#WCMT Citizen Science research trip: #ForumCS 2019, Muenster, Day 1

Working on the legal aspects of citizen science

The third stop on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust research trip was northern Germany. The following summarises the two-day Forum Citizen Science event – the fourth to run so far. The networking and information-sharing event was brought together by Buerger schaffen Wissen the German citizen science platform. Being predominantly in German, participants mainly represented projects and institutions from Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Among the c.200 participants, academic institutions were strongly represented (as occurred with the Austrian Citizen Science Conference). All papers presented at Forum Citizen Science are available here

The keynote, delivered by Prof. Dr. Michael Quante (Vice Rector for International and Transfer WWU, Münster) explored the wider context. He argued for greater critical reflection by citizen science coordinators and practitioners in order to progress the professionalisation of the field. Citizen science led by institutions and bound by their expectations and obligations still include political, personal, legal and ethical dimensions which combined, form the building blocks of citizen science initiatives. He also highlighted the need for greater integration of CS into the research and learning process rather than being an extra add on. This will require an enabling culture to be developed within institutions.

Compromises and trends were also discussed. A democracy should provide greater freedom for research. However, having just read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was very surprised to learn that medical professionals continued to fight against perceived ‘over-regulation’, i.e. against regulations that create higher ethical thresholds and bring patient’s rights to the fore. There may be conflicts in objectives between individual and collective research and e.g., political motivations not shared by practitioners and decision-makers. Democracy and functioning within a society of openness carries significant social responsibility with freedoms of speech and movement.

Workshop 1: Legal implications of CS

I attended the workshop to gain insight into broader questions that currently sit in the background of citizen science in NZ. While no major issues have yet arisen in NZ, in Wyoming laws make environmental data collection illegal under a host of circumstances (see here and here).

The workshop investigated implications of citizen science projects and participant engagement through the lens of insurance law, employment law, intellectual property and data protection laws:

  • Citizen science ‘makers’ (see definition here) need to clarify objectives from the outset for findings: e.g., will the products/process be patented or open to other users? The moment a public launch takes place, patenting is too late.
  • Volunteer management – who is liable if a volunteer has an accident? In NZ Health and Safety legislation has been greatly strengthened in recent years. Photographing volunteers also raises concerns, necessitating consent, with waiver forms sometimes used.
  • Data ownership and IP: In Singapore for example, NParks data are not publicly accessible but the use of the iNaturalist open source platform by NGOs (Birdlife International, Nature Society) enables data to be accessed and potentially re-used (previous blogs here and here). Copyright and acknowledgement of authorship (e.g., for texts, products, processes) are further considerations.

Responsible Research and Innovation: A guiding framework

RRI concerns are closely linked to legal considerations and are embedded in Horizon2020 (EU Programme for Research and Innovation).  RRIs comprise Ethics, Gender Equality, Governance, Open Access, and Public Engagement and Science Education and are presented as a series of guidelines developed by the European Citizen Science Assn.,  (see here). ECSA also had a working group for citizen science and RRI which contributed to conceptualizing the (now completed) EU Project “Doing-it-Together science” (DITOS).

Map showing levels of radiation measured using Safecast devices https://safecast.org/tilemap/

The power of mapping

Two presentation focussed on the power of mapping both to harness multiple data points and to build visual spatial narratives that are easily interpreted by the public. Emu-Felicitas Ostermann-Miyashita (Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology) described the Safecast project which developed in the wake of Fukushima (2011). The information vacuum that occurred and slow release of data from official sources led to distrust while social media ran wild with speculation. A kit to independently measure radiation was developed enabling the public access to finer grained maps. One aspect of success related to the transparent and non-partisan nature of the project.

The off-the-shelf device to measure radiation. The relatively high cost of the device (400-500 Euro) may contribute to longer-term participant commitment to the project.

Münster is described as Germany’s cycling capital with hundreds of kilometres of cycleways. Although data on collisions are obtainable from the police, they are not in a readily usable form (i.e. PDFs). Thomas Terstiege from open knowledge lab, Code for Münster, described the development of an interactive map, which now provides citizens and city planners alike with data to support decision-making.

Heat map of cycling accidents in Muenster with detail of individual crash including level of injury (slight injury) and mode of accident (with car)

Working with youth: education and measurement

Plastic Pirates is a nation-wide German project that investigates the pollution of waterways with youth and school groups. Tim Kiessling (Kieler Forschungswerkstadt) is part of a group operating out of Kiel University. They developed a workbook for teachers and students/youth that describes the issues and helps measure the level and type of plastic pollution occurring in waterways.

Screen shot of group CSG 9-2’s data showing the average amount of microplastics (in this case 40) collected per 1000 litres of river water in 2016

Florence Ziesemer (TU Berlin) and Fabian Bendisch (Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg) described Food Lab Home which brings climate education and household organic waste together. Students participating in the project  measured their organic waste over a 10-week period and then developed novel strategies to reduce waste.

Investigating citizen science databases

Numerous databases hosting citizen science projects have been developed in Europe, the US and in Australia. Emu-Felicitas Ostermann-Miyashita analysed 96 projects registered on the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research website (in 2017). Questions included who projects were targeted at, time since establishment (72% started within the last 5y) the project topic (58% nature and environment; 15% history and tradition) and science type (documenting observations is most common). The full paper is here.

Barbara Heinisch (University of Vienna) cast the net wider to look at citizen science project directories in the US, Australia, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Following the Fields of Science classification, she found that natural science themed projects predominates across all directories. She pointed out that data may be skewed given social projects may not describe themselves as ‘citizen science’. The full paper is here.

Anna Maria Hartkopf (Freie Universität Berlin) looked at a cross-section of mathematics-related project types (e.g., mass and distributed computing, collective problem solving) to investigate whether they could be described as citizen science. She found that each lacked some aspect of citizen science when criteria from the German Green Paper on citizen science was applied. She then outlined some challenges for citizen science methods to be used in mathematics such as scepticism from mathematicians and the specialist nature of mathematics. The full paper is here.

Citizen science in the left field(!)

Dr. Niklas Kästner (WWU Münster) and team have embarked on a project to measure dogs’ emotional states and to investigate whether there are links to left- or right-leaning tendencies and personality. This project would not be possible in a laboratory setting hence the need for participants to observe their animals in their usual environments. An app is being developed to help dog owners document their observations (e.g., nature of action, perception of animal’s emotional state).


Göbel, C. et al. 2017. European Stakeholder Round Table on Citizen and DIY Science and Responsible Research and Innovation. Doing-it-Together Science Report. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1563626


2 responses to “#WCMT Citizen Science research trip: #ForumCS 2019, Muenster, Day 1

  1. Pingback: „Die Zukunft der Bürgerforschung“ – Rückblick auf das Forum Citizen Science 2019 | Saxorum·

  2. Pingback: #WCMT Citizen Science research trip: ECSA, German #citizenscience platforms and networks | monicalogues·

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