XX.1 January + February 2013
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Participatory sensing

Scott Heggen

back to top 

Picture yourself at 13 years old, being handed a mobile phone and told, "You're going to learn the scientific method." And when you're done, there will be no test. Your success will be measured in the change you create in your community and your environment. This is the next generation of science education: Get the kids out into their community, and get them looking at science for what it is: a study of an interactive, engaging, highly dynamic world in which your actions can directly impact your environment.

Welcome to the world of citizen science and participatory sensing. Citizen science relies on volunteers as data collectors in a real-world scientific study. And it's not a new idea. The National Audubon Society has been doing citizen science since 1900 with its annual Christmas Bird Count, and with great success [1]. The results of the data collected by the more than 60,000 volunteers have helped identify declining populations in certain species and discover new species that are imperiled.

Let's see how technology (namely, mobile phones) fits into the equation. For years, scientists have talked about deploying large-scale sensor networks to solve big problems such as global warming [2], or understand global phenomena such as evolution [3], but are often hindered by the cost and complexity of such systems. Today, there are approximately 6 billion mobile phones around the world [4], each with a wealth of sensors embedded in them: cameras, camcorders, microphones, GPS, and accelerometers, to name a few. These same scientists, following the citizen science model of leveraging volunteers as data collectors, now have access to an inexpensive and pervasive tool for collecting data. This idea of leveraging volunteers and their mobile phones as a data-collection tool is known as participatory sensing [5]. The biggest barrier for these citizen scientists is no longer the technology, but rather recruiting enough people to commit their time and mobile phone for a meaningful purpose.


back to top  Participatory Sensing: Taking Citizen Science One Step Further

Citizen scientists are already engaging participants with different science disciplines. For example, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has conducted multiple projects to engage citizens with birds, and has shown how both domain knowledge and attitudes toward science are improved through citizen science [6]. But citizen science can do better at collecting meaningful data and engaging participants, and technology can provide citizen scientists with the necessary tools.

Participatory sensing provides students with a meaningful application of science, dispelling any misconceptions they may have about what scientists do and who can "be a scientist."

As mobile phones have become increasingly powerful, with multicore processors and a wealth of sensors, they've been identified as a viable tool for use in citizen science projects. One example is Project Budburst [2], a participatory sensing project to identify phenological changes in the environment as a way to confirm or refute global warming. Using their free mobile application and a cellphone camera, volunteers snap photos of specific plants during different stages of their lifecycle (e.g., first bloom, first leaf). Conducting a global study of this magnitude would require vast resources, but through participatory sensing, Project Budburst has been able to collect nearly 14,000 data samples in five years, at minimal cost. The data from Project Budburst has shown shifts in phenological activity for stages of certain plant species.

As the saying goes, "Let's kill two birds with one stone." But instead of killing the bird, let's collect data about it. Let's connect scientists with students, and build a mutually beneficial relationship where citizen scientists have a new source of data, and students gain real-world knowledge of why science is so important. Mobile phones are a particularly attractive tool for connecting these domains due to their lasting "cool" factor. But as it stands, a mobile phone in a child's hand is rarely used for science, but rather the consumption of media and games, or texting with friends.

Plugging students into projects like these teaches them the value of technologies like mobile phones—mobile, sensor-rich computers with high connectivity and the ability to be used for the betterment of one's community. This newfound respect for science and technology has the potential to echo across all areas of STEM. Students are gaining deep domain-specific knowledge through their citizen science campaign, as well as broad general STEM knowledge through data-collection best practices, data analysis, scientific methods, and other areas specific to their project.

back to top  So, What Are the Challenges Facing Participatory Sensing?

Let's say you would like to start a participatory sensing campaign. Where should you start? Fortunately, you are not the first person with this idea. Bonney et al. [7] utilized their two decades of citizen science projects at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and have developed a model of success for these projects, with advice ranging from methodologies to ideas for recruiting participants. Not interested in starting from scratch? Then take advantage of the educational resources provided by many citizen science projects through their websites or by email. For example, National Audubon Society joined up with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and developed a more flexible version of the annual Christmas Bird Count project, called the Great Backyard Bird Count [8], which encourages educators to get children involved in the bird-watching and data-collecting processes.

Next, developing a mobile application (app) requires a specific set of skills. Not only do you need experience in app development, but you also have the challenge of cross-platform compatibility. All this translates into time and money for citizen scientists, who may not be in a position to support these costs. This remains an open research question: How can we support the creation of participatory sensing applications for citizen scientists with limited or no programming knowledge? We have developed a prototype toolkit to address this problem, Mobile Campaign Designer (MC Designer) [9], which allows citizen scientists to input the parameters describing their participatory sensing "campaign," and then have our toolkit automate the creation of the mobile app. The prototype is capable of generating an Android-based mobile app, with plans to extend the toolkit to other platforms.

The payoff for overcoming these challenges is significant. We believe students who partake in participatory sensing projects become more knowledgeable about the topic, and most important, remain interested in science and technology after participation ends. We have begun to test this hypothesis in our curriculum Mobile Application Development for Science (MAD Science), which aims to utilize participatory sensing to teach middle school students the scientific method [10]. We specifically chose middle school students because research has shown the majority of children form their life aspirations that will impact their educational and career choices by the age of 14 [11].

In MAD Science, students not only act as volunteers in the participatory sensing campaigns, but they also become the architects of the campaign. For 10 weeks, 75 minutes a week, our MAD Scientists take the scientific method and apply it to a real-world problem. The students begin by formulating a hypothesis about a problem they have identified in their community. They then use a mobile app to collect data that supports their hypothesis. Using their data, they draw a conclusion and present the results to their community. By letting the students create the campaigns from scratch, they form a sense of ownership and pride in their work. This pride translates into continued excitement and interest in science and technology in the long run, pushing these students toward STEM-based fields when they reach college and beyond.

Initial results of the MAD Science program have shown promise for participatory sensing as an educational tool. Our pilot study, consisting of pre- and post-surveys of the students, revealed that 12.5 percent more students were engaged with technology. Even more significant, 16.2 percent more students viewed education and careers in science and technology as a potential option for themselves after high school. We are taking the results of the pilot study and improving the curriculum in hopes of boosting these numbers even more.

back to top  The Potential for Big Impact

Participatory sensing provides students with a practical application of science. The advantage is two-fold: Students are more engaged with the content due to the immersive nature of its delivery, and they understand the importance of science and how it impacts their community, their environment, and their lives. Participatory sensing provides students with a meaningful application of science, dispelling any misconceptions they may have about what scientists do and who can "be a scientist." The skills students learn through participatory sensing are contradictory to typical science classes, which often focus on teaching a breadth of knowledge about science. Participatory sensing aims at teaching one very specific topic in great depth, and transforming the students into "experts" about the topic. By teaching "an inch wide, a mile deep," students must transfer the knowledge they gain through participatory sensing to other areas of science (and hopefully, to all areas of learning). If successful, students have learned far more than science: They understand how to facilitate the scientific process. And they have achieved these goals by utilizing the most ubiquitous computing tool since the personal computer: mobile phones.

back to top  References

1. National Audubon Society. The Christmas Bird Count Historical Results. 2012;,

2. NEON and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Project Budburst. 2011;

3. Worthington, J., Silvertown, J., Cook, L., Cameron, R., Dodd, M., Greenwood, R., McConway, K., and Skelton, P. Evolution Megalab: A case study in citizen science methods. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. 2012.

4. International Telecommunications Union. Key global telecom indicators for the world telecommunications service sector. 2012;

5. Burke, J., Estrin, D., Hansen, M., Parker, A., Ramanathan, N., Reddy, S., and Srivastava, M. Participatory Sensing. In World Sensor Web Workshop. 2006, 1–5.

6. Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., and Bonney, R. Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education 27, 9 (2005), 1099–1121.

7. Bonney, R., Cooper, C., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K., and Shirk, J. Citizen science: A developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience 59, 11, (2009), 977–984.

8. National Audubon Society. The Great Backyard Bird Count;

9. Heggen, S., Adagale, A., Omokaro, O., and Payton, J. Mobile Campaign Designer: A tool for creating participatory sensing applications. Proc. of the Tenth International Conference on Pervasive Computing. 2012.

10. Heggen, S., Omokaro, O., and Payton, J. Mad Science: Increasing engagement in STEM education through participatory sensing. Proc. of the Sixth International Conference on Mobile Ubiquitous Computing, Systems, Services and Technologies. 2012.

11. Tytler, R., Osborne, J., Williams, G., Tytler, K., and Cripps Clark, J. Opening up pathways: Engagement in STEM across the primary-secondary school transition. Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations: Tech. Rep. 2008.

back to top  Author

Scott Heggen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research centers around participatory sensing and methods to make it a more viable scientific tool. He is particularly interested in using participatory sensing as an educational tool for increasing STEM engagement, and is also exploring ways to make application creation simpler and easier for participatory sensing architects.

back to top 

©2013 ACM  1072-5220/13/01  $15.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2013 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found