Citizen Science and GIS

“Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.”


Applications of geospatial technologies have already proven themselves invaluable for scientific research and understanding. But is there an opportunity for citizen scientists to leverage geospatial technologies in their quest for knowledge and entertainment, and still make valuable contributions to society?

Citizen scientists have a strong interest in some facet of science, but pursue this interest outside of mainstream academic, research, and industrial organizations. These self-directed individuals might very well be using their own resources, working in their garages to develop “the next big thing.” But more often they are networked, working together with fellow citizen scientists. And this is where they become a powerful force to be taken seriously within the scientific community.

Scientists, as well as “professionals doing science,” are often the ones organizing these citizen science networks; they realize the great value a group of eager volunteers can bring to a project. Some examples of harnessing the contributions of citizens in the earth science and geospatial arenas include:

  • (CPDN) is investigating how small changes affect climate models by running hundreds of thousands of climate models using the volunteers’ PCs. The result: a better understanding of how models are affected by the myriad of small changes in parameters known to influence the global climate.
  • Atmospheric Process Simulator@Home (APS@home) is looking at atmospheric components of climate change. Everyday citizens can download and install a model onto their PCs. The model calculates atmospheric dispersion and how it affects the accuracy of estimates used in global climate models. It runs in the background using idle CPU time, so it doesn’t affect normal computing activities.
  • OpenStreetMap is a model for creating a global geospatial data set by citizen volunteers. Organizationally it provides a good example of a successful structure for managing the creation and distribution of the data, as well as maintaining quality standards.

Amassing large numbers of volunteers to work on geospatial problems such as climate change is already taking place as shown by the CPDN and APS@home examples. What is needed next is something at a much larger scale, where not just physical, but also biological, social, cultural, economic, and political data and models are integrated to give a more accurate depiction of the complexities of our planet.

First we need to create an environment that successfully brings together a plethora of data sources and modeling systems—a noble vision for GIS technology, but not something to be tackled by citizen scientists. Once the data and technology is in place, and a clear framework is established, then comes the opportunity to organize a large group of volunteers who would do the work of tackling this challenge.

The challenge for GIS practitioners is to ensure the usability of citizen scientist-created data in a GIS workflow or to turn this crowdsourced data into useful geographic knowledge. This can mean checking the data to make sure it is authoritative; it can also mean getting involved in data collection, structuring the process to ensure that the collected data has meaning and is appropriate and authoritative.

Imagine a framework where tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists log in to a web site and download geospatial data sets and work task lists, then use a focused geospatial app to run different analysis and modeling scenarios as defined in the task list, and then share the results of their analysis back to the web site for consolidation.

If properly structured and managed, the integration of citizen science and GIS will enrich geospatial infrastructure, giving GIS practitioners new types of data to use, manage, interpret, and incorporate into their work. More importantly, it could significantly advance our understanding of the planet.


6 thoughts on “Citizen Science and GIS

  1. Pingback: Citizen Science and GIS | Everything is related...

  2. Pingback: Citizen Science and GIS | GIS Tidings

  3. Reblogged this on Po Ve Sham – Muki Haklay's personal blog and commented:
    An interesting blog post from Matt Artz in ESRI about Citizen Science and GIS. I have written about it in 2010 in ‘Geographical Citizen Science’ – and it is important that more people who are dealing with GIS at government and scientific organisations be aware of citizen science (disclosure: ESRI provided generous support to ExCiteS)

  4. Have you seen or National Geographic FieldScope ( Today is my last day on the FieldScope project, but for the past five years I’ve been the lead developer. FieldScope and are both intended to be exactly the sort of collaborative visualization and analysis platform you’re talking about. And FieldScope is built on ESRI technology.

    I have to agree with Jean-Marc about the projects you cite, though. CPDN and APS@Home don’t involve any activity by participants other than installing the software. And OpenStreetMap doesn’t really involve any research questions, so I wouldn’t classify it as science. Projects like those in the Zooniverse family at least involve some activity by participants, either in data collection or data processing. But the research questions are predetermined, and participants are not free to ask their own questions — they participate in order to help the “real” scientists. I tend to think of such projects more as crowdsourcing than citizen science. To achieve its full potential, citizen science really must enable participants to ask and answer their own research questions.

  5. Pingback: Citizen Science and GIS | The CASA Blog Network

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