Science = ideas + data + communication

Piers’ note:

Over the past few years, citizen science has been a significant part of our work here at Gaia Resources, and it’s been a very rewarding experience for us.  As a result of this, we’ve just had a new staff member join us who may well need little introduction to some of our clients: Alex Chapman, formerly from the Western Australian Herbarium.  Alex joins us in a role that will see him be our “Consulting Scientist”, where he will be helping organise and run our scientific projects – citizen science being just one part of that.  I asked Alex to introduce himself on the blog by outlining his take on citizen science… over to Alex.

All science is pretty simple – science is really just a method for capturing data in order to explore ideas about the world. It is the idea that comes first, followed by devising a way of observing and gathering data to test the validity of the idea, analysing and drawing conclusions from the results and, crucially, communicating those findings.

We Homo sapiens have generated much data, and therefore knowledge, over the last 200,000 years. Over most of this time knowledge was communicated by example, verbally and perhaps diagrammatically. It is not until relatively recent times that more permanent methods of recording knowledge have been invented – paintings, monuments, written language.

More recently still knowledge was able to be widely disseminated across populations and eventually to the world. It is no coincidence that the rise of modern scientific method and mass communication via the printing press are closely allied.  Then, as now, it was the knowledge derived from raw data that was communicated, usually by experts in the field.

However, in the 21C it is the data too that is available at an unprecedented scale, gathered and stored digitally and increasingly openly accessible.  Often this data has been gathered by experts for one purpose, yet online and available to be utilised into the future for new projects, perhaps synthesised with data from entirely different knowledge domains.

In some fundamental way the balance has shifted in the equation. While formal scientific research will continue to gather new data, now the broader community can contribute novel ideas by using existing data in innovative ways.  Through education and open data access, many more people can generate and test ideas, and so add to the pool of human knowledge.  In this respect we have entered the age of the citizen scientist.

Citizen science is a term that has been around for perhaps 20 years, although it is not really a new concept – most science over documented human history has been carried out by individuals rather than institutions and governments.  However, focussed centralised support for science endeavour has certainly radically enhanced the speed of advancement over the last c. 400 years.  Now, with the advent of open online data, citizens can participate with government and corporations to utilise data to explore their ideas.

But a little more is often needed. Scientific data will almost always have limitations to its application; currency, accuracy, definition and reliability.  Merging different data sets can be difficult or invalid depending on these limitations, threatening the quality of any further analysis or outcome.  Good use of recognised data standards, and clear enunciation of data definitions and metadata are just two ways to help maintain good data quality and ensure it is ‘fit for purpose’.

Increasingly, science data is being delivered in a ‘just in time’ paradigm, particularly via online databases and smartphone apps. Quality data can be accessed on the spot for identification and verification of observations, whether they are environmental or cultural.  In many cases data is also being contributed at the same time to be validated and added to the observational record of objects and events.  Such a repository of validated data from multiple sources serves to add even more value to projects over the long term.

There are many citizen science apps now available, and in Australia Gaia Resources play a significant role in working with agencies, universities and the community to produce high quality and scientifically rigorous tools that enable citizens to take a real part in science at a local scale, and that can contribute to the global picture.  In my new role as Consulting Scientist with the team at Gaia Resources I am looking forward to liaising with many of you to develop world class projects based on sound science, global data models and excellent programming to meet the needs of both science and our community.

If you are a practicing scientist (citizen or otherwise), or want to run a citizen science project, then get in touch with me by commenting on this blog, or on the Gaia Resources Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn pages.


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