05 November 2017

The power of the crowd

Options Winter 2017/18: A network of over 15,000 volunteers works with IIASA scientists on some of their toughest research challenges.

© Inian Moorthy | IIASA

© Inian Moorthy | IIASA

Andrii Bilous lives in Kiev, Ukraine, a professor of forestry and ecology at the National University. Rabul Hazarika is a geography professor in Assam, India. Anna Cipriani is a geochemist in Modena, Italy. And Ibrar ul Hassan Akhtar works for a space applications research firm in Islamabad, Pakistan. At first glance, the four may seem to have little in common. But in their free time, Bilous, Hazarika, Cipriani, and Akhtar are all hobby scientists, among thousands of volunteers around the world who have contributed to Geo-Wiki projects—citizen science campaigns run by IIASA researchers.

Citizen science is hot right now. CitizenScience.org, a website dedicated to the field, currently lists over 1,000 projects around the world. Many of these projects focus on biodiversity and weather monitoring, the fields where citizen science first took flight, but projects range widely. In Australia, you can send in fish skeletons leftover from dinner to help scientists monitor the health of fisheries. In New York, researchers are asking cyclists to help monitor air quality and health impacts by carrying pollution monitors and wearing special shirts that monitor their heart rate and blood pressure.

At IIASA, citizen science has blossomed in the past eight years from a small project focused on validating satellite land-cover data, to a research group of over 20 people working on around 13 current projects in 12 countries, with a network of nearly 15,000 citizen scientists like Akhtar, Bilous, Cipriani, and Hazarika. Many of these projects are linked in some way to land-cover data, maps of the Earth’s surface that provide key information such as the size and location of forests, agriculture, and cities. These data are vital not only for the global models that IIASA is known for, but also provide a potential breakthrough for monitoring implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And the team has become a hub for knowledge on citizen science, providing expertise and advice to partners around the world.

Right time, right place

In 1998, Steffen Fritz was working at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy. His job was to process satellite images of the Earth, creating maps of global land cover. These data were an important input to environmental models including the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), which is used to understand competition for land between agriculture, forestry, and bioenergy. But the satellite data had many gaps, and sometimes the resolution was too poor to confidently identify land cover types, differentiate settled areas from abandoned ones, or forest from cropland.

This was a big problem for researchers working on large-scale systemic models. Fritz says, “You can have the best tools and the best global models, but in order to make sure you’re on the right track, it’s very important to train and validate the model on historical data. And there was a lot of uncertainty in the data.”

It was around this time that Google Earth was launched. Where data from the NASA Landsat satellite covered the Earth at 30-meter resolution, Google Earth images—from satellite imagery, aerial photography, and Geographic Information Systems data—zoomed into a miraculous 50 centimeters, allowing people in many places to identify their house, or even their car in the images.

 “It was a major jump, you could see structures where you couldn’t see anything before. It was the first time you could really validate maps and understand what you were seeing,” says Fritz. But higher resolution also meant greater data volumes. How could researchers possibly sort through the hundreds of thousands of images it would take to check against the satellite land-cover data on a global scale?

“We realized that to get something useful out of all these data, we needed a crowd. That was the only way,” he says.

In 2007 Fritz moved to IIASA to pursue a crowdsourcing project. Working with Fritz and IIASA researchers Ian McCallum and Dmitry Shchepashchenko, Christoph Perger, then a student at the University of Applied Sciences, Wiener Neustadt, designed the first iteration of the crowdsourcing platform Geo-Wiki. It was a simple interface where people could compare existing land-cover maps with high-resolution imagery, checking the data against multiple sources to determine where it was correct and where it could be improved.

If you build it, will they come?

It was a good idea. But when Geo-Wiki was launched, the researchers were disappointed. By the end of 2009, the site had only 109 registered users.

Linda See joined the team in 2010. She says, “I first came to IIASA when Steffen’s group was building Geo-Wiki. It was a great concept, but nobody was participating yet. We started to think about how we could get more people involved. That’s when we started with competitions and campaigns.”

In order to engage and motivate participants, the team experimented with several strategies. They started running campaigns for limited periods of time, with a clear goal. Competitions allowed participants to compete for prizes such as electronic devices, small cash awards, or even coauthorship on a paper. More recently the team has experimented with gamification, developing simple games that can be played on a mobile phone or tablet, and micropayments for each quality contribution.

A two-way street

The strategies worked—the number of registered Geo-Wiki users had grown to nearly 15,000 by September 2017. But keeping people engaged has remained one of the major challenges for the team. Inian Moorthy, who manages the EU-funded LandSense project at IIASA, says, “There’s the initial challenge of awareness—making sure people find out about your project. But after that, sustaining participation once someone actually joins, this is something that we are continually grappling with. Whomever we get into the project, how can we keep them involved and engaged and contributing?”

Steffen Fritz testing out the new FotoQuest Go app

Bilous, who contributed to a recent field size campaign as well as an earlier global forest map, works in forestry research at a much more detailed scale of specific forest ecosystems. He was inspired to get involved by the potential of contributing to something larger. “Our planet is large and beautiful, even researchers do not always imagine a diversity of landscapes on the Earth's surface. In Geo-Wiki…the scale of the project is impressive. I really want the Geo-Wiki team to succeed in their project, so I'm trying to help,” he says.

Cipriani adds, “With Geo-Wiki I can make a difference for the benefit of the society, helping understand landscape use and improving the interpretation of satellite imagery to better detect changes occurring on the Earth's surface.”

At the same time, volunteers gain a better understanding of the scientific process, as well as experience and knowledge of remote sensing data—an aspect that has attracted many teachers and students to the project. Fritz says, “There is a massive misconception of the accuracy of remotely sensed data. Many times people think because it’s coming from space, it must be correct. But there is a lot of uncertainty, which you see when you look more closely.”

The project also gives another tangible benefit back to communities: providing free access to all the data they produce. The scientists post all the processed data on the Geo-Wiki platform, and have published several data sets in the new Nature journal Scientific Data.

From citizen science to co-production

As the IIASA citizen science team has grown, they have increasingly branched out to different fields, and engaged even more closely with the stakeholders and communities they work with.

Wei Liu came to IIASA in 2012 to work in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program. He joined forces with the Geo-Wiki group to apply citizen science to a flood resilience project in Nepal. In the project, the researchers are working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups in the lower Karnali Basin of Nepal.

The remote communities already had hand-drawn paper maps on flood hazard, vulnerability, and capacities, facilitated by NGOs, but there was nothing online—when Liu first visited the region in 2014, he didn’t have any spatial data and couldn’t even find focal communities on online maps. Working with IIASA, Practical Action, the Center for Social Development and Research, and Kathmandu Living Labs (a leading civic tech group in Nepal and South Asia) Liu and colleagues have engaged volunteer citizen mappers and a wide range of stakeholders to map critical flood risk information both online and offline. These maps include geographical information such as rivers, roads, cropland, and forests, as well as features such as housing types, shelters, water pumps, and other spatial information on critical resources for disaster risk management planning. These data are owned and managed by local NGOs and for the first time basin-level flood risk and capacity maps are now available for the area.

Other Geo-Wiki projects have reached out to farmers, for example in Brazil and Africa, with mobile apps that allow them to upload data on crops and diseases, and receive alerts related to weather events or disease threats.

“We call it participatory citizen science, or even extreme citizen science. It’s not just contributing data, but really co-producing science with people in a community,” says Liu. Liu points out that the idea of knowledge co-production is not new—researchers in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program have worked with communities and stakeholders for decades on participatory research that engages stakeholders with many different viewpoints and experiences. Seen from that lens, apps and games in the new citizen science landscape are just one aspect of a broader movement towards the co-creation of science.

Citizen science for global sustainability monitoring

While questions remain about the quality of crowdsourced data, initial research at IIASA has suggested that citizens can in many cases provide the same quality as experts. The team has experimented with different ways to improve data quality, for example by having multiple people check each point, or by putting greater weight on data from volunteers who have proven to be more reliable. In addition, they have found that people can be trained, and that feedback and engagement help improve quality.

 “What we are learning is that feedback is key. The more directly citizens are involved in your campaign, the more they understand the campaign and how the data will be used, and the more frequently you check the quality and provide feedback, the better the contributions will be,” Moorthy says.

As mobile phones have become ubiquitous even in the poorest areas of the world, the potential for citizens in every part of the planet to engage in citizen science activities is huge, filling data gaps in many fields. Fritz and colleagues also see citizen science as a powerful tool to monitor the 230 indicators that have been identified to track the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

See says, “Citizens can monitor change in a way that scientists and governments just can’t. If you make a map every six years, you will see change, but if you want to monitor the change as it happens, you need far more data than that.” 

Text by Katherine Leitzell

Get involved

Want to be a citizen scientist? Visit www.geo-wiki.org for details, follow @Geo_Wiki on Twitter, or sign up for the Geo-Wiki newsletter for updates on all the upcoming opportunities.

FotoQuest GO: If you live in Austria, download the FotoQuest Go app and help IIASA scientists track land-cover change across the country!

LandSense: The EU-funded LandSense project will run a number of campaigns in spring and summer 2018. Sign up for the project newsletter to get all the news.

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Last edited: 10 November 2017


Steffen Fritz

EOCS Center Head and Deputy Program Director

Ecosystems Services and Management

T +43(0) 2236 807 353

Linda See

Senior Research Scholar

Ecosystems Services and Management

T +43(0) 2236 807 423

Inian Moorthy

Research Scholar

Ecosystems Services and Management

T +43(0) 2236 807 465

Wei Liu

Guest Research Scholar

Risk and Resilience

T +43(0) 2236 807 255

Options Winter 2017/18

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International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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