The future of citizen urban research

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urban-scienceIt’s hard to dispute that research is changing, with the likes of open innovation and citizen science allowing a much greater pool of talent to participate in an activity that was traditionally the preserve of the few.

This shift has occurred alongside the rapid urbanization of many countries, with the incredible data collection capability that this, alongside increased computing power, has made a possibility.

A recent report explores how research institutions are currently tapping into this citizen workforce.  The paper, by Cities of Data, reveals the huge investment by universities in urban research, but highlights how much of this investment involves government, universities and private bodies.

There is no place in the plans for citizen scientists, which the authors believe is a big oversight.  They highlight three core benefits of better engagement with citizen scientists:

  1. it allows for much larger data sets, and therefore better science
  2. it provides citizens with a stake in science, and therefore renders it less technocratic
  3. it grounds science in the real world, which hopefully makes knowledge transfer more attainable

3 exemplars of urban citizen science

The report goes on to highlight three excellent examples of how citizens are getting involved in urban science.

  • Array of Things – this Chicago based project has seen the creation of a huge urban environmental sensor network in the downtown Chicago area that is providing a rich seam of data for researchers to tap into
  • Smart Citizens Lab – the next project originates from Amsterdam, where a training and prototyping facility has been developed to help citizen scientists deploy and maintain sensors throughout the city
  • Trees Count – the final case study is the New York based Trees Count.  This is a crowdsourced projected with citizens conducted a census of street trees to help planners make smarter decisions

The case studies provide a nice glimpse into the possibilities for greater citizen involvement in city level science.  It’s a potential that the authors contend has barely been touched upon yet.  They believe three areas are particularly ripe for citizen involvement:

  1. Shared sensing infrastructure – despite smartphones being the obvious data collection mechanism, the three case studies highlight the need for some investment in standalone infrastructure
  2. Open data – there is tremendous potential for open data protocols, but when it comes to citizen science, there is often skepticism to overcome regarding the quality of the data collected, whilst researchers still face incentives to hoard data rather than share it.  Greater research is required into the value that can be derived from urban sensor data, and the various issues surrounding it
  3. Networked social capital – The key to success with these value chains will be in cultivating the networked social capital that underpins citizen urban science.  Each of the case studies had excellent ‘community management’, whether it was training the citizen scientists or maintaining enthusiasm, or ensuring the partnership network is well cultivated.  For the movement to grow however, more understanding is required of how replicable these models are.

It’s certainly an interesting area that has a lot of potential, but various issues to overcome if that potential is to be reached.

“Over the next three to five years, citizen science could develop to fulfill its potential to play this role, but the movement is still undeveloped and requires considerable effort to mobilize, distill replicable lessons and models, and scale,” the authors conclude.

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