Citizen Science and the Wisdom of Crowds

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Interesting piece in The Conversation today by John Gollan entitled Citizen science can produce reliable data.

Citizen science has benefits for scientists – including an inexpensive and potentially large labour force – and citizens, who get knowledge and fulfilment. These schemes expose people to the environment and develop the stewardship ethic.

Underwater cleanup participants with some of the rubbish collected

As a scuba instructor, I’ve organised and participated in a variety of diving activities where data on the maritime environment is collected by everyday divers. These include underwwater cleanups (known as Dives Against Debris) and fishlife surveys conducted under the Project AWARE banner, as well as a reef health survey.

Participation in an event such as an underwater cleanup has (at least) three benefits. I’ve listed these in what I see as the order of increasing importance:

  1. The actual removal of rubbish from the environment;
  2. The awareness generated by onlookers seeing what we’re doing, and from participants talking later to family, friends and colleagues about the cleanup; and,
  3. The data collected can be collated and aggregated by Project AWARE and then used by the scientific community and advocacy groups as requried.

As John Gollan explains in the article, a criticism of citizen science is that

Many scientists question the quality, reliability and in general, the utility of data

In the tech and blogging community, we’ve talked for a while about the power of collaboration and citizen journalism. The 2005 book by James Surowiecki called The Wisdom of Crowds outlined four elements that are required to form a wise crowd. I think these four things apply beautifully to citizen science:

  1. Diversity of opinion
  2. Independence
  3. Decentralisation
  4. Aggregation

If we take the example of a Dive Against Debris, these are organised by dive operators in the field, run by dive professionals with divers as participants, thus getting diverse people involved in a decentralised way.

These divers are largely independent of the dive operation, Project AWARE itself and almost certainly of the advocacy groups / research organisations who may ultimately use the data.

By establishing a process for organising a Dive Against Debris, and formats for collecting, recording and submitting data, Project AWARE offers the opportunity for aggregation of data.

Ultimately I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s conclusion in The Conversation article:

Research has shown that volunteers experience high levels of many different satisfactions. For example, participants gain educational benefits, there is potential to reunite science and society, the public can be inspired to appreciate nature through hands-on experiences and participants can build a sense of ownership in both the program and place.

So, get involved in citizen science. We’re all learning, always, as individuals and as a society. Thats what science is all about.