Is Sapelli just a tool?

In a recent interview I conducted with the director of an international NGO here in Cameroon who is familiar with Sapelli, he described the app as “a tool, what matters is what you do with it”.

On one level he is completely correct. For those who are not familiar with Sapelli, it is indeed a tool which can be downloaded for free and used for a large variety of data collection projects. It could sit on your phone for years with no use or it could gather data which lead to fundamental changes on local and wider scales. The choice is in the hands of the users. Or at least that’s how it should be.

One of the problems that the director’s words highlights is that of agency. Who makes the choice of what data is collected, how it’s collected, and what it’s used for? In the vast majority of research projects and on the ground interventions, a top-down hierarchy is followed, whereby the answers to those questions are invariably ‘the management’ and are decided before any local stakeholders have even heard that the project exists. Within community-based initiatives and citizen science projects, power dynamics are likely to be less polarised, but there are no guarantees that such initiatives give targeted stakeholders, affected communities, or local data collectors full control over the data. And Sapelli itself doesn’t promise to do so either.

The creation of ‘extreme citizen science’ aimed to enable full participant control. Unlike Sapelli, extreme citizen science is a methodology rather than a tool, which expands inclusion both to any education level and to all stages of the process (more here). It is defined and at the same time adaptable, because it insists on participant-leadership which in itself can lead to any outcome. The entirety of the method is hinged wholeheartedly on local management (through community protocols) and local consent (through FPIC).

Sapelli was created in order to fulfil these aims of complete participant control. Well, I say ‘participants’ but the point is that they are not simply participants at all; Colleagues? Collaborators? Or perhaps even PI’s or Co-I’s? If the true spirit of extreme citizen science is followed, there’s no reason that would-be-called ‘participants’ could be the PI’s or Co-I’s in what would be a real embrace of decolonised research.

Getting back to the point, Sapelli employed through its original lens of extreme citizen science is not simply a tool but a tool embedded in a framework which unapologetically challenges the status-quo of science and data collection in general. It enables the ‘extreme’ (which should not be considered extreme at all) by promoting participant-led design and the adaptability for widespread inclusion.

The concept of communities or participants collecting quantitative data themselves is radical enough for many in the Establishment. To posit that such people could design, use, manage mobile data collection tools and act on their data and is often dismissed as fantasy. This applies, of course, most pertinently to those in the Global South who are all too often excluded from contributing their knowledge despite, in my opinion, having the most to give (nice summary here).

The truth is that project managers often are not prepared to hand over power to what may be communities who hold differing knowledge systems, worldviews, values, and concepts of what ‘science’ is. As excellently noted by Bram Steenhuisen, such managers may “filter out bits that suit scientific standards and classify the rest as tradition or folklore”.

Using Sapelli under extreme citizen science is therefore a systemic shakeup. But the very nature of the app existing for free on the Play Store allows use by anyone for anything, despite it’s best intentions.

So, Sapelli is but a tool released upon the world. Our job now is spread the word of extreme citizen science. Perhaps a good place to start is by sharing this blog…

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