Taking part in a citizen science project benefits people in many different ways. Some appreciate the fact they are contributing to a wider societal good, whether it’s protecting the environment or advancing health research. For others, the main goal is to have their voice heard in decision-making processes, or to ensure the issues that matter to them are on policy agendas. And for many, citizen science offers a chance to educate themselves about an issue and further their understanding – while also contributing to the creation of new knowledge.
But if not everyone has the same opportunity to take part in these projects, then the benefits are not being realised by all groups in society. Even worse, there is a risk that citizen science could in fact widen the gap between those who can take part, and those who – for any number of reasons – cannot.
Most citizen science projects state that their ambition is to be equally open to all. But while there has not been a nuanced, detailed analysis of who participates in citizen science activities (Haklay and Francis 2018), recent research by Paleco et al. (2021) shows a series of trends that indicate vulnerable groups and minority groups in society tend to be under-represented.
Who counts as vulnerable?
The first step to supporting greater participation by excluded or vulnerable groups is to ask: who are these groups? At a workshop organised by the PANELFIT project, participants began to identify vulnerable groups in Europe. While not an exhaustive list, the workshop identified a range of vulnerabilities, which included:
- age-related issues: both young people and older people can be vulnerable
- health-related issues: including disabilities, temporary illnesses to long-term conditions
- social issues: these might be related to poverty and low-incomes, unemployment, limited education, homelessness or others
- sexuality, which makes people vulnerable in many contexts
- ethnicity, with many minority groups still facing discrimination in Europe.
Importantly, the workshop participants discussed how vulnerability is not static. The vulnerability of a group, or of an individual, can change over time: it can worsen due to factors beyond their control, or it can be reduced as the cause of vulnerability lessens or is overcome.
Furthermore, perception is a central element to vulnerability. Rather than simply labelling certain groups as “vulnerable”, it is important to consider the spectrum of opinions and circumstances within that group. Some individuals within it may see themselves as highly vulnerable, while others do not. This in turn means that the barriers to their participation in citizen science will also vary.
How to make citizen science more inclusive?
So what does this mean for citizen science? Projects almost always want to be more inclusive, and ensure all groups in society can take part, contribute and benefit. How can they achieve this?
The simple answer is: it’s not simple! Vulnerability is complex, and identifying the barriers to participation is, inevitably, also not easy. It takes time, resources, commitment, and an appreciation that vulnerabilities can change over time, within a group in society or at the individual level. There are no easy, foolproof ways to make a project more inclusive for all vulnerable groups.
But that doesn’t mean there is no solution. To try and identify ways to move this process forward, and make citizen science more open and inclusive, Cos4Cloud is co-organising a series of workshops that look in more depth at some of the common barriers to participation – and to collaboratively identify ways to move beyond them. These workshops will be held throughout 2021, in partnership with ECSA, the ECSA & Living Knowledge Network working group on empowerment, inclusiveness and equity and D-NOSES.
The outcomes from these workshops will be especially relevant to Cos4Cloud. Technology can create its own distinct set of barriers to participation – such as the cost of devices, the language used in apps, or a lack of relevant skills or knowledge among some groups – and as a tech-focused project, Cos4Cloud will need to identify ways to reduce or remove such barriers.
Citizen science will only realise its full potential when it is fully open to everyone – and that will take time, effort and continuous discussion. But given the role citizen science has to play in tackling many global issues, from protecting biodiversity to tackling climate change, there is no better time to accelerate the steps being made in this direction.
Haklay, M. and Francis, L. (2018) ‘Participatory GIS and community-based citizen science for environmental justice action’, pp. 297–308 in J. Chakraborty, G. Walker and R. Holifield (eds.) The Routledge handbook of environmental justice. Abingdon: Routledge. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1575418/
Paleco C., García Peter S., Salas Seoane N., Kaufmann J., Argyri P. (2021) ‘Inclusiveness and Diversity in Citizen Science’, in: Vohland K. et al. (eds) The Science of Citizen Science. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-58278-4_14