What is Critical Citizen Science? (A Dialogue - Part 1)

[The Royalist and the Nomad debate the emergence of a radical form of citizen science blending crowds, arduinos and a late 60's mind-set].


  1. royalist: what is this critical citizen science of which you speak?
    nomad: it is a way of seeing and a way of being critical; it is these fused in to a practice.
    royalist: be more specific! what does it consist of? and why now?
    nomad: it consists of these things; crowdmapping, open hardware sensors, emerging hackerspaces, the internet of things. it breathes through the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire and critical conviviality of Ivan Illich. it will make your eyes roll...
  2. royalist: never mind your gibberish! show me something real.
    nomad: gibberish? Jābir ibn Hayyān indeed. anyway, here is your example -
  3. royalist: a fine satellite photo indeed.
    nomad: yes, except it isn't. the resolution is many times better than NASA satellite photos - it allows you to distinguish the different breeds of sea birds brought low by the BP oil slick (for that is what it shows).
    royalist: if not satellite or aircraft, then from what, pray tell? (and don't whinge to me about oil; how else will we keep the helicopters & planes up there...)
    nomad: from the peoples' satellites - balloons and kites. an assemblage of citizens, helium and a hackable Canon camera sdk.
  4. royalist: fine, fine. but this crowdmapping - i have heard of it. a mob of concerned citizens clicking their way through a humanitarian crisis, is it not?
    nomad: perhaps. but thanks to platforms like Crowdmap, it is also projects like Harassmap that maps the daily experience of sexual harassment in Cairo. Not a humanitarian crisis - or perhaps it is...
  5. royalist: very worthy, i'm sure; but it hardly counts as science.
    nomad: how right you are. it doesn't count. as with so many things, the power lies in defining what counts as scientific data in the first place. allow me to quote from 'Cosmopolitics' by Isabelle Stengers...
    royalist: oh no you don't! theorise on your own time. i still need convincing there's something in the notion of critical citizen science.
    nomad: consider this, my friend; what happens when crowdmapping meets open hardware sensors? here's a cheerful fellow called Lief making Arduino temperature sensors to sit outside a city's sluice gates, measuring water temperature and reporting to crowdmap. It turns out that sewage is warmer, so if a storm overflows the sewers the sensors will report a sharp rise in temperature.
  6. Water Hack - Ushahidi plus Pachube
  7. royal: granted, some of your examples have the merit of measurement. perhaps we can acknowledge them as citizen science (although i have my doubts). but what about the critical bit - that sounds like an academic fig leaf.
    nomad: perish the thought. but as Paulo Freire said of critical pedagogy
    "Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world".
    royal: hmmph. grand sentiments, but our schools and universities train engineers and scientists in the STEM subjects this country needs. they're hardly going to switch to counter-cultural tinkering...
    nomad: perhaps not (although they might be better off if they did). in any case, there is already an emerging set of learning spaces for critical citizen science; hackerspaces, makerspaces and fablabs...
  8. royalist: what nonsense. these aren't labs, they're garages; and it's not science, merely an obsessive meddling with hardware.
    nomad: popularly known as hacking. i refer you to early hacktivists the Electronic Disturbance Theater and their 'science of the oppressed':
    "...alternative social forms of life and art that fall between the known and unknown, between fiction and the real, between clean science and dirty science - each a part of a long history of an epistemology of social production which privileges the standpoint of the proletariat, the multitude, the open hacks of the DIY moments, and of autonomous investigators who stage test zones of cognitive styles... concrete practices as speculation and speculation as concrete practices - at the speed of dreams.”
  9. royalist: i can assure you i will never have need of anything related to this drivel.
    nomad: fair enough. but what happens when the local nuclear reactor goes in to meltdown - are you prepared to accept 'there is no cause for alarm'? or would you turn to Safecast - crowdsourced readings from DIY geiger counters aggregated by Pachube/COSM. Here's your Frankenstein: a crowdfunded Arduino-based radiation detector, made in a hackerspace and deployed in a plastic lunchbox.
  10. bGeigie ready for Mt Gassan climb - lucky charm from Yudonosan Jinja, Yamagata Pref. #bGeigie #safecast #Gassan
    bGeigie ready for Mt Gassan climb - lucky charm from Yudonosan Jinja, Yamagata Pref. #bGeigie #safecast #Gassan
  11. royalist: I admit that's an impressive technical accomplishment in exceptional circumstances, blended with an understandable scepticism towards authority. but you won't convince me this will become common in the communities of south London.
    nomad: then let the mapping do the talking. in this case, a noise map made by residents of Deptford with the help of Mapping for Change. temporarily, at least, this led to a suspended licence for the noisy and unloved local scrapyard. plus, the process had a catalytic effect on various members of the community.
  12. royalist: come now, i'm the first to applaud citizen engagement, the more the merrier. you & i both know that citizen science is beloved of all, from the ivory towers to the town halls. we are all fans of LHC@home. why does it need to be 'critical' to be palatable to you?
  13. nomad: the citizen science you are talking about is immaterial labour. however diverting, it's the 'free labour' criticised by Tiziana Terranova in 'Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy'
    royalist: at least you're referring to papers now rather than spouting wordy quotations.
    nomad: haha - then i will finish part 1 of our exchange by channelling Encyclopedia Nomadica:
    "Deleuze and Guattari propose to distinguish between two forms of doing science or two forms of science: there's Royal Science, Official or Striated Science - with its separation of the principle of free action from power, with its origins in the State and religion, its subsequent apparent emancipation from both while maintaining an internal State, a scientific Oedipus (entrenched in peer-review systems), and a lay religion (mechanism and probabilism); and there is a Smooth or Nomadic Science, a science that does not ambition to totalize knowledge, that needs no Oedipus or religion-making, that sticks to facts whether these are or are not approved by any peers; an underground or alternative science that goes back to the nomads and their alliance with metallurgical societies, their principle of the unity of action with power. Smooth science is no more full of irrational beliefs, mystery and magic, religiosity and error, than is the priestly Official Science. In fact, ambulatory sciences or Smooth Science only succumb to such mysticism and transcendental metaphysics when they fall into disuse or are repressed."
  14. royalist: pure mumbo jumbo.
    nomad: perhaps no more or less than the science you worship. let us contest that when we speak again...