State and Local Takeaways From the White House’s New ‘Open Science’ Memo

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Citizen science and crowdsourcing projects are engaging community stakeholders while improving the public’s science literacy.

The White House will redouble its citizen science and crowdsourcing efforts after seeing them improve policy discussions with state and local stakeholders, according to a memorandum issued Wednesday.

Drafted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Addressing Societal and Scientific Challenges through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing” directs agencies to designate a coordinator for such projects and catalogue them.

Local governments are already overlaying distributed-sensor data on crowdsourced traffic congestion maps to increase road safety and shorten commutes, as well as promoting public engagement through community-level volunteer environmental monitoring, per the memo:

Specific outcomes reported in peer-reviewed journal articles include ‘improved communication between government and local stakeholders, increased knowledge and changed attitudes among participants, better adherence to natural resource regulations by community members, and empowerment of local stakeholders.’ Local stakeholders also became more engaged in ecosystem management and policy discussions, and the scientific literacy of participants grew.

Both citizen science and crowdsourcing are part of the “open science” movement, which encourages anyone to contribute to innovation regardless of their training.

Citizen science invites the public to volunteer in the scientific process through questioning, observing, experimenting, data collecting, or coding.

Crowdsourcing enlists large groups of volunteers to exceed the limitations of single or small groups of scientists by conducting research on a large geographic scale over a longer period of time.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network is a prime example, where 20,000 volunteers across 50 states measure precipitation with low-cost tools and report their findings online—data used by the National Weather Service to inform its warnings.

Participating students receive a hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education outside the classroom, and the program has been shown to improve their scientific literacy.

In 2015, the Census Bureau launched an app so its State School District Review Program participants in 35 states could update district boundaries in real-time, resulting in 10,000 transactions.

Federal, state and local governments are also asking citizens to help departments better prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies.

“These observations could not have been made on a human scale without the help of volunteers,” said John Holdren, OSTP director, at the Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People forum heralding its policy changes.

Holdren touted low-cost sensors and high-speed Internet connectivity—technological developments farsighted states and localities have been quick to adopt—as new infrastructure for government to capitalize on.

Open science allows state and local governments to solicit resident perspectives and expertise for interpreting data.

Para La Naturaleza, with the support of the National Science Foundation, organizes citizen science projects monitoring Puerto Rico’s bat and frog populations, as well as coastal sands, according to OSTP’s memo:

Through self-report surveys, participants have indicated that citizen science activities increase their knowledge of local plants, animals, and habitats and their ability to generate scientific questions about the environment. Some participants started out as occasional volunteers and now play leadership roles in the research projects, including leading and training other volunteers.

The federal government has 24 agencies running more than 85 open science projects but, if anything, state and local governments are better positioned to foster the innovation process.

Holdren advised agencies to hold open science to the same standards as traditional science, preserve and share data, and engage the public in a way that conveyed to them the importance of their volunteer work.

The General Services Administration will be working in the coming months on a centralized federal database of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects nationwide, much like Challenge.gov.

A Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit was also announced to help agencies get new projects off the ground.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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