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Extreme Citizen Science at University College of London

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

Shannon Dosemagen interviews Cindy Regalado about her research and UCL’s advocacy of Extreme Citizen Science (EXCiteS). Photos by Cindy Regalado.

| Q1 | Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get involved/interested with Citizen Science?

After a nomadic upbringing I finally settled for about 10 years in Canada to study environmental engineering, geography and fine arts. Halfway through that academic chaos I had a serendipitous experience: there was a tuition hike and I had to leave Canada to find work and due to a dubious ad, I ended up in a little town in Mexico (it is not so little anymore) and that little town was undergoing really crazy urban transformation (and urban explosion). The people there and their struggles taught me about the power of people to organise when the supposed relevant authorities don’t provide the means and the services that they require. I wanted to give back something to the people who helped me while I was there by training to create a way that they could share their knowledge and the strategies that they had been developing and the skills and resources that they had to complement each other and do more. I organised meetings for people to share their passion for language and this lead me to London, together with my partner, to create our social enterprise Citizens without Borders. I joined ExCiteS in the beginning of 2011 and ExCiteS was essentially based on this idea of “intelligent maps” developed by Jerome Lewis who was working with Pygmie societies in the Congo basin to fight for the protection of their land against logging and now more recently working on anti-poaching – that is sort of the long story of how I ended up in the extreme citizen science research group at University College London.

| Q2 | Can you talk more about the ExCiteS program and Citizens Without Borders?

As a PhD student in the Extreme Citizen Science group at University College London (UCL) the purpose of my work is, in essence, the democratisation of science and technology by supporting grassroots and community-driven initiatives. Fundamental to my research is the belief in the power of the citizen. At Citizens without Borders we believe that we can address issues that are important to us and through UCL we’ve been able to initiate this process with training and information on how to assemble affordable and locally-sourced DIY tools, collect information, analyse and use it. So with the aid of UCL, through Citizens without Borders and inspired by the recent Citizen Cyberscience Summit, the initiative of “Science has no Borders” came into being with its first initiative at the Mildmay Community Centre in Islington here in London. The work that we do there has shifted a little bit because of the nature of the community centre and political issues within the community. At the moment we’re working with the Tenants Association of the Mildmay Estate, that is loosely linked to the community centre. The main issue there is that the community centre was retrofitted into a PassivHaus and there is a possibility that the surrounding council estate buildings could be also be retrofitted into PassivHauses. Passivhaus design standards create extremely efficient buildings with low carbon footprint. It is quite appealing but there are certain issues that come along with changing a building into a PassivHaus, especially in an area that experiences marginalisation and deprivation. Now the community centre actually has a nickname of “the spaceship” because of the way it looks and maybe because people felt that they have never been invited to engage in understanding what this is and how it works. And so the work that we are doing builds on what the architects of the PassivHaus have started doing – they started to use little ibuttons that they gave to some residents to measure temperature in their homes. The work we will be doing involves residents using DIY tools to assess the temperature and humidity levels in their homes - this will help them decide, on their own terms, if they will pursue a retrofit of their council building or not. They are going to start making their own and maybe even grow mold or other things to see what was floating in the air in terms of bacteria and spores in their homes. This investigation will help them decide so that together they can be part of this conversation rather than just quickly being told what the good things are instead of feeling like they have the knowledge and the power to make decisions that will impact and change their lives.


| Q3 | How did you first come to work with Mildmay? As a strategy for organizing, how did you garner interest?

Our approach is that we begin by initially having the interest come directly from the community. In projects we’ve done with the research group we engage in a conversation with the community about what sort of issues they might have, what it is they want to do and then together we gather information available to them publicly. With this information they get together and discuss initial priorities which then, based on people’s interests or how they want to get engaged - different people have different interests and different skills and different strengths and so while the project is open to the whole community, different people will want to get involved at different stages - not everyone is forced to be involved at every stage.

| Q4 | Did you encounter any technological barriers? Is so, how did you navigate them?

I think that whenever possible we try and go for tools and methods that are comfortable for the people that are going to use them; perception mapping is always done with clipboards, paper and pencils and that is quite inviting for everyone. One of the first things that we do is get a huge printed map of the area and place it on a table – people get attracted to it and begin familiarising themselves with it. In other workshops that I’ve done regarding planning initiatives we use Lego blocks on a huge map to represent problems or a way to visualise the future and to present things on the map - it’s more jovial, more playful per se.

Now, when we do the data collection, for example, air quality or noise mapping, there are always usability issues and we take time to explore the tools so that they can be better adapted to the people that are actually going to be doing the data collection and it sometimes happens that people in the community themselves try and stop certain other people from participating because they might feel that they will slow down the project. Sometimes we can’t intervene – this is where the ethics comes in - but we do try and engage as many people as possible either by trying to familiarise ourselves with the way that they want to use the tools or by discussing and learning the skills needed to engage with the tools.


| Q6 | Are there any other successes or difficulties that you want to mention with your approach to extreme citizen science?

I think that a very key thing that I’ve been able to work more on to address these challenges, both working with extreme citizen science and with Citizens without Borders, is that when you come in to address an issue you open up the floor to widen the dialogue so that there isn’t one person with a specific mind set or perception that takes over. This is quite evident in the work that we do, not necessarily only related to citizen science but within our approach in Citizens without Borders where in everything we do we realise that if there is an open floor then certain issues just emerge naturally because there isn’t just one driving voice that then shuts everything else down - then again on the other hand, at the same time, it frustrates some people that there might be lack of leadership. So there is a fine balance and I think that in the Mildmay community the fact that the architects, who are essentially experts in this PassivHaus standard and sort of driving the project in a way, gives some people peace of mind – the knowledge that they are working with someone who knows what they are doing, or at least there is an expert voice that gives them confidence - but at the same time the architects are worried that they don’t necessarily want to get involved in community politics – they are just there to facilitate, to help.

| Q7 | Can you talk about organizing online as compared to organizing in person? What strengths or difficulties have you run into?

I’ll discuss the Mapping for Change platform, which enables the hosting of community maps. These community maps have, in a way, enabled a lot of different forms of expressing things that maybe other forms wouldn’t have been able to express. Some people have mentioned that it is great to see people’s comments or experiences all in one place online and that this builds a very beautiful picture of the community which they might not be able to see if they were to sit down around a table and talk about it, and because of these shared experiences on the map are built over time and with different layers, they can see a sort of history and access it in their own time. They also have time to make sense of it at different points in time of a project. But there are, in certain community maps, people who have been able to engage in a conversation, even the neighbours with whom they might not be able to have face-to-face interactions because they have issues with each other, but as they read their points of view they get to understand each other – online there isn’t that direct conflict where it can get quite emotional face-to-face. So for some it has actually been quite nice resolving issues mediated by the online map.

| Q5 | Can you provide an example of a learning moment for you when doing community organizing work around citizen science?

Because community development is my background, the first thing that comes to mind is that when working with communities I know and understand that it takes a lot of time. A community is not necessarily always cohesive and so even though I knew this already from the past experiences I’ve been learning now more than ever, and I don’t think it’s just in the UK context - there isn’t a unified voice and there are different interests that are pulling each other side to side and these have to be addressed alongside with the project if they do not surface right from the beginning because it will affect the development of tools and methods to address specific issues. In the Mildmay case which is still on going, there is no resolution with this yet but it is a big eye-opener and I think that is a big lesson to learn for citizen scientists - as in scientists who want to do their work with a big commitment to social responsibility - to accept and acknowledge that working with communities is not just about the science but it is about values and hopes and expectations, interest and motives.

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