This is a guest post by Rayna Stamboliyska on the PLOS blog. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at Paris 5 Descartes University where she develops the synthetic biology part of the Citizen Cyberlab project and co-organises the Night Science 2013 event. She is also a blogger at SciLogs.com.
A short time ago, I attended a two-day Citizen Cyberscience workshop at the University of Geneva. As much as the USA and the UK are happy having a vibrant community of citizen scientists, such initiatives in many other European countries are still stuttering. A dedicated workshop in one such country was thus even more exciting. I was there not only because of my interest in the topic but also on behalf of my current position within the EU-funded Citizen Cyberlab’s Synthetic Biology section.
The goal of the workshop was both to get everyone updated on the latest developments of tools for actual citizen science doing and “to work in teams to design and implement a first prototype of a citizen cyberscience project”. The first day was dedicated to talks, and the second day – to hands-on activities. As I recently launched the ‘Open & Citizen Science’ workgroup at the Open Knowledge Foundation France, I am pretty much interested into concrete tools I can use to get people involved into actual projects. Thus, there were two talks of special interest for me: the presentations of Epicollect and Crowdcrafting.
Epicollect, created back in 2009, is a smart, open source software tool for data collection. It works both on a smartphone and through a web browser. Chris Powell, one of the lead developers, was guiding us through the interface while explaining how it works. The workflow is straight-forward: after having logged in, one creates a project and designs the forms that best suit the data to be collected. Epicollect allows the gathering of a wide range of data types, e.g. barcodes and GPS coordinates. Once the forms are set-up, one just loads them on her smartphone and the fun can begin. Epicollect also allows diverse types of visualisations such as on maps or as charts. Last but not least, the beauty of the system also lies in the possibility to collect data in remote areas where no mobile network access is available.
My only concern is the nerdiness level required to design a form. Indeed, it is drag-and-drop: far from difficult even if one fears of not being stunningly tech-savvy. But the availability of different types of input fields seems limited at first sight, and the ‘element details’ (the column on the right) can be confusing. Although the relevant documentation is clear and detailed, it remains lengthy and full with details one has to be well-acquainted with before building a form. This may act as a turn-off for many motivated out there. Last but not least, the form design seems to allow only one-column set-up which makes it unclear how (if possible) the data may be stored as a table.
Of course, the whole framework being a work in development, such concerns are to last for short. None of them has prevented participants to various citizen science projects to use the tool. And the participation is not going to stop: as Chris Powell highlighted it, around 4,000 projects has collected data at some point, and 150 of them are active.
Indeed, everyone uploads so much pieces of data online every day: what if we turned this into research-enabling raw material? Crowdcrafting is an “online assistance in performing tasks that require human cognition, knowledge or intelligence such as image classification, transcription, geocoding and more!” The platform is open source, built upon a framework called PyBOSSA. Crowdcrafting is supported by the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Citizen Cybercentre, among others.
Crowdcrafting’s lead developer, Daniel Lombrana-Gonzalez, presented us the platform and a few very interesting case studies: ‘The Face We Make’ where people can associate emoticons to actual photos thus helping out research on empathy issues for autists; labelling and curating tweets from the Philippines Typhoon to identify which ones contain images; and my favourite one, air quality detection. This latter one is actually concerned with lichens found in city parks as lichens are known to be sensitive to air pollution. Thus, presence/absence of lichens indicates little/high air pollution, respectively. The project featured on Crowdcrafting actually promotes the Sunday wanders in parks brightened-up by detecting lichens and measuring their sizes. Of course, instead of walking around with a ruler, you may just use a one-euro coin which has a constant and known size.
Crowdcrafting has also been connected to Epicollect: the former can easily import data from the latter. An example of such a great feature is – again – the lichens project. Be it with a coin or with a metro ticket, measuring lichens’ size is straight-forward and the collection of data is even easier through the Crowdcrafting-Epicollect connection and your mobile phone.
Towards the end of his talk, Daniel made a live demonstration of the workflow one follows to create a project on Crowdcrafting: it literally takes 5 minutes. Not surprising thus that a total of 2,562 users have contributed (822 of whom are registered).
I have live-tweeted this whole afternoon and collected the tweets into a dedicated Storify. You can thus read more on CERN’s endeavours in citizen science.