civic science


A recent update on how the Safecast project is tracking radiation remediation in Japan in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima got Ethan Zuckerman thinking.

After trying his hand at radiation monitoring himself, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media connected citizen science and data collection with civic participation in a long essay at his blog:

“If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting.”

Stepping back from the specific instance, the big idea here — citizens monitoring infrastructure — is not a novel one, at least in the world of development, where people have tried to apply information, communication technology (ICT) for years. It just hasn’t been particularly well executed in many places yet.

Ethan points to “Shovelwatch,” a collaborative effort by ProPublica and WNYC to track federal stimulus projects in the United States.

While the (now defunct) Recovery tracker enabled people to query data, there’s no section for people sharing pictures of progress on reports like the one below.

New opportunities afforded by the increasing penetration of mobile devices, Internet connectivity and sensors are balanced with challenges to them working well, from data quality to cultural contexts.

First, citizen engagement matters for transparency initiatives, as Lee Drutman observed at the Sunlight Foundation this summer. People won’t become involved in monitoring infrastructure or projects unless they knew such a need or opportunity exists.

Second, the incentive structure matters. Why should people contribute pictures or data? Are there monetary rewards? A lottery ticket? Public recognition for participation by government or media organizations?

Third, who participates matters, in terms of project design. Leveraging “citizens as sensors,” doesn’t work as well in places where the men have the cellphones and the women get the water. Pilots that asked people to send text messages about whether water pumps were working haven’t done well in Africa.

Fourth, there needs to be a low barrier to participation. If people are going to be involved, bandwidth constraints and user-centric software design matter.

Those considerations don’t inherently mean that mobile monitoring projects like the USAID-funded mWater won’t work, but they’re worth watching closely as case studies.

All of those factors have led to increased interest in the development of inexpensive sensors that automatically collect data, as opposed to depending upon people to monitor.

Beyond Safecast, which is now developing the capacity to do air quality monitoring in Los Angeles, there are a growing number of projects focused upon environmental data collection.

For instance, the WaterwiseWater Canary” uses inexpensive hardware to help monitor contamination in water supplies.

A new nonprofit, WellDone, is pursuing a similar approach to water pump monitoring, combining open source hardware, software and mobile messaging. A prototype of their monitor is pictured below:

A new generation of data-driven journalists are also working “sensoring the news.

Although there’s a long way to go before sensor journalism experiments go mainstream, the success of the Associated Press independently measuring the air quality in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics shows how data collection has already provided an alternative narrative to government reports.

beijing-air-quality-days-compared (1)

Earlier this year, computer science professor David Culler created a prototype for “conscious clothing”, winning a one hundred thousand dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

These wearable air quality sensors could be an important clinical tool for physicians and researchers to analyze changes in environmental conditions.

In the photo below, taken at the 2013 Health Datapalooza in Washington, DC, Culler shows off the prototype to Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services.sivak-culler-datapalooza

If you have other examples to share of projects that are collecting or creating data that’s used to hold government or corporations accountable, please share them in the comments or let us know on Twitter or email.

Cries for increased “transparency” has become a rallying cry across industries and governments, as consumers and citizens look for more information about what they’re eating, buying, breathing, drinking or how they are being governed. What “does transparency” means, and for whom?

Targeting transparency can have unexpected outcomes, particularly as humans and societies adopt and adapt novel technologies to suit their needs or goals. For instance, research at Northwestern found hospital report cards could actually decrease patient welfare. The dynamics of transparency are complex, given that systems for reporting may reveal corruption, fraud or abuse by powerful interests but can also expose people to retribution or discrimination.

[Radiation plumes in Japan]
[Radiation plumes in Japan]

“The challenge is to create and design transparency policies that actually work for people and don’t just waste time or create a bunch of information that’s difficult to understand or make organizations go through the fairly expensive processes of collecting information that nobody then goes on to use,” said professor Archon Fung, in a recent interview. “The policy challenge has to do with designing transparency policies so that they produce information that is actually highly valuable to people and that people can take action on.”

Many of the perils and promise of transparency have been explored at length in “Full Disclosure,” by the directors of the Ash Center’s Transparency Policy Project, from calorie counts to restaurant inspections. As is so often the case, such research raises as many questions as it answers. When and how do consumers respond to new information? What factors influence whether private companies respond to disclosure mandates by reducing the risks posed to consumers or improving practices? Where and when should policy makers apply disclosure versus other policy tools?

The answers to all of these questions are further complicated by the introduction of networked systems for communication and disclosure, particularly the emergence of powerful mobile devices and social media. The Ash Center is actively looking for examples of socially networked transparency systems that reduce risks and provide new tools for citizens and consumers to navigate the world. Examples of networked transparency include:

  • hospital ratings by individuals that may help other patients avoid the risk of medical error or infections
  • Websites like PatientsLikeMe that may provide earlier warning of drug side effects, safety or effectiveness problems
  • Civic media services like Safecast, which leverage citizen science and public data to inform the public about radiation risks
  • Data sources like Google Flu Trends, where the actions of individuals provide tacit information that can augment existing systems for early warning of outbreaks

In each of these examples, the collective actions of many individuals reporting information based on their experience, aggregations of reliable reports, or sensor data is collected and then disseminated in a way that makes the associated risks to the public risk more visible and transparent. Such networked transparency systems can then be adapted and used to inform individual choices or change behaviors of the entities creating the risks, saving lives or reducing harms.

Over the next several months, the Transparency Policy Project will be looking for more examples of networked transparency, from grassroots efforts created by public laboratories to reporting systems created by governments.

As you’d imagine, the people collaborating on the research (including the fellow writing this post) will be looking for tips, feedback, comments and links from you. Please email your ideas or pointers to alexanderbhoward [at], or reply to @digiphile or @sunshinepolicy on Twitter. Each week, we’ll gather together what we’ve learned to date and share a digest at this blog.

As part of our research with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative on how groups are using technology to enable more effective forms of transparency and accountability, we have come across the growing field of “citizen science” (also sometimes called “civic science” or “open science”). This do-it-yourself (DIY), grassroots approach to data collection is facilitated by the increasing availability of everyday electronic devices – particularly cell phones – which today can be easily equipped with cheap sensors to capture data on ambient conditions.

Here I highlight two groups that are developing tools and methodologies for communities to use in monitoring their environments: the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) in Somerville, Massachusetts and the Living Environments Lab at Carnegie Mellon.

PLOTS is known for their grassroots mapping initiatives where they produce low-cost, high-resolution aerial imagery by building and deploying digital cameras attached to balloons and kites. In the Gulf Coast, for instance, this simple and inexpensive approach has facilitated community-led monitoring of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is more detailed and frequent than what is captured by satellites. This independent dataset of images intends to track the environmental impact of the oil spill over time as a means to hold BP accountable in its restoration efforts. The grassroots mapping approach to impact transparency could also be applied to monitoring other types of threats like deforestation and land disputes. More recently, PLOTS has been deploying balloons to document and contest the size of public protests in Santiago, Chile (in partnership with the Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente) and at #OccupyWallStreet. All of their work is open source, and on their website you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to build your own tools for civic monitoring.

While PLOTS has mostly focused on documenting the view from above, the Living Environments Lab works on arming citizen scientists with cheap sensors to create a distributed network of ambient data collectors. An early experiment in Accra, Ghana aimed to measure air pollution from automobiles by recruiting taxi drivers to collect this data with their mobile phones. The data revealed not only that air quality varies greatly throughout the city by time of day and location, but also showed that when citizens have access to this type of dynamic information, it can effect behavioral change to minimize exposure to harm. Researchers were surprised to learn that the taxi drivers who participated in the experiment were altering their routes so as to minimize their exposure to areas of the city with high levels of pollution.

The value for transparency and accountability in the approaches discussed above lie in their ability to 1) distribute and democratize data collection in affordable and scalable ways and, 2) to close out the feedback loops of information. A challenge nevertheless exists in determining how representative these sources of data are in capturing problems or risks, and by extension, to what extent this community-generated data is actionable.

Francisca Rojas, Postdoctoral Fellow – Transparency Policy Project (original post)

After high school students revealed that a quarter of the fish in New York City sushi samples were mislabeled, consumer groups headed for grocery stores and found about the same portion mislabeled at the seafood counter. Then last summer students tested herbal teas and found 35 percent included unlisted ingredients, including grass and weeds. Cheap DNA testing is now widely available to the general public with commercial labs charging around $20 to analyze a fish sample. Anyone who owns the equipment can test for about $1 a sample. Students and consumer groups are showing the new power of biotechnology. But only routine testing and labeling by suppliers, restaurants and grocery retailers will protect the public. Now the Boston Globe has run a two part series on restaurants in Massachusetts selling fish of species inferior to those they advertise on their menus. Reporters found that half of the fish they DNA-tested were mislabeled at restaurants. Below are links to the stories and an interactive database of findings.

On the menu, but not on your plate (Part 1) by Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley, Oct. 23, 211.
From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abuse (Part 2) by Abelson and Daley, Oct. 24, 2011.

Mary Graham, co-director — Transparency Policy Project