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Civic and Citizen Science: The Cocodrie Barnraising heats up

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Published in Winter 2012/2013 Grassroots Mapping Forum#3. Order online.

This discussion happened in person and online on our IRC channel. Jen’s epic commitment to notetaking made this possible. Catarina has video archives, and Jessi audio recordings if you reall must know the exact wording. This discussion was heavily edited to make it fit here and make sense. The dialog is released with the endorsement of the edited. -Mathew

Participants in order of appearance: Jessi Breen Shannon Dosemagen Cindy Regalado Jeff Warren Liz Barry Jen Hudon Mathew Lippincott Scott Eustis Don Blair Catarina Scaramelli Muki Haklay Pat Coyle Oscar Brett Eric Kugler Stewart Long Jeff Goodman Alex Miller Matt Toups

Jessi: Citizen science is professional scientists getting citizens to help them do research, usually as data points, like in the Christmas Day Bird Count. Participant’s aren’t usually involved in analysis or in framing the research questions.

Shannon- Civic Science is “a science that questions the state of things rather than a science which serves the state” (Kim & Mike Fortun)

Cindy: In Extreme Citizen Science the goal is for anyone, regardless of literacy, to participate in shaping research questions and controlling data about themselves and their environment.

Jeff W: With traditional scientific practice there is a Pyramid of Involvement: it’s Bloom’s Taxonomy with synthesis and analysis at the top. Professional scientists and institutions frame the questions and answers. Typically in science the motivation is more to generate research papers, not to involve people.

Liz: With Civic Science, we strive involve professional scientists as facilitators of tools and information for people, instead of letting them use people as “meat relays.”

Jeff W: In Open Source development there are levels of involvement- the minimum engagement is hearing about a project in the media, then engaging with research on the web, joining a listserv, commenting, posting work. Civic Science has a similar flow, including time spent locally, thinking about one’s own situation, learning the tools, going out and trying stuff, reporting back how it went.

Jen: Time spent questioning not only the data, but how science is conducted and why. And doing this concretely, engaging with the process of creating data, coming up with an idea for whole new applications and tools.

Liz: This is a conversation for facilitators- to understand the difference between citizen science and civic science.

Jessi: Its not just a research methodology, this is also a political statement about participation in research.

Mathew: Science is political from it’s origins, and has its beginning in natural philosophers trying to avoid long-fought debates by narrowing the terms to statistical, empirical terms. But scientists rarely want to talk about methodology beyond statistics.

Cindy: ExCiteS is working on a code of ethics, and we’re going to wear that code, we are going to “wear the cloak” of citizen science to try to create citizen scientists with a strong sense of responsibility, because scientists can be so snotty, and scientists shouldn’t have control over people’s lives. It’s been appalling to hear scientists talk about using people- we’re not going to deal with the problems of the world from a lab.


Eight Rungs on a Ladder of Citizen Participation Sherry R. Arnstein, AIP Journal, July 1969

Scott: We publish in journals that are peer reviewed, but who is a peer? Then that is channeled into a curriculum or popular media piece, and its a controlled channel. Civic science seems to have more modes of communication to get more feedback loops. Many scientists question whether even writing a weblog taints their professional reputation, and whether they’ll get flack for making statements not backed up by data. Yet almost any scientist goes into professional science with the goal of communicating with the public.

Jessi: Even when I finally delivered results on my masters thesis on campus I was somewhat terrified that any of my research subjects would be in the audience. I don’t want to hear the public saying “no your research is wrong.” Communication from scientists to public has become agonized. It’s so closed that reaching out feels like crossing a gulf.

Mathew: Even when scientists call for reform of methodology with some interesting ideas like cooperating, the suggest things like tighter control of publication, stronger use of peer review to weed out papers, rather than being open.

Scott: “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So, analogously, if you have peer review, then you need more review. But what could our models of verification be so that our data has some sort of credibility?

Catarina: There are similar ideas in public journalism, here you have non-professional experts, what they have in common is an expertise that is no longer restricted to one domain, it is about questions of accountability and of purpose. We are all environmental activists in many ways, but it may be interesting to think of in terms of civic journalism.

Don: It seems there will always be hierarchies in knowledge- someone will always know more on a given subject than someone else does. For example, there are hundreds of years of hacking experience in this room- but on any particular topic, someone is going to be out of their element. In structuring a methodology, we can’t avoid hierarchies of this sort- but we want to be clear about what those hierarchies are, so that people know how to navigate them productively.

Catarina: This is the structure of egalitarian politics- based on demonstrable expertise.

Eric: Is it easier to teach a scientist to be a citizen, or easier to teach a citizen to be a scientist?

Adam : the latter!


Cocodrie Barnraisers conducting citizen or civic science? Foreground: Dan Beavers, Cindy Regalado. Background: Claudia Martinez Mansell, Matt Pendergraft, Stewart Long, Pat Coyle, Jeff Warren, Chris Fastie. Photo by Shannon Dosemagen

Cindy: No longer can scientists work without a sense of civic responsibility. There should be power shifting during the duration of the project, especially when data goes public, or a new group gets involved. There’s a wonderful booklet available online called “citizen scientists” by Jack Stilgoe.

Muki: And the Stilgoe booklet is building on Irwin ‘Citizen Science’ You’ll also like Public Value of Science.

Jessi: how do we define a citizen?

Don: how do we define a scientist?

Stewart: I think of a citizen as the entire population.

Mathew: Citizen is a difficult word-what about pollution investigations in a community of “illegal immigrants” or squatters?

Jessi: There is also the myth of amateurism in citizen science- they may not be professional scientists, but they have some background.

Pat: Is making a living at it that standard? Or is it professionalism?

Don: It certainly can’t be how much you know, or how many years you went to school.

Scott: Within science there is an idea of a separation between “pure” and “applied science,” as if applied science is somehow dirty; and pure is a gifted realm of true ideas. But either way there exists an institutional apparatus to control how people follow their curiosity.

Oscar: That’s because of institutional authority.

Jeff G: Citizen comes from “cincinnatus,” latin for citizen soldier, urban planners debate continuously who the community is, and whether they take up all of your time.

Alex: Urban planners are literally the professionals dispatched to work with “communities.” [example: our work in Pruit Igoe] Citizen science sounds like scientists that are professionals who are reaching out to the community, as well as citizens doing science. Its important to acknowledge that scientists have professional incentives NOT to talk to community.

Mathew: There’s a term being used called “co-created research” where scientists ask citizens what they want done, and then go away and do it. But often the co-creators are limited to the beginning stages, before the work is turned over to professionals.

Cindy: “All scientists are citizens, but not all scientists are citizen scientists. Citizenship is defined around what people hold dear.” Catarina: What about perspective, like doesn’t science matter more when you are monitoring an oil spill?

Jeff G: “There will be blood” analogy.

Don: A lot of physics graduate students are working on questions that will have effects they will never see. It’s not for me good vs. evil science, but about how close at hand the problem is. Sometimes monitoring happens out of necessity.

Scott: Ecology starting in 50’s & 60’s. It started after many changes to the ecosystem had been established. Ecology started asking old questions in a new frame, rigorous questions about processes that started long before 1950. So ecologists must rely on local knowledge, a less rigorous kind of knowledge, of the environment as it was before 1950. Local knowledge of the ecology can be quite detailed, but is limited to a particular context. Within environmental science in Louisiana, there isn’t a strong culture of criticizing industry. Many scientists won’t be critical because of the institutional politics, so, if the information may be critical, it often won’t be generated. Obvious questions go unasked.

Jessi: To what extent is this new methodology a change from “regular” science, is it just the addition of conscience?

Cindy: Before the professionalization of science, wasn’t this how science was done? Outside of institutions?

Eric: Emperors or kings use to guard knowledge, to make their proclamations of natural “mysteries” like astronomy more powerful, science was more public than that tradition, and perhaps it should again become more public.

Mathew: to get back to the education angle, everyone is talking STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). Science and Math are bracketing technology and engineering, making stuff. Thats how people see science, as producing new objects, not necessarily new knowledge of themselves or their environment, so when we talk about science “changing our relationship to the environment” it is radical. Science makes cool stuff, but it could do more.

Liz: Do you have to make things explode for it to be science?

Mathew: If we make hydrogen balloons they could explode. That’s definitely what makes it science ;)

Pat: In 1700s you had to be a “gentlemen” to verify science. The start of PEER review, and also sexism in science.

Jessi: Are we having the French Revolution of science? who are we telling to eat cake?

Mathew: Less than 1% of americans are scientists, but everyone has questions they need answered-- i don’t feel the need to be oppositional - i totally love particle colliders.

Pat: They want to have access to be able to “make.”

Matt T: Creating a new parallel science is interesting, but i’m going to pose a question about what we did today: we started today with overview of wetlands by Scott and Adam that was thorough. The science of how louisiana has been known for many decades.

Scott: Mostly last 30 years; lot of damage in 1960’s, the Breaux Act to deal with coastal crisis was passed in 1990.

Matt T: I see this as analogous to what we know about the climate- scientists have known it, but people don’t know it. After Katrina,there was more recognition, but that’s already fading. Perhaps after Sandy, but there’s an appetite in science for endless study without informing action. And the public doesn’t necessarily have an appetite for the science- if there was to be a vote in the 50s or 60s about climate change would there have been a popular request “please research this y’all?” Are the people asking for this, are they asking for more research? The throngs wouldn’t be beheading someone to get wetlands research done. The thought experiment I’d like to pose is- would climate research have ever been popularly requested if they had been minority positions?

Jessi: Crowdsourcing research agendas would be a scary possibility.

Matt T: But letting corporations and military dictate agendas as is normative.

Eric: Maybe it also takes a very strong citizen like Rachel Carson to make the case-- for citizen science to operate on the scale of “American Idol.” Citizen science is about asking questions and seeking enough opinion to make a choice.

Mathew: Civic activities usually include signing clipboards, putting up signage, and other small political acts. maybe we’re looking for civic participation to include data collection. What if the next well-meaning young canvasser asked me for a hair sample to measure toxicity on a neighborhood with cancer hotspot?

Don: People often think there is a clear distinction between “scientific” positions, and value-based positions -- but that’s not a valid distinction -- science depends on value judgements from the beginning. Values like logical consistency, parsimony … values come into science inevitably … the question is, what other values do you want to include? How do we relate the way we practice science to the society we want for ourselves?


  • Alan Irwin: Citizen Science
  • Alex & Jeff’s Pruit Igoe project
  • Casadevall & Fang: Reforming Science: Methodological and Cultural Reforms
  • Jack Stilgoe: Citizen Scientists: Reconnecting Science with Civil Society
  • Kim & Mike Fortun: Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology
  • Sherry Arnstein: “A Ladder of Citizen Participation in the USA”
  • Wilsdon, Wynne, Stilgoe: The Public Value of Science
  • XKCD Science! , Science Montage
  • Yochai Benkler: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property