The start of a paper, at last

For the remainder of my Internship I’m going to focus on writing an academic paper about data policies in PPSR.  I love writing papers (life as a PhD student would be pretty miserable if I didn’t), and I’m getting pretty good at turning out decent drafts in a decent timeframe. Starting a new paper is also exciting because it means that you, as an author, finally know enough about a topic to be able to contribute something that other researchers studying similar things might want to read.

This paper is going to focus on issues of privacy in citizen science and, potentially, related fields.  This is an important issue for two related reasons.  First, projects that gather sensitive data from volunteers are legally and ethically obligated to ensure that no harm comes to these volunteers.  Second, some volunteers (unfortunately, not all) are able to identify when making a certain contribution puts them at risk; these volunteers are less likely to contribute without full knowledge of how their data is being used.

This is an interesting project because there isn’t a lot of  literature on the issues of privacy and citizen science but there are plenty of observable data policies that demonstrate how different issues of privacy are solved.  For example, iNaturalist gathers potentially sensitive information about the location of different natural observations.  When users upload observations, they’re able to designate each as public (visible to everyone who visits with exact latitude & longitudinal coordinates), private (visible only to the iNaturalist team and select researchers), and obscured (observations have an approximate but not exact location; i.e., within X miles of a certain landmark).

There is a lot of literature on privacy in related fields.  Participatory sensing is a paradigm that has some overlap with citizen science but is not an exact fit, as not all participatory sensing programs contributing to science and not all citizen science projects utilize sensors.  Research on the broader use of sensors in ubiquitous computing is also highly applicable.  Outside of Human-Computer Interaction, the strongest connection might be found in people who contribute geospatial data to different repositories such as open sourced maps.  But I really like the first angle better.

The example that I keep coming back to in citizen science is the Great Sunflower Project, which asks volunteers to plant sunflowers on their property and monitor the activities of the bees who visit the plant.  This shares many similarities with projects like Air Quality Egg, which require a user to permanently place sensors that gather information on CO and NO2 emissions outside their homes.  One aspect is permanence; stationary sensors (like stationary plants) are valuable because they minimize some kinds of variation. A less tangible similarity is a sense of intimacy, and the trust that is required for a volunteer to feel comfortable sharing data about plants and sensors outside their home.  This is going to be the most interesting part of the paper for me to write.

More focused musings next week.

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