How citizen scientists are working with the pros to advance research and innovation

Science&People event in Berlin features organizations that harness the data – and ingenuity – of citizen scientists

With digital technology, it's becoming increasingly easier for citizens to act as scientists, collecting, measuring, mapping, photographing and documenting their findings, whether observing insects, birds, plants, air and noise pollution. In citizen science, members of the public become part of the research process and can actively take part in the research design, data collection and in the creation of new research questions. (Photo by Karo Kraemer, Wissenschaft im Dialog)

Modern technology and digitalization are making it easier for anyone to collect scientific data, and a citizen science movement has emerged to take advantage of these newly-developed tools. From biodiversity to digital art collections, scientists are increasingly calling on the public to help them answer research questions. Several citizen science projects presented their findings and experiences at the second Science&People event on 23 June 2016 in the Microsoft Digital Eatery in Berlin.

Despite the hot summer weather, more than 40 people gathered to discuss citizen science at an evening organized by Wissenschaft im Dialog on the theme “Citizen Science – Open Science for Citizens.” The interactive format allowed each speaker 10 minutes for a short presentation, during which the audience could write their questions on notecards. Following the presentation, the moderator gathered the cards and posed their questions to the experts. Finally, participants were invited to stay on for further one-on-one discussions and networking.

“Bürger Schaffen Wissen — Wissen schafft Bürger”

Speakers and moderator at the second Science&People event: "Citizen Science – Open Science for citizens." From left to right: Julia Schnetzer, PhD; Arndt Pechstein, Lisa Pettibone, PhD; and André Lampe.

The first speaker, Dr. Lisa Pittibone, a Research Associate at the Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural Science) in Berlin, introduced citizen science. She explained that the subject has received increasing attention as digitalization has simplified the collection and evaluation of research data. Smartphones, for example, provide excellent tools for involving citizens in research. There is no single definition for citizen science, but it can be broadly described as research where citizens are actively involved in the research process, or where citizens independently carry out their own research. Whether they gather data or develop research questions, citizens can participate in many phases of the research process, helping science to generate new knowledge.

Dr. Pettibone also reported on her research: the project Bürger Schaffen Wissen – Wissen schafft Bürger (GEWISS), which translates as “Citizens create knowledge, knowledge creates citizens.” A quick review of the project's website shows that the majority of citizen science projects explore biodiversity. However, there are numerous projects that investigate not just the natural sciences but also the humanities and social sciences. For example, the project Artigo asks participants to categorize artwork by allocating tags to images. The research hopes to improve the search functions for digital archives.

Collecting ocean samples and stimulating innovation

Dr. Julia Schnetzer of My Ocean Sampling Day and Dr. Arndt Pechstein of Biomimicry Germany gave concrete examples of the challenges and benefits of collaboration between citizens and professional scientists.

On June 21, participants in My Ocean Sampling Day took water samples from German coastal waters and the rivers that flow into them. The samples will provide a snapshot of the microorganisms living in these waters (e.g. bacteria, algae and protozoa). They are now being analyzed, and the data will be made freely available.

To collect the samples, 1,000 MyOSD Sampling Kits were sent to participants. They were designed to enable untrained users to take water samples of a suitable quality to use in research. Dr. Schnetzer described the challenges of obtaining high quality data, the difficulties in obtaining funding for citizen science projects, and the opportunities presented by bioprospecting for finding potentially useful compounds in the environment.

Dr. Pechstein described how citizen science can stimulate innovation. Biomimicry Germany organizes regular workshops where researchers and citizens from diverse backgrounds work together on teams in an effort to stimulate creativity. The goal of the workshops is to develop prototypes to solve problems – for example, in sustainable architecture, packaging or transportation.

After the talks and questions, many participants utilized the opportunity to network and discuss ideas about citizen science. In evaluating the event, they reported that they found the speakers excellent and the format – short talks and a moderated question and answer session – stimulating.

Participants evaluate the event according to: 1. Format (10-minute presenations, question cards, discussion); 2. Quality of contributions; 3. Overall event)

Citizen science is just one of many methods for science and research to provide direct benefits to citizens. We will present further links between research and society at upcoming Science & People events. If you’re in Berlin, we look forward to seeing you there!

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Next event

The next event is September 6, 2016, on the topic of Open Universities. Learn more on the Science&People website.

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Written by

Thorsten Witt

Written by

Thorsten Witt

As project leader at Wissenschaft im Dialog (Science in Dialogue), Thorsten Witt is responsible for various projects, including the science crowdfunding platform Sciencestarter, the German citizen science platform Bürger schaffen Wissen (citizens create knowledge), Hack Your City, Hochschulwettbewerb (university competition) and VERS. Thorsten is inspired to develop new ideas especially from the digital startup scene, and he also looks into fields outside of science and science communication. His goal: to enable people to have access to science to diminish the growth of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.


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