Archive for the ‘Science Policy’ Category

My 10-year citizen science journey.

By December 23rd, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Comment

darlene bill nye

Earlier this month, I had the immense honor  of sharing the stage with Bill Nye and some fascinating thought leaders in space exploration from academia and industry, thanks to the leaders at Arizona State University’s New Space. We talked about colonizing Mars, mining asteroids, women in STEM and more. Amid all the exciting, forward-looking discussions, bolstered by the super-pumped-up audience of 3500 ASU students, I couldn’t help but think about the voice we needed to hear as we imagined YOUR place in space: YOUR voice. A decade ago, YOUR voice (and your tax dollars, your values, your informed opinions) would have been represented by your elected officials, or the noisiest advocacy groups, or industry.

I know this because exactly 10 years ago, I was wrapping up my master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania where I spent a lot of time learning about people like me, like us: people who are interested in science, who want to be part of science–of discovery, of shaping the future–but who don’t hold formal science degrees.
family graduation
The degree from Penn wasn’t what motivated me. I went back to school after a decade of working at Discover Magazine (and, believe or not, after a few years as an NBA cheerleader!) so I could learn more about my role in science and society. Where does someone without a formal science degree fit in? For all the investment in time and money we give to K-12 STEM education, what are we doing to support the majority of those kids who don’t go to college or, if they do, who choose non-STEM careers?

What are we doing to take seriously the fact that, while our nation’s students rank low on international STEM exams, year after year, our nation’s adults (US) fair exceptionally well when compared to our peers in other countries? This must seem impossible. How can that be when our country has resisted scientifically sound issues such as climate change, vaccines, GMOs and stem cell research? Because the resistance stems from all the factors that shape science and science policy: values, economics, personal benefits, etc. Teaching people more science via the all-too-common deficit approach does not work.

How do we start real conversations with–and tap the talents and interests of–adults who have demonstrated that they/we like science? Did you know that more Americans visit science museums, zoos and aquariums than sports events? I didn’t…read more about this here. What are we doing to support us and enable us to be part of these conversations we are absolutely every bit entitled to be part of, NOW?

Well, almost immediately upon starting graduate school, I learned about citizen science. This is often described as crowdsourcing, community science, or public participation in scientific research. It usually takes the form of a scientist asking the public to share observations or analyze data to help advance areas of research.

I couldn’t wait to jump in and participate in formal and informal research projects in need of my help! Back then, it was difficult to find these opportunities. This is how SciStarter emerged. It was a very simple, searchable database embedded in a blog called Science Cheerleader, created to help me organize projects I was going to write about in my Capstone paper. I invited people to add projects or find projects. Before too long, this database spawned its own start up, featuring 1100 projects and a community of more than 50,000 citizen scientists.

Today, SciStarter’s database is shared with Discover Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, the National Science Teachers Association, the U.N., PBS, AllForGood, and many other partners. Thanks to support from the Simons Foundation, anyone can add citizen science to their website via simple to use, embeddable widgets. We are coPIs of research projects; universities and agencies hire us to organize and manage projects and participants; we have a syndicated blog network and a series on an NPR radio station. We’re really happy with developments at SciStarter.

BUT, most of these projects either invite people to share observations about the natural world or analyze big data. Very few offer people the opportunity to impart their local knowledge, values, insights, etc, directly to inform science policy.
Things are starting to change a bit thanks to the efforts of a LOT of people spanning many fields, motives, and generations.

Ten years ago, I started pushing to reopen the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which I thought had the most potential to bring together the public and scientists in shaping science policy. While interviewing experts to learn more about the rise and fall of the OTA, I found some soulmates-of-sorts and five years later our merry band of renegades officially organized.


Dr. Richard Sclove (left of me, pictured here with the cofounders of ECAST) wrote in Issues in Science and Technology, why it was high-time to formalize a mechanism to invite non-experts to both learn about and weigh in on the societal implications of emerging technologies and their related policies. Check out his essay:Reinventing_Tech_Assessment_-_Sclove_in_Issues_in_S&T_-_Fall_2010-1 

Earlier that same year,  Dr. Sclove, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Boston Museum of Science, Arizona State University, and I (as the Science Cheerleader and founder of what would become SciStarter), joined forces to launch the first-of-its-kind effort in the U.S. to realize this vision: ECAST, Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology. Read more on this, here. ECAST is taking the best of the defunct OTA and spicing things up by borrowing best practices from successful participatory technology assessment activities in the European Union.

Last year, ECAST worked with NASA to inform and then solicit input from people from all walks of life, to better understand what important questions were missing from science policy considerations. People involved in those deliberations sure had a lot to add to the conversations. I encourage you to read more about the effort and outcomes of Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. You’ll see that space exploration-the future- is complex and absolutely needs your perspective. Thanks to forward-thinking Federal agencies, like NASA, NOAA and others with an authentic interest in soliciting informed input from YOU, ECAST is able to experiment with mechanisms to unite the public with policymakers and scientists.

Looking ahead, the SciStarter team wants to see more opportunities spanning a wider spectrum of engagement levels, like those we organize at ECAST. We want to help more people find and get involved in all of these opportunities. We want to help you keep track of your contributions and maybe even be rewarded for your efforts. Why not? Maybe you didn’t finish high school. Maybe you earned an advanced degree in business or the arts. You connected with science later in life (like me!). You had the courage to move from spectator to participant. Why shouldn’t your contributions be validated and rewarded with college credit or career advancements or a free cup of coffee from Starbucks? :)

These are the types of questions we will start to address thanks to support from the National Science Foundation. The NSF awarded a $300,000 Pathways grant to Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society (of which I am a proud Professor of Practice!) for the development of SciStarter 2.0. The grant will advance the growing field of citizen and community science and help us build the capacity to be able to start to test some theories while scaling up our ability to engage and support more citizen scientists.

SciStarter 2.0 team at our kick off meeting last week

SciStarter 2.0 team at our kick off meeting earlier this month

So, now that government and the scientific community have stepped up to the plate to welcome you with open arms and now that SciStarter (and others!) have made it very easy for you to get involved, the question is, will you accept the invitation? Make 2016 the year you accept the challenge. Do a citizen science project. Go to a science festival or science cafe. Get involved in an ECAST project.

You’ve got 300 Science Cheerleaders (including me) rooting for you and ready to support you!

Science Cheerleaders break Guinness World Record for largest cheer (cheered for science!).

Science Cheerleaders break Guinness World Record for largest cheer (cheered for science!).

Is our thirst for energy killing the ecology of the Grand Canyon?

By August 8th, 2014 at 5:45 am | Comment

A new citizen science project invites volunteers to help study insect diversity in the Grand Canyon.

Christian Mehlfuhrer. A shot of the south side of Glen Canyon Dam and the Colorado River.

A shot of the south side of Glen Canyon Dam and the Colorado River.

Every night when she’s on the water, Gibney Siemion, a river expedition guide in the Grand Canyon, crouches at the edge of the Colorado River right on the line where the sand turns from wet to dry. Her equipment is rudimentary: a jar of grain alcohol poured into a plastic Tupperware with a glowing bar of black light perched on its edge. But this is an effective insect trap. Siemion, and citizen scientists like her, are using these traps in a 240 mile experiment to understand how energy demand and dams on the Colorado River are washing away key insect species.

Read the rest of this entry »

The RIFFLE Effect: Public Lab’s New Pilot Water Monitoring Sensor Tool

By February 5th, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Comment

RIFFLE cartoon/courtesy of Public Lab

Public Lab announces RIFFLE, a new pilot program and open sensor tool to monitor water quality of Mystic River in Massachusetts.

By definition, a riffle is a “short, relatively shallow and coarse-bedded length of stream over which the stream flows at higher velocity and higher turbulence than it normally does in comparison to a pool.” Similarly, Public Lab is making waves in the DIY and hacker community when it comes to creating tools for environmental exploration and investigation.


Ben Gamari of Public Lab demonstrates the RIFFLE sensor

Last weekend, I attended a Public Lab “toolshed raising” event in Somerville, MA, wherein local community members come to learn more about the organization, get a demo of their current tools, and work together on projects. There, the Public Lab team announced RIFFLE (Remote Independent Friendly Field-Logger Electronics) (support it here), a new pilot program and tool to monitor the water quality in Mystic River. I’m constantly impressed by the tools they develop (including a DIY spectrometry kit, balloon mapping kit, and modified infrared camera), which all follow the same credo: they are low cost, open source, and easy to build/maintain. At the event, Ben Gamari, one of the RIFFLE developers, expressed the core philosophy of making these tools accessible: “It has to just work.”

The Mystic River in Massachusetts flows from the Mystic Lakes in Winchester and Arlington, through Medford, Somerville (where I live!), Everett, Charlestown and Chelsea, and into Boston Harbor. Though it’s gorgeous to look at and take long runs next to, the Mystic faces serious water quality problems: pollution from leaky sewer pipes, waste disposal sites; excessive nutrients and discharges of raw sewage; fuel hydrocarbons; and road salt. Its Alewife Brook subwatershed is reportedly one of the most contaminated water bodies in Boston, failing to meet state bacteria standards for swimming and boating. Beyond that, the Mystic River watershed received a ‘D’ from the US EPA on its 2012 water quality report card.


Don Blair showcases RIFFLE’s open source 3D-printed cap

Here’s the challenge. Although several organizations monitor the Mystic, the data are not widely available to the public, nor is current technology available or affordable enough for people to take part in the process. 

The main focus of RIFFLE is developing open hardware alternatives–sensors that you can build at home and use to measure trends (and deviations from them) in temperature, conductivity, and water depth. Ideally, this will enable the local community near the Mystic to assess threats to water quality like industrial pollution, coliform bacteria, road salt, and agriculture runoff. 

RIFFLE is still in its prototype phase, so some more testing and calibration are in its immediate future as well as a distribution strategy; some possible telemetry mods; even considerations to adapt it for STE(A)M–science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

In addition to the actual sensor, Public Lab is developing free, open-source software (accessible offline) for downloading the sensor data to a laptop, as well an open, online platform onto which citizen scientists can upload and share the water quality data that they collect. The plan is for the online platform itself to multitask as a field log, data repository, and community forum.

Imagine–if the water source that you lived by seemed dangerous, and if you and your neighbors had more awareness of the water quality trend in your backyard (whether figuratively or literally), you or they might take action, change your routines, petition for better water quality monitoring, or even move. Using RIFFLE to monitor water quality along the Mystic exemplifies how the citizen science community can rally together in reaction to a local concern. This DIY, crowdsourced approach benefits researchers, water resource managers, and citizen scientists alike.

If you’re in Massachusetts anywhere near the Mystic, get involved. If you’re not in the area, there are other ways to support the project, not mention many other opportunities to participate in water monitoring projects.

Let’s make waves–together.

Images: Public Lab (top), Lily Bui

Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She currently works in public media at WGBH-TV and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Boston, MA. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui.

EPA Launches New Citizen Science Website; Resources Available to Conduct Scientific Investigations in Communities

By January 11th, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Comment


(New York, N.Y.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revamped its Citizen Science website to provide new resources and success stories to assist the public in conducting scientific research and collecting data to better understand their local environment and address issues of concern. The website can be found here.

“Citizen Science is an increasingly important part of EPA’s commitment to using sound science and technology to protect people’s health and safeguard the environment,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “The EPA encourages the public to use the new website as a tool in furthering their scientific investigations and developing solutions to pollution problems.”

The updated website now offers detailed information about air, water and soil monitoring, including recommended types of equipment and resources for conducting investigations. It also includes case studies and videotapes that showcase successful citizen science projects in New York and New Jersey, provides funding opportunities, quality assurance information and workshops and webinars.

The EPA Region 2 Citizen Science Program, which covers New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight federally recognized Indian Nations within New York State, welcomes the efforts of citizen scientists to better understand and protect the environment. By providing the tools to increase the quality of the data collected and assist in its interpretation, the EPA is helping the public achieve greater levels of environmental protection.
Visit the website today to explore the new Citizen Science website and sign up for our mailing list to receive regular updates on Citizen Science from EPA Region 2.

Release Date: 01/09/2014

Contact Information: Jennifer May-Reddy,, 212-637-3658

This originally appeared on the EPA blog.

Keeping the Kids Involved: A Look at COPPA and Citizen Science

By January 6th, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Comment 1

This is a guest post by Anne Bowser, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland College of Library and Information Science, and a Research Assistant with the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

project globe

Project GLOBE students share their research at a virtual conference.

Citizen science allows anyone and everyone to experience the thrill of scientific discovery. Children, who love being outside and prefer doing things to simply reading about them, can be especially enthusiastic volunteers. In schools, citizen science can be a powerful experience that nurtures curiosity through experiential learning. Some citizen science projects—like Project Globe—even provide tools such as learning objectives or assessment tools to help teachers bring citizen science into their classrooms. Children also experience citizen science through clubs like 4-H, which partners with NASA in the Adopt a Landsat Pixel project, and with parents or family friends.

Technology is a key component to citizen science for many young volunteers. Children can upload data through mobile apps, play games for citizen science, and communicate with their peers through discussion forums. But for children under 13, many online activities are regulated by COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. COPPA was passed in 1998 to protect the safety of children by limiting the types of information that websites or mobile aps can collect and share. Many citizen science projects value openness, allowing a range of people to participate, and making data available for the public to access and use. Unfortunately, openness sometimes conflicts with privacy. Well-meaning projects can violate COPPA without realizing they are doing so.

This blog post examines COPPA in the context of citizen science with the goal of helping projects and volunteers make informed decisions about contending with child volunteers. Please note that the author is a PhD student, not a lawyer; the claims below represent legal research, not legal advice.


Getting oriented: The basics of COPPA

COPPA is a United States Law that was passed in October of 1998 and amended on July 1st, 2013. COPPA was written for “commercial websites,” but may impact other projects as well (see below). The law addresses provisions for “the online collection of personal information from children under 13.”

According to COPPA, “personal information” includes:

  • First and last name
  • Home or physical address
  • E-mail address
  • Telephone number
  • Social security number
  • Any other identifier that allows children to be contacted in person, or online
  • Any information collected about a child combined with one of the identifies described above

The 2013 amendment designates additional types of “personal information”:

  • Geolocation information
  • Photos, videos, and audio that contain an image or voice of the child

A website that collects any type of personal information from children must take steps in order to be “COPPA compliant.” The most relevant portions of COPPA explain that a website must:

  • Explain what types of information are collected, how this information is used, and how this information is shared with others
  • Obtain verifiable parental consent before knowingly collecting personal information from children (except contact information used to answer a child’s question)
  • Maintain “reasonable procedures” to protect the confidentiality of personal information
  • Upon request, tell parents what types of information the website has about a child, share information collected about a child, or stop collecting or maintaining personal information about a child


COPPA and citizen science

The connection between citizen science and COPPA may not be clear, but consider the following:

  • Projects typically collect demographic information including the name and age of volunteers during registration
  • Many projects collect contact information such as email address, phone number, and mailing address during registration
  • Many location-based projects ask a volunteer to submit the location of their observation; this data also includes the location of a volunteer
  • Data collected through smartphones includes metadata with geolocation
  • Projects that collect photos or audio files may accidentally collect images or voices of volunteers
  • Projects that make raw data publicly available often include data that COPPA considers “personal information”
  • Some projects recognize contributors by thanking volunteers by name


Who needs to comply with COPPA?

Any one operating a commercial website directed at children, or a general purpose website that knowingly collects data from children, needs to be COPPA compliant. To break this down further:

  • A “commercial” website includes one run for profit, or a website where the parent company is run for profit (including some museums)
  • Additionally, all projects operated in whole or part by federal agencies are required to be COPPA compliant
  • The FTC determines whether a website is directed at children by considering “several factors, including the subject matter; visual or audio content; the age of models on the site; language; whether advertising on the Web site is directed to children… and whether a site uses animated characters.”
  • General purpose websites that collect demographic information must comply with COPPA if even a single user is under 13.


What about recipients of federal grants from agencies like NSF?

Because NSF is a federal agency and COPPA applies to federal agencies and federal contractors alike, some projects with NSF funding express concern about COPPA. Fortunately, none of the sources consulted for this piece believe that non-profit federal grantees must be COPPA compliant.

According to one NSF employee, “COPPA is not mentioned in our award terms and conditions or anywhere in our policy documents. Therefore, my take is that it does not apply to NSF awardees.” Furthermore, a representative from the University of Maryland’s legal office believes that: “Traditional private universities and many public universities are non-profits. Other public universities, such as UMD, are tax-exempt state agencies; for federal regulatory purposes, they are typically treated as non-profits.” The FTC’s COPPA hotline agrees. As one representative writes, “if the grantee is a nonprofit entity it is not covered by COPPA–though we still recommend COPPA protections as a best practice.  If a federal grantee is a for profit entity providing a site or service directed to children, it is covered by COPPA.”

Still not sure whether COPPA matters for your project? Please see the flowchart below.

 coppa flow chart


What is COPPA compliance?

In recognition that the law can be confusing, the FTC published a guide to COPPA compliance that can be found online here. This guide covers two main areas: a privacy notice, and direct notice to parents in order to obtain consent before data collection.

  • Privacy notice: An operator must post a “clear and prominent” link to a notice of its information policies on the home page of it’s website, and on any page that collects personal information from children. This must include:
    • The name and contact information of everyone who collects and maintains children’s personal information
    • A description of how the operator uses personal information
    • Whether personal information is disclosed to third parties, and under what conditions
    • That all information collected is “reasonably necessary”
    • That a parent can dictate how information is maintained and used
  • Direct notice to parents: Before collecting information from a child, an operator must make reasonable effort to notify and receive consent from the child’s parents.
    • “Reasonable effort” is evaluated on a sliding scale, where projects that disclose information to others are held to stricter standards
    • If personal information is disclosed to third parties, a reliable form of consent such as “getting a signed form…via postal mail,” “accepting and verifying a credit card number in connection with a transaction,” and “email accompanied by digital signature” is required


How do citizen science projects deal with COPPA?

There are three options for approaching COPPA compliance. Some projects simply refuse to let children under 13 participate. This decision may be based on limited resources (obtaining “verifiable parental consent” is not an easy task), or because some aspect of a project makes COPPA compliance impossible. Most projects that make this decision inform potential volunteers that people under 13 may register through a parent or guardian.

Other projects implement a strict registration process where parents give consent through paper forms. This model makes sense when training or data collection must be done in person, or when the project is run through a school. For example, The Hudson River Eel Project coordinates with teachers to get consent for student volunteers.

Still other projects implement strict protocols to comply with COPPA. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is run out of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, and receives support from federal agencies such as NOAA. CoCoRaHS provides a privacy notice by including a link to their data policies in the footer of every website, including their homepage and volunteer registration form. During registration, volunteers are asked to supply their age and (if under 18) the name of a parent or guardian; for volunteers under 13, CoCoRaHS contacts parents to obtain consent if it appears that the email address belongs to their child and not their parent or guardian.

CoCoRaHS makes raw data publically available through a number of reports, including daily participation reports and water year summary reports broken down by state or Canadian province. These reports are stripped of any personal information prior to release. For example, CoCoRaHS collects full mailing addresses from volunteers but only makes data available at the granularity of city and state (or county and state). These data can be sorted by the unique identifiers Station Number, (a combination of letters and numbers such as LA-LY-6), and Station Names (which represents an abbreviated and imprecise location, i.e., Scott 1.0 N). CoCoRaHS assigns a Station Number and a Station Name to each volunteer who applies to be an observer. This ensures that no personal information is unwittingly submitted (i.e., users cannot choose a station name like JoeSmithsHouse).

Understanding COPPA is a difficult task; complying with it, even more so. Resources such as the FTC’s guide to COPPA compliance can help those who wish to gather data from children under 13. Still, compliance may not be possible for small projects, or for projects that lack physical access to volunteers and their families. Ultimately, each project must decide whether COPPA compliance is worth the cost in staff time and resources, balancing the needs of children, their families, and key project goals. 


Additional Reading

The full text of COPPA with a compliance guide written by the FTC is available here.

The FTC publishes a website of Frequently Asked Questions relating to COPPA. Additional questions can be directed to the FTC hotline, found at

The OMB Memorandum 00-13, Privacy Policies and Data Collection on Federal Websites, explains “it is federal policy that all Federal web sites and contractors when operating on behalf of agencies shall comply with the standards set forth in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) publishes a list of Federal-Wide Research Terms and Conditions. Appendix C describes National Policy Requirements that grantees must adhere to. COPPA is not listed (although NSF disclaims that this list is not exhaustive).


Images: Project GLOBE, Anne Bowser

Note from the author: Thanks to Nolan Doesken from CoCoRaHS, and Chris Bowser from the Hudson River Eels Project for sharing their privacy policies; thanks to Kevin Crowston of the National Science Foundation, Jen Gartner of UMD’s office of legal affairs, and contributors to the FTC’s COPPA hotline, for advice on COPPA and federal grantees.