Cycling and Citizen Science

Maria AgnesiCycling and cycling advocacy are on the move, and for me one of the most fascinating aspects of this has been the rise of the cycling citizen scientist. Citizen science has a long history; from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century the ‘gentleman scientist’ contributed to a range of fields from botany to chemistry to astronomy. While middle- and upper-class men would have had the most opportunity to engage in these practices, women – like the mathematician Maria Agnesi or the astronomer Caroline Herschel, both working in the eighteenth century – were often crucially important to the development of science. And popular science, involving some of the Mechanics’ Institutes and ‘Halls of Science’, provided opportunities for more plebian, artisan and radical involvement in science from the early nineteenth century.

With the professionalisation of science, the previously important role of the lay scientist diminished – Charles Darwin is sometimes described as the ‘last gentleman scientist’. But traditions of popular and radical science have continued; including, for example, in the monitoring and study of bird populations. Social movements continue to challenge and contribute to science: in my own discipline, sociology, feminism has had a major impact on methodology and content, opening up new topic areas and new ways of knowing.

Growing use of social media, and the decreasing cost and growing availability of various technologies (GPS, online survey software, digital cameras and videos, etc.) provides the opportunity for renewed popular involvement in science and research. In the case of cycling, video (and photo) sharing has been transformative. The ability to quickly convey a place and an experience can be dramatically effective, compared to scrutinising a detailed drawing which non-experts can find hard to translate to their own past or future experiences. This is not to say that photos and videos simply ‘tell the truth’: these technologies are also used to provide a particular view from somewhere, but one that hitherto has been unaccessible. It can allow citizens with access to the internet to contribute to increasingly international debates around engineering practices, and join debates over the principles and practices of providing for cycling. Community mapping has helped open up access to geographical data, demonstrating the ability and desire of citizens who care to contribute to data collection and verification.

More broadly the rise of bike blogging provides an interesting example of popular intervention at the intersections between science, policy and research. Bike bloggers have engaged in debates around concepts like ‘safety in numbers‘; they have helped publicise and share data, excavate political histories, challenging academic experts as well as dissecting policy reports, new cycling infrastructure, and existing approaches to network design. Boundaries are crossed and new forums for debate created as expert practitioners join in and reflect critically on their practice (often relying on the ability to be anonymous online).

Academic research, like policy debate, is increasingly open to online public critique, and this isn’t always comfortable. I remember reading a Freewheeler post entitled ‘Why Dave Horton is Wrong‘ and nervously wondering when I could look forward to a similar post debunking my own ‘rotten thesis’, entitled ‘Why Rachel Aldred is Wrong’. But the presence of informed people willing to discuss and challenge research and policy recommendations does, I believe, have a positive impact on academics and researchers. I wasn’t always working in the field of cycling and in my previous field, what I found most dispiriting was the impression that my work was having no impact whatsoever. In cycling, academics know people are listening because they answer back; they challenge as well as share methods and findings.

Not content with critiquing academic data collection and analysis, some cycling citizen scientists also analyse data themselves and/or collect their own. Recently I was contacted by Caryl Walters from Bristol, who has been involved in conducting a commuter survey in the Temple Quay area. Caryl described this as a ‘little bit’ of research advocacy; rather impressively, this involved the production of an insightful sixty-page report on the views of commuters, both cyclists and non-cyclists. The Bristol report gave me the idea for this post; both celebrating citizen science and thinking about its limits. Advocates must decide, for example, when it is worth collecting data themselves, and when it is more effective to press for more data sharing (and data collection) by official agencies. Part of this story is the growing availability of data, through archives and repositories. Some data becomes available following Freedom of Information Requests; other data is routinely released.

However, alongside growing openness lies the growing fragmentation of data sources and the withdrawal from some types of data collection. We don’t count cycling very effectively, and there are worrying signs that this may be worsening in some respects. I am concerned about the likely cancellation of the 2021 Census; given that this represents one of the few reliable and comparable sources of data on cycling at a small area level (local authority and below). And the withdrawal of the national indicator dataset means that authorities will no longer be obliged to report on school travel mode split, although it is likely that some will continue to do so. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund asks for ‘bespoke data collection’, which renders problematic the comparison of initiatives and value for money across authorities. It’s very important to have comparability if we are to learn from best practice, and here the role of the state is crucial – it’s much harder for citizens and academics (outside of large funded projects) to generate these kinds of datasets. Citizen science is a crucial part of popular involvement in research and policy-making, but it shouldn’t be used to outsource tasks that are best carried out through the collection of comparative administrative datasets.

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3 Responses to Cycling and Citizen Science

  1. Nice thoughts. I think there is still a lot of untapped potential for data gathering, e.g. using smartphones with custom apps. Cyclestreets and its Photomap has shown the way. But I’d like to see cycle counting and other apps developed.

    As you have indicated, there is a problem in curating citizen-collected data. Curating is a long-term responsibility and doesn’t fit well with volunteer effort. But Wikipedia and its progeny show the way there.

  2. Max says:

    A good post and I’m shocked to learn that the 2021 census might be cancelled and travel to school information will no longer be collected.

  3. Gosh. Yes, as my post of employment is “politically restricted”, I of course have to give politically impartial advice, but this extends to not giving the appearance of advocating support for a political party (such as publishing views on as blog?). Now, I do strive to remain professional as well and I am bound by codes of conduct within my professional institutions, but it is refreshing to be able to shake off my persona and give some stronger opinions – expert practitioner? Nice of you to say, but perhaps enthusiastic practitioner is more accurate. I do find reading these blogs a great way of getting different views as in the day job, different views are often simply pro-car.

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