can upload and comment on data; in a confidential one, anyone can upload data but only the author will see it. It works a little like SurveyMonkey, but is more advanced; for example, people can upload photographs. For example, Cloud Spotting Challenge is a social mission: anyone can upload photos of clouds, and anyone can see and comment on such photos.

We had a talk about some of the behind-the-scenes work at nQuire: for example, anonymity, moderation, ethics, etc. For example, there is a customisable consent form. Mission authors can publish anonymised results on the nQuire home page.

During the day, we delved deeper and deeper into the nQuire platform, first trying out a couple of projects, then creating ones with instructions, then thinking up our own topic.

Alice and Alex will now answer questions about nQuire and their day.

Q1) How is the nQuire platform similar to, or different from, other citizen science platforms?

Alex: The nQuire platform allows for a wide range of different types of projects, and is a brilliant basis for citizen inquiry. It allows for the presentation of many different types of “missions” and those designing them can devise lots of questions and upload images for participants to answer or categorise.  I really enjoyed trying to think through a mission’s design and how to relay it in the form of the options presented by the platform. I couldn’t help thinking about the extent to which the design necessarily influences the types of projects/missions that can be developed – food for more thought that’s for sure!

Alice: It’s much more questionnaire-style than, say, the Zooniverse. A Zooniverse platform means that you upload an enormous amount of data (photos, for example) and design careful questions so that people can go through them and you can get multiple responses. The nQuire platform lets you have as many or few questions as you like, in multiple formats, and allows for much more contribution from citizen scientists (posting their photos, for example), but wouldn’t be suitable for enormous amounts of data.

A strength of the nQuire platform, in my opinion, is the sheer variety of things you can do with the questions. You can ask people to tick boxes, or use a sliding scale, or write paragraphs, or tick yes/no, or upload photos. There is even a scoring system, to see if people get “right” or “wrong” answers when your question is how much people know about something.

Q2) Did you have a favourite or least favourite project?

Alex: I tried all of the missions available on nQuire currently. I’m really interested in sound and field recording so I was naturally very intrigued about the mission on identifying urban sound recordings. However, the mission turned out to be not quite what I expected and there was far more spoken word in the recordings which was an intriguing diversion and provoked a fascinating discussion with my neighbours.

Alice: Not yet. I loved the clouds one but had a certain frustration with it, as I detail below. There are quite a few projects; go and check them out.

Q3) Did you hear or give any interesting feedback to the people running the workshop?

Alex: The platform is hugely exciting and offers great potential for future missions to gain access and attention from potential participants. My main area of concern was around the ethics and vetting process of missions and how to manage any potential ethical issues arising from the photos uploaded onto the platform. Whilst the team at OU are incredibly dedicated to managing the platform, and it’s relatively straightforward to manage small issues with missions at this stage in the platform’s development, it will be interesting to see what issues arise going forward, and the scope and capacity of the team to address each individual issue. Many of these points were openly and animatedly discussed in the workshop though which I hope provided useful feedback to the organisers. 

Alice: I noticed with Cloud Spotting Challenge that people can upload photos of clouds and answer questions, and others can comment – but others cannot answer questions about the clouds. I also noticed that often someone would upload a picture of a cloud but not answer any questions about it, perhaps due to a lack of confidence. This meant that, if there was to be any useful data, the mission author would have to read and manually extract the comments, which isn’t very user friendly or reliable. Not everyone in the room seemed to realise that it is possible to answer questions about other people’s uploads, so I directed people to go and look at iNaturalist, in which other people do indeed answer questions on other people’s uploaded photos. Someone sitting on my table became a new iNaturalist fan and signed up for an account, which was not quite the purpose of the day! But hopefully it was useful for the nQuire builders.

Q4) Did you create a citizen science project with nQuire? What was it about?

Alex: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I actually didn’t. At the time of the workshop I didn’t have a specific idea in mind, but I worked with fellow attendees to help develop and create their mission idea. This stemmed from an amusing suggestion of trying to develop a mission to discover whether people’s pets were as, or potentially more intelligent than their owners!

Alice: Well, this is a long story …

I have a personal bugbear about artificial lighting in towns. I have noticed over the last 10 years or so that many sodium streetlights (the yellow ones) have been replaced with brighter white or blue-white LEDs. Apparently this is more energy efficient, and I have also seen the claim that they mimic moonlight. However, as every astronomer knows, this is extremely bad news for night vision. Orange and yellow sodium lamps are more “warm” colours (also a lower frequency wavelength) which allow our eyes to stay adapted to the dark – and they also scatter much less, meaning less reflection from clouds, etc. And I have the feeling that it changes things socially. For example, there’s an area outside my flat which has had floodlights the last couple of years. These are so strong they come through blackout curtains, and my sleep has suffered. It’s also become a congregating ground for 3am partygoers and long conversations – it feels like a busy, sunny day there in the middle of the night, and I think people behave accordingly; I don’t remember such regular disturbance a few years ago. My local park also now has white streetlights through it and they are so bright I have to shield my eyes from them. Not only does this mean that I can’t enjoy a night walk in my park any more, and that any wildlife is seriously disrupted (see our Into the Night project two years ago), but also it means that any areas in shadow are less visible and therefore less safe than before. Safety (and the feeling as well as the presence of safety) is extremely important, but I personally feel this makes the environment less safe, not more.

So I decided to see if others feel the same way as I do. As hinted at above, emotions are important as well as scientific facts in this area. I began to type questions on what colour people’s local streetlights are, as well as other sources of light in their local area. I haven’t finished the project yet, but I’m asking them about night visibility and enjoyment, and their wellbeing. At the end of the questionnaire I’ll let ask them if they knew about issues we touched on in Into the Night, such as wildlife and sleep patterns, and ask if this affects how they feel about artificial light. I’ll also invite people to upload any photos they have, although unless they have especially excellent cameras these obviously wouldn’t be good quality and possibly not informative.

If I wanted to do a survey about how artificial light itself has changed over time, there would be better ways to do this – there is probably already existing literature and hopefully council records, not to mention organisations such as the Campaign for Dark Skies! But the nQuire platform does look interesting for examining a human question. I doubt I’ll write a paper or anything, and I don’t feel equipped just from today to go about making this proper academic standard. But I might take it further and see how things go. If I do, I’ll post a link.

Q5) Did anything else interesting happen during the day – any interesting topics that you’d like to tell us about?

Alex: there were some great opportunities throughout the day to network and meet a lot of new and friendly faces which is always interesting. Thanks again to the team at the OU for making it such a positive experience!

Alice: It was an exceptionally well-organised day – the timings were kept rigorously, for example – with a really good icebreaker (and so many people dread icebreakers) and excellent cake! That gave me some good ideas for running my own events, and motivation to be less chaotic when I do. One thing that interested me was the variety of people who turned up and the variety of reasons. For example, an astronomer came along with an idea for how to use the platform for some fantastic public engagement with quite elaborate – but understandable – physics. (I won’t give away the surprise, but if he writes about it publicly I’ll post a link.)

Thanks to the IET for an interesting day – I hope all our feedback was as useful for you as the day was for me.

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