How Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Work of ‘Citizen Scientists’

    by Dan Schultz
    August 27, 2009

    Last week I visited Carnegie Mellon University’s website for the first time as an alumnus. The front page, often dedicated to highlighting faculty work, had a picture of an iPhone screen displaying brightly colored data visualizations. I didn’t have to look past the first two words of the title — “Citizen Scientists” — before I knew that it would be worth my time to keep reading.

    The article described how Eric Paulos, an assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, is equipping “everyday mobile devices” with sensors used to collect reliable scientific data. The point of all this effort is to create “a new generation of ‘citizen scientists,’ connected both to the environment and each other.” Just in case that quote isn’t clear enough: the study might as well have been funded by The Knight Foundation.

    What’s interesting about this project is that members of the scientific community, a professional group that arguably maintains higher standards for verification than journalism, are trying to harness the crowd in the same way that we are. In fact, they are actually going out of their way to do it. This demands an explanation!


    But First, Outer Space

    At the end of July, an amateur astronomer found a giant hole on Jupiter. Some people were surprised that the ocean-sized crater was discovered by a hobbyist instead of a professional. I, however, wasn’t shocked. My reaction could be the result of a personal perception that astronomy is relatively accessible to “the common man.” Or maybe it’s because looking to the sky is such a primal thing to do. Either way, the subsequent media dialogue exposed me to several new spins on the “amateur vs. professional” debate.


    A few days later, I saw a follow-up story on Digg about another amateur observation. This time someone found a bright spot on Venus. It was admittedly less interesting than the news from earlier in the week. I scanned the comments anyway and saw a highly rated one that asked, “Why is everything first discovered by amateur astronomers? What the heck are we paying the professional astronomers for?”

    Using my recently gained knowledge of the issue, I replied and pointed out that professionals have bigger and better things to do; it doesn’t make sense for a PhD to use a million-dollar telescope to look at something that a hobbyist could view using a thousand-dollar one, especially when there is so much of the universe left to unlock.

    Once again, there seems to be a lesson here for journalism.

    The Three Classes of Scientists

    It’s important to know where amateur and citizen scientists fit in relation to professional ones. Here’s how I define these three broad classes of scientist:

    • Professional Scientists – These people make a living from science. They have the expertise, the patience, and the resources to handle the big stuff.
    • Amateur Scientists – Folks who tackle science as a hobby. They enjoy participating and have varied levels of knowledge. They also have the capacity to make direct contributions to the scientific community because they’re exploring the same reality as everyone else (regardless of what quantum physicists and philosophers might say).
    • Citizen Scientists – These individuals are equipped to contribute to science when they are empowered by tools and networks. They aren’t out conducting experiments or learning methods, but they are generally willing, with the help of professionals, to provide crowd power and reap the benefits of the resulting information.

    Here’s the interesting part: between the story of the amateur astronomers and the vision of Eric Paulos, all three types of scientist have beautifully compatible relationships.

    Professionals can safely focus on daunting tasks, knowing that amateurs are ready and willing to take on the smaller stuff (like keeping tabs on Jupiter). The community standards are clear and ultimately bound by cold hard observable fact, so amateurs can make meaningful contributions without diluting the knowledge base. Meanwhile, citizens are being empowered by professionals to help the scientific cause in a way that informs individuals and improves their lives.

    Takeaways for Journalism

    Now it’s time to take the leap back into the land of journalism. If you buy my claim that scientists and journalists all care about informational integrity and the quest for truth, then several things can be extrapolated:

    1. If professional journalists take the lead by clearly defining expectations, explaining best practices, and implementing an accessible infrastructure, then amateurs can contribute without disrupting the industry.
    2. If amateur journalists do a good job of covering a smaller scope of topics or areas (e.g. the hyperlocal), then professionals can focus on the deeper, otherwise inaccessible issues.
    3. Professional journalists are responsible for creating and maintaining the citizen network if they want it to meet their standards.
    4. Citizen networks need more than a host. In order to reach full potential, they need to be explicitly empowered through tools and guidance.
    5. A symbiotic relationship between the professional, the amateur, and the crowd is not just possible, it’s socially optimal.

    And there we have it: If the journalism industry can create an infrastructure that allows amateurs to contribute reliable information, then professionals will be able to dedicate more resources to epic reporting. If local papers can find the capacity to set up and empower meaningful citizen networks, they will establish a major foothold in the evolving domains of community and information. Man, science is useful.

    Now we just need to define the standards (and explain how to meet them), create that infrastructure, and set up those networks.

    iPhone image via Carnegie Mellon University.

    Tagged: amateur journalist carnegie mellon citizen journalist citizen scientist

    6 responses to “How Citizen Journalists Can Learn from Work of ‘Citizen Scientists’”

    1. Dan Burd says:

      And how would you recommend that professionals initiate this symbiotic relationship with amateurs (such as creating a citizen network and explaining best practices)? How can we keep amateurs from straying from best practices? What tools and guidance would citizen networks need?

    2. Sarah Hardison says:

      Please don’t say “arguably” about science maintaining higher fact-verifying standards. The scientific community unequivocally does. It’s not arguable.

      That being said, thanks for your article.

    3. There is actually a fourth group — professional scientists who found that to keep a roof over their heads and have food to eat and to maintain professional ethics, they needed to take other jobs. This is often what happens with whistle blowers.

    4. Kathleen Garness says:

      The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program has rigorously trained over 300 long-term volunteers, who, collectively have accumulated over 8735 hours in the field monitoring threatened and endangered species in six counties. The volunteers work with respected scientists and their work is frequently double-checked by the CBG staff. In addition, Audubon Chicago Region’s Habitat Project trains professionals, interns and citizen scientist to monitor birds, amphibians and other indicators of healthy ecosystems. Both organizations’ work is well-respected and has been the inspiration for other programs nationwide.

      To respond to Dan Burd’s question, supervision and ongoing training are essential for volunteers’ contributions. Fortunately, we are lucky in that many of our citizen scientists already have advanced degrees in one or more fields and enjoy the rigorous detail-gathering the work entails. The tools and guidance necessary come from consistent protocols, thorough training, community building, user-friendly online data submission programs, with backup by also submitting paper copies of their reporting forms, and the dedication of the scientists involved, including their commitment to pursuing grants to support these programs and spending many many hours in the field implementing them.

      Respectfully, Kathleen Garness
      Plants of Concern volunteer and
      steward, Grainger Conservation Preserve, Lake County, IL

    5. I appreciate dialogue about this. I am at odds with a some basic premises here though that I think are interesting.

      (1) I think the features of “professional scientists” is overstated..”They have the expertise, the patience, and the resources to handle the big stuff.” I think it is fair to say that they have the resources, but beyond that any individual can have the expertise and the patience. I am sure it takes a lot of patience and expertise to find a whole on Jupiter.

      I think this gives into long standing assumptions about professionals rather than moving the discussion forward.

      (2) I am especially concerned about the idea of “sourcing” and “citizens” contributing to “professionals”. This still implies a hierarchy that is disconcerting. The “crowd” seems be harvested making them objects rather than actors. This, for the benefit of the farmer, who seems to have been manifestly imbued with the right/power to reap.

      I think continuing this viewpoint misses the opportunity to democratize our human processes that the Internet has brought. In fact, the beginning of first-person reporting, which started (and continues) on indymedia.org, signaled this shift from a hierarchy to a peer relationship among professional and non-professional reporting.

      In any case, however hard professionals of any persuasion fight to maintain their zones of power/exclusivity, they will most likely fail in the end. I think, with respect to information, the Internet (and what it becomes), is a great equalizer that will flatten these hierarchies.

    6. darlene says:

      Thanks for sharing this. After studying this topic of years, it became clear that what’s missing is meeting place for all stripes of citizen scientists and professional researchers. Until Saturday 1/16 when ScienceForCitizens.net is launched at ScienceOnline 2010. The suggestion of the first commentor to include “best practices” is a good one. We’ll work on that.

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