Author Archive


Here’s the text of my kick-off at the Royal Geographical Society in London to last week’s amazing Citizen Cyberscience Summit. The event brought together >330 participants from all parts of the citizen science spectrum. It was a stew, not a broth.

IT IS ALMOST exactly two years since the last Citizen Cyberscience Summit, which kicked off in this very same room on the 16th of February 2012.

According to Moore’s Law, the power of everything that depends on microchips has doubled in that two-year period. That includes all those devices and servers that make up the Internet and the Web.

It’s precisely this tremendous rate of improvement that puts the ‘cyber’ into citizen cyberscience. And it’s what I believe makes this event worth repeating now.

The Summit provides a snapshot of the many new ways that connected computers, smart phones and myriad other devices are enabling citizens to help science – and scientists to help citizens – thanks to the exponential advance of technology.

I’m looking forward during the course of this three-day Summit to hear about a whole range of new ways that the public is participating in science, by collecting, classifying, analyzing, processing, visualizing and sharing scientific data.

Phone apps, browser-based tools, DIY sensors… you name it, and someone, somewhere is using it for citizen-based exploration of the world around us.

But this event is not just an exercise in techno-fetishism. I’m looking forward to sessions and workshops on national and international policy, on informal learning, on engagement and motivation, on connecting communities of citizen science and other topics that focus on the evolving role of the citizen in citizen cyberscience.

The summits have always put a strong emphasis on ensuring the active participation of some of the millions of volunteers who make citizen cyberscience what it is. This year, I’m glad to see more sessions focusing on what I like to call bottom-up citizen science, where the citizens are in the driving seat and the scientist are providing the help.

For example, we’ll have sessions on mashups between the DIY maker movement and citizen science, and hear a lot about the intersection of citizen science with environmental activism.

I’m also excited to hear about some of the projects which have brought participants to the Summit from far away places: modeling epidemiology with smart phones in China, tracking satellite imagery of the rainforest in Brazil, or monitoring logging in Democratic Republic of Congo.

To all delegates who have traveled from other continents to be here, a special thanks for making the trip and suffering the jetlag. I just arrived from New York myself, two hours ago, so I know how you feel!

To the rest of you, thanks for coming in record numbers. The event is totally sold out and has a long waiting list, too. The number of participants in the summits in also increasing – indeed it’s almost doubling every two years. We had about 100 people the first time we’ve run the summit, nearly 200 the second time, and this year we are over 330 people.

We also have a record 140 speakers over the three days. Talks are deliberately short, because we’re trying to be inclusive and let everyone who wants to present have an opportunity to do so.

For the many others who wanted to come, but couldn’t, we are offering several options. We are streaming today’s presentations, and will make videos of some presentations available online after the event.

Also, a novel feature of this Summit compared to its predecessors, is the introduction of a published proceedings in a new, open-access journal called Human Computation, which charges no author fees. Submission of a contribution is open to anyone presenting new results at the Summit.

I’ve had the pleasure of serving on the organizing committee for this event with my colleagues Muki Haklay of UCL, Margaret Gold and Brian Fuchs of the Mobile Collective, Laure Kloetzer of the University of Geneva, Hilary Geoghagen of the University of Reading, and Edda Nitschke of Universite Paris Descartes. Together with the help of many other members of the global citizen science community, most of whom are in this room, we have managed to put together this event on a shoestring budget.

That we have a budget at all is due to the generosity of a number of sponsors: these include the Royal Geographical Society which is hosting us today, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU, ESRI UK, the UCL Grand Challenge of Sustainable Cities, the Everyaware project, the Socientize Project and the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

The partners of the Citizen Cyberlab project, a EU project that focuses on learning and creativity in citizen cyberscience, and which was catalyzed by the first Citizen Cyberscience Summit in 2010, have been especially generous with their support for this event, both in kind and in cash. I would like to mention in particular Margaret Gold and Brian Fuchs of the Mobile Collective, who have toiled hard to build the website and associated online presence of the event.

In conclusion, let me emphasize that the Summit is not a thin broth made with just one intellectual ingredient. This is not a conventional academic gathering focused on a narrow field of knowledge. Nor are we a bunch of activists here because we agree on a common cause.

Rather, this event is a rich stew of ideas, with spices from far-away fields like particle physics and astronomy, synthetic biology and nanotechnology, alongside choice morsels of sociology, psychology, history, art, education and public engagement.

All this is blended together into a series of sometimes challenging but ultimately deeply satisfying meals, which are served up as succulent talks today, transitioning to delicious workshops tomorrow, and winding up in a hearty hackfest on Saturday.

I believe the Summit’s strength is precisely its eclectic nature. It is not an echo chamber or an exercise in promoting group-think. Rather its a place for us to challenge our beliefs about citizen science, disagree respectfully with each other when there is cause to do so, and above all celebrate the amazing, exploding diversity of citizen cyberscience in all its shapes and forms.

I have mentioned many people and organizations that deserve thanks for making this event possible. But there is one team that deserves to be singled out for special praise, and that is the Extreme Citizen Science team of Muki Haklay. It is in large part Muki’s vision over the last several years, and his team’s hard work over the last several months, which have shaped this unique event that you are about to experience. In particular thanks to Angharad Allen and Patrick Rickles who worked on organizing the summit and the Lanyrd online programme.

Indeed, I strongly suspect that Muki accepted this difficult and all-absorbing challenge – for a second time – as a way to train his Extreme Citizen Science team in the meaning of the word “extreme”! Please could Muki and his amazing team stand up, wave their hands, show themselves, and let’s give them a well-deserved round of applause.

Ladies and Gentlemen, without further ado, let’s enjoy the stew!


Science Hack Day NYC wrapped up with a grand finale Sunday night, when 12 teams presented their hacks. Judged by Beth Noveck, director of NYU’s Govlab, Steve Koonin, Director of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, and Tom Igoe, Professor at NYU’s ITP and co-founder of Arduino, the teams got five minutes each to strut their stuff.

Here are the results:

In the Science category, the Living Crystals project, by Rose Meacham and her team of physicists and software developers. The team made significant steps in the analysis of videos of two-dimensional crystals formed by microscopic beads that move under the influence of light, using both machine-based and crowdsourced techniques.

In the Technology category, the Desperate Housewares project, where Sheiva Rezvani and her co-programmer worked on an imaginative mashup between a curb alert tracker and a missed connections site for all those thrown-away objects on New York sidewalks that deserve a chance to find a new home.

In the Design category, Citizen Science Data Validation was the theme of a team-up led by Yasser Ansari, who combined his own citizen science initiative, Project Noah, with a platform for crowdsourced analysis of citizen science called Crowdcrafting, whose lead developer, Daniel Lombraña González, was also at the event. The result was a first step to classifying wildlife data using the crowd, so it can be more useful for researchers, too.

In the Social Impact category, Nick Johnson and colleagues impressed the judges with the deep thinking that had gone into their Life of Trash project. Based on a thesis project that Nick did at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Programme, ITP, the team had spent time working through the potential impacts of using Web technologies to expose what happens to trash to its producers – which means every one of us.

The Crowd’s Choice prize went to Windchimes, a team led by Ann Chen and Nick Wong, who built on their entry for the New York Reinvent Payphones Competition, with both neat hardware and nifty software to detect and send out alarm signals in the case of a nearby fire.

There were seven other worthy entrants in the final wrap-up, including: an educational iPad app called Lewis Dots, for teaching the fundamentals of chemistry. A hack to solve the tedious but important challenge of analyzing loads of electron microscopy images using crowdsourcing; a new site for massively open online education about citizen science; sensors for a dog collar to track a pet’s activity and monitor it’s health around the clock; a site called micromappers to help analyze and geotag data about humanitarian crises found in tweets; a new way to distribute computational tasks to laptop computers for simulating collisions in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider; an interactive diagram to help explain the standard model of particle physics.

Science Hack Day was not just science show-and-tell, it was science program-and-make.

And there were a multitude of other valuable interactions that went on during the two days of the event, the sort of stuff that occurs when you bring a diversity of people together rather than birds-of-a-feather. Examples include software that could automatically turn the the scrawled equations that scientists love to write on blackboards into neat computer typography; a plan hatched by biologists and science enthusiasts to measure the bacteria that travel on bicycles through New York and London; even first steps to a citizen science initiative for the Middle East.

Over 100 people came to the event, joined in the hacks, learned from the workshops and made contributions to science, big and small. Tracy Day and Brian Greene, founders of the World Science Festival, took to the floor at the end of the event, to salute the hard work of all the hackers who had participated over the two days, and who have collectively opened a new chapter in this city-wide festival of science. A chapter in which science for the public is neither a learned monologue, nor an earnest dialogue, but a hands-on collaboration with a practical goal.