Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The More the Merrier: A Move Towards Open Climate Science

Technology has, and always will, change the way the world works. In the context of climate change talk focuses on big technology like clean energy and geoengineering. But the more mundane, phones, emails etc. could have a huge impact on mitigation strategies.

Citizen science involves data collection, monitoring or analysis by amateurs and volunteers. The growth of the smartphone, open data and our ability to share and access information has revolutionized science. Whether it is stargazing for the Galaxy Zoo project or snapping backgarden animals for Project Noah citizen science offers an opportunity to engage a whole new audience with specific questions and issues.

There are issues with citizen science, research with these methods can find it difficult to be reviewed and published in mainstream journals, due to data quality concerns (Bonney et al 2014). It may though purely be a lexical issue, with long-term volunteer monitoring projects such as the Christmas Bird Count featuring in hundreds of papers without any mention of ‘citizen science’ (Silvertown 2009). Bonney et al also note two particularly successful projects, Zooniverse and eBird, have combined featured in over 140 peer-reviewed journals and book chapters. Whilst data-quality issues are often addressed through high quality computing of statistical or measurement error. Even the recent seminal paper by Cook et al (2013) highlighting the 97% consensus on climate change was conceived as a citizen science project. 

So with a rich history in other environmental sciences how can crowd research aid climate science. A major issue behind the Climate Change problem is the multiplicity of stakeholders and their lack or contrasting engagement. Increased channels to access or contribute can only be positive. It is more however the effects citizens are having on science than vice versa which have been in the news recently.

In tandem with the White House Climate Data initiative earlier this year ESRI hosted an app challenge. Using GIS data the competition was posed to any potential developer to build ways in which people better see, understand or prepare for future climate change. The top 3 included a site-suitability analysis for solar panels, a Flood forecasting and communication project and a rainwater saving tool. With a whole host of runners-up offer personal engagement with specifics of a vast topic.

Climate CoLab is a website allowing the public to put forward their idea to combat climate change. According to the website they now have a staggering 32,000 members from 120 countries. This community then offers feedback on other projects and can support or join proposals. The list of 34 winning proposals in numerous categories from adaption to youth action makes for fascinating reading.

The Harvard Clean Energy Project meanwhile opened up a huge database to citizen contributions leading to the discovering of 35,000 new photovoltaic materials that have the possibility to double solar efficiency. When you begin exploring Kickstarter or Indiegogo you see how much work is being done outside of traditional academia. IBM also offer free cloud space to any project tackling climate change, professional or otherwise. Even the UK government hopped on the bandwagon over the summer opening the draft version of their global calculator to the public for testing and to provide initial findings.

More and more I find these posts being drawn back to a singular argument; that the more people you involve in discussion the more options you present to find a solution. Academia provides a technical basis for understanding and framing climate change but by offering data, or the chance to contribute, to a wider audience you create whole new dimensions for dealing with a problem outside of traditional policy. 

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