How GIS Improves the Process of Citizen Science

By Jim Baumann
Esri Writer

Researchers, Artists, and Technologies Engage with Local Groups Using Computer Mapping

Citizen science is an increasingly popular activity among a broad cross section of the population. Because the number and variety of opportunities for participation continue to grow, it is appealing to those in a widening range of age and physical ability. Participants have joined diverse scientific monitoring projects, including migratory bird studies and personal weather station observations, as well as provided their unused computer time for interstellar space exploration. Citizen science has even stimulated growth in the ecotourism industry.

Patrick Rickles at al 2“Regardless of their background or level of skill, citizen science provides people with a powerful platform that allows them to get involved in science and their environment,” says Patrick Rickles, research associate for the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group at University College London (UCL). “However, as valuable as this is, these programs often see the citizen as a passive participant that simply collects information and then hands it over to the researcher. At that point, their involvement in the project is considered complete.”

Recognizing the potential for change provided by greater engagement with citizen scientists, Muki Haklay, UCL professor of geographical information science (GISC), and Jerome Lewis, a UCL lecturer of anthropology, formed ExCiteS. This is an interdisciplinary group composed of researchers, artists, and information and communication technology specialists that work with local groups to better engage them in the process of citizen science through participatory action. 

“Extreme Citizen Science is a bottom-up practice that takes into consideration local needs, practices, and cultures. We work with residents to understand their needs and problems and help them develop solutions and transform their communities using innovative GIS applications,” says Rickles. “Results are shared with local government, the university, and basically anyone who is interested so that the project can continue as the community sees fit.”

Recent ExCiteS projects include the development of a fear map by crime science researcher Reka Solymosi, who is analyzing those areas of London where people limit their travel because of the perception of areas being unsafe, whether due to street lighting, dark alleyways, building design, or other factors. In another project, an architectural engineer and planner, Gianfranco Gliozzo, is using geographic information system (GIS) technology to detect the cultural components of human well-being provided by ecosystems. He is testing whether crowdsourced information can be used to elicit benefits such as aesthetic beauty and inspiration.

“For Adaptable Suburbs, a project we finished about a year ago, my team, consisting of historians, architects, anthropologists, and GIS specialists, examined four suburban areas in London across four different time periods, from about 1880 to the present, to see how they’ve changed,” says Rickles. “We used a reductive analysis technique to examine a number of things, including road networks and shopping districts, to map the evolution of the areas and how the local populations interact with them. I’m now involved in a project, Challenging RISK, where we seek to positively impact people’s preparedness for earthquakes and household fires. This project involves structural engineers, psychologists, citizen science, and GIS, and we hope to use web and mobile apps with communities to map what matters to them (e.g., neighborhood supplies, vulnerable people) so they are prepared in the event of a disaster.”

Through support from Esri, ExCiteS has recently released two data collection platforms— one for mobile and the other for web: Sapelli ( and GeoKey ( Sapelli was created for use by the Mbendjele, an illiterate group of indigenous people living in the Congo Basin of Africa. The project came about because local Congolese officials visited the Mbendjele and asked them to indicate the boundaries of their territory on a map; however being illiterate, they could not interpret the map. The lead anthropologist working with the tribe, Jerome Lewis, contacted Haklay, and together they formed ExCiteS with the mission to create mapping applications for people unfamiliar with the concept of mapping.

This was the first of many ExCiteS projects and led to the creation of Sapelli by a team of talented developers and researchers: Matthias Stevens, Michalis Vitos, Julia Altenbuchner, Gill Conquest, and Carolina Comandulli. The name of the application comes from a large tree native to tropical Africa. Sapelli is an Android app that is driven by pictogram decision trees. The pictograms were designed by the villagers themselves to be easily used and understood. Using Sapelli on their cell phones, the Mbendjele mapped their tribal lands and highlighted those trees that were sacred and valuable to them. They also documented illegal logging and poaching activities. The cell phones are charged by using special cooking pots that are heated over an open fire. The heat is transformed into electricity that powers a USB connector, all while preparing the evening meal. The Sapelli app is programmed in a way that allows the transfer and reassembly of very small packets of information whenever possible from the Mbendjele tribal lands, which has very limited signal strength available for data transmission.

“The pictogram decision trees in the application can be swapped out for other pictograms to facilitate its use by completely different communities,” says Rickles. “For example, while this work was originally done for use by the Mbendjele, it is currently being used by tribes in the Amazon by another ExCiteS researcher, Carolina Comandulli.”

To begin to connect the citizen data to Esri technologies and by utilizing input from the team, ExCiteS developer Oliver Roick engineered GeoKey. With this platform, the various ExCiteS projects can store data collected by Sapelli or other geospatial technologies, as well as translate remote sources of data, so they may be consumed by a number of GIS programs and applications. GeoKey has the functionality to serve any information out in a number of Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc. (OGC) compliant formats (such as KML), which can then be easily loaded into ArcGIS Online for the creation of web map applications. These can be shared with decision makers or used to showcase work to the general public with an interest in ExCiteS projects.

One of Rickles’s responsibilities for the ExCiteS team is to facilitate the work of other scholars by helping them learn geospatial technologies, such as ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS for Desktop, so that they can apply it to their research.

“I noticed that, in general, people don’t respond well to generic GIS lessons,” says Rickles. “Generic lessons are either too abstract for them to grasp or they require knowledge of subjects that the students are not particularly interested in. This increases the cognitive load on the learner, who is already faced with the daunting task of learning this new technology.” (Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort currently being used in the working memory, which is responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and stored information.)

To make the process of learning GIS more interesting and less stressful for the researchers, Rickles developed a series of exercises he calls, GIS Lessons for You. The lessons are customized for a researcher’s specific area of interest to reduce the cognitive load and helps the researcher quickly develop a working knowledge of GIS.

“I have a background in software development, and the whole system is programmed in such a way that you can update a handful of variables and related screen shots via a back-end system, and the lessons dynamically rewrite themselves,” says Rickles. “So an exercise in Disaster Planning in Seattle can easily be changed to one about Water Access in Lima. I think this is a powerful teaching resource because it allows students to focus on learning the GIS concepts themselves within the context of their own disciplines, which is more engaging for them.”

For more information on Rickles’s work, visit For details on the various ExCiteS projects, visit

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  1. […] How GIS Improves the Process of Citizen Science […]

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