Crowdsourced Blogging on the ECSA 2020 conference

From Monday 7th to Friday 11th September 2020, several of the ExCiteS group attended the ECSA Conference 2020. ECSA is of course the European Citizen Science Association. They hold conferences every two years in the “even number” years, while the Citizen Science Association (in the USA) does the same in the “odd number” years. The Australians also hope to get a turn soon, and of course people from all over the world come to these conferences!


The original plan was for it to be in Trieste, Italy. Obviously, this couldn’t happen, so this year was a bit different. Several of us attended, so we’ll tell you together what it was like. We wrote the questions and answers as a team.

Q: So, obviously it would have been dangerous for people all over the world to travel to Trieste. What did you do instead?

Alice: They organised the whole conference online. Once you registered and paid, you got a login to see the programme. You’d scroll along and instead of walking into a room, you’d click the talk title and be taken either to Vimeo (for a talk) or, less often, to Zoom (for a group discussion or activity). It must have taken a lot of planning and re-organising everything, so big thanks to everyone who did that. Also, thanks for the cute conference bags you sent us, with sample biscuits and tea and coffee sachets and little notebook. We didn’t miss that particular aspect – though I now have enough conference tote bags to do enough shopping for a dozen people! Would anyone like some?!

Q: So, how do you hold a conference online? What was it like?

Alice: The website had a detailed programme, but of course instead of walking into a room, you just clicked on a button and logged in and watched the talk on Vimeo. Vimeo has a nice feature that there is an interactive chat on one side. The people giving the talk do not see this (which is probably a good thing as it would be very distracting – people kept sharing their own ideas and additions and comments throughout the talks), but they had someone in the “control room” to filter out questions for speakers at the end of each talk. For sessions that were more interactive, we were given a Zoom link. This could involve about 90 people at a time so it was important that most of us stayed on Mute except when speaking! Features such as “raising your hand” or breakout rooms were used quite a lot. 

Alex: The really rich chat in the Vimeo chat function, alongside the presentations, was the real highlight for me, as well as the Q&A sessions in Zoom, with a chat function there that enabled multiple conversations to continue alongside the main dialogue. These chat functions allowed for discussions, questions to be posed, others aside from the presenters to share answers or further reading or links etc. In some ways the real-time aspects of these chat functions allowed for another level of amazing dialogue that would not really have been possible in the traditional face-to-face format. Also being at home and able to make tea/go for a break and then come back a listen from where you left off was a real treat. 

Q: Alice mentioned the “control room”, what was that?

Artemis: I do not know a lot about what was really happening in the “control room” and how it looked like, but as a presenter and also chairing a session I got the chance to meet some of the lovely people in the control room, who were helping us deliver the sessions. So, behind the scenes and what all conference participants were viewing on Vimeo, there was  a different place on “Streamyard” where presenters and people from the control room were “hanging out” during their session. We could see, talk and chat to each other so we could organise the session, manage any technical issues, keep the timings to make sure they do not overrun, and also get to see the questions which people were asking on the Vimeo chat so that we could answer them (the control room was copying those from the Vimeo chat). None of the sessions would be so well-organised and smooth if it wasn’t for the people in the control room!

Q: Don’t conferences also involve poster sessions, where people put their posters up and stand near them and explain them to anyone who asks? How did you sort that out?

Artemis: One of our papers in ExciteS (“Citizen Science Impact pathways for a Positive Contribution to Public Participation in Science: A Logic Model approach for the EU project Doing It Together Science” which can be found here) was selected to be part of a session; when we started preparing for it, we felt that it was not a really good fit in terms of the overall session’s aims and objectives but also in terms of effectively communicating the nature of the work carried out so that conference participants could truly benefit from it. The conference committee and organisers were very helpful suggesting we turn our work into a poster, which worked perfectly for our paper. The process was very similar to that of a “normal” conference where you usually have a printed poster and people come and ask you questions. We had a digital poster and we got 5 minutes to present it while people were asking questions on the vimeo chat. All poster sessions were extremely well-structured and packed with so much interesting information and great presentations, which clearly shows that posters are always great tools to communicate your research idea and outcomes and it can be equally effective in a digital conference. 

Q: So, did anyone from ExCiteS give a talk or poster?

Artemis: Both. I gave a talk and chaired the session “Fragile contexts and indigenous communities” which can be found here and had a poster which can be found here.  It is the first time that ECSA has an organised conference session which is completely dedicated to citizen science projects with volunteers in developed countries, immigrants who may have language barriers and other marginalised communities. It was therefore extremely inspiring to share this session with brilliant presenters (Petra Benyei, Rick Hall, Dimitris Argyriou and Nerea Turreira) who work in very similar contexts. Lots of our lessons learned were common across our case studies, which I think is very interesting, and we decided to continue working together and turn our session into a full journal paper.

María, Louise & Hannah (Mapping for Change): As members of D-NOSES, we fully engaged in the conference with a poster presentation and a workshop. Louise presented the poster “#8 steps to addressing odour pollution with citizens: a model to orchestrate quadruple helix stakeholder engagement in citizen science” on Tuesday afternoon. It served as a starter for the workshop “You’ve got the buzzwords, have you got the people?” on Wednesday morning, when we went more in depth through the engagement model. Both sessions went down well with the participants and triggered lots of interesting discussions both on the online chat and during the Q&A. We coordinated with other members of the D-NOSES team to engage with the audience through the chat and to deliver a more dynamic session.

Marcos: I presented ‘a satellite imagery-based mapping prototype for land use mapping by land users’ during the LandSense Online Innovation Challenge. The Progressive Web App (PWA) mapping prototype is in its very early stages of development and further research and discussion are required to assess the appropriateness of the technology and the idea presented. This is a good opportunity to thank the LandSense Team for the valuable feedback provided, and congratulate the winners!

Q: What were the most interesting sessions? Did you learn anything new?

Alice: My favourite session was on “citizen science in conflict zones”. It was sort of heartbreaking in many ways. I learned that international treaties on protecting the environment and even agriculture in conflict zones are very weak – obviously, people have more immediate concerns. But recovery needs the local biosphere. The conflict may be due to exploitative and destructive activity such as aggressive mining, or even sharper, such as due to war or occupation. Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, who wrote the paper Nature and Resistance in Palestine (which got shared by people on Twitter following my livetweeting as well as in the Vimeo chat), told us that occupying forces can see any protection of the local wildlife, or any citizen science monitoring, as an act of resistance, so these things can be very dangerous. I was really moved by the stories of hardship but also bravery and thoroughness. As always happens in situations like this, I saw people from nations on opposite “sides” eager to work together to try and improve the situation for everybody.

Another recurring theme was how important it is to involve the public in solving problems. I acquired a new favourite quote from an atmospheric chemist in a different lecture: “I thought I was contributing to society. But I was just doing my research, and cities were still polluted.” Similarly, a physicist told us how she was repeatedly asked by colleagues who don’t do citizen science: isn’t it just exploiting free labour? Good citizen science is a human endeavour, a collaboration from which everyone benefits.

Alex: I really enjoyed the panel on citizen social science, particularly to see how this area of work is developing. I’m obviously biased as that’s an area I work in, but it was great to see new perspectives and here about so many different types of projects in this area. Also the Vimeo chat during this session was brilliant. The citizen science in conflict zones was also a highlight for me, and even though I couldn’t make the session, I heard rumours of a live band in one, that sounded fun.

Nadia: The citizen science and biodiversity sessions as well as the conflict zones session. I thought the speakers beautifully demonstrated the wide-ranging social, policy and research impacts of citizen science. In particular, I loved hearing about how citizen science is helping to address one of the major knowledge gaps in monitoring global biodiversity (The CREW project from SANBI). The lessons coming from these projects are huge and have the potential to address some of the major challenges faced by so many in the natural sciences, so I was left wondering what more we could do to attract the natural sciences community to the next conference.

Q: What was it like to attend a conference online? What were some good things about it?

Alice: In many ways, I preferred it. There was no fuss with 5am trains to airports, or fiddly travel expenses, and it was better for the climate. Personally, I was happy it meant we couldn’t do traditionally face-to-face activities like “speed dating” sessions where you have to stand in a circle and introduce yourself to ten different people one by one – I find those exhausting! More importantly, although of course there were still conference fees, it probably did make it easier for people all over the world to attend (though I felt sorry for people in very different time zones). The talks running on Vimeo were brilliant; there were a few technical problems – as always happens – but far fewer than I’d have expected. And it is really nice to watch a talk from my familiar sofa instead of on a wobbly chair in a big room, with the sound of everybody’s whispers and laptops around me. 

My favourite thing was the Vimeo chats – those were just brilliant – with lots of “Hi from London!” “Hi from Brazil!” “Hi from Oslo!” But the organisers did lots of very sweet things to “bring us to Trieste” as much as possible – for example, they provided a daily “menu” of local recipes so that we could at least imagine having lunch in Trieste together even if we didn’t do it. And there were lots of optional activities. I didn’t go to these (live music or yoga over Zoom isn’t my thing, either) but lots of other people did.

Alex: I thought the feedback tablet board where people could leave anonymous suggestions of what worked and what didn’t, as well as future suggestions, and to also be able to add comments to others’ feedback, was an additional brilliant way to interact with other conference participants.

Nadia: I really missed seeing faces, meeting people and indulging in some Italian food BUT I thought the online format was brilliant and it exceeded my expectations in terms of sociability. I really loved the opportunity to chat to EVERYONE using the Vimeo chat and hear everyone’s ideas rather than only those who I would have had the good fortune to speak to at the conference.

María: Just two more additions: less CO2 emitted or attending to high quality talks wearing comfy clothes 🙂

Q: And what were some bad things about holding a conference online? Do you have any suggestions for what future online conferences could do next time?

Alice: Several people said they missed the face-to-face interaction. The Vimeo chats, for example, disappeared as soon as the talks ended – this was often a shame because people had amazing ideas exchanges in these; it wasn’t like giggling and throwing paper aeroplanes in the back of the classroom; it was really productive. A lot of e-mail addresses were given out in these to follow up – but when you move to the next talk it’s hard to remember why you were supposed to talk to somebody.

So, if you have the capacity, for future conferences I’d really recommend an open discussion forum for participants, or even anyone following the conference on Twitter, for example, where people can chat in their own time. You wouldn’t have to leave this open forever, but maybe for a week after the conference. A good example of such a forum would be our new EU-Citizen.Science discussion forum, which was released for the conference this week – congratulations! 

An interesting side effect of the brilliant Vimeo chats was that there was far less livetweeting of the conference than usual – which non-attendees noticed. Because I’m an incorrigible chatterbox, I did try to still livetweet the talks while also participating in the Vimeo chats. I suggest that organisers nominate more chatterboxes to livetweet. It’s only fair to share our talks to some extent! 

Alex: I missed the face-to-face interaction a lot. But at the same time, we were able to organise social meetups thanks to the brilliant control room managing the social room too. So we could ask to be put into a breakout room on zoom and that was a fun way to catch up informally. 

Nadia: Not getting to try the local food 😦

Q: Do you think more conferences will be held like this in the future? 

Alice: I expect they will be. We’re becoming more conscious about the problems of air travel, and Covid has trained us as a population to work remotely more often. In fact, before I started working at UCL ExCiteS, I was a citizen scientist and painfully aware that most of my peers could never attend conferences like this – even when they’d made significant contributions to the field. It’s hard to get funding or time off work if you’re not a paid academic (these would still be issues for online conferences, but perhaps easier to solve). An online or hybrid conference where talks can be watched for a certain length of time, and discussed in a text format by attendees afterwards as well as on the spot, would be much more democratic and inclusive. 

Q: For those who weren’t at the conference, what can you still read about it? Did you say there was livetweeting?

Alice: I can hold several conversations in my head at a time, and I used to be DITOs’s social media person, so I took it upon myself to do a lot of livetweeting. You can check my threads on the talks about inclusiveness and equity in citizen science, the D-NOSES project, data and health in citizen science (which got disjointed somehow, here’s the other thread on that), Jenny Preece’s keynote talk, communities of practice, an amusing session called “encounters in citizen science” (which I thought would be about coincidences, e.g. people serendipitously discovering citizen science, as I did, but which was actually four speakers taking turns to interview each other), citizen science and education, citizen science and regions, citizen science in conflict zones, citizen science toolkits.

The Twitter hashtag for the conference was #CitSci2020. (#ECSA2020 was also suggested, but it turned out another organisation was using this for something else.) 

Louise, María and Hannah at Mapping for Change blogged about it here, and Muki wrote his reflections here.

There will be a public talk at 5pm British time – a discussion between Muki Haklay and Jenny Preece, called “Reflecting on Encounters in Citizen Science” – which you can watch here.

And the new EU-Citizen.Science forum, the one which was launched during this conference, has a section where we can chat about the conference here.

Thank you to everyone who organised the conference, and everyone at ExCiteS who joined the google document to add their thoughts. See you either online or in person at the next one!

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