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CitSocSci - mass participation in addressing big social problems

On: 7th March 2014

Last week was the Citizen Cyber Summit #ccs in London a fascinating gathering of people interested in, design and running citizen science activities. From the open session it reinforced how exciting our own exploration of citizen science is, and more importantly, the potential for finding new ways of addressing some persistent social challenges. That may sound overly optimistic, perhaps even a little naive, but as James Borrell highlighted in his opening speech, these are important characteristics of starting out a citizen science based enquiry.

Our own investigation is about how the principles of citizen science (mass participation + networked technologies + thoughtful design) can be used to address complex social issues. We're currently calling this Citizen (social) Science or CitSocSci but that might change. What won't change is our constant seeking for how technologies can best be designed and used to address social issues.

So why are we so excited about CitSocSci? 

First, we've seen some amazing advances in science that have come about by opening participation to a larger number of scientists - interested citizens, amateur scientists or professional scientists in other institutions.  Some of these have already achieved great things: zooniverse, powered by 1 million volunteers have run a number of great experiments and projects. Rob Simpson casually mentioned that whilst developing a better understanding of the galaxy citizen scientists had found 3 new planets. That's three new planets. Cell Slider has sped up the rate at which images of cells can be classified to help professional pathologists find cures for cancer. And there are many more. So we want to know what a citizen science approach to youth unemployment might be? How can citizen scientists help address poverty or crime?

One answer might be in sorting data to help create new insights that lead to better provision or solutions. Another might be generating or collecting data that helps in the same way. There are a range of direct developments that could create engaging ways of millions of people to join together to solve an issue.

But aside from that, the process of citizen science makes people more engaged in process, outcomes and ideas. A Trojan horse of sorts, the great design needed to create successful citizen science projects in its own right engages people with the problem and engages them in finding the solution. A brilliant form of science communication, even before it becomes a public science act. And, another great insight from James Borrell, the larger the population involved the greater the evolution of the ideas and knowledge. So imagine if all of the organisations trying to address youth unemployment were suddenly supported by millions of other people also thinking up solutions and ideas.

This is why citizen (social) science is so important - not just for the specific ideas and interventions that might be developed, but because it allows non-professionals to be involved in creating solutions. More than that it offers the invitation and opportunity for those who want to be involved to do so. It's what the Big Society should have been. And mass participation that enables people to have ownership of problems and solutions increases awareness and resilience - the sorts of attributes that support stronger communities.

There's another way of looking at this which builds on Clay Shirky's well known principle of cognitive surplus.

Shirky points to 200bn hours spent by adults in the US watching tv in a year yet it only taking 100 million hours in total to create wikipedia. Imagine if a little slice of TV watching was given over to solving some of the biggest problems facing our communities. We've got the brilliance to address these issues, but that brilliance is currently choosing whether to watch dancing on ice or dinner date. Imagine the possibilities for serendipity of millions of people looking to address a shared issue - and that serendipity is really important in opening up new ways in which we might explore a particular challenge.

Similarly, the human race spends 16 years every hour playing angry birds - just imagine if just a bit of it was diverted into solving social problems. This isn't unfeasible - it just needs clever and thoughtful design to reduce complex social issues into compelling activities - just as compelling as angry birds. Tinder, the dating app, uses the same physical action as cell slider. One's helping people date, the other helping to cure cancer. Clever design; making small asks but big promises. There's so much potential. This isn't to make light of the importance of relaxation or games, simply that we must learn how to develop compelling activities that engage people in ways that compete for their time.

So what will be success at the end of this exploration? It would be incredible to find a few games or apps or tools to support citizen (social) scientists; amazing to support a few ventures in developing them, but there's a more ultimate measure of success.

Rob Simpson simply explained that citizen science's success is defined by 'science happening'. New insights, papers and publications. So success for citsocsci is where social value is actually generated: where better insight leads to action; where better solutions are put in place and ultimately where the lives of people and their communities are improved.

Not asking for too much? It would be if we were asking for help from one or two people, or a small number of organisations. But this is open to everyone. Public participation in making our communities stronger, happier and healthier. It makes sense, is so full of potential - let's hope we can all realise it.

Over the next week we'll be sharing some of the specific challenges and opportnunities within #citsocsci that we're investigating. We would love to have you involved, so please look here and sign up.

In putting together this post (first drafted in the Gerard Bar of the RSA) I'm reminded that the RSA was founded 250+ years ago on a spirit best described by Margaret Mead: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.' 

I hope in the coming years we can change the last part of that sentiment to achieve the same objective.