Citizen Science and Social Learning

by Howard Silverman

The Internet thrives on an “architecture of participation.” And our online participations are structured in countless ways, with each website designed for means and flows of interactions.

My interest here is in analogous frameworks for engagement, online or off. I am going to seek insights through a quick survey of two participatory approaches: citizen science and social learning. An introduction to social learning (in an environmental context) naturally includes mention of adaptive management concepts developed by Resilience Alliance founder Buzz Holling and colleagues.

Citizen Science
Possibly the longest-running citizen science project is the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, a census of early-winter bird populations that began in 1900 with 27 dedicated birders and has grown to include over 50,000 yearly volunteers.

On the Internet, this type of data gathering is often called crowdsourcing. The citizen science page on Wikipedia offers a few examples, like Stardust@Home, a NASA project in which people around the world can help the U.S. space agency to inspect images for grains of interstellar dust picked up by a returning spacecraft.

Public participation is also planned for the Encyclopedia of Life, an Internet-based compendium of biological diversity. At the 2007 TED Conference, Edward O. Wilson introduced the EoL with charm and urgency: We have cataloged only a fraction of the world's species, and the status of only a fraction of those.

Here, then, is a working definition: Citizen science refers to projects in which public assistance provides flexibility and feasibility in the accomplishment of defined research objectives. As in the examples above, assistance is often limited to data collection. Projects designed for social learning, on the other hand, offer opportunities for deeper and more challenging levels of participation.

Adaptive Practices and Social Interactions
In the 1993 book Compass and Gyroscope, Kai Lee draws upon his experiences as a state representative on the Northwest Power Planning Council, which plans for hydropower and seeks to rebuild salmon stocks on the Columbia River. Using the metaphor of the two instruments, he describes the process of social learning.

The compass represents science. With it, we navigate our way across the ecological terrain, developing greater knowledge as we go. Each harvest, each economic utilization of nature presents an opportunity for experiment, for the ongoing adaptation of management practices that are suitable to their ecosystems.

Environmental management eventually leads to conflicts of material interest. Balancing these conflicts is the role of the gyroscope. It signifies the social mechanisms through which our whirling interactions are stabilized and organized. The combination of adaptive ecosystem management, negotiated through a participatory social process, is what Lee calls social learning.

Here are two examples of community involvement in environmental management with which I have some familiarity. One takes place on U.S. National Forest lands and the other on California's coastal waters.

Collaboration in the Woods
In recent years, some U.S. National Forests have opened to greater public participation in their restoration, monitoring, and other activities. In the Pacific Northwest, this engagement has helped to alleviate conflicts that linger from the large forest harvests and spotted owl litigation of the 1980s and 1990s. “You need to check your guns at the door,” is a recollection I've heard more than once when interviewing forest stewardship (as the practice is often called) participants.

Similar projects are examined in the Resilience Alliance-published paper, “Adaptive Management and Social Learning in Collaborative and Community-Based (Forest) Monitoring.” Through structured interviews, the authors seek evidence of social learning among participants in eighteen community-based forest management projects around the Western U.S. They define social learning as "an intentional process of collective self-reflection through interaction and dialog among diverse participants." Their interviews find instances of reconnection to the landscape and of newfound trust among participants.

Collaboration on the Oceans
California is the first U.S. state to designate marine protected areas: areas (of the state's coastal waters) where fishing and access are restricted. Ecotrust assists this process through the development of computer- and web-based tools to gather and compile catch and economic data from fishermen and other resource users. With these data, stakeholder groups can consider both economic and habitat information in their marine protected area proposals. The result has been that protected area designations meet the state's habitat objectives while reducing social and economic impacts on port communities. Gathering local knowledge from fishermen builds collaboration and transparency into the process of protected area planning – a process that has also experienced its share of conflict. I'm not aware yet of any formal studies of the social dynamics of California's marine area planning.

Not Learning About, but Learning to Be
It's worth noting that the phrase social learning is also used in the field of education. John Seely Brown and Richard Alder define social learning as knowledge acquisition that goes beyond “learning about” a subject to “learning to be” a participant in the subject area. In medieval apprenticeship programs, for example, learning a trade meant living the tradesman's life. Today, Brown and Alder find an analogy in the development of open source software, in which distributed learning networks provide pathways for newcomers to gain experience as they become more closely involved in a community of practice.

Does this usage of the term social learning – learning to be a participant – cast additional illumination on social learning in ecosystem-based management?

Open Avenues
Here are a few additional signposts. Please join me in following these paths or in identifying others.

  • Brown and Alder discuss Wikipedia as a social learning environment. Its open process allows users to gradually become participants in creating, editing and administering the encyclopedia. Interestingly, Wikipedia is also a vehicle for another type of social learning. By requiring a neutral point of view and providing tools to reach that outcome, Wikipedia fosters “interaction and dialog among diverse participants.” Are there other online opportunities to cultivate social learning in this latter sense of the term?
  • I introduced one component of a marine spatial planning toolkit developed by Ecotrust. This toolkit is an example of a computer- and web-based decision support system on which a process of social learning can be developed. Many types of ecosystem-based decision support tools are under development (see, for example, the EBM Tools Network), but not many are as explicitly social. What other tools for ecosystem-based social learning are in use?
  • How important is the role of “dialog among diverse participants” in creating social change, more broadly? For example: Local food initiatives like the Farmer Chef Connection have begun to rebuild value networks for regional and sustainable foods. Should success be measured by the still low percentages of regional and sustainable food consumption in most areas? How significant is the additional value, simply in bringing urban and rural people together to discuss common goals?




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  • Thanks for this Perspective, Howard. I appreciate your distinction between citizen science and social learning.

    Citizen science

    One of my favorite citizen science examples is the UK Phenology Network, which I discovered while doing research on responses to climate change. Phenology is the study of the times of naturally occurring phenomena. Specifically, citizen scientists record events like the first leafing, budbursts, flowering, and so on of plant species. These data are used to monitor and track spring's arrival over a course of years. The Network is run by Woodland Trust, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the BBC Springwatch survey. See:

    For example, in 2008, the first daffodils opened at Kew Gardens in the UK on January 16, a full week earlier than 2007 and 11 days earlier than the average for the decade. Crocuses also flowered early, 11 days ahead of the decade average. This is considered an indicator of global warming.

    In the US, Project BudBurst (is a national phenology field network of citizen scientists sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, CO. See:

  • Citizen Sensing is developing mobile environmental sensing platforms to support community action and citizen science. This seems to be somewhere in between citizen science and social learning. The website says:

    "To this end, we are developing:

    * Sensing platforms that allow individuals to collect environmental information. These consist of commodity mobile phones that control simple custom devices containing low-cost gas sensors.
    * Software applications that allow people to analyze, share and discuss this information in order to influence environmental regulations and policies.

    "We aim to develop new communication paradigms that empower communities to produce credible information that can be understood by non-experts, in order to effect positive societal change. "

    See also a list of projects related to Citizen Sensing:

  • Social Learning

    Congratulations to Ecotrust on receiving the Mellon Award for Technology Collaboration for the OCEAN toolkit!

    Involving the public in social learning and collaboration on scientific, technological, and ecosystems issues is relatively new, and there are fewer examples.

    Here are a few resources of note.

    The Jefferson Center ( in Minneapolis pioneered the use of citizens juries almost 30 years ago. Their Citizens Jury® process is a comprehensive toolkit that yields citizen input from a group that is informed about the issue and that represents the public.

    Key points are:

    * how the issue is framed (the jury's charge or questions to deliberate)
    * what educational materials are given to the jury, * what additional educational/informational support they receive during the process
    * who receives their recommendations and whether those will be followed or are advisory
    * careful demographic selection of participants.

    In 2005, the British government convened NanoJury UK (, a citizens jury to deliberate about nanotechnology. The five week process was set up by the IRC (Interdisciplinary Research Centre) in Nanotechnology, University of Cambridge, Greenpeace UK, the Guardian; and the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre of the University of Newcastle.

    The government and nanotechnology industry officials wanted to avoid the kinds of conflicts that happened with genetically modified organisms (GMO).

    2. The US Global Change Research Program lists "Final Report of the Citizens Jury on Climate Change. Document (dtd May 2002) from the Jefferson Center. Eighteen citizens from within a 35-mile radius of Baltimore, Maryland were carefully chosen from a randomly identified jury pool to serve as a representative microcosm of the public. During five consecutive days beginning March 18, 2002, the jury heard expert witness presentations on a range of issues and perspectives related to global climate change. The Citizens Jury focused on what potential impacts of climate change are of most concern, and what, if anything, should be done to address climate change. Jurors deliberated together as they developed recommendations for policy makers and the public to consider."

    The charge to the Global Climate Change 2002 citizens jury was:

    What potential impacts of global climate change (positive or negative) are most notable or of most concern?
    Is it likely or unlikely that global climate change will have significant impacts for humans and/or natural systems?
    In your opinion, what steps, if any, should be taken to address climate change?

    3. Citizens juries have been convened in India and Australia to deliberate on ecosystems issues. See chapter 13 in The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee, Co-Intelligence Institute:

    4. In 2004, Demos, a think tank in the UK, published a seminal pamphlet, "See-Through Science: Why public engagement needs to move upstream."

    "In See-through Science, James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis argue that we are on the cusp of a new phase in debates over science and society. Public engagement is about to move upstream.

    "Scientists need to find ways of listening to and valuing more diverse forms of public knowledge and social intelligence. Only by opening up innovation processes at an early stage can we ensure that
    science contributes to the common good.

    "Debates about risk are important. But the public also want answers to the more fundamental questions at stake in any new technology: Who owns it? Who benefits from it? To what purposes will it be directed?

    "The pamphlet offers practical guidance for scientists, policymakers, research councils businesses and NGOs –- anyone who is trying to make engagement work.

    You can download the document and subsequent papers at

    5. In the 2005, my partner Peter and I completed our proof-of-concept CoFutures project. It's a strategic framework for realizing a more prosperous, sustainable, fair, free, and secure future by 2025.

    Two backcasts, written from the perspective of 2025 looking backward (as opposed to forecasts), may be of interest. One is Choosing how we develop and use our technologies. The other is Bold shift: Orienting technological innovation.

    Choosing how we develop and use our technologies:

    Bold shift: Orienting technological innovation:

  • Thanks for your careful read and for the resources, Trudy!

  • There is so much diverse language arising to describe this set of phenomena that is here labeled "Citizen Science and Social Learning" and goes by so many names elsewhere.

    I would love to see shared language arising from a common frame of reference based on cognitive processes as they manifest in us individually. This is not merely because individual cognition provides a good metaphor for collective cognition. It is because cognition, itself, is a process that shows up even at the microbial level and is now emerging in the planetary super-organism we are all part of.

    Here's a simple way to start thinking about this. The cognitive process includes - just for example - perception, reflection, memory, action, and results of that action that feed back into the cycle of learning (through new perception, reflection, memory, action, etc.).

    This process clearly happens at a collective level as well as an individual level.

    We can ask "How do we collectively perceive?" Answers range from scientific observations to news broadcasts to YouTube to "crowdsourcing" data-gathering projects like the phenology networks described in the blog entry above, tracking buds or birds.

    We can also ask "How do we collectively reflect?" Answers range from parliaments and Citizens Juries to scientific debates to op-ed columns and blogs, to say nothing of the millions of conversations in bars and around dinner tables.

    We can ask "How do we collectively remember?" Answers range from libraries and hard disks to Wikipedia and educational systems, as well as oral traditions and the patterns embedded in culture as a whole.

    We can ask "How do we collectively act?" Answers range from laws and budgets, to advertisements and industries, to organizations and social software, to the roads and malls that so profoundly shape how we individuals end up manifesting collective behavior.

    We can also ask "To what extent are the results of our collective actions fed back through our media of collective perception into our modes of collective reflection and memory such that they shape newly appropriate collective behaviors?" In other words, in what ways does all this collective capacity add up to the ability to collectively learn -- i.e., to collective intelligence?

    And, perhaps most importantly, we need to ask: What changes in these collective systems would enable us to become more collectively wise -- learning our way into ever more coherent, successful, life-serving engagement with the complex, ever-changing "big picture" of reality? Because our relationship with that reality is the "fit" that Darwin spoke of when he talked about the fitness of an organism to survive.

    Although the learning of individuals who are embedded in these social systems is definitely a part of it, it is the learning process of the entire society, itself, as an entity -- the social organism, if you will -- that will ultimately determine our fate as a species. The development of that capacity will be both the reason for our survival and a profound evolutionary leap in its own right, bringing into being a new global-level organism.

    WIthin such a biological-cognitive frame of reference (in a more developed form than this) we could categorize and integrate all the emerging tools and practices in increasingly potent forms to serve that end. Not only would it make more sense of the fast-growing, wildly disparate tsunami of innovations. It would tell us what we were missing, and provide the rationale for developing it, so that we might actually arrive where we need to go.

This discussion has been closed.