This second London blog investigates the community-led London Hackspace and summarises a meeting with the University College of London-supported London Prosperity Initiative. The purpose of these visits was to see citizen science in different contexts. Not only community compared with institutional, but also with in social settings. Environmental citizen science often has a strong surveying and/or ecological monitoring focus. Observational data are increasingly being collected via apps/online platforms with offline capability e.g., eBird or iNaturalist.
Makers, Hackers and Community Labs
The US Federal definition of citizen science (from the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act) includes ‘developing technologies and applications; making discoveries and solving problems’ and emphasises collaboration. Other definitions centre more on community involvement with science-based studies, particularly during study design, data collection, analysis and reporting stages of the research cycle. Community labs sit in an in-between space depending on which definitions are used as they supply the tools and open conditions for enabling citizen science.
I headed to North-eastern London on a stormy night, tube rattling, electrical charges flickering the lights and breaks squealing and eventually make it to the London Hackspace – one of several public labs scattered around the city. Every Tuesday is open evening, and I caught up with trustee Simon Hewison and long-term member Erica Calogero to learn more.
Increasing rental prices have forced several moves since the lab was established in 2008-9. It’s a community asset with all manner of equipment and space for members to use. Some members may prototype objects for eventual sale and others may join to learn new skills to enhance employability. For some it’s a place work on pet projects, socialise or use as a study space. Membership enables 24/7 access: trust, goodwill and generosity fuel the lab’s operation.
The impressive array of workshops house (mostly) donated equipment e.g., for wood and metal working, electronics, industrial and craft sewing, 3D and laser printing. A mailing list facilitates decision-making. The model-makers workshop (which houses miniature versions of tools for fine-scale projects) raised considerable debate owing to its specialist nature – would it draw more members?
The lab is run as a limited company with 4 trustees. In the UK this was far easier than registering as a charitable trust. NZ by comparison has huge numbers of trusts/societies – formalisation is a common criterion in applying for funding.
A six-month closure and remoter location halved the lab’s membership – challenging given running the lab relies on members’ nominal fees (£5 month, plus equipment use charges). There are currently 500 members although >100 actively use the space. There is little external funding, meaning no there are no paid staff to train users for the more specialist tools onsite. Health and Safety means that access is required to locked spaces housing technical, dangerous or specialist equipment. A Wiki helps first time users with basic equipment and members may upload their projects onto the site to share what and how they were working on.
Universities and public libraries have established similar spaces though the former is limited to students and staff e.g., UCL’s Institute of Making
One user developed a one-dimensional computer game ‘line wobbler’ from an upside-down shoe-tree and 4 meters of ultrabright LED strip display run by an Arduino (open-source electronics platform/ board and the software used to program it).
Social citizen science and changing urban environments
While searching for citizen science learning opportunities in London, I came across the London Prosperity Board (LPB – see video here) who are leading social citizen science projects within urban settings. I arranged to meet Hannah Sender (Citizen Science lead) and Ben Anderson (Data Analysis and Research Team lead) for an overview of projects and processes used.
A focus of the LPB is to better understand value to residents and communities in the form of increased opportunities, improvements in health and quality of life that lie beyond the coarse measure of economic growth. The Board comprises partners from the Mayor’s office, local area board and authorities, businesses, charities and think tank groups.
All research carried out is impact oriented – there must be tangible social outcomes. The research is embedded within the communities in which the projects take place. One project is situated in fast-growing East London – an area that has undergone significant change since the Olympics took place in 2012.
A project will typically begin with stakeholder analysis. A ‘knowledge chain’ scenario may run like this: Councillors and other high-level contacts identify community leaders who in turn identify key individuals of local groups unlikely to be found via standard web-based searches. Area residents bring vital local knowledge to projects. The citizen science component is where residents are employed and trained in social research methods (e.g., interviewing, running focus groups), transcription, data analysis as well as research ethics. Their feedback shapes how findings are shared back to the community. An important point is that community researchers need not have any formal qualifications – for some the experience is a stepping-stone to study or other employment.
The wider Institute for Global Prosperity has carried out projects in Lebanon (a collaboration with UN Habitat) using similar approaches with residents conducting door to door surveys. Novel video research methods were also used. Participants learned documentary video-making skills, and through sharing findings in a easily accessible medium were able to raise awareness of local issues.
A longer-term project that began in Kenya centred on the value of biodiversity to the community and evolved into a citizen science project that investigated farming methods incorporating spatial data.
Data sharing agreements are in place but differ according to the nature of the project and funders (e.g., business and/or philanthropic organisation). In the case of public funding, the recommended portal is the UK Data Service.
Although community researchers and the public generally have access to the anonymised data, the aspiration is to enhance data accessibility both on principle and to increase research rigour. There may also be publishing requirements (again, depending on the funder).
Evaluation takes place during the project with community researchers functioning as sounding boards for project evolution and development. A challenge is retaining the community researcher cohort for the project duration given the different skills (and interests) e.g., for interviewing c.f. data analysis, meaning that not all share their final thoughts/experiences at the conclusion of the project.
Feedback to the community varies in line with project outcomes: in Lebanon a public exhibition of photos taken by involved in the project took place while formal breakfasts have been used to share findings with policy- and decision-makers.