Perhaps doing citizen science, as in taking the initiative to start a scientific project by yourself, requires a lot more than we think and makes us realise how much we take for granted.
DIY Delta Kite - a Public Laboratory prototype I went out this past weekend to try some kite-mapping in a park in North London. It is quite easy to get excited about it as you unfold the large white and red delta-kite – instant joy as you imagine yourself running across a field with the kite riding high up in the sky. I began the little project by looking at the Public Laboratory instruction sheet that came with my balloon/kite-mapping kit. I had the time to spare and so together with my partner we decided to make a fancier camera rig that would allow the camera to hang freely with great stability and for this we looked at a DIY Picavet rig online to prototype our model. We fetched a little piece of plywood that was lying around and from our handy toolbox we got our saw, looped screws and nails. We made our DIY rig, packed our bag with all our necessaries and off we went to the park.
It was a long and frustrating first attempt with most of the time spent on trying to get the kite up there. "There's just no wind - should we try again?" "Can't come back tomorrow - I've got to work". But in the end, the photos were not too bad! See slideshow below. Mapping using kites or balloons filled with helium is an incredible experience. However, balloon-mapping here in London is not as viable as kite-mapping because helium is difficult to get a hold of and its high price per tank reflects its rarity. The delta kite I used is a £5 prototype I helped build last November at the annual Public Laboratory Barnraising event. The workshop itself took 3.5 hours. Preparing the equipment and flying the kite took 6 hours. Analysing the photographs and stitching them to overlay them on Google maps will take another 5-6 hours.
Some argue that citizen-supported scientific initiatives are for the privileged few (Brossard and Shanahan, 2003; Jenkins, 1999; De Vos and Reiding, 1999); that in order to be able to do activities such as these you have to have: the time to spare, quick access to information, the means to get the tools needed, and the self-confidence characteristic of those who either have nothing to lose by doing this and failing at it or are an established middle class or higher living in a developing country.
A surge in citizen science in the last decade, especially, in citizen cyberscience (facilitated by the Internet, the Web and widespread of ICTs) can be linked to a trend in higher attainment in education, reduction in working hours coupled with an increased in leisure activities, etc. Indeed, this points to a bias in the socio-economic make-up of citizen science (Haklay, 2013). However, it is also important to highlight that the overall effect of these trends is taken for granted. Humanity is in fact living a better life now compared to the last century, with an exponential rise in recent decades (Veenhoven, 2010). In fact, although a reliance on well-educated individuals in citizen cyberscience initiatives might be taken for granted by project designers, the proliferation of DIY fora and other websites (e.g. instructables.com, publiclaboratory.com, kickstarter.com, to name a few) betrays a strong initiative by ordinary citizens from all walks of life. And just like with kite and balloon mapping, DIY approaches to research are increasingly being used in many, many corners of the world, pushing for a democratisation of science and engineering.
Brossard, D. and Shanahan, J. (2003): Do Citizens Want to Have Their Say? Media, Agricultural Biotechnology, and Authoritarian Views of Democratic Processes in Science. Mass Communication and Society, 6:3, 291-312
De Vos, W. and Reiding, J. (1999): Public understanding of science as a separate subject in secondary schools in The Netherlands. International Journal of Science Education, 21:7, 711-719
Haklay, M. (2013) Citizen science and volunteered geographic information. In Sui, D., Elwood, S. and Goodchild, M. (Eds.) Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge: Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) in Theory and Practice, 105-122
Jenkins, E. W. (1999): School science, citizenship and the public understanding of science. International Journal of Science Education, 21:7, 703-710
Veenhoven, R. (2010): Life is Getting Better: Societal Evolution and Fit with Human Nature, Social Indicators Research, 97:1,105–122