This page serves as a resource for those interested in digital infrastructures, citizen science, and the relationship between these two systems. It’s contents are the result of the ‘Building Digital Infrastructures, Empowering Citizen Science’ event held on Wednesday April 22nd, 2015 at Drexel’s ExCITe Center. 

Darlene Cavalier, Mike Fortun, Dominic DiFranzo, and Lindsay Poirier take questions after their presentations.
Darlene Cavalier, Mike Fortun, Dominic DiFranzo, and Lindsay Poirier take questions after their presentations.

Introduction from the Event

The ‘Building Digital Infrastructures, Empowering Citizen Science’ session brings together two projects that aim to advance public engagement with science, albeit in different ways. The first is SciStarters, a public database of citizen science projects that helps users find and participate in recreational science activities as well as citizen science research projects. The second project is The Asthma Files, a collaborative research initiative organized around a digital platform called PECE, Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography. The platform provides structure for collaboration between stakeholders, mostly at universities in its current iteration.

We put these two projects in conversations because of their engagement with science, but also to explore how these projects build from, engage with, and contribute to digital infrastructures.

Themes and Key Issues:

  • What is citizen science?
  • How can/does digital infrastructure constrain its use?
  • What are the tensions between open access citizen science efforts and institutional structures such as IRB requirements and peer review practices?

What Is Citizen Science?

Those involved in the event had a number of discussions about how citizen science is defined. In conversations leading up to and following the event, citizen science referred to a broad field of activities. Some projects had social or environmental justice aims, others were situated in the tradition of amateur science, or K-12 programs, and others still came from institutional initiatives that foster public engagement with science and contemporary issues, such as climate change, green infrastructure, or do-it-yourself biology.

Projects that have been labeled citizen science vary in their conception of expertise and the relationships between different expertise-groups. Some projects, such as those initiated by community groups in response to a social or environmental justice issue, tend to stress the value of different ways of making meaning and of different kinds of knowledge (traditionally accredited and local). Others, which focus more on crowdsourcing data collection or processing for traditional scientific endeavors, can reproduce (or at least fail to disrupt) extant power relations that privilege certain ways of knowing. The latter projects build capacity and engagement between different expertise groups and can serve as meeting points to start and facilitate conversations about methodologies and data. It is unclear if this would be possible in the potentially threatening (to institutional science) atmosphere of the first type of projects.

Below we provide just a few examples of citizen science (a more extensive, but not annotated, list can be found here).

Louisiana Bucket Brigade – “The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is a 501(c)(3) environmental health and justice organization working with communities that neighbor the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants. [They] use tools like the bucket and the iWitness Pollution Map to help community groups achieve their goals- be it relocation away from a polluting facility, reduced emissions, or a moratorium on facility expansions. The more evidence the communities gather, the more power they have to achieve their goals.”

Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science – “is a community — supported by a 501(c)3 non-profit — which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible Do-It-Yourself techniques, Public Lab creates a collaborative network of practitioners who actively re-imagine the human relationship with the environment.”

Citizen Sense – “investigates the relationship between technologies and practices of environmental sensing and citizen engagement.”

FracTracker Alliance – “shares maps, data, and analyses to communicate impacts of the global oil and gas industry and informs actions that positively shape our energy future. FracTracker is a leading resource on oil and gas issues and a trusted asset to the concerned public.”

DIY Bio Groups

Workshop Questions

  1. What comes to mind when you think of citizen science? 
    1. SciStarter as meeting point and educational tool, which allows for entry into and evolving understanding of practices and instruments.  This can prepare people to ask their own questions and build capacity to engage with the traditionally established scientific community.  The emphasis on making connections between people interested in and talking about the same things but maybe in different ways exemplifies this.
    2. TAF idea of light structure also helps to facilitate this sort of flexibility and makes room for conversation about different ways of making meaning or engaging with science and data.
  2. What are these citizen science projects good for, and what do they aim for?
    1. The kind of science done depends on the question being asked.
    2. Values back into the projects being done.
  3. What are some of the issues that arise from the potential conflict between the desire for open access and ethics/IRB procedures?
    1. SciStarter only facilitates communication between different groups, and that is handled by the individual projects (which are managed by users of SciStarter, not SciStarter).  But what obligation is there for those in the conduit capacity to account for this? (What level of responsibility exists to educate and protect?)
    2. Some researchers are not in an institutional location that already imposes IRB requirements/procedures (particularly in citizen science/non-profit contexts).  Sage Biomedical research offers an option; the standards are often considerably more stringent at Universities, resulting in a mindset congruent with that.
  4. To what extent is background knowledge of digital infrastructures needed — by project leads or users? Do these needs necessitate new collaborations, new training paradigms, or both/something else?
    1. Teaching Platforms: how are they used and presented?
      SciStarter provides channel to projects, activities, and topics, but the tools available depend on the individual projects.
  5. What are some other challenges that these sort of projects face?
    1. Funding.  Efforts for broad-based compatibility
  6. How can we reconcile the different ideologies and methodologies of the natural and social sciences when these intersect in digital infrastructure contexts? Especially when we are using the same tools or the same artifacts?
    1. There has to be an awareness of the different ways that these people make meaning of the data and all those involved have to be explicit about the assumptions that go into that.  The questions provided for the annotations on TAF site can help to provide entry into ethnographic approaches for those with backgrounds in natural sciences.
    2. question of how to conceptualize critique in collaborative, less hierarchical projects – the structure is likely going to be different.  Better to understand several different ways of making meaning of something than articulating a critique of it.
  7. How can platforms like this work for extremely data-heavy sciences and projects?
    1. Critique as inherent in model for scientific practices; some of these higher level approaches have, as a result, a mindset of “auto-critique”

Questions for Further Discussion

(And questions that were not fully addressed in the workshop)

  1. What are the political goals of citizen science groups and how do they relate to digital infrastructure?
  2. What are the knowledge production goals of citizen science groups, and how do they relate to digital infrastructure?
  3. What are the communications goals of citizen science groups and how do they relate to digital infrastructure?
  4. How do we create the shared goals between different groups involved in citizen science projects to deal with data curation and intended use of data/digital infrastructure tools?
  5. When we talk kinds of digital infrastructures, what infrastructures are important to consider?
    1. storage
    2. hosting
    3. networks
    4. platforms
    5. languages
    6. metadata
    7. databases
    8. programming
  6. To what extent is background knowledge of digital infrastructures needed — by project leads or users? Do these needs necessitate new collaborations, new training paradigms, or both/something else?
  7. What are the barriers to entry for citizen scientists?
  8. How can aspects of digital infrastructure constrain or shape their use as a tool, particularly for citizen science?
  9. What kinds of cultural practices and social relations are needed for successful collaborations?
  10. What kinds of critique does The Asthma Files make?
  11. What are good examples of citizen science projects that make use of digital infrastructure?
  12. Again, what is citizen science?

Related Resources

Event Video

Glossary of Relevant Terms

API: Application Programming Interface – A set of tools and protocols for building an application, the API specifies how different components of the application should interact to facilitate building the application.

Content Management System (CMS): “A common type of software platform used to build websites, which allow users with few technical skills to set up basic websites with relative ease. These platforms are best used for publishing, editing, and organizing digital content, and can often accommodate multiple content editors.” (, accessed April 25, 2015)

Digital Infrastructure:  The “built networks that facilitate the flow of …ideas [and data/content] and allow for their exchange over space.” This includes all components required to support the use and communication of data or other content via digital means.  This broad category covers content management tools, data, hardware, software, and all other tools and mechanisms (such as institutions, networks, individuals, and organizations) that allow for access and flow of content.

Digital Platform: The software and hardware that constitute and support a website.

DrupalA free, customizable, open source digital platform (specifically a CMS) aimed at organizing, managing, and publishing content.

OAuth: An “open standard for authorization” that provides users with “‘secure delegated access’ to server resources on behalf of a resource owner.” (, accessed April 25, 2015)

Open Access: “Unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. Open access is primarily intended for scholarly journal articles, but is also provided for a growing number of theses, book chapters, and scholarly monographs.” (, accessed April 25, 2015)

Open Source: “Computer software with its source code made available and licensed with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner.” (, accessed April 25, 2015)

Out-of-the-Box: Software that is designed to be ready to use upon installation (or first access) with minimal need for set-up or customization, OR software in such a state before customization.

Also see Cultural Anthropology‘s ‘Glossary of Open Access Terms’ published in May 2014.

Relevant Links

DataOne – An NSF funded project to provide a distributed framework and digital infrastructure for “open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.”

Drupal – The management and publishing platform that Cultural Anthropology Online formerly used and The Asthma Files currently uses.

Public Lab – A community that works to apply open-source tools to environmental science and exploration, focusing on “civic science” to “generate knowledge and share data about community environmental health.”

Sage IRB – Independent Institutional Review Board which provides resources for citizen-science/non-profit work that does not occur under the jurisdiction of a university.

SciStarter & Azavea – SciStarter has partnered with Philadelphia-based geospatial technology company Azavea to investigate current innovation in digital infrastructure for citizen science.

A Vast Machine – Book by Paul N. Edwards on the role of models in climate change, mentioned by Mike Fortun.

Further Reading –

Brown, P., Zavestoski, S., McCormick, S., Mayer, B., Morello‐Frosch, R., & Gasior Altman, R. (2004). Embodied health movements: new approaches to social movements in health. Sociology of health & illness, 26(1), 50-80.

Corburn, J. (2005). Street science: Community knowledge and environmental health justice. The MIT Press.

Ottinger, G. (2013). Refining expertise: How responsible engineers subvert environmental justice challenges. NYU Press.

Workshop Slides

SciStarter Slides

The Asthma Files Slides


The Asthma Files is a collaborative ethnographic research project designed to advance understanding and efforts to address environmental public health challenges around the world.

The Asthma Files Homepage

Focusing on dramatic global incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses as a starting point, the project spirals out to address growing concern about the health impact of air pollution and associated need to build scientific, clinical and public health capacity to address environmental determinants of human health.  Through ethnographic interviews and analysis of scientific publications, policy debates, and media coverage, the project draws together many different ways of approaching environmental public health, aiming to enhance comparative and collaborative perspective.

A key aim is to develop comparative understanding of different styles of both environmental health research and environmental health governance, in different urban and national settings. The project will result in a theoretically robust, empirically grounded conception of (environmental health) research and governance styles, detailing and categorizing different ways of developing environmental health data, advancing the sciences of environment and health, and directing these toward governance of complex problems.  The project thus builds on work in the history and anthropology of science on how “thought styles” shape scientific research, and extends it to sociocultural analysis of “governance styles” by theorizing a broader array of factors that constitute environmental governance, and that implicate potential for collaboration between governance regimes.


SciStarter Homepage

Speaker Biographies

Darlene Cavalier –  Darlene Cavalier earned a Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, studying science history, sociology, and science policy to learn more about people like herself: “hybrid actors,” citizens interested in but not formally trained in the sciences. Discovering it was remarkably difficult to find opportunities to participate in science in any meaningful way, she launched SciStarter. She’s also a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s Consortium of Science, Policy, and Outcomes.

Mike Fortun – Mike Fortun is a historian and anthropologist of the life sciences whose research has focused on the contemporary science, culture, and political economy of genomics. His work has covered the policy, scientific, and social history of the Human Genome Project in the U.S.; the growth of commercial genomics and bioinformatics in the speculative economies of the 1990s; and the emergence of transdisciplinary research programs in toxicogenomics, addiction, and environmental health.

Dominic DiFranzo – Dominic DiFranzo is a PhD Computer Science student at RPI who is working on the Semantic Web, Social Machines and Linked Open Data.

Lindsay Poirier – Lindsay Poirier is a second-year M.S./PhD student in Science and Technology Studies at RPI. Her research critically examines web architecture, information infrastructures, and computational social science methods.


Derek Parrott and Hined Rafeh
Derek Parrott and Hined Rafeh

Ali Kenner – Ali Kenner is assistant professor of History and Politics at Drexel University, and a faculty member in the Center for Science, Technology and Society. Her  research and teaching focus on 1) environmental health and the politics of care, 2) the spaces in which health and disease are produced (homes, cities, clinics, and public health networks), and 3) how embodied experiences of health and disease are technologically mediated. Her current research examines the experiences of asthmatics and how asthma is cared for across different U.S. contexts; her analysis focuses on the ethical and epistemic problems surrounding environmental health conditions.

Derek Parrott – Derek Parrott is a first year graduate student in Drexel’s MS in Science, Technology, and Society program.  His research interests focus on science and technology policy in relation to alternative and innovative energy sources, particularly the development and support of the fusion research community.

Hined Rafeh