Open University platform scales up citizen science

Members of the public will be able to run their own experiments, producing data that could be valuable for scholars

April 5, 2019
Crowd with VR headsets
Source: Getty

Finding participants for research studies is a perennial challenge for academics – but a new online platform developed by the Open University and the BBC promises to take mass participation in science to a new level.

nQuire has been designed to run experiments set up not just by scholars and broadcasters but by members of the public, too, claiming to combine citizen science and enquiry learning – so study participants learn how to design and run their own investigations.

Mike Sharples, emeritus professor of educational technology at the OU, said he expected “colleges, community groups and individuals” as well as academics to run projects on nQuire, which he described as “quite a flexible platform for mass-scale social science”. The data that these community-led experiments create could in turn be of significant use to scholars.

The OU, Professor Sharples said, could help researchers “structure the surveys, make sure all missions are legal, decent and honest, and that data are secure and robust”. The BBC connection, meanwhile, gave projects “profile, credibility and weight”. The platform has been designed to cope with cases where hundreds of thousands of people want to participate in a particular project.

After a few pilot studies, the nQuire site has formally launched with the Forest 404 Experiment, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on the therapeutic effects of sound. Participants will be directed to the platform from a BBC podcast also called Forest 404, a futuristic science fiction drama.

Alex Smalley, a PhD student and science communicator at the University of Exeter, is leading a team from Exeter and the University of Bristol working on the Forest 404 study. He said he hoped that they would get thousands of participants to complete a randomised set of questions exploring their responses to natural sounds (some of it from the BBC natural history archive), and poetry about nature read by Pippa Haywood, one of the actors on the podcast.

Despite decades of “research showing that spending time in nature is good for health and well-being”, noted Mr Smalley, little of it had focused on sounds, so “in soundscape research the sample is almost unprecedented”. The findings could be very useful in “designing spaces to create positive sounds”, whether in urban parks or virtual reality.

Professor Sharples was keen for future “missions” to be developed by those outside the academy.

“We’re developing the platform for open access to the authoring tool”, he explained, “to allow anyone to create a mission. That requires a ‘pilot project’ area to develop and run new missions and an approval process to move the mission from pilot to live. We’ve nearly finished that development and should have it ready within a month.”

Although it is still early days, Professor Sharples noted that previous, less elaborate platforms developed by the OU had attracted interest from “teachers in Argentina, China, New Zealand and Vietnam measuring noise in school classrooms and the local community; an environmental group recording areas of flooding in Bangkok; a French Mooc course asking students to post images of coastal erosion. That’s the kind of participation we’re hoping and expecting to get on nQuire.”


Print headline: OU opens mass experiment in citizen science with BBC

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