• Post category:Articles
  • Post published:31.1.2023

Interoperable citizen observation services

Citizens’ observations collected by means of crowdsourcing are important in many activities related to environmental monitoring. SYKE has deployed a service to promote the shared use of citizens’ observations.


You are currently viewing Interoperable citizen observation services

In the spring of 2020, the demo service of SYKE and Avoin illustrated on a map which places it would be interesting to obtain observations of thawing after a winter of thin snow and ice sheets.

Citizens’ observations mean that information is collected by volunteers. Typically, such observations are related to people’s local environment, including the weather, the thawing of a nearby lake, or flooding rivers in spring.

Information about beach litter or invasive alien species is not productive on its own – often, the aim is also to encourage people to clean beaches or combat invasive alien species. Some themes are popular each year. After all, who has not made observations of changing seasons? Regrettably, often the monitoring of new promising themes dies down when the project that enabled the experiment ends.

In citizen science, regular people participate in science in various ways, for example, by making observations. Volunteers play an important role in making observations of animals and plants. Birdwatching is a true success story in this area: most bird observations are made by volunteers. Volunteers also publish their research results and observation stories in papers of their associations. Thus crowdsourcing can also be effective in ensuring the quality of species observations.

Opportunities of crowdsourcing

In crowdsourcing, a certain task is carried out jointly by a large group of participants. The self-organised and self-advanced collection of information, which produces reliable results, presents an interesting opportunity in various fields. Would it be possible to obtain information about the clearing of yards and roads from snow or the need for cleaning and repairs after snow has melted by any means other than retroactive feedback?

However, the road from knowledge to action is usually long. The participants may not have enough motivation to consider how the quality of the information collected could be improved or how the collection of information could be organised better. If the participants are not sufficiently committed, the collection of information through crowdsourcing is reduced to nothing but feedback on quality.

Motivation decreases if the participants are not personally attached to the cause, but feel that they are helping organisations that drive their own interests. A new participant does not easily join a campaign if there are only a few other participants or observations.

Why don’t we download yet another mobile app?

When the collection of information is technically easy, we may end up in a situation that is familiar from digital business. The number of services is high, while that of service administrators and funding providers is low after the initial excitement has died down. Not many are willing to pay more than a small download fee for participation in citizens’ observations.

When it comes to free services, users are mainly interested in those that others are also using and that run on familiar service platforms. However, the use of a certain service may become viral if it meets the needs of active users at the right time.

The excitement of even the most engaged participants will eventually die down if the activities are not appropriately arranged, there is no motivation to continue making observations or the participants are not thanked and rewarded. Many participants believe that “someone else” will take care of the continuation the project in the future. When a project ends, this easily leads to a situation where the provision of advice for new participants and the maintenance of the service end up with randomly selected parties overwhelmed by high workloads.

A single project may feature several different mobile apps and websites. Overlapping services are often available for a good reason, and they have their own groups of users. Financially attractive themes naturally evolve into services that compete with each other. Even if services are competing, users should have access to observations added to other services. Openly accessible information is more valuable and makes the collection of information more meaningful. From the citizens’ point of view, observations connected to the present are the most important.

SYKE’s solutions for shared use

SYKE has deployed the CitobsDB citizen observation service. This provides SYKE’s users and other organisations that use the service with the same questions and data content through the Open311 API service.

A model for the information to be collected can be defined in the service, which can be used to create a user interface for the entry of information, even on the fly. Observations are given a permanent and unchangeable identifier, and the service code of the data model helps translate the questions into different languages.

Observation forms and maps can be embedded on any website using the CitobsDB Open311 widget. While the model and observations can be shared as open data (Creative Commons 0 licence), the closed processing of information is also possible. In this case, information is only available to the API key holder that made the observation and the platform itself in the Open311 API service.

Open observation information is available through the Web Map Service (WMS) and ESRI REST API services and, in principle, the entire system can be deployed published with the European Union Public Licence (EUPL). In practice, it is, however, easier to use SYKE’s citizen observation service.

Close cooperation is recommended in service design to plan long-term maintenance activities together.

For example, SYKE provides an advisory email address (havaitsemaan@ymparisto.fi) for everyone who makes observations. This ensures that everyone receives the same instructions. Annotations, i.e. additional markings, can also be added to new observations in the CitobsDB service. They may be links to previous observations or references furnished with coordinate data to satellite images or certain locations under long-term monitoring.

In the spring of 2020, SYKE, together with Avoin (www.avoin.org), provided a demo service, in which map symbols are used to indicate how interesting it would be to obtain observations from a certain location. People can also indicate to other themes and locations that interest them (Image 2).

More information 

SYKE citizen observations: www.kansalaishavainnot.fi
Open311 API service: www.open311.org
Interesting observation locations: seuranta.avoin.org
Want to use the citizen observation service? Contact: kansalaishavainnot@ymparisto.fi.

Timo Pyhälahti works as a senior expert at SYKE. He is responsible for remote sensing and citizen observation systems. Email: firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi