June 26, 2017

„I am not quite sure, whether my data is actually useful...“ - a CS-participants perspective

header of StadtWildTiere (source: wien.stadwildtiere.at)

This blogpost is about Citizen Science (CS) and a case study about "how determined an Austrian citizen, participating in a CS project, is to contribute to this project and if or what she expects in return". For this case study the project „StadtWildTiere“(wien.stadwildtiere.at) was selected from the website „Österreich forscht” (citizen-science.at) and an interview was held with a woman. So the basic result is, that in this case the reports of the woman‘s observations are rather a byproduct, that generate automatically as she pursues her hobbies like observing animals while going for walks, hiking and taking photographs. Therefore she also doesn‘t really expect something in return. But let‘s start from the beginning.

How did I come to this topic and this question. First, CS was one of the topics that interested me most, when looking at the course outline and I got even more interested, once I figured out that my mother‘s hobby (birdwatching) is considered to be a form of CS too. I have to admit, that previous to this semester I had no clue of CS, because I only started taking STS courses this semester and outside university I somehow just didn‘t stumble over CS so far. Thus I pretty much absorbed everything I heard about it.

Now as an introduction I will give a brief summary of the most important aspects, I learned about CS and I will discuss the case study in the second half of the blogpost.
One important point is that one can distinguish quite a few forms already. Firstly, citizens help by collecting and reporting data for example, like in the „StadtWildTiere“ project, that I will describe further down below. Secondly there are projects, where citizens are asked to do some analysing work. They look at pictures on an app and need to click a button if they see something particular. I myself would call these forms „exploiting“citizen science, although people participate freely of course 1.
Then there are forms that I would call the empowering CS, because in these cases simple technology is used by citizens and also activists to hold some sort of evidence in their hands, when they want to protest against pollution practices of big companies in the chemical industry for example 2. These groups of citizens see a risk for the environment and their health as part of the „risk society“, and they have the motivation to do something about it 3.
Furthermore there is a form of CS, that is all about experimenting. Here many people already have a certain degree of knowledge (mainly in the field of biology) and they often come together in communities to share a lab in one‘s garage for instance. So firstly, many of those people experimenting with yeast, microbes or their own DNA for example, already have a relation to science. Secondly, there are people, who have hardly an idea about experiments and what is possible, but they ordered an „experimentation-starter-kit“ online, and receive a whole package of instruments and a clear guideline how to conduct their own experiment 4.
Last but not least, I also want to mention, that there are attempts to establish something like citizen social science, where participants collect certain information they encounter during their everyday life, or they might also be asked to analyse something like a text or a picture 5. But as Purdam rightly mentioned, there are still a lot of challenges, mainly ethical and methodological ones, as we all view things and phenomena differently, so we are always biased.
Another CS that I would also connect to citizen social science, are for instance citizen juries, consensus conferences, hybrid forums etc. These gatherings can have a very political connotation, because they often happen in debates about the role policy making is taking in science and vice versa 6. Now the people from above, that were concerned about the risks, participate in the policy making process through these forums etc.7.

Drawing a conclusion from the stated points, one can say, that CS seems like a great example of opening up science to the public and inviting the public in. It also seems like a wonderful opportunity for democratising science, which is a major issue at the moment and actively discussed in STS (Meyer 2013). Additionally it can be seen as a way of expressing protest against capitalistic structures in science that mostly relate to private corporations that for example „fight“ over intellectual property rights. Thus it can also be viewed as science reclaiming „its openness“ through sharing data or collective „biohacking“ and experimenting 8.
I believe there is a big amount of potential for any kind of CS, but as all new developments in society, the potential comes with it‘s challenges and risks as well. Prainsack 9 for example had the feeling that many projects, that call themselves CS-projects are actually not very participatory and open to the public, only on a certain level, regarding certain aspects of the project. So she developed a list of question that should help define, whether a project is open and can be classified as a CS-project. Possible challenges and risks mainly focus on the aspects like ethics, methodology or security. What about people being observed by citizen-social-science-participants? Do they get a say in the project? How will the participants be briefed? What will the analysis of the gathered data look like? What if the biohacking experiments and/or data lands in the wrong hands and is used for criminal actions? There are a lot of unresolved questions, that need attention. But now back to my case.

logo of Österreich forsch (source: http://www.citizen-science.at/)

Before answering the main question, I want to address some questions, that I thought were important to come to a final conclusion.
The project „StadtWildTiere“ is about observing animals within the city (Vienna and a few others in Austria and Switzerland) and reporting these sightings to the website. The project team is from the „Forschungsinstitut für Wildtierkunde und Ökologie“ from the „Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien“.

How did the woman (I call her Maria for anonymization purposes) come to be a participant of this project?
A few years ago, during her holiday, she discovered photography as a new hobby, where she focussed on taking pictures of birds and other animals. Back home, she continued taking photographs of birds during her walks in the „Donau-Auen“, or the „Bisamberg“ and began to recognize other animals around her, like foxes etc. and taking pictures of these as well. As she wanted to know more about these animals, she started to do some research and stumbled over the website of „StadtWildTiere“. So while reading through their information, she thought, that‘s a great idea, started to submit her data (pictures) and thought it would be nice, if she could help a bit. Although she hesitated a bit at the beginning, she realized that she needed to do something, when seeing the few reports that had been submitted. So now she is so used to taking pictures of animals in and around Vienna that it somehow became ritual „it is like an addiction (…) and it‘s fun“ (Maria). So that is her story and now to the more specific questions.
Does Maria have any expectations from the project (-team)?
Actually not“ (Maria), but she is always happy when she sees, her photos are used and she reads the newsletter with great interest. Apart from that though she has no clue what happens with the data and rather has doubts, whether her data is actually important or useful. „for me it‘s like this, I really like doing this, but I am not convinced that it‘s important“ (Maria).
Does she see her work as contribution (to science)?
Maria views her work as a sort of support and help or contribution to the project, but not to science in general, as she does not see her lay knowledge related to science. For her, this work rather feels like a hobby and a fun leisure activity, but Maria is unsure whether this is of any use for science in general.
Does Maria know „colleagues“? Is there a community?
Maria didn‘t get to know fellow observers and isn‘t sure, if she would participate in group/community activities or sharing experiences. In this regard she considers herself as a loner. There might be a possibility for exchange via facebook (there is a facebook page of the project: https://www.facebook.com/stadtwildtiere) or other social media canals, but she doesn‘t have any of these, so she couldn‘t say.
How would Maria describe her opinion about natural science?
She considers it as very important and essential to support natural science. „What I appreciate about the project is, that it includes „normal“ citizens and that groups of schoolchildren are invited and encouraged to participate (…) but it is too little known“ (Maria).
What does she know about CS in general?
Maria didn‘t know much about CS apart from the website of „Österreich forscht“ and some of the projects on this page, but through participating she gained additional knowledge about CS, other projects and about many different animals. She also sees the risk, that people could make up data that is not real, which would distort the results.

As a conclusion from the interview, I would say that in this case, the activity of observing animals is rather a fun hobby and contributing to the project is a byproduct of the hobby. The determination to contribute exists, because the collection of data happens automatically and is not perceived as extra work. A second interesting conclusion is, that Maria sees herself contributing to the project alone, but not to science in general, as she doesn‘t even know what happens to the data. On the other hand she also does not necessarily need info about that. At least up to now, she never had expectations to the project-team. As this is only a case study, it is not possible to define overall implications for CS projects in general. I would assume though, that the interest in and the connection to a project depends on the participant as well as on the project design.

The interview was conducted as a structured interview with a guideline, but with open questions to stimulate the „story-telling“. I met Maria through the project team, as they were so kind, to find a volunteer for me. I did not have any requirements for the interviewperson, except that he or she should participate in the project for a while already and be able to talk about his/her experience with it. The interview was held on the 17th of May in the evening in Maria‘s flat, where she invited me to and the interview was recorded with my cell-phone. Apart from my fears that the project-team won‘t find someone in time (which luckily was not the case), everything went well.

Although I assume, that Maria’s case is similar to many others, I still think it would be interesting to do an evaluation about different CS projects conducted within the „Österreich forscht“ framework.
So for one part it would be interesting to dive deeper into the public‘s view on CS and for the other part, it would also be fascinating to look at CS projects from the scientist's’ perspective.

animals in the garden (source: my parents)

1: Österreich forscht. http://www.citizen-science.at/ [latest access: 2017-06-06].
StadtWildTiere. http://wien.stadtwildtiere.at/ [latest access: 2017-06-06].

2: Ottinger, Gwen. 2010. Buckets of resistance: Standards and the effectiveness of citizen science. Science Technology Human Values, 35(2), 244-270.

3: Irwin, Alan. 2002. Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development. London and New York: Routledge.

4: Meyer, Morgan. 2013. Domesticating and democratizing science: A geography of do-it-yourself biology. Journal of Material Culture, 18(2), 117-134.

5: Purdam, Kingsley. 2014. Citizen social science and citizen data? Methodological and ethical challenges for social research. Current Sociology, 62(3), 374-392.

6: Lezaun, Javier, Noortje Marres, Manuel Tironi. 2017. Experiments in Participation. In: U. Felt, R. Fouché, C. A. Miller, & L. Smith-Doerr (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

7: Irwin, Alan. 2002. Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development. London and New York: Routledge.

8: Delfanti, Alessandro. 2011. Hacking genomes. The ethics of open and rebel biology. International Review of Information Ethics, 15, 52-57.

9: Prainsack, Barbara. 2014. ‘Understanding Participation: The ‘citizen science’ of genetics’. In P. B., W.-F. G. and S. S. Farnham (Eds.), Genetics as Social Practice, U.K.: Ashgate.


  1. • Level of importance: Is the publication of relevance for the seminar and the target community of the blog, and does it provide important insights? Does the work represent a novel perspective or even new findings?
    Well, of course it does. I must say, I didn’t have so much knowledge about CS before this seminar and still I have to research to find something more, but I must say, this post was a good introduction for me and it’s helpful in intention to learn something more. It’s targeting community of the blog, it’s not complicated, simple but useful and gets to the point. When it’s about new findings, yes, there is a something new, a new perspective to CS. So, 5/5.
    • Level of validity: Is the core question/concern clearly formulated? Is the argumentation stringent? Is the interpretation balanced and supported by sources?
    Core question is clearly formulated at the beginning and with no doubts, readers can go further because the core question is easy to understand and a purpose of a blog post. Argumentation and interpretation are going hand with a hand and in its own pace, so there are no ‘jumping’ from one point, o the other, because all information are connected. 5/5
    • Level of completeness: Do the authors reference the appropriate scholarly context (e.g. refer to seminar literature)? Do the authors provide or cite all necessary information to follow their findings or argumentation? Do they miss relevant publications in the field?
    The authors are mentioned before in the seminar, such as Prainsack, Purdam and other literature is checked, so it’s really in the scholarly context and understandable. Argumentation is followed by the literature sources with a big or the most big, so to say, focus on the interview, because that’s what is the most important in this post, this other perspective. In my opinion, nothing is missed, it potentially motivates reader to read and find more about CS and this perspective from the participants. 5/5
    • Level of comprehensibility: Is the language correct and easy to understand for the broad audience of the blog? Are images or figures well displayed and captions properly described? Is the article systematically and logically organized? 2 The Written Referee Report After assigning the manuscript rating (see above), reviewers may submit a written review (min 5,000 up to 10,000 characters). Reviews should stick to the aims and objectives set out above. Start by briefly summarizing the main points of the blog post. Then write about the post’s performance in relation to the objectives listed above. End with a list of issues and comments in detail to each text passage. Try to structure this part of the review as a list of major points followed by minor points and conclude with an overall impression of the manuscript. Keep in mind that the audience for the review includes
    Yes, it’s simple, correct and meaningful. System organization of the post is really on the level, because the author has mentioned some of the questions/doubts of the CS (How will the participants be briefed? What will the analysis of the gathered data look like? What if the biohacking experiments and/or data lands in the wrong hands and is used for criminal actions?) but she stayed on the track, sticking to the main question, what is really important, because it’s easy to go around and focus on the side questions. So, 5/5.

  2. Hi! This is a very nice and informative blogpost, I really like it. you have covered all the requested points, could have provided a bit more pics and sub-headlines in-between to make reading easier. For the conclusion you could have elaborated a bit more on what the questions would we you would like to address, in particular to find out more about the citizen's motivation and issues of "community building".