Citizen Science Workshop at ICTP

by Azby Brown

Safecast is a international nonprofit organization dedicated to open-access citizen science for the environment. It was formed in response to the lack of trustworthy data available after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. Safecast now helps citizens collect and share data about environmental radiation, and will soon expand to help monitor air quality as well. A big thank you to Safecast and the author of this blog post, Azby Brown, for permission to republish this post from the Safecast website, where it originally appeared.

Safecasters out collecting data with their bGeigies. More pictures below!

Safecasters out collecting data. More pictures below

Safecast has just wrapped up an intensive three-week workshop on citizen science for environmental measurement at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. ICTP, which was founded in 1964 by the late Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, focuses on providing continuing education and skill development for scientists from developing countries.

Much of the work done at ICTP is interdisciplinary, and our group of 29 expert participants reflect that, with fields of specialization including air quality monitoring, radiation monitoring, electronic engineering, network systems, sensor design, medical imaging, chemical analysis, and others. Our great group of participants came from 25 different countries, primarily in Africa, Central and South America, and the Middle East,

Details about the course can be found here:

Joint ICTP-IAEA Workshop on Environmental Mapping: Mobilising Trust in Measurements and Engaging Scientific Citizenry

Safecast holds many workshops and lectures, but this one, held at the fabulous ICTP SciFabLab, was unique. It was the largest done with a single group, the longest, the most intensive, and the most thorough. Safecasters Joe Moross and Azby Brown were joined by about 30 other lecturers and speakers who covered topics such as open-source hardware design, digital fabrication, data visualization, sensor calibration, and scientific communication skills. Participants, who were selected from 150 applicants, were each provided with a bGeigie kit (more on these in a bit) to build and take home. The emphasis was on hands-on training and experience and teamwork.

Overall, the curriculum was designed so that the participants could return to their home countries with weeks of experience in all aspects of this citizen science system. We focused building and using the bGeigie, a mobile GPS-enabled radiation sensor, a compact device that was designed to mount on a car but can be used on any mode of transportation. All the participants built their own bGeigie, and then learned to analyze and visualize its data. The final step was to learn to communicate the results and significance of Safecast, and other citizen science projects, to skeptical institutions and the general public. Our intent was to nurture effective citizen science practitioners and leaders in developing countries, who can continue to participate in Safecast and encourage others to do so.

From the point of view of the hosting institutions, Safecast represents an important validation of the principles of citizen science. Many scientists have been observing the development of citizen science, particularly for environmental monitoring. This workshop is an indication of the degree of receptiveness that has emerged for citizen science in many leading scientific quarters. In particular, ICTP felt that Safecast’s citizen science techniques can enable financially-limited developing countries to accomplish otherwise difficult and expensive scientific tasks while bolstering science education overall. Safecast was happy to contribute time and energy to this cause.

Week one was devoted to hardware, and the main task was to build bGeigies. While the group included a few engineers who regularly build their own equipment, most had little or no prior experience building electronics.  All were successful, however.  Their assignment was to gather data on their sightseeing trips to Venice and elsewhere over the first weekend, and to upload it to the Safecast API. The group was also introduced to the Safecast project overall, and to the concepts of citizen science and openness, particularly as they apply to issues which have emerged due to the Fukushima disaster.

Data collected by the group can be seen here

The second week was primarily devoted to visualization. GIS and data analysis specialist Franck Albinet provided several days of intensive training on the use of the open-source QGIS software for producing and analyzing map-based data. Participants were split into groups and assigned to develop original visualizations and analyses of the Safecast data they had gathered. Among other interesting presentations:

  • Sebastian Buettrich of IT University of Copenhagen described his group’s ongoing air-quality monitoring project, with an emphasis on the difficulties of finding and calibrating appropriate sensors.
  • Luka Mustafa, who has helped design and build Safecast hardware including the Integrated bGeigie and upcoming Safecast devices, gave a very engaging presentation about the development of open-source hardware projects, including his KORUZA wireless free-space optical (FSO) internet-access system.

Week three focussed on the wider social context of citizen science, including social and political factors, transparency and openness, and communication. Highlights included:

  • Bob Marsh’s presentation of Calflora, a botanical citizen science project which has been running for 20 years
  • Elisabetta Tola of Google News Lab, gave a good lesson on online image literacy and source analysis, and a hands-on tutorial in using Google tools for quickly producing map-based visualizations.
  • Kate Shaw of ICTP provided a thorough rundown of how Physics Without Frontiers and the Atlas project at CERN effectively utilize social media for communication.
  • Nadja Zeleznik, of Nuclear Transparency Watch, discussed why transparency is needed and how it can best be achieved.
  • Gill Tudor gave a superb and amusing presentation on how to avoid media “car wrecks” when presenting information or being interviewed.

It may well be that we were blessed with an exceptional group of participants, but the result of the workshop exceeded our expectations. The group bonded very well, was extremely enthusiastic and travelled together as groups, and we hope to keep them all in contact with each other in coming months and years.

A great deal of the credit goes to the ICTP staff, particularly Marco Zennaro and Carlo Fonda, and Iain Darby of the IAEA, who clearly know how to host and motivate large culturally diverse groups. We found quite a few new interesting colleagues, and were introduced to many new resources. We look forward to staying in touch with them all, and supporting their citizen science activities around the world.


Azby Brown is Safecast’s lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.


Environmental Mapping and Citizen Science: smr 2858 Photo Gallery

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