Power of the People! Thoughts from the First Citizen Science Association Conference

This week I am at brand new meeting – the first ever Citizen Science Association conference. This meeting attracted 600+ people of 25 countries from backgrounds including science, academia, government agencies, formal and informal education, and corporations. Citizen science is not new (read about citizen science in the 1800s), but recently is experiencing a revolution (this word has popping up quite a bit this conference). Briefly, citizen science is a form of science where people who are not formally trained in science can participate in and contribute to authentic scientific research. Programs are allowing volunteers to not only collect data, but also analyze results, present data at professional conferences (including middle and high school students at this conference), and drive the questions in science. It is also revolutionary in the sense that we are currently in a technology and information revolution. With the Internet, social media, 3D printers, the barriers between the public, scientists, and resources are being taken down, allowing for an open forum for idea exchange and execution. It’s an exciting time to be in citizen science and here are some of my thoughts from this year’s meeting:

Panorama shot of opening of Citizen Science 2015 from Lea Shell (@veganbuglady).
Panorama shot of opening of Citizen Science 2015 from Lea Shell (@veganbuglady).

Power of the People and to the People
People are central to citizen science. As a scientist attending this conference, it is simply amazing to realize how much citizen scientists can contribute to research and advance science. Check out these tweets:

Even if you are not interested in outreach or education, as a scientist, you have to admit that’s some pretty good data collection. Some scientists are scared to use citizen scientists because they are not sure if they cannot trust the data quality. The presentations I saw discredited this view, showing that even fourth graders can collect reliable data.

The power of the people is not a one-way street. It is also clear from this meeting that it is important to empower the people. Scientists should not have volunteers collect data, and then store it for their own use exclusively (e.g. publications). Citizen scientists need and want something back. They want to know how their results mattered. In a panel discussion on citizen science in youth programs, one student said he didn’t want his data to sit on a shelf and “collect dust.” As a result he communicates his findings at conferences. Others shared at town meetings.

Diversity is Important
Kudos to participants at this conference for being extremely cognizant of, and seemingly active in including a diversity of participants in citizen science research. However, presenters brought up that this can be difficult. There are definite barriers for people to participate in citizen science including exposure, motivation, access to resources (even as basic as transportation), technology, and language. One presenter discussed her experience organizing teen programs in Chicago. They had ~30 teens sign up for a program, and only 3 showed up. Fortunately, they were able to reverse this problem. Simply by providing transportation, attendance increased significantly. Inclusiveness and diversity will likely be a continuing trend for future citizen science meetings, and I would like to see more “lessons learned” types of talks. I saw many talks about the success of citizen science programs, which was inspirational, but in order for us to learn how to reach a diverse group of people, it’s important for us to share experiences of failure, especially with communities that have been underrepresented in the sciences.

Stories Matter
Citizen science embraces stories. Given that scientists has been under scrutiny for their poor communication skills, I think this is a good thing. Many presenters included stories in their presentations, or presented stories completely. There were even complete sessions that were presented in a story format. While I did like the inclusion of stories and I think stories are an effective component of communication, I think it’s important to remember that science can be turned into a story. You don’t have to choose between presenting science or a story. Science has all of the parts: characters, plots, and action. You simply need to transform your intro, method, results, and discussion into that format. While it’s important to recognize the importance of citizens in citizen science, it’s also important to recognize the science! One thing I would actually like to see more of at the next citizen science meeting is more scientific findings and outcomes from citizen science projects.

This meeting will be held every other year and the next meeting’s location is still to be determined. See you in 2017!

Our team (Your Wild Life, Students Discover, and eMammal) at the Citizen Science Conference.
Our team (Your Wild Life, Students Discover, and eMammal) at the Citizen Science Conference.

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