An evening jog in the park provides useful data for researchers – Citizen science gives everyone the opportunity to make a difference

Researcher Silviya Korpilo believes citizen science democratises research and provides an opportunity to affect one’s surroundings. In this regard, the help offered by 230 Helsinki residents is furthering the planning of the city’s Central Park in an increasingly sustainable direction.

On a ten-kilometre route along the River Vantaa, from Töölönlahti Bay to Haltiala, there are altogether 1,100 hectares of forest in a nearly natural state. The park is home to foxes, brown hares, weasels and many other animals. If you are in luck, you may even spot a falcon gliding above the trees.

In addition to animals, you will meet runners, cross-country cyclists, commuters and bird-watchers in the forest. Any one of them may well be participating in research.

Silviya Korpilo examined urban forests and people’s practices in, and motivations for, using them, at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences. Helsinki’s Central Park, running through Helsinki and Vantaa, is a research topic of particular interest to Korpilo, since more than two million visits are made to the park every year – almost as many as all of Finland’s national parks put together.

Korpilo’s doctoral dissertation focuses on the use of the park for leisure, and how related data can be utilised in the park’s further planning, as well as to protect its ecosystem.

Korpilo’s research partners were the City of Helsinki and park visitors. Together with volunteers, she conducted citizen science.

Exercise application data for the development of Central Park

The scholar stops in the middle of the forest, pointing to a small path behind the trees.

“Those routes are not official, but born out of use over time. City dwellers use the park more and more for outdoor exercise, and new routes for cross-country cycling, for example, have not been created fast enough. So, people have made their own pathways,” Korpilo explains.

Central Park’s usage has a significant impact on the forest ecosystem and the condition of its vegetation. Short-cuts formed alongside maintained routes may damage the forest and its natural inhabitants. The better that human practices in, and motivations for, forest use are known, the better that new routes can be planned in a way which preserves the balance between this use and the forest’s vitality.

The city wanted to engage citizens and hear what they had to say about making Central Park as enjoyable as possible for all.

Instead of investigating people’s movements in the forest by conducting a survey, Korpilo employed the volunteers’ smartphones and GPS data.

As they moved about in the forest, exercise applications on their phones collected data on their movements. A route map was generated after each run, cycling trip or dog walk, which the participants could then upload to a website compiling the data. At the same time, the volunteers responded to a short survey, providing background information and describing the factors affecting their route choices.

The more that data was entered into the site, the more accurate was the view Korpilo and the City of Helsinki gained concerning forest usage and development needs.

Smartphones democratise research

The Central Park research project is a textbook example of citizen science, or the participation of ordinary people in the conducting of science. Of course, the phenomenon has historical precedents.

“For instance, bird-watchers have been collecting data on bird counts, movements and routes for centuries. They are doing extremely valuable work that also greatly benefits researchers.”

What is different today is advanced technology, available to nearly anyone. The development of smartphones in particular has significantly advanced citizen science: the accurate camera of a smartphone can be used to document plants and various natural phenomena, while the phone’s sensors collect data on the user, his or her movements and the surroundings, providing fuel for scientific research. A permanent connection to the internet provides round-the-clock access to various sources of information, such as Wikipedia and map services, facilitating observations and orienteering oneself on their basis.

“Unlike computers, smartphones have spread all over the world, even to countries where computers remain rare,” Korpilo adds.

Once the data has been acquired, it can be forwarded using the smartphone – even on the spot. Continuous access to the internet also enables dialogue and the exchange of information across physical, cultural and political boundaries.

Best expertise may reside in laypersons

According to Korpilo, problem-solving and engaging ordinary people in research are clearly trending activities. As a matter of fact, it constitutes a paradigm shift for the practices and rules of scientific research. Advanced technology accessible to consumers has been the biggest agent of change.

Change also democratises science. That happens out of necessity, since research often involves human habitats, which people have the right to influence.

“If you are trying to solve social or environmental problems, you can’t exclude the people whose lives will be affected by the choices made. Engaging people in research helps them have a say in their own surroundings and, consequently, society.”

Engaging is not the only issue. Locals or individuals who have focused on a certain species often possess better knowhow than scholars themselves.

“Science requires human power,” Korpilo summarises.

Results of citizen science should be freely available

Korpilo’s Central Park study involved 230 volunteers. Engaging them in the project was easy thanks to helpful television, radio and newspaper advertising.

As a rule, it is easy to get people to take part in citizen science projects. They only need to be sufficiently passionate about the subject matter in question. Some people are map enthusiasts, others are very interested in birds or stars. If that passion can be harnessed to benefit the common good, even better.

Indeed, Korpilo encourages everyone to google for citizen science projects, for example by writing one’s area of interest followed by “citizen science” in the search field. Certain projects employ exceedingly peculiar ways of conducting research.

For example, Foldit, a project developed by scholars of various fields at the University of Washington, aims to understand protein folding and to develop novel proteins by playing a problem-solving video game. In 2011, the Foldit game helped determine the structure of the retrovirus that causes AIDS, a feat researchers had been unsuccessfully attempting for thirteen years.

Korpilo thinks that citizen science will answer many great challenges in the future. But before that, a certain issue requires a solution: how to make research results gained through collaboration available to everyone.

“The results of citizen science should be open, or at least better accessible than they are at the moment. People contribute a lot of their time, but often the benefits are reaped by a party other than society at large,” says Korpilo.

Not many have access to academic journals, where research results are published. And even if they have, the language of academia makes reading research articles difficult for the uninitiated.

“Media and technology have the ability to narrow the gap between scholars and citizens. They bring research to the people.”

 

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Read more about open science on the University of Helsinki Open science site