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Interview: Anna Hampf, PhD student at ZALF (LSA)

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​​​​​​​​​​​​​Citizen Science - Opportunities and risks of citizen sciences​​​​

Ms. Hampf, for your Citizen Science project on plant diseases and pest infestation in agriculture, you have data collected by thousands of volunteers using a smartphone app. What exactly makes science »Citizen Science«?​​

Citizen Science means the active participation of citizens in scientific research. This can range from short-term data collection programmes to intensive collaboration throughout the entire research process. The term originates from the Anglo-American region and is often translated as ›Bürgerwissenschaften‹ in German. Typical Citizen Science projects are large-scale projects in the fields of environment and nature conservation, such as bird censuses.​

What are the advantages of these kinds of projects?

​​​​​​​​​One major advantage is of course that the citizens’ involvement enables far lager amounts of data to be collected within a short time. In our project in the southern Amazon region of Brazil, for example, we receive around 1,000 photos per month. We can use these photos to continuously monitor the spread of plant diseases and pests in the state of Mato Grosso, an area as large as France. Projects of this kind also foster an increased exchange with society. The interest of citizens in scientific work is strengthened, while scientists benefit from the experience and local knowledge of the population.​​

Scientific practice applies exact rules for the collection of reliable data. Can the quality of the data still be ensured if the data is collected by motivated, but mostly unskilled volunteers?​​

The quality of the data collected and compliance with scientific standards are among the greatest challenges facing Citizen Science projects. The approach is not suitable for every type of scientific activity. For example, very complex and time-consuming measurement methods make the results more susceptible to bias.​

How do these distortions occur?​

Data can be biased if it is not been collected precisely or if, for instance, a bird species is incorrectly identified due to lack of knowledge. However, it is assumed that the amount of data will compensate for these errors. The experimental design must therefore ensure that potential sources of error are kept to a minimum from the very beginning, for example, by providing appropriate training programmes for the citizens involved in the research.​​​

Scientific results are often restricted to academic circles. Do you think that Citizen Science projects have a special responsibility to make their results freely accessible?​

Yes, absolutely. I think that more than ever, science should make its results freely available to the public. This can be in the form of scientific articles with free access or publications in newspapers and social media. What’s important here is that the results are presented in a way that is widely understandable. But it is important, when releasiung data, to adhere to personality and data protection rights.​

Anna Hampf
has been a PhD student at the Institute for Landscape System Analysis at ZALF since 1 August 2014. She conducts research on the socioeconomic factors of yield gaps in the southern Amazon region, the impact of climate change on crops as well as crop losses due to plant diseases.

Interview conducted by Tom Baumeister


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