citizen science

The Empirical Citizen

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The Christian Science Monitor this week highlighted a story about “citizen scientists” who, as amateurs, contribute individual observations to a larger database in order to track scientific and social trends. Project Budburst was featured in the article, a group that organizes citizen scientists to report data on the blooming of trees, shrubs, and other plants in order to track climate data over seasonal cycles. It also used the example of birdwatchers organized by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. If there is ever a group that is absolutely meant for citizen science, it is birdwatchers, as I can testify to being sucked into the phenomenon and keeping lists of viewed birds over multiple trips to Africa. Wired also highlighted the possibility of citizen science to take off with the advent of GPS-enabled cell phones, a definite possibility I will hit on a bit later.

The concept of citizenry science balances results versus accuracy. While traditional science methodologies might shy away from such “untrained” data collectors for fear of inaccurate or biased data, the substantial payoff in results for relatively little resources is quite inviting. Indeed, citizen scientists are not likely to be paid, as they simply have an interest in the environment and are willing to volunteer their time to contribute to a data set that can eventually tally a great deal of data from a limited area or a rather large region, depending upon the project target.

The results are data. Plenty of it, and useful enough to draw real conclusions. As I was reading this, I began wondering about the applications of such methodology for the city. If one were attempting to create a more livable city, how would you go about it? You can invest in public transport, parks, mixed-use housing, roads, sidewalks, governance structures, whatever. There are lots of options open. How do you decide where to spend a metropolitan area’s precious dollars? Perhaps you can ask the citizenry.

Of course this already takes place through any number of forms. Elections, polls, town hall meetings, public hearings, surveys, etc. What if, however, you wanted to make a more empirical basis for improvement? This, too, takes place when a department of transportation conducts a traffic survey to find out how many vehicles zoom through an intersection during an hour. If there are too many, a new traffic pattern must be configured, or perhaps the road expanded. In times past, this would be done by a person or persons actually counting, or laying down a temporary traffic counter in a particular location (something you still see today). The cost trade off for the number of possible collection points, though, is too vast for a usual transportation department to continuously collect the information. In more modern iterations, electronic traffic counters are installed on main roads or toll booths and funneled through sites to provide live traffic reports, though side streets are often missed. While plenty such sites exist, data collection and analysis technologies are still under research in order to determine more efficient methods of doing this. Such research can be found in many pockets around the country, such as MIT or the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, but it seems from a quick scan that full data integration in most places has not yet come to fruition.

Data collection in cities is ever-increasing, sometimes to the chagrin of privacy advocates. The city of London is completely wired for surveillance. New York is looking to follow suit. Red-light traffic cameras catch law-breakers in Washington, D.C., especially the rich lawyers living in Maryland who blow through the District’s streets on the way home, making an unsafe city (or so the argument goes…). Public transportation signs in networks everywhere tell riders when the next train or street car is coming, allowing them to use the information to make a feedback decision as to whether to take this train or divert to the alternate route. Here in Vienna, every major subway and streetcar hub has one of these indicators, flashing when the next train is to come. The signs are usually fairly accurate too, and as things go, are not out of service all that much. Dan Hill at City of Sound had a fascinating post on this topic, referring to the burgeoning field as urban informatics.

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