Citizen Science and Social Learning
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.
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?
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?