Posted on

Citizen Cyberscience Summit 2014

Laura Youngson interview
Interviewing Laura Youngson at #CCS14, picture taken by Lightyear Foundation

Over this weekend, London has been the host to the Citizen Cyberscience Summit.

I was asked to attend, and to collect some answers to the following questions to the delegates:

1) What is your vision for the future of citizen science?

2) What do you think the growing citizen science community needs?

What I gathered from the answers was the following:

a) Citizen science needs to be more organised

There are many projects running very similar projects, but some don’t know the others exist. Is there a way that these projects could work together more efficiently, as to avoid confusion to the citizens who are looking for projects? Could they be organised into themes?

b) Citizen science needs more citizens

Projects are gathering in their numbers, but in order for them to take off, they need more citizens to take part. How do you get more citizens involved? And how do you make them aware of what is available to them?

c) Citizen science projects need to be more citizen lead

A lot of citizen science projects are lead by professional scientists. Why not get the citizens to lead projects? Let them come up with the research questions, do the research and analyse the results?

d) Projects need to be easier to find

This ties in a lot with point (b). Projects should be made more visible to the public.

e) That citizen science will become normal

There is hope that citizen science will no longer be something separate. It will become something that sits along traditional science, without the distinction that is isn’t the same.

What do you think?

Posted on

Beautiful data

Perpetual Ocean

Infographics and data visualisations are becoming increasingly popular, and you see them almost everywhere you look. But what is their visual legacy? How has data visualisation evolved over time and what role does it play in science today? The British Library is opening their first science exhibition on February 20th: Beautiful Data, exploring exactly that.

Perpetual Ocean

The curator Joanne Kieniewicz chose three topics to focus on: climate, population health and evolution. Each part of the exhibition starts with just pure data collected in the late 1600’s early 1700’s, and moves on to how that data is being used in contemporary science. Not only that, but it also shows how the visuals have changed over time from static images on a page to interactive ones on a screen.

It was incredible to see the emotive power behind some of the visuals. The weather, for example, is one which we are all familiar with. Luke Howard, a 19th century amateur scientists who took obsessive measurements of the weather and logged them in his Barometrographia. As well as the imagery, he made comments about his data (some of which sound familiar today!) To complement this with a more modern view, there was a Dutch design studio poster where tweets about the weather were compared to actual weather predictions and measurements made.

Edward Halley the astronomer drew a map of how the winds moved across the surface of the Earth. He wanted this map to tell a story, and to help those travelling the globe. In contrast, there was the NASA perpetual Ocean imagery which is an animation showing how ocean currents have moved and changed over the years.


In the health section, it was Florence Nightingales’ Crimean War data visuals that were the most politically driven, and shocking. She wanted to get the attention of the government, to show them that more of their brave soldiers in the war were dying in the hospitals than on the battle fields. Her drive was to get sanitation policies changed. The area of each region shows the number of soldiers who died of wounds, disease, or other causes, during each month of the Crimean War.

If Nightingale had used a simple bar chart or had just presented her data in a table, it would not have been as effective. At the exhibition there was a computer that allowed you to do just that, and the difference is striking. The visuals tell a definite story.

The final part of the exhibition was The Tree of Life, spanning from Darwin and his incredible … and others all the way to modern-day digital visualisations like Martin Krzywinski’s Circles of Life.

These visuals are not just important for communicating between those in the same field, but to those outside of your field too.


For example, Robert Fludds’ Great Chain of Being from 1617 classifies life on Earth into a hierarchy that seemed to fit the social beliefs of the day. You wouldn’t see that today. Instead OneZoom, an online platform with a fractal-like representation of all life on Earth, shows a very different approach to our connection to all creatures on Earth.

It’s a visual exploration, very much like our personal, every day exploration of the world around us. We use our eyes, focus in on something, or take a step back and zoom out to see the bigger picture. This is what James Rosindell envisioned for the project. He wanted people to be able to see our relationships to other creatures in the same way as we explore our own world.

What the exhibition shows is that our relationship with visual data continues to develop and grow as the volume of data grows.

The exhibition is open from February 20th until May 26th, and is definitely worth a visit.

Posted on


Yesterday I was curious to see how scientists prefer to read academic papers: as a PDF or HTML?. I’m planning a Naturejobs podcast on publishing, and this question came to me. Here are some of the Twitter responses. If you’ve got any comments, please leave them below! I’d love to hear more about your opinions on this.

Feature image credit GETTY images

Posted on

Global vs Local

Although I’m new to the world of print publishing, I have been writing online for a while. The more I time I spend writing online, the more I learn about how it works. But it’s not a quick process; it’s an ever changing scary world, so it’s hard to keep up.

Being thrown into the deep end at the Digital Content Summit at the British Museum yesterday was a sink-or-swim type of experience for me. I needed to learn how to swim, quick.

There were several key messages that I took away from the summit, and I wanted to share some them. Putting thoughts onto paper (screen?) seems to help me understand them a bit better…. I hope.

The first speaker, Luca Forin, said something that became a talking point for the rest of the summit. A lot of his talk focussed on how the world is becoming increasingly mobile everyday, and so we should be thinking more globally. “Don’t be constrained by [geographical] boundaries, it just doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Forlin stressed that you should create content for local audiences, but make is accessible and applicable to global ones. And yet, having thought about this, it didn’t make all that much sense to me.

Local news can be extremely specific to a local area, so firstly this idea depends on where your “local area” really is. Is it your local village, the town or city in which you live or even the country?

Those in Massechusets won’t care much about the local council decisions made in Guildford, UK. So whether you make this accessible or not, it isn’t really relevant to them.

But for me, this argument of global content didn’t fit the the “Content is King” argument that was also making the rounds at the Summit. Many of the speakers were adamant that it is the content on your websites and digital platforms that will bring in the customers/readers etc. SEO just doesn’t do the trick anymore. It helps, but if the content the SEO is helping isn’t any good, you’ll very quickly start pissing people off and they won’t come and visit your site.

So it didn’t fit because content is audience specific. At the conference I spoke to the lady that runs the social media marketing for Clarins. She told me that the Clarins audience in the US has a very different social media scene compared to those in the UK. In the US, their social media is all about celebrity spots. In the UK, this wouldn’t work, she said. Here, Clarins is a luxury brand, to be enjoyed as a special treat, not about which celebrity walked into the store.

So Clarins is taking their content and re-shaping it to suit different audiences. This isn’t the same as making one piece of content for one audience and hoping it satisfies your global audience too.

The way content is shared also makes the global vs local argument difficult to follow. Each country will have a different way of sharing it’s media. In China for example, the most popular social media sites are QZONE, Tencent Weibo and Sina Weibo. Many of us in the west won’t have heard of these sites, but over there they reach 712, 507 and 500 million people respectively.

Most of the business, blogs and online dwellers in the western world share the majority of their content via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google +. These are unlikely to reach the millions of people in far eastern countries. So really, the content isn’t going global, per se, you’re just increasing the area defined as local.

And yet, as the internet is becoming more capable of targeting specific content to a specific user by tracking their movements on the web, is the concept of global content really any use at all? Isn’t it all becoming more and more personal? Part of Forlin’s talk was focussed on exactly this. The individual user journey is key to their ongoing engagement with your content. If they see things that mean nothing to them, then they won’t hang around.

Then again, where ever you go, everyone seems to like cats.

These are just my thoughts and questions. Please, if you have anything to add or comment on, I’d love for you to get involved and help me develop my rambling ideas.

Posted on

Citizen Cyberscience Summit


In two weeks time, the 3rd Citizen Cyberscience Summit will be held in London.

In the past few months, I’ve been working closely with some of the Citizen Cyberlab team, making some videos of events they attend and running their podcast Citizens of Science, and have watched them get ready for the 2014 Citizen Cyberscience Summit.

It’s traditionally been more of a conference event with speakers who specialise in different areas of citizen science. This year, it’s taking on more and more.

I spoke to the organisers to get an idea of what is to come:

Citizen science has grown phenomenally over the past few years, expanding beyond volunteer computing to volunteer thinking and many other ideas. It’s becoming so big that even, as Muki Haklay said, policies are needed and the commercial industries are starting to become interested.

What is also unusual about this event is that it is the first time I have heard (correct me if I am wrong) of a conference bringing both the professional and amateur scientists together to discuss old, current and new projects. Citizen science is no longer about the professional scientists setting the projects and citizens just collecting data. It has become an engagement between two groups who each have an equal desire in seeing a project done well. I explored this with several people in the Citizens of Science podcast series: what is science?

I’m particularly looking forward to the event, and will be roaming around to catch some sound bites and videos for those who cant make it.

If you want to find out more about the event, you can follow @CitizenCyberlab on Twitter and use the hashtag #ccs14.

Posted on

DIY Swimsuits

Back in the day (just over 110 years ago) swimming was just about making it to the Olympics.

Swimming back then was nothing like swimming back now.

In the first swimming Olympic Games in 1896 there were only 5 events, only men could compete, and they all swam either front crawl or breaststroke. There was even a special race for sailors.

The most awesome thing, at least from my point of view, was that they did all this in a woolly swimsuit. Wool. Crazy.

Wool, as I’m sure those of you who have washed your own clothes before know, is a rather good absorber of liquids. Imagine then that you have to swim 100m, or even 1500m in a swimsuit that weighs you down by about 3 or 4kg! On top of the fact that you have to carry yourself through the water too. Madness.

These days swimsuits are made from man-made materials like polyester. And some even have Carbon Fibres in them. It’s awesome.

On Thursday Dec 5th I’m going to be at the Pythagorean Cabaret in Belfast, talking about how we went from Wool to Carbon Fibres in swimsuit design.

But I need props. I have my own Speedo Sharkskin suits from when I was swimming. I even have a Speedo LZR (one of the super fast ones that were banned) that someone gave me because they can’t use it anymore. I might even (fingers crossed) be allowed to borrow a Carbon Fibre containing Arena swimsuit.

Getting my hands on a wooly one has proved more challenging. No-one I know (or don’t know – thanks for asking around peops) has one. And some of the ones on E-bay are going for more than £200! As a freelancer on a budget, I decided DIY Swimsuits was the way forward.

So this evening I have spent some time with a needle, thread and a woolly jumper, making my very own woolly swimsuit in time for Thursday’s show. I think it looks rather fetching….

1) Get a woolly jumper from your local Charity shop
2) Cut off the sleeves (don’t throw away – they’ll be useful later on)
3) Add some poppers (warning – make sure they’re on the right way around!)
4) Try it on for size…













5) Add the legs
6) Tighten the waist to size…and Voila!











If this won’t get a laugh on stage… I don’t know what will.

Wish me luck!

Posted on

Audio adventures


Julie-Gould-logoThere’s just something special about working with sounds.

They leave just the right amount to the imagination, but give the listener enough to build that imagination.

What I love most about working with radio, is how the spoken word contains so much more than just words.

Words are just the information, they are the symbols that represent real life things.

But it’s not just about the information or the science that people do in the podcasts I’ve put together that are interesting, it’s the way that they talk about them that fascinates me.

I love hearing how someone feels about something, just from listening to the way they talk. What I’ve so far enjoyed about making science podcasts is that the scientists, more often than not, sound so incredibly eager and excited about the work they are doing. This is the essence of what I wish to show the listeners.

That at the heart of every scientist, even the most serious one, is an excitable child, curious, exploratory, enthusiastic about the work they do.

These are the real people behind science, the real stories behind science.

And it is these stories, through the spoken word, that I explore in my audio adventures.

And now, you can listen to all of the podcasts I’ve made (so far) on iTunes. There isn’t any coherence or theme, these are just my audio adventures.

So why not subscribe and follow my audio adventures.

Posted on

The Outsider


story-collider-science-communicationI recently had the privilege to open this years SpotOn Conference 2013 by being the first of six speakers at the fringe event: The Story Collider.

The Story Collider, according to Brian Wecht, provides anyone with a science story some space to tell it.

One caveat – the focus is emotional, rather than factual. So the point is to talk about things that have happened to you that are science/science, and to tell a story of how it changed you, or made you feel, and all those mushy things.

story-collider-science-communicationSo, I decided to tell a story.

My story starts with a young girl who is watching her younger sister swim. She didn’t like this one bit, and was getting jealous of her sister getting quicker. All this outsider business on the poolside wasn’t good enough. She wanted to be on the inside: in the pool, getting faster.

So, she joins a club and gets extremely passionate about swimming. So passionate in fact, that she gives up everything else to focus all her energies on it. And gets pretty good. She’s now on the inside.

Unfortunately, this girl became frustrated, bored and disillusioned by what swimming had to offer. She wasn’t learning anything new. She was just going up and down the same pool every day. She was hungry to learn new things. She didn’t like the inside of this world anymore.

So she gave up, and started studying physics. And boy was physics awesome – especially particle physics. She went to CERN, and as an outsider got to see the scientists preparing for the opening of the LHC. More than ever wanted to be on the inside, getting involved. So, she decided to throw all her energies into physics.

A few years later, whilst being an insider (working in a lab over several summers) she realises that being on the inside in physics was also not what she thought it would be. Although the science was cool, she wasn’t as excited by the laboratory work: it was too focussed on only one thing.

At this point, she realises that she is an outsider. She enjoys the energy, enthusiasm and curiosity of being an outsider. As an outsider, you get to ask questions that may seem silly to an insider, but can be eye-opening to an outsider.

And so that is what this girl does now: she asks questions, learns new things everyday, and is always enjoying it.


Slowly slowly I’m becoming more comfortable doing public speaking. The trick: just get on and do it.

Posted on

A Fireside chat about science


It’s lunch time on Sunday afternoon and the room is full. People are excited to find out what Mozilla has in mind for science.

This is the Fireside Chat, where we learn what Kaitlin ThaneyMark Surman and Josh Greenberg have on their minds for science and the open web.


Mozilla recently set up the Mozilla Science Lab, which is directed by Kaitlin Thaney. Kaitlin has been in the open science space for 10 years and is interested in and excited about creating tools for researchers, to make Science more open, web enabled and collaborative. So how can Mozilla take this to the next level?

Josh Greenberg is programme director at the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, who are funding research and are interested in STEM education and a public understanding of science. He has been focussing on information technology and how it is changing the way research is being shared.

The talk started with the basics: how is the web changing science?

This was an interesting concept, considering that it was because of science that the web was created! So without science, we wouldn’t event be discussing this. The Internet has advanced so much, and the way science is communicated still seems to be stuck on ink and paper.

The main goal is that the web can be used for what it is good at – making connections and closing the distance between different groups around the world. The web allows access to science for those who otherwise cannot reach it. Kaitlin believes that it is not only tools and technology, but also the unique characteristics of the Web that will allow people to get involved. This interconnectedness and doing things on a scale that haven’t been done before will take science to a whole new level.

So how does the Mozilla Science Lab fit into this? Mozilla Science Lab is an online platform that will help scientists, and non-scientists, to begin to understand and use the tools that are available.

So science is no longer about lab coats and beakers, it’s about communities, about sharing information, and about how people work together to reach a common goal. This is what Science Lab says it hopes to help facilitate.

At this point, Josh Greenberg mentioned Thomas Khun, a philosopher of science who talked about paradigm shifts. These are points where science (or any field) becomes unstable when all the questions that have been asked are not yielding answers. Things are going wrong. Someone then seems to look at the information in front of them from a different point of view, and at that Eureka Moment, you have a shift.

Josh believes that science is going through a paradigm shift when it comes to the Web. This is a very interesting, and turbulent time to be in this area. Many people don’t believe in it yet, probably because they cannot look at it from a different perspective, from a global, sharing point of view.

So now is the time for cultural shifts. Not just in science, but out in society too. People need to change the way they think. Journalism is a good example: people think in ink, even though these days it’s all about pixels. The same goes for science: science is still thinking about ink and paper, but now it’s all starting to become about pixels. It is going to need a change in culture, a change in the way that research is done. The Internet is a resource that is not being tapped enough. Not only this, but there needs to be a change in the way rewards are given. Open access publishing is making things difficult for papers that are behind a paywall, but papers are still the way researchers know that they are doing well. The question is whether the Internet can provide another meaningful way to reward scientists so that it is not all about how many publications you have, where you have been published, but more about the work itself.

Apart from the Ivory Towers, are there any other things standing in the way of this movement? Yes. There are several. One is that there is still the stereotypical view that scientists are super intelligent, super awesome, inaccessible people, and that in order for one to do science, you need to be inside a university. What we now need to focus on is the diversity of expertise that is on this planet! It is time to start recognising the communities on the fringes of science and how they science happen. Software developers, glass blowers, app builders, instrument makers, citizens with different background and skills – they are all part of the scientific process.

Citizen science is one movement that is allowing this to happen, and the web is a key component of this. Francois Grey and the Citizen Cyberscience Centre is a central mover and shaker in this field. He has helped initiate many citizen science projects like the Citizen Cyberlab that look to get non-traditional scientists involved with many different scientific fields from particle physics to synthetic biology. Galaxy Zoo has had millions of citizens help classify thousands of images from space.

This has really driven the field of science on the web right to the forefront. Because you are using citizens, you need to make your science open. The Ornithology Lab at Cornell is one place that is hugely benefitting from this and hopefully many more can too. Citizen science can take what is being examined in a lab to places that the scientist themselves would never be able to go.

Another force standing in the way is the concept of money and IP and having your ideas stolen. The concept can easily be resolved: by making science more open, it no longer has commercial value. It is currently not always a shared commodity that can benefit more people.

One excellent question was asked about funding, during the Q&A at the end of the session. In Britain, funding for science is scarce, and so people hold on to their ideas, research and work with clenched fists, unwilling to let it go for free. How can this be stopped? It is precisely this holding on that is standing in the way. We need to remove this culture of “this is all mine” and share what we learn. Reciprocation will follow: ‘what’s mine is yours ‘will help stimulate collaboration. Two heads are better than one and all that.

Francois Grey mentioned that Open Science should be careful about how it tackles the institution of science. At the moment, science is a closed system, many years behind the way society is moving, and it is stuck there, and has for many years refused to budge. His recommendations are to come at it from the side, to take the small opportunities that will allow open science to work well, and then build up from there.

So really what needs to happen is for people to start collaborating, and for there to be a more fluid way for people to do so. And this is what the Mozilla Lab is hoping to enable. But they can’t do it without the help of the community. Without people talking about the session and spreading the word, this may become a fruitless session. So this is my contribution. Please share and comment and add to this post on anything that you felt was interesting that I missed or forgot!

For more thoughts and discussions on open science at the Mozilla Festival, it is definitely worth following the Twitter hashtag#mozfest

Posted on

Open science

It’s tricky, as I discovered. There are as many meanings as there are people.

Mozilla Festival Open Science

I’ve been at the first day of Mozfest 2013. Mozfest was big, varied and fun! Coders, hackers, programmers, makers, shakers, the lot. They were all there.

I was centred on the second floor where all the science action was taking place. People from all over the world had convened on the second floor to talk science and the web.

The focus was open science: science that is available to all of society. Not just the results, but the method, data and all steps in between. I wanted to explore this idea in this post, so readers, please bear with my ramblings: they are definitely not fully developed. This was just a space for me to put my thoughts onto virtual paper.

The first thing to focus on is what these words actually mean to me. Looking at open, I think of the inviting, “come on in” sort of things that I experienced at the Future of Nature conference in April, where scientists from one field (synthetic biology) were inviting the conservation biologists to come and join them. They wanted to form a collaboration so that they could work together to reach a common goal.

Another connotation of open is free. Free for all to see what is inside. This can be good or bad, depending on who you allow to have a look.

In this post I muse on the combination of “open” with “science”, and whether or not these two words work together to create a common goal.

Brian Glanz from the Open Science Federation described open science to me as

Science by anybody, for everybody.

I guess that science has this element to it anyway: no one does science on their own. Science as a process is a collaborative thing. Working together in labs, sharing equipment and materials. Scientists also come together outside the labs (in pubs so I’ve heard) to discuss theories and ideas and see if their friends/colleagues think they have anything to go on.

This is something we talked about a lot during the sci-comm MSc – that there is so much to science that the public do not see. The public read the journalists’ interpretation of the science and the results. These are taken from interviews with the scientists and from the published papers.

BUT, the press miss more than half the story! There has to be more than just the method and results that the scientists showcase. Admittedly, I never did the research for a PhD or a post doc, but I spent a lot of time around scientists, and this methodical, painstakingly accurate method they portray in the papers is not quite how it goes.

The Internet has expanded and exploded over the last few decades to enhance the way science is shared. It has decreased the distance between people the world over by making communication so much more available and instant. These days, you could hear about a scientific Eureka Moment over Twitter before it is published in a journal. Scientists now blog about their research in a great amount of detail, giving readers a really good insight into their work. Online Open Access journals have broken down the walls and now let anyone read a scientific paper.

This instant sharing has closed the gap between scientists and non-scientists; it has broken down the walls of the ivory towers.

An increasing number of projects are embracing the ideals of open science and transparency. The Synaptic Leap is a biosciences project that aims to create an online, open, collaborative research network that brings scientists from the world together in one virtual space. They share their work, results, notes, comments, and ideas in order to find a better solution to the problems they are working on. Open Notebook is another way forward: this is where, instead of writing your science log book on paper, you take to the keyboard and write your notes online for everyone to see. This way you are sharing not only the results of your work, but your notes, thinking and ideas. Blogging about your work is another way: Jon Tennant writes a very successful blog about his research in palaeontology at Imperial College.

One big part of open science is Citizen Science. Citizen Science is where people set up a project that uses the scientific method to research the question, but opens it up to anyone to take part. Although keeping track of everyone might be tricky, it is one way that science is definitely becoming more “open”. Researchers like Caren Cooper use citizen science to do all of their research, and find it incredibly beneficial. Caren is an ornithologist who studies the migration and egg laying patterns of birds. Citizen science has allowed her to gather data from locations she would never be able to reach herself, nor would she ever be able to create the volume of data she gets from her citizen collaborators. She also turns to them for advice in directing her research.

In these ways I can see that open science can be beneficial, and I understand, and empathise with these goals, but I sometimes wonder whether it will take off. Scientists, like any one else, are people. And people are motivated by a few things that can become disincentives to the goal of open science:

  • Money
  • Reputation
  • Resources

These things drive every one on the planet. If it is a survival instinct for businesses, then it is a survival instinct for scientists. If a scientist does not get any money, they cannot do any research. If they haven’t done any research, they can’t earn a reputation in their field. And without either of these they may not get a position where they will have the resources to do their science.

If scientists start sharing everything and make their data available to everyone, how do they know someone won’t run away with their ideas, publish first, get the credit (and the money and the reputation and the resources for future projects etc etc…)?

Another thing that I thought about today was that open science must be so very different for different scientific disciplines. Take biology for instance. More and more, human biology is getting closer to learning so many personal details about us: our genetic make-up, or our microbiome for example. Combine this with data mining on the Internet: it’s terrifying when you realise just how much of your movements on the internet are being watched. Privacy becomes a real issue here. Compare this to physics, where personal details and health are not a concern to the research.

So is there a way to make Open Science work? Is there a way to make it happen so that collaboration is the centre of it all?

Greg Wilson from The Mozilla Foundation looked at how things have been shifting from a “crank concern by people on the fringe to an “of course you do” in science” to see how to help this become the norm.

I would like to see this happen. I would like to see access to scientific methods become more transparent. I would like to see the public engaging with science on a more personal level. I would like to see the doors to science opened. Whether it will happen remains to be seen.

These have been a few of my musings on Open Science. Reader, what is your view on Open Science?