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Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Get Out the Maps

Mapillary aims to make the world a smaller place with maps that continually update street-level conditions.

The term “citizen science” first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014, but it describes a long standing tradition of collaboration between professional and amateur scientists. Perhaps no field is as closely associated with citizen science as astronomy, where amateur stargazers continue to sweep the skies for unidentified heavenly bodies. Today, with the advent of smartphone technology, even more fields of scientific inquiry are open to the curious amateur.

Jan Erik Solem, CEO and Founder of Mapillary

Making the World a Smaller Place

With more than 440 million images from more than 190 countries, the street-level imagery platform Mapillary is trying to make the world a smaller place with maps that continually update street-level conditions.

“Carmakers can use the data to help train their autonomous systems — essentially ‘teaching’ cars to see and understand their surroundings — and mapmakers to populate their maps with up-to-date data. Cities can use it to keep inventories of traffic signs and other street assets among other things,” explained Jan Erik Solem, PhD, CEO and founder of Mapillary.

The data is collected by contributors who upload it onto Mapillary’s platform.

“The traditional approach of mapping places include sending out fleets of cars to map cities and towns, but these places change faster than mapping corporations are able to keep up with,” Solem added.

Simpe Tools Like Mobile Phones and Action Cameras

“Using simple tools like mobile phones or action cameras, anyone can go out, map their town and have data instantly generated from the images to update maps everywhere,” said Dr. Solem. “No one else collects data in this collaborative way.” The data is free for educational and personal use he added. “The company is closely tied to the research community and we recognize how helpful it is for researchers to have access to the kind of data that’s hosted on our platform,” explained Dr. Solem. “Mapillary is a commercial entity, but we are driven by research and this is part of our way of paying it forward.”

The data that Mapillary receives is verified through computer vision technology and GPS coordinates, integrated with the mobile phones and cameras that map the roads. “Our computer vision technology detects and recognizes objects in images including things like traffic signs, fire hydrants, benches and CCTVs. Having diverse imagery from all over the world means we have a rich training dataset that enables us to build some of the world’s best computer vision algorithms for street scenes.”

Mapillary’s mobile app allows for instant updates with the latest road conditions.

Keeping Citizens in Science

Citizen science requires enthusiastic participation of the public, but how can researchers keep the public engaged? This question was recently considered in a paper from Maurizio Porfiri, PhD, Dynamical Systems Laboratory at New York University titled, Bring them aboard: Rewarding participation in technology-mediated citizen science projects.”

The team hypothesized that monetary rewards and online or social media acknowledgments would increase engagement of participants.

“People contribute to citizen science projects for a variety of different reasons,” said Jeffrey Laut, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Porfiri’s lab. “If you just want to contribute to help out a project, and then you’re suddenly being paid for it, that might undermine the initial motivation.”

“For example, one of the things we point out in the paper is that people donate blood for the sake of helping out another human,” explained Dr. Laut. “Another study found that if you start paying people to donate blood, it might decrease the motivation to donate blood.”

Proper Rewards for Participation

If a citizen science project is suffering from levels of participation, researchers need to carefully choose the level of reward.

“I think with citizen science projects the intrinsic motivation is to contribute to a science project and wanting to further scientific knowledge,” said Dr. Laut. “If you’re designing a citizen science project, it would be helpful to consider incentives to enhance participation and also be careful on the choice of level of reward for participants.”

The technology used and scope of information collected may have changed, but the role remains as important as ever.

“It is important that citizens understand the world in which they live and are capable of making informed decisions,” said Ms. Prieto. “It’s also important that all people understand science, especially to combat disinformation. From this point of view citizen science is vital and a needed contributor to the greater field of science.”

Learn more about citizen science:


Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.