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January 14
Using Citizen Generated Data

How Studies of Bellybuttons, Roadkill and Genomics Offer an Opportunity to Improve Public Health Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery

Author:  Sara Harris, Management Analyst, Gap Solutions, Inc., Contractor Supporting ASPR Fusion Cell

In mid-November, Fusion Cell hosted Bring Your Own Data: Opportunities and Challenges in Using Citizen-Generated Data for Situational Awareness, which was developed with other Federal and non-profit partners including: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, National Center for Food Protection and Defense, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. For eight hours we listened to presentations on everything from earthquakes, to bellybuttons, to road kill, to genomics. You’re probably asking yourself, why? Why are the data and analytics people of ASPR interested in bellybutton or earthquake research? Well, it’s not so much that we’re interested specifically in bellybuttons, but we’re very interested in hearing from people who are conducting their own research on bellybuttons, or earthquakes, or roadkill through citizen science. We want to learn more about how others are using citizen scientists to collect data and improve their research.

Citizen scientists are becoming an increasingly vital part of research. The use of citizen scientists can increase the scope and feasibility of a project while simultaneously educating the community on the subject matter. For example, presenter Dr. William McShea with the Smithsonian National Zoo spoke about the Smithsonian programs SI Wild and eMammal. SI Wild uses motion activated cameras across the globe to capture photos of wildlife. The eMammal program then trains citizens to identify different species in those photos, helping to categorize and organize the data. This allows Jane Doe in Minnesota to play a role in identifying species seen in China and increase her understanding of international biodiversity.

In an effort to continuously improve and innovate, we want to figure out if data collected, recorded, and reported by citizens is reliable and useful in the midst of a public health emergency. At the time of the forum, we had already been responding to Hurricane Sandy over two weeks. Our strengths and challenges were at the forefront of our minds. So, as we listened to each speaker it was easy for us to think of how citizen data may or may not provide insight into what is happening in communities and neighborhoods following a disaster.

One of the most important lessons taught by speakers that day was that citizen science projects need to be a real partnership. To promote citizen participation in data and science, projects need to be open and transparent with the locus of control with the participants. People are more likely to participate in studies focusing a subject matter they are already passionate about. They want to know that someone is listening to them. It helps them feel engaged and empowered. At the end of it all, they want to get something back after participating, whether it be further education, visualizations of their data, or participation in future studies. It’s not enough to just ask for information and provide nothing in return. People want to know what they’re doing is making a difference.

In the coming months we hope to take all of our lessons learned from that day and begin turning them into action. We want to engage people in all stages of the continuum: preparedness for disaster events, response during the event, and recovery as a resilient community.

Help us keep the conversation going. Got ideas on ways that citizens and the government can work together to protect and save lives in an emergency? Share your thoughts in a comment to this blog post.

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