XX.4 July + August 2013
Page: 26
Digital Citation

Expanding our visions of citizen science

Stacey Kuznetsov

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When we, as members of the interaction design community, think about citizen science, we tend to envision people collecting, sharing, and acting on local data. Some of us might recall the famous success stories: the Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen-driven bird census, or Project Budburst, which tracks environmental changes by monitoring plant lifecycles.

Inspired by these and other examples, HCI research often discusses citizen science as non-experts acting as scientists [1]. But who are these non-experts, and what types of science are they performing? Reflecting on examples from HCI literature, we might envision a concerned citizen monitoring air quality using low-cost sensors, a passerby tracking water pollution with a mobile phone, or a community documenting invasive species in a local park.

What might not immediately come to mind is people extracting and replicating DNA, building bioreactors, isolating plasmids, expressing genes in e. coli, experimenting with biofuels, or printing images with bioluminescent bacteria. These new and unexpected forms of citizen science are emerging in art studios, hackspaces, and basements around the world.

DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) is a growing community of hobbyists, artists, hackers, and scientists experimenting with biology outside of professional laboratories. From independent bioartists, to meet-ups of hobbyists and professionals, biotech non-profits, and fully functional grassroots laboratories, the "garage biology" movement is reconfiguring and tinkering with organic materials and systems.

Although this movement and some of its underlying technologies are relatively new, from a historical perspective, DIYbio is hardly a recent phenomenon. Anyone who has brewed beer or kombucha, cultured a sourdough starter, or made sauerkraut has, in fact, experimented and played with some of the most fundamental biological processes.

Since the very first settlements in Mesopotamia, humans have, wittingly or not, assisted in the natural selection of myriad organisms, co-evolving with a range of species, from the microbial flora in our stomachs to the genetically modified corn and soybeans that now feed a large part of our planet. Along the way, scientific inquiry has often been furthered by chance inventions ("hacks") and breakthroughs, such as the accidental discovery of penicillin or the adoption of a jam ingredient, agar, as a growth medium. Nevertheless, we have come to accept a conceptual distinction between "professional biologists" (pipette- and beaker-wielding individuals in lab coats, working with the ever more mystifying bioelectronic machinery of autoclaves, centrifuges, and PCR thermal cyclers) and the rest of us "non-expert" consumers, producers, and manipulators of organic materials (farmers, chefs, artists, manufacturers, interaction designers, etc.).

The truth is, lab coat or not, humans have been tinkering with and transforming the biological landscape of our planet for thousands of years. As the Center for Genomic Gastronomy best put it, "We have always been biohackers" [2].

This idea is at the core of the emerging DIYbio movement. Its broad mission is to support open participation in science and to make science more accessible. These goals are approached in a variety of ways: from public, hands-on workshops at San Francisco's Biocurious, to online bio-tutorials posted on, to DIY tools and kits that replicate lab equipment at a fraction of the cost.

These efforts reframe our understanding of the seemingly unwieldy biological reactions and machinery: An autoclave is an off-the-shelf pressure cooker, which can just as well sterilize lab equipment; a centrifuge is a 3-D-printed attachment for a dremel, which will separate a solution of suspended particles by spinning; a PCR thermal cycler is an Arduino-controlled fan and light bulb that heats up and cools down DNA samples to replicate desired sequences, and so on.

These "hacks" are not merely new (and often amusing) examples of DIY repurpose and reuse: They effectively demystify the processes that go on behind the closed doors of biology labs, radically shifting our understanding of and participation in science. Science practice is expanding beyond professional settings, and the line between professionals and non-experts is blurring yet again.

back to top  A Spectrum of Expertise

Non-expert—a ubiquitous term in HCI's citizen science literature—implicitly suggests a distinction between professionals and everyone else. In reality this line is hard to draw, even within the most studied examples, such as participatory air-quality sensing. Someone who is not an environmental scientist per se might be tracking neighborhood air pollution by monitoring personal health, checking the daily EPA air-quality index, or observing local biomarkers such as plants or insects. At what point does one acquire enough knowledge to stop being a non-expert?

Expertise is a sliding scale, and the DIYbio movement, which has evolved alongside the field of synthetic biology, is a case in point. From early on, synthetic biology has enabled broader access to scientific information and materials, countering traditional modes of academic knowledge dissemination. Synthetic biology has instantiated forums such as OpenWetWare, a wiki-style collection of data and protocols, and the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a repository of materials that can be assembled into biological systems. The field also started the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), in which teams of high school students creatively experiment with and design new biological "devices."

By associating itself with openness and, in particular, with open source, synthetic biology at once identified biology as a resource for tinkering—or "biohacking"—and as a platform open to everyone. What evolved is a loosely coordinated community of distributed DIYbio initiatives that coalesce around the organization. Founded by Mackenzie Cowell and Jason Bobe in 2008, serves as a meeting point for practitioners around the world. The public mailing list boasts nearly 2,000 members—from professional scientists and biotech entrepreneurs to artists, founders of DIYbio labs, and hobbyists with no biology background. Indeed, all of the DIYbio communities I surveyed [4], from New York City's Genspace and San Francisco's Biocurious to the U.K.'s Manchester DIYbio and Ireland's Indie Biotech and beyond, serve as platforms for collaboration between professionals and hobbyists with varying degrees of expertise.

For interaction design, the limitations of the term non-expert are not purely linguistic. The assumption that a citizen scientist is completely unskilled clearly shapes and constrains the types of systems that are designed for them. The methods by which data is collected tend to consist of pressing a button on a sensor or taking a picture with a mobile phone. The sensing itself (i.e., the stimuli and their impact on the physical environment) is often black-boxed, and the output is reduced to benchmarked graphs or traffic-light-style visualizations. While beneficial, these approaches tend to de-skill scientific activities.

Expanding the HCI community's view of citizen science to incorporate varying degrees of expertise could enable us to envision new types of sensing systems. We could, for instance, support more transparency: Complementary to visualizing air pollution with high/low values, a sensing system might enable people to view, identify, and count the physical particulates in their air. We could also create new scaffolding tools to help individuals and groups develop specific scientific skills. Other applications could nurture mentor-apprentice relationships in communities, encouraging scientific inquiry as a community practice. Moreover, the resulting data and analysis could initiate discourse around issues of community concern.

back to top  Beyond Digital Sensing

Generally speaking, a sensor is any device that responds to a physical stimulus. The majority of HCI's participatory sensing work has, understandably, focused on electronic instantiations of sensing devices—mobile phones, distributed sensor networks, and so on—to collect and analyze environmental data. As hobbyists and professional scientists alike continue to rely on digital technologies to measure and quantify the world around us, we are left to ask, when is an electronic sensor appropriate or necessary in a given context?

In an earlier field study of participants who routinely work with living organisms such as plants, fish, reptiles, or bees, I have shown that biomarkers and bio-indicators lend themselves to "new ways of seeing" [3]. That is, living systems enable us to engage with and reflect on the world in ways that digital devices often fall short of supporting. For instance, biomarkers such as bee behavior, plant discoloration, or fish activity were drawn upon by participants to infer factors about the ecosystem or gain a glimpse into its well-being as a whole.

While most of the gardeners, beekeepers, and aquarists I spoke with were not professional scientists, their work reflects practices across a range of scientific fields. More often than not, nuanced modes of inquiry—observation, experimentation, and physical manipulation of a range of materials—are drawn upon in addition to digital sensing to produce knowledge about the physical world. How can HCI support these alternative forms of sensing that go beyond digital data collection?

One path forward is for interaction design to embrace a new model for designing digital sensors: sensing technologies as tools that support new ways of seeing or engaging with the environment. Such sensors would move away from "smart" technology and toward systems that encourage human experimentation with, awareness of, and reflection on the physical world. In other words, these efforts would move toward re-skilling communities. Digital sensing also has the potential to support new forms of engagement with context that is peripheral to the phenomena being sensed. For example, water-quality sensing can reveal relationships between the home water system and processes affecting local streams. Similarly, air-quality monitoring can track factors that contribute to air pollution in the home or neighborhood, in addition to reporting pollution values.

Another path forward would be to expand the interaction design community's vision of sensing beyond electronic devices to include organic materials and living systems. As novel hybrid assemblies such as e-textiles continue to advance our field, the intersection of organic and digital systems suggests a promising design space.

To be clear, this is not speculation on a far-away science fiction future: A number of low-cost kits that use electronics to manipulate organic materials such as DNA or bacteria are already available for purchase, while many other combinations are being designed and assembled in DIY and professional labs around the world. What are the challenges, and more important, the outcomes of these emerging hybrids, which leverage living organisms as inputs and outputs, and how can HCI contribute to their development?

In the context of environmental monitoring, future sensing systems can incorporate living organisms, from bacteria to plants, insects, and entire ecosystems, into digital technologies. Examples might include: a water-sensing system that cultures bioluminescent bacteria in different water samples to show levels of toxicity by digitally tracking colony counts; a monitor that analyzes a plant's response to air exposure across urban areas; or a bioremediation system where sunflowers, which leach metals out of soil, are coupled with digital lead sensors.

Interaction design can also facilitate easier prototyping with hybrid materials. Learning from DIYbio and other science practitioners, new research might create bio-electronic "hello world" examples for playing with biology; electronic platforms that can be more easily interfaced with living organisms (e.g., Arduino shields that maintain specific light and temperature conditions for culturing certain organisms); technologies that support "sketching in bio," similar to sketching in hardware, for quick prototyping of bio-electronic systems; as well as new infrastructures for working with organic materials, including assemblies for storage and transport, and tools that support safe disposal.

Of course, the development of bio-electronic systems is subject to many unique challenges. There are, undoubtedly, safety constraints for handling living organisms, as well as ethical concerns of tampering with nature. There are also the practical hurdles of transporting, storing, and sustaining living organisms, which often require specific conditions (temperature, light, nutrients, etc.).

These challenges provide interesting design constraints. At the very least, bio-electronic assemblies can directly engage with these issues, from the ethics of manipulating organic materials to the philosophical questions of reducing living organisms to simple inputs and outputs that are treated as parallel to digital sensors and actuators. Such hybrid artifacts might serve as boundary objects by, for example, materializing ethical concerns to engage biologists, hobbyists, and members of the general public in productive discourse around the future of biotechnology.

back to top  Broader Implications

Traditionally, much of HCI's citizen science research has focused on environmental monitoring. Including other scientific fields such as synthetic or molecular biology, genetics, or food science within the scope of our citizen science agenda presents new and exciting opportunities.

Consider, for instance, the practice of wild fermentation—preserving and transforming foods by culturing naturally occurring microorganisms. Through its long tradition of experimenting and tinkering, the practice of fermentation addresses many of the core areas of food science: food preservation and food security, molecular gastronomy, and food engineering, among others. Though rarely discussed as a science in HCI, wild fermentation is, in fact, a platform for learning about and performing a host of scientific experiments at home. Moreover, the practice of preserving live foods, which counters the world's increasing reliance on mass-produced and processed ingredients, has implications for sustainability-oriented research.

Public participation in genetics reveals yet another citizen science trajectory. Genetic testing is becoming less expensive. At the same time, new sharing mechanisms are enabling people to draw upon professional services to access and understand personal genetic data. 23andme ( is one such service, offering affordable DNA sequencing as well as genetics tutorials and information. Users can learn about their genetic lineage and track a range of personal genetic facts, from one's ability to taste bitter flavors to susceptibility to hereditary illnesses such as Parkinson's disease.

For HCI, sites such as 23andme present a new type of online community—one where the information shared and acted upon is rooted in personal DNA rather than knowledge, skills, or common interests. These communities are giving rise to a new form of biological citizenship [5], whereby the meaning of identity, community, and family is renegotiated by personal genetics. Collecting, interpreting, and crowdsourcing biological data are not merely new forms of scientific participation. These emerging practices bring our genetic makeup and its complex connotations—among them, curiosity, hope, fear—to the forefront of today's political and ethical arena.

Communities outside of professional settings, from DIYbio groups to in-home food scientists or 23andme participants, are engaging in scientific inquiry and practice. By participating in science in novel and skilled, yet still nonprofessional ways, these communities challenge the non-expert/professional dichotomy in citizen science research. This suggests opportunities for re-skilling citizen scientists, whether through scaffolding tools, bio-electronic hybrid sensing platforms, transparency, or peripheral engagement with context. Supporting scientific knowledge production on community levels and beyond will result in new modes of scientific participation, which, in turn, will invite new materials, new forms of making, and new ways of seeing.

back to top  References

1. 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.

2. Denfeld, Z. and Kramer, C. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy; Accessed 2013

3. Kuznetsov, S., Odom, W., Pierce, J., and Paulos, E. Nurturing natural sensors. Proc. of UbiComp'11. 2011, 227–236.

4. Kuznetsov, S., Taylor, A.S., Regan, T., Villar, N., and Paulos, E. At the seams: DIYbio and opportunities for HCI. Proc. of DIS'12. 2012, 258–267.

5. Rose, N. and Novas, C. Biological citizenship. In Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. A. Ong and S.J. Collier, eds. Blackwell Publishing, 2005, 439–463.

back to top  Author

Stacey Kuznetsov is a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, where she leads a range of research efforts themed within citizen science, grassroots community activism, political computing, and DIY technologies including biosensing. Earlier, she worked as a software engineer at a small startup company ( She received her undergraduate degree from New York University with a double major in philosophy and computer science.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Images from left: Algae biofuel project by the DIYbio group at the London Hackspace. Centrifuge and other professional equipment at a synthetic biology lab. Dremelfuge: a 3-D-printed accessory converts a regular dremel into a centrifuge; developed by Indie Biotech, Ireland.

UF2Figure. Sterilization using a pressure cooker, presented by David Molnar at "(DIY)-biology, Designing for Open Source Science," DIS'12 Workshop. Integrated pest management (IPM) practitioner inspects plant leaves to assess well-being of the garden. Insect larvae signifies a pest problem. Kombucha culture is a colony of multiple species of bacteria and yeast, which ferments sweet tea into an effervescent drink.

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Post Comment

@JMI (2013 07 06)

Really interesting Stacey, thanks​!​

I think that you would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across about crowds and citizen science.​ ​

It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here if you’re interested:

Really powerful stuff!