Citizen science - open-source research

Geography researcher Tuuli Toivonen believes that cooperation and openness are key for research.

Playful sunbeams paint the leaves of the trees around Töölönlahti with warm autumnal shades. A young couple is pushing a pram, while in the distance, a train trundles along its rails. It’s easy to capture this beautiful autumn moment with just a quick press of a smartphone screen. After that, a tap and a swipe sends the image to social media to delight our friends.

These days the photos can result in more than likes or shares – they constitute valuable research data which can change the world.

Tuuli Toivonen, geography researcher and assistant professor in geoinformatics, is well aware of this, as social media constitutes an important resource for her research.

Involving citizens

While the research use of photos and posts shared on social media is a fairly recent phenomenon, citizen science is nothing new.

 “Even more than a century ago, most observations on different species were compiled through citizen science, collected by volunteers," Toivonen points out.

...animal tracks collected by hunters count in the winter, data collected by birdwatchers, and bird ringing...

Much of the data collected on wild species are largely reliant on citizen science, such as animal tracks which hunters count in the winter, data collected by birdwatchers, and bird ringing. Now, a wider set of tools is available for citizen science – and social media is just one of them.

 “For example, private individuals are participating in our current study by posting open, geotagged material on social media like they usually do. For example, the analysis of national parks would be easier if more people hashtagged their posts with the names of the parks,” Toivonen explains.

Social data

Researching social media data is a bit different from traditional research. Toivonen and her research group use social media posts from Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, etc. as research material to study the urban environment and help protect national parks. The goal is to better understand how people use their environment. Research data have been collected in both Finland and South Africa. Information on different areas is filtered with geotags or hashtags with place names.

 “In our current study, the data from social media are produced by private individuals, but they are primarily intended for non-research purposes,” Toivonen explains.

This means that a public post can wind up as part of the research material without the author finding out about it.

“In such cases the people rarely know that they are participating in research. We select content relating to the areas we are studying, and look at how it is created and used by people on social media,” says Toivonen.

Material not intended for research is especially valuable, as it is intimate – we share the things we find important and the things we want others to see for our own reasons. Researchers access the photos or posts through open interfaces, and filter them with timestamps or geotags, if the posts have been set to be public.

The openly shared photos can be analysed for time and location data, changes in the environment or just how often and why people visit a particular place. The people making the posts themselves are not particularly relevant for the research.

Openness to help with research

It is important for Toivonen’s research group that people share their posts openly – otherwise the researchers cannot access them. The same applies to research. Toivonen has worked tirelessly to promote openness in research.

 “Open science is important for my own work, as many research projects would be impossible without openly shared resources,” Toivonen states.

According to Toivonen, openness in research is useful for a number of reasons. It makes the work of researchers easier, and can even bring more visibility and partners to research projects.

 “Launching cooperation is easier when we have openly available materials which potential partners can view to see what kind of work we do," says Toivonen.

In addition, the data from the research can later be used for other studies, enabling science to move forward and answer questions faster.

 “Open science also increases reliability and the quality of research. When the materials and their process chains are shared openly, it is easier to evaluate research as a whole. It also makes academic dishonesty more difficult and less appealing,” Toivonen points out.

Openness in science is often met with reservations, as competition in research is fierce. However, Toivonen believes that attitudes are changing.

“People understand and support open science more," he says.

Helsinki is an opportune location for open research.

According to Toivonen, Helsinki is an opportune location for open research. The University of Helsinki has a good support network for researchers who want to engage in open science. In addition, many resources in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area are easily available for research use. Toivonen’s research has also greatly benefitted from active individuals, and Helsinki has these to spare.

The future is open

Toivonen believes that open science will become more popular in the future. Several communities have already been established around the topic, such as the Open Science group of the Open Knowledge Foundation. While meetings of the Open Science group have thus far been held primarily in Helsinki, online connections enable participation from any part of the world, and the goal is for the enthusiasm for open science to spread to researchers everywhere. 

Toivonen hopes that the culture is moving in the right direction and that in the future, the term "open science" will be obsolete, as openness will be a given.

“If we want to solve the world’s problems, we must do it together, not alone.”


Learn about other uses of open data and open science on the University of Helsinki Open science website

Who Tuuli Toivonen?

Tuuli Toivonen, PhD, University of Helsinki.

Does what?

  • Assistant professor in geoinformatics at the Department of Geosciences and Geography, University of Helsinki
  • Head of research group, researcher and teacher
  • Member of the strategy group of the Open Science and Research project

Ongoing open science projects

Two projects promoting and developing open science practices: