Life Lessons: Exploring Participatory Design for Environmental Monitoring Citizen Science Projects with Third Age Users (London-experiment 2)

Between April and June of this year, Sanayah Malik (MSc in Digital Anthropology at UCL) and Carol Iglesias (currently completing an internship with ExCiteS) with Artemis Skarlatidou (UCL ExCites), carried out a citizen science project in collaboration with a group of elderly women in Central London. For more information about the reasons behind conducting user experiments in London, you may refer to the blog post Running London-based experiments for Intelligent maps. Briefly, in this particular experiment we seek to understand the user needs of the less digitally experienced users; i.e. those who are less familiar with the use of smartphones and other technologies especially for data collection and visualisation purposes. Information obtained by this experiment will subsequently inform design decisions of Intelligent Maps, the ExCiteS mapping interface to support visualisation of data collected by various (indigenous) communities across the globe. 

Identifying the participants and getting them on board: Meeting 1

After contacting a number of community centers that worked with people of the third age (see for more information on the recruitment process the blog post Running London-based experiments for Intelligent maps) we arranged a visit to Calthorpe Garden, where a group meets weekly in order to take care of a community garden and enjoy lunch together. The women who attend it have known each other for decades after many of them met through the Latin American Elderly Project in London. Upon meeting with them, we explained that we were students carrying out a project as part of the ExCitEs research team at UCL and that we were seeking participants to design a citizen science project with us that used a mobile phone app as a way of experimenting with ‘participatory design methods’ and improve the application (and particularly, its capacity to visualize data) with them. We had not brought phones to our first meeting, during which we focused on learning about their interests, describing the limitations and possibilities of Sapelli in a short-term engagement in London, and explaining the context in which the app had been used in other countries for environmental monitoring and citizen science purposes with low-literate communities. They were interested in hearing about the citizen science and projects related to the use of technologies and expressed an interest in using the application to monitor wildlife, i.e. most likely plants and flowers, for their London project. 

The project, we explained, would take place over the course of a month. Each participant would take part in an individual interview (to decide the focus of the monitoring activity and to receive training) and two focus groups (at the end of the month, to discuss visualization prototypes). In addition to this, they would receive smartphones that they would take home with them for two weeks and use to record wildlife around them. Six participants stated their interest in participating, though another three women continued to listen in the meeting and expressed interest. These three women were not sure of participating because they thought health issues would impede them from going outdoors and collecting data as well as attending the different meetings. 

We then translated and read out loud an information sheet and a participant consent form, as well as completed a demographic questionnaire with the six participants. The questionnaires made it clear that even though all of the women were over 65 and some of them close to 90 years old, most of them did use phones (all except two) in their daily life – even if they described doing so with difficulty, but not for collecting or viewing data online. At the end, we exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet the following Friday for a daylong session, when we would narrow down the focus of the project, choose icons, install the Sapelli monitoring project in the smartphones, train them, and distribute the phones.

London experiment II
Carol and Sanayah with participants – Calthorpe Garden Centre

Designing the Sapelli data collection app for the Calthorpe Garden project: Meeting 2

One week later, we came back to Calthorpe Garden to have a longer session with them. Our plan was to decide on the categories and icons that would make up the project with them, code the xml project files and upload them into the phones, and do a short training session before giving them the phones for the next 2 weeks. During the first half of the session and before lunchtime we already had 11 flowers, 11 medicinal plants and herbs, and 11 trees with their corresponding icons, which we had decided altogether that they wanted to collect data for. During the lively discussion, two more women decided to join the project, and told us that the previous session they had not joined because they thought it would be too difficult for them; an impression that went away when they saw us at work in choosing the elements to monitor and map through Sapelli. We programmed the xml project and loaded it into the phones while they had lunch (not without difficulty because of the short time) and held a short training session with them to show how to use Sapelli.

Participants discussing their project

Using the phones to collect data

Already during the training, some of the challenges of using Sapelli with elderly publics started to emerge: some of them had difficulty not touching the screen with more than one finger at a time, pressing the side button to turn the phone on and off was complicated, and the screen would often timeout. They had no issues with the Sapelli two-level hierarchical structure: i.e., they were able to navigate the three top-level categories and from there find the tree, plant, or flower they wanted to map fairly easily. The project also gave them the option of recording a voice message and taking a series of photographs. As we would notice, later on, it was the option to photograph that seemed to be at the center of how the women made sense of the environmental monitoring aspect of the project.

Over the next two weeks, the women kept the phones with them and documented plant life in their surroundings. We checked with them half-way through the process; most of them were curious to know how many things they had documented and were very excited to know the results. Participants kept referring to their points as ‘photos’ or ‘pictures’ (as they would have to take a picture of the data item they wanted to map), showing in that way the importance they placed on taking photographs during this process. Out of the ones who attended this meeting, only one of them had difficulties and was not able to use the phone; i.e. she had turned off the phone by mistake and had forgotten how to put it back on. The rest seemed confident on their phone use and remembered the steps to record new data.

Viewing the collected data and interviewing participants: Meeting 3

When we finally picked up the phones at the end of the two weeks period, we were amazed at the amount of collected data, between all of them, they had over 300 points spread over many London boroughs. Two of them had even travelled to Brighton and documented plant life there! 

Since a crucial goal of the project was to work with the women in prototype design for a visualization component for Sapelli, so that they could immediately view and interact with the data they collected, it was important that they were familiar with the kind of data that would need to be visualised and could sympathise with the need or desire to see this happen. We planned individual interviews with all of them to get their ideas in order to craft a list of requirements from which to develop the visualization interface prototypes. We brought with us two paper maps with some of the points they had documented, categorized by person, as well as a collection of the photographs taken. During the interviews, we were able to confirm that all of them would have been interested in seeing both their individual and group progress as the project moved along. It was also made clear that they thought the photographs were what they saw as the most meaningful data, and that they would have wanted to share the photos with one another. We also got feedback on the interface features from Sapelli that had posed difficulties; i.e., being able to exit an entry without it automatically saving and having to press on an arrow to move to the next step after the photograph and audio recording were mentioned several times as the most challenging aspects of the app. Other information about the adequate size for icons, buttons, and pictures were also helpful as we prepared the visualisation prototypes.

Focus Groups for the development of prototypes

We put all of the information acquired through the interviews together and created a list of requirements and two basic interface prototypes out of this (for more details on this there will be a seperate blog so keep an eye for this!). At last, we met with all of them for a final session where we got their feedback and suggestions for the two prototypes as well as their motivations and their general impressions from partaking in the project. Lilian, an 87 year old woman born in Cuba who has lived in London since the 1990s, surprised us all with a beautiful narration she had written titled “vivencias” Spanish for Life Lessons. The extraordinary possibilities of engaging with different users in citizen science projects come to the fore in her letter. In her words:

“it is necessary and urgent that each one of us learns the names of the trees, bushes, and flowers in all of their varieties. They are our best guardians and we ought to be their intimate friends, taking care of and pampering them, because without them we would not be here […] a project like this gives us a measure of how much we can do, what we can learn and help others learn.” 

For her, as for many of the other women, the opportunity to become citizen scientists and document plant life in London was also an opportunity to share their knowledge and love of flowers and plants with others, and occupy the position of documentarist, student, and teacher all at once. 

EC acknowledgement

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