Digging for stories and crowdsourcing data in the age of the amateur

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A group of 36 students in Western University's Master of Arts in Journalism class has spent three months studying and reporting on citizen science. Over the past three weeks we have been sharing our citizen science stories -- how it emerged and evolved, where it stands now and where it's going. This is the final feature article in this series. Visit our Citizen Science page to read previous articles. 

John Keefe knew the cicadas were coming. He knew swarms of them would emerge from their burrows in the eastern United States this spring after 17 years underground, and he knew that would be a story worth telling.

So Keefe, a public radio journalist working at WNYC in New York City, hatched a plan that would let ordinary people predict when the cicadas would emerge by building sensors that beam out a signal when the conditions are right. It would not be hard science and it would not be hard news, but it would be a place where citizen science could intersect with journalism, and it might produce stories.

"When the cicadas come out, maybe we'll be a place people will turn to report their experiences of swarms of millions of cicadas around," Keefe said. "And that will be fun stories to tell."

Journalism has often looked to science for stories in the past, but today's journalism is not the same as yesterday's, and the same is true of science. Amateurs are playing an increasingly important role in both disciplines, producing 'citizen journalism' and 'citizen science' that complements or augments the work of professionals. 

Citizen journalism and citizen science are not the same thing, the former often stands on its own and reaches an audience directly, while the latter is usually absorbed and interpreted by professionals. But the two are similar in many ways. Both attract passionate people who care about their communities and collect data that professionals can't or won't. Both face questions about the legitimacy of their work and are gaining hard fought respect. Neither shows signs of going away soon, so what does this mean for societies that need good journalism and good science to function well? What can one discipline tell us about the other? What are the frustrations and benefits common to both? There are as many of those as there are cicadas set to emerge in John Keefe's back yard. And like the story of those bugs, this one is worth exploring. 

Filling the gaps 

Citizen journalists often pick up where the mainstream media leaves off, telling stories that would otherwise be missed because they aren't considered significant enough, or because newsrooms are increasingly small and lack the ability to cover stories they once did. The same gaps in coverage motivate groups like Citizen Scientists, a volunteer not-for-profit that monitors the Rouge River watershed in the Greater Toronto Area. Each year between 40 and 60 group members collect data about fish and benthic invertebrates in the Rouge, along with information about water depth, water temperature and bank features, among other things. The idea is to collect data in areas that went unstudied because they weren't of interest to upper-level governments, said David Lawrie, the group's program director.

"If you're a provincial agency, you're looking for some statistic that can be applied uniformly as a province-wide scale," Lawrie said. 'That's not often detailed enough to tell you about what's going on locally. Lawrie gave the example of the rusty crayfish, an invasive species that went undetected in the Rouge for decades because other agencies were not collecting data about individual species, he said. "Now when we go out and collect crayfish, we look at what actual species we're catching, not just that we caught a crayfish," Lawrie said.

The group hopes its data will produce a narrative that gives insight into the Rouge ecosystem, which is also the goal of many citizen journalists. They collect information that would otherwise go unnoticed and produce stories that provide a richer, more complete record of their communities. But finding an audience that cares about the data and takes it seriously can be a difficult for both.

Amateurs fighting for respect 

 Data isn't useful if it isn't seen as legitimate, and data collected by amateurs -- including citizen scientists and citizen journalists -- is sometimes met with suspicion and skepticism. This was the case for London, Ontario journalist Philip McLeod when he started an independent blog about civic issues in 2009. McLeod is a former editor-in-chief of The London Free Press newspaper and has been covering local politics for about 25 years. But when he broke away from established news organizations and began doing citizen journalism, it was hard to get interview subjects to return his calls. The first time he tried to cover a city council meeting as a blogger, "people sort of looked at me puzzled and somebody actually tried to get me to move," McLeod said. 

Now there is a spot reserved for him at council meetings. But it took time to gather the same credibility a mainstream journalist has. "You do have to prove that you are just as good or almost as good as the so-called professionals are before anybody will take you seriously at all," he said. "And that can be a long and lonely road for anybody when you're working hard -- just as hard as the professional - but nobody's giving you any credit for doing that."

For citizen scientists the desired audience is often not the public but the mainstream scientific community, which incorporates local data into larger projects. The Rouge watershed group submits data to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, to graduate students and to a conservation authority, David Lawrie said. But Lawrie believes the group is mostly ignored. "Everyone likes to have data, and they like to collect as much of it as they can," he said. "But I don't think it actually gets used for anything."

Playing a larger role 

Despite these hurdles, citizen journalists and citizen scientists are playing an increasingly important role in delivering news and supporting mainstream scientific research. This is the case with Snowtweets, a snow depth verification project run by Prof. Richard Kelly of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. Snowtweets asks citizens to send in snow depth measurements, along with the postal code or longitude and latitude of the measurement site, using Twitter. The data is mapped in a geographic information system (GIS) environment and used to verify satellite observations of snow depth and snow accumulation, Kelly said.

This is important because if researchers know how much snow is on the ground in a river catchment, they can determine how much water to expect at melt time and whether there may be flooding, Kelly added.

The data also gives insight into whether snowfall patterns are changing over time. "We have observations from satellites going back to the '60s and the '70s, so we have a pretty good long-term record of observations of snow," Kelly said. "We want to make sure that we're actually seeing trends where they exist, and it's not just uncertainty within the observations." There were initial concerns about the accuracy of amateur snow measurements, but it appears most contributors are "actually pretty accurate," Kelly said.

"When you compare neighbouring observations within a certain degree of tolerance, they actually come out pretty well the same," he added.

Kelly believes there is a place for citizen scientists in the world of professional science, but it depends what kind of science. "If I'm talking about developing new methods for satellite observing systems, then citizen science is perhaps not directly applicable there," he said.

"However if we're talking, as we are in this case, about testing downstream observations and trying to figure out how good they are, then perhaps they have a role in a contributing fashion to the wider endeavour." Which is another lesson that citizen journalism and citizen science have to share: An approach that works in one area of study doesn't always work in another.

Crowdsourcing is the future 

John Keefe believes the cicadas will emerge in the eastern U.S. when soil eight inches underground reaches 64 F (about 18 C). Sensors that ordinary people built will note when the time is right, beaming out a signal to the radio station. There will hordes of them then. The bugs will shed their skin and begin a ritual that will produce even more bugs according to Cicada Tracker, the website for WNYC's cicada project. And Keefe and his colleagues will try to tell stories around this, possibly creating a model that could be applied to other types of journalistic work.

"You can imagine that instead of taking the soil temperature as it warms up this spring, maybe we would be taking noise levels, reading noise levels in a neighbourhood, or pollution levels in a stream," Keefe said. "You can imagine that people could build these kinds of things at home just like they're doing for now for cicadas and actually provide data that could be the basis of some good journalism."

Keefe knows that crowdsourcing for stories is not always ideal, and he knows the data isn't perfect. He doesn't grill sources about it, and doesn't verify it with them. As with science, what works for one area of study does not always work for another. "But maybe collectively we can see some trends and maybe we can have the experience of putting all of this together," he said. "This is one grand experiment. I will totally admit that."


Ben Forrest, Jessica Ellis, Kaanayo Nwachukwu, Mekhala Gunaratne and Nick Boisvert are journalism students at the University of Western Ontario -- part of the team producing this Citizen Science series for co-publication by rabble.ca and The Tyee.

Over the past weeks, we've explored almost every aspect of citizen science. We've taken you back in time, exploring its history. We've covered the nuts-and-bolts, the basics of citizen science. We've seen how social activists are harnessing citizen science to help their causes. You can find all the articles in this series at our special Citizen Science page

Further reading 

-Cicada Tracker

-Citizen Scientists

-The McLeod Report


-Joey Coleman

-Citizen Scientists League

-Mathew Ingram

-Kootenay Camas Project

-B.C. Frogwatch

-Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

Further Reading

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