Insight - Supporting Earth Observation and Citizen Science

Friday, December 14, 2018

By Luc Riesbeck, Human and Environmental Security Intern and Krystal Wilson, Director of Space Applications Programs

Citizen science, broadly defined as volunteers participating in scientific research or science applications, offers the opportunity to expand and revolutionize the way science is done. Public contributions to scientific research and discovery have greatly expanded in recent years, thanks to support of governments, civil society, and academia towards fostering and expanding this new and innovative approach to scientific inquiry. Though public contribution to scientific inquiry is not a recent innovation new technologies and applications such as the internet, social media, and mobile phones have increased the awareness and utility of citizen science.

The success of citizen science initiatives such as Zooniverse, Foldit, and Globe have increased the visibility of the ordinary person’s potential to supplement innovative, real-world research. In the United States, the scientific impacts of citizen science have been recognized by 60 federal agencies and organizations, which coordinate and support hundreds of citizen science projects. In Europe, the European Commission continues to fund Citizen Observatories, beginning with the 7th Framework Programme and extending through active projects Ground Truth 2.0, LandSense, SCENT, and GROW, many of which are partially funded under the Horizon 2020 Programme. Similar initiatives are emerging in other parts of the world.

Citizen science and crowdsourcing can be applied in numerous ways across scientific research but one area of particular interest to Secure World Foundation is how citizen science is beginning to play an important role in augmenting and enhancing Earth observation data. Expanding Earth observation technologies and data have already revolutionized the way information about our planet is collected. From extreme or disaster-affected environments and hard-to-reach or sparsely populated areas to densely populated urban areas, volunteers contribute to space-based Earth observation datasets. Citizen scientists can contribute to Earth observation projects from early project design through implementation and evaluation. Their activities range from forming hypotheses to instrument calibration and validation to image interpretation. These efforts enable analytics providing crucial insights in projects related to a variety of disciplines such as  water management, land-use planning, agricultural and wildlife conservation, disaster management, and climate research. That citizen science can contribute to Earth observation research and applications across many types of use cases is particularly important in light of global efforts towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which will require timely, accurate, and accessible data to track progress, as well as clear public engagement strategies to communicate that progress.

As institutions attempt to incorporate citizen science into their processes, they are also facing many challenges—from data quality and fusion to formulating policies that address issues such as privacy and intellectual property. The Secure World Foundation is committed to supporting the development of tools and policy that will allow for the continued integration of citizen science methodologies into Earth observation initiatives. As an active participant of the Group on Earth Observations Earth Observations and Citizen Science Community Activity Working Group, SWF has co-hosted a number of awareness-raising events for the international community.

Currently, we are partnering with the South Big Data Innovation Hub to produce a report surveying leading initiatives in citizen science projects enhancing and augmenting Earth observation data. The report, set to be released in early 2019, investigates best practice methodologies for engaging members of the public in research. It will also highlight the significance of science and technology policy’s effect on the state of citizen involvement in Earth observation science and gauge the impact of citizen science and public contributions to scientific research. This report is the result of a workshop held in December 2017 which examined opportunities and technical and policy challenges and resulted in recommendations for next steps for stakeholders. These projects are just the first steps in ensuring that citizen science can be utilized to the fullest extent possible within Earth observation research.

Last updated on December 14, 2018