Maps in Citizen Science: A Preliminary Analysis of Use and User Issues
Keywords: Citizen Science, Usability, Maps
Abstract. Citizen Science involves a collaboration or partnership between scientists and amateur volunteers, which may take various forms; from simple data collection to a close collaboration where both parts jointly define their aims, methodologies and analysis approaches in the scientific endeavour. Although citizen science has existed for more than two centuries (Silvertown, 2009), the widespread use of information and communication technology (ICT) now plays a significant role in the way citizen science is currently shaped and utilised. At present, there are hundreds of citizen science applications available which engage thousands of volunteers in the disciplines of astronomy, environmental conservation, biology, marine science, geography and many others. A relatively recent analysis of 388 citizen science projects revealed that they have been used to engage 1.3 million volunteers, contributing up to US$2.5 billion in-kind annually (Theobald et al. 2015).
Web 2.0 and its associated technologies, which have existed for almost 15 years now, have enabled the development of websites which supported content generation by their end users (aka crowdsourcing; Howe, 2008) and multiple interactions amongst them. Examples include web-based communities, social-networking sites, wikis, mashups, and others (Batty et al., 2010). In this context the term ‘Neogeography’ was coined (Eisnor, 2006) and since then it has been used within the geographic and cartographic circles to describe the multi-directional generation of geospatial contents and interactions, which enables non-GIS professionals to create and share maps and other geographic information online “on their own terms” simply using the “elements of an existing toolset” (Eisnor, 2006). Map mashups started to not only be used for disseminating spatial information to a wider user audience, but applications have been created which enabled the crowdsourcing of geographic information for the production of geospatial knowledge; a trend, which is also known under the term Volunteered Geographic Information (Goodchild, 2007). OpenStreetMap (OSM) is perhaps one of the earliest examples that the literature cites to demonstrate how harnessing the power of the crowds for the collection of geographic information can result in the creation of a free, open source of map of the world (Goodchild, 2007; Haklay et al., 2008; Batty et al., 2010).
We argue in this paper that the above developments from the geospatial context have massively contributed to the current state of citizen science. While interactive web maps made their appearance as mainly “way-finding” tools (Skarlatidou and Haklay, 2006), they quickly became part of digital interactions in a much broader context and they are currently a basic component of most citizen science projects. The relevance and significance of space has been fully exploited by technological features such as geotagging, GPS-enabled mobile devices fully integrated with other sensors, which has made the collection and sharing of data much easier (Haklay, 2013). Sinton (2018) argues that it is such the power of maps in citizen science that “it would be difficult to pursue a project in biological conservation, for example, without incorporating mapping”. The breadth of citizen science applications is so wide that we observe an extremely wide range of potential users, with very different skill sets, backgrounds, literacy levels and user needs.