Geographical Information Systems in Modern Citizen Science

Geographical Information Systems in Modern Citizen Science

Laia Subirats (Eurecat, Spain), Joana Simoes (GeoCat, The Netherlands) and Alexander Steblin (Eurecat, Spain)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 30
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0962-2.ch006
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This chapter shows how citizen-science initiatives have been known to exist for a long time, but only recently they were further enhanced thanks to technological and societal developments, such as the availability of mobile devices, the widespread use of the internet and the low cost of location devices. These developments shaped the geographic information system (GIS) world as it is known today: a group of technologies that allows retrieving, storing, analyzing and sharing spatial information, by people who are not necessarily GIS professionals. This chapter starts with a general background about GIS, adding then more detail in topics of particular relevance in the context of citizen science. The rest of the chapter is focused on reviewing and classifying the use of GIS in citizen-science initiatives; and some use cases are described in order to provide practical examples of the use of these technologies for solving specific spatial problems. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of the future of GIS in citizen science, in the light of current technological trends.
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Citizen science has a great focus in environmental issues such as pollution, habitat and biodiversity (Castell et al., 2014; Uhrner et al., 2013), and thus it has an eminent geographic component. The phenomena that concern citizen scientists do occur in a certain place and at a certain scale, and they are often interrelated with other phenomena that are also linked to places and scales. GIS is the “glue” which enables us to relate these different places, scales and phenomena in a system where the information can be effectively stored, managed and analyzed.

Scientists have been known to use spatial analysis for a very long time. In 1854, British epidemiologist John Snow (Goodchild, 2007), plotted the reported cholera deaths onto a street map (a technique similar to what is currently called a mash-up), in order to find out the source of the infection: the public water pump on Broad Street.

Figure 1.

Original map by John Snow, depicting the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854

Drawn and lithographed by Charles Cheffins (Snow, 1854).

Although this early example already illustrates the application of GIS principles to solve a societal problem, it was not until recently that the use of GIS became generalized among the citizen science community, along with other communities. Undoubtedly, modern GIS developments such as interoperability, the growth of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and digital Volunteered Geographic Information, amongst others, have played an important role for this widespread technology adoption. These aspects are discussed within the “Background” section, which aims at familiarizing the reader with GIS technologies. Unfortunately it would be too ambitious to provide a complete introduction to GIS in the scope of this chapter, so the authors focused instead in the most recent events, and in particular in those technologies, movements and ideas which are more relevant in the context of citizen science.

The rest of the chapter is entirely devoted to describing and understanding the use of GIS in citizen science projects. The next section, “GIS in the Context of Citizen Science”, starts with an extensive list of citizen science GIS projects, and it aims to showcase the diversity of citizen science applications powered by GIS, as well as exposing common aspects across many of them. The following section elaborates a bit more about these commonalities across infrastructures, by proposing a Citizen Science GIS taxonomy. This is followed by a description of use cases, where the use of GIS is portrayed with more detail, within real-world, well-defined, citizen science problems. These use cases are examples, and they were chosen based on their representativity, as well as on the availability of information about those projects.

The last section is more practical, and it provides a set of recommendations on how-to setup a typical GIS infrastructure for a citizen science project. Finally the authors close the chapter with some general conclusions and an overview of GIS trends which could impact the development of citizen science in the upcoming years.

Although not all citizen science relates to GIS, there is an important overlap between the two areas and it could be stated that there is also a positive feedback, in the sense that citizen scientists are not only contributing to GIS, but also pushing for its use and contributing towards its development. Apart from demonstrating that GIS technologies can support the development and further enhancement of citizen science projects, the objectives of this chapter were to understand and describe which are these technologies, and “why” they are relevant, which in turn can help us to understand “why” they were adopted by citizen scientists.



Although GIS has been erroneously described as a container of a map in a digital form, it is actually much more than that (Longley et al., 2005). A more complete definition of GIS would be an integration of data, hardware, and software designed for management, processing, analysis and visualization of georeferenced data (Neteler & Mitasova, 2008).

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