A collective reflection to explore citizen science to support public services provision under crises at ECSA 2022


SensJus with two co-conveners - Marisa Ponti, University of Gothenburg; Nils Heyen, Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI; and live illustrator Alice Toietta - organised a session titled "Rethinking public services provision: citizen science to support public and environmental health services" at the European Citizen Science Association Conference in October 2022, Berlin, Germany. Here, we reflect on the main takeaways of the session. See also previous blog post on the session.

We started illustrating how grassroots-driven initiatives are producing data in response to crises. Such initiatives may be aimed at gathering information on the spread of a virus and analysing it, or collecting geo-located data on settlements affected by a flood event and trying to predict future evolutions of the matter. The data at issue could be considered a basis for 'collective intelligence', i.e., the enhanced capacity created when people work together and join efforts. This knowledge is relevant when competent authorities have to intervene on matters they are only partially prepared for. By contributing data and time, people demonstrate how a certain 'crisis' matters to them. Institutions in charge of providing services should look at these practices as opportunities for meaningful public interventions.

We posited that such strategies enacted 'outside' the institutional system (for example in the form of data purposely collected by crises-affected people and their coping strategies) could be scientifically enriching, as the solid experience of citizen science practices demonstrates. We ran an interactive workshop with pitches and live drawings to elicit reactions, inviting participants to highlight practical examples in which a certain citizen science initiative complemented or even substituted an official public service. After introducing the topic to the participants, we asked them to brainstorm in three groups, identifying keywords and sketching symbols or simple images on three white sheets (the cloud-shape sheets in the PDF). An illustrator followed the discussions making visualisations of what each group discussed and an overarching visual summary of the discussion (the posters in the pictures below): 

How can decentralised data flows coming from spontaneous citizen science initiatives help innovate the public sector in particular in relation to public/environmental health services?

  • Offering visualisation and story-telling but preserving the scientific quality of data;
  • Connecting data to (individual and community) values and view data as boundary objects that may stimulate or rather hamper dialogue; and
  • Helping actors to embrace 'explosive' data (data that may generate conflicts and controversies) and 'emotional' data (data that express feelings around matters of concern).

How can citizen science methods and approaches be applied to the field in discussion?

  • Citizen science methods and approaches can teach us how to acknowledge the work of mobilised and active people as they put efforts in monitoring for a change, and their efforts must be recognized.
  • Embracing these approaches can increase trust in public institutions and the services they provide, and promote a shared understanding of problems, while rebalancing (hierarchical) structures to innovate public governance.
  • Using these methods, we can get a sense of the range of experiences surrounding a problem, and mobilise the best possible knowledge and know-how to find solutions.

What are the pitfalls of this idea of jointly sharing data as beneficial for contributing to collective intelligence, especially when there are hidden (e.g. market) interests that aim to profit from the data?

  • Potentially conflicting interests (including from private actors) may hinder a fruitful synergy between civic data and institutional actions. This may prevent uptake as people or institutions may be worried of hidden agendas.
  • Although decentralisation and the concept of a dispersed collective are in principle valuable, it is unclear who is represented by this 'collective'. It is certainly not neutral, and there are power relations and hierarchies as well - implying risks of bias and exclusion.
  • To address these challenges, it is crucial to identify roles and identities, disclose agendas and interests of the various participants around the table, and clarify collective values and goals can be helpful to overcome these issues.

Key takeaways from our shared discussion include:

- We cannot assume that there is something like one common collective intelligence due to (increasing) polarisation, 'infodemics', and social frictions.

- We need a stratified understanding of what a 'collective' entails, to embrace the diversity and complexity of any collective (intelligence).

- We need to broaden our scope from crisis-reliant use of collective intelligence to involve collective intelligence also in ordinary problem-solving at the local level to offer inclusive, value-based and responsive public services to citizens, businesses and across public institutions.

Methodological takeaways from the exercise include: the dynamism of the session made it very engaging and stimulated participants from different backgrounds and with different attitudes to contribute to the discussion; the hands-on drawing and keywords identification seems beneficial to keep participants' attention high, stimulating creativity as well as assisting them with imagining complex and sometimes abstract concepts; the opportunity to be followed by a live illustrator helped them digest the inputs from the session in a comprehensible and catchy way, as the image below illustrates (poster with compilation of the whole discussion).

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