Citizen science and citizen engagement are powerful means to build trust in science and leverage the vast societal intelligence and capabilities to promote innovation. Be it discovering exoplanets (astronomy), updating bird migration records (ornithology), tracking marine debris (oceanography) or identifying modern slavery hotspots, citizen scientists have contributed immensely to research and innovation across scientific disciplines.
Citizen science can offer a variety of benefits to researchers, citizens, policymakers and society. It can make science more socially relevant, accelerate new scientific knowledge, help policymakers monitor regulatory compliance and boost evidence-based policymaking.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) is creating new possibilities that were not existing five years back. AI’s new capabilities through predictive intelligence, pattern detection and personalized solutions using unstructured data such as images, speech, text, video, etc. can add new value to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although AI can theoretically replace the need for manual processing, integrating people power and computer power can create hyper-efficient and complex social machines. Integrated capability successfully demonstrated via citizen science databases such as Wildbook, Zooniverse and iNaturalist are prominent examples.
Experimenting with GeoAI & Citizen Science in Bihar
In one of the experiments by UNDP India, such strategic leverage at the intersection of citizen science and AI is clearly visible. UNDP Accelerator Lab in India has developed GeoAI digital platform in collaboration with University of Nottingham to detect hotspots of air pollution using satellite imagery and object detection (Artificial Intelligence) algorithms. These object detection algorithms have been trained by large group of citizen scientists across the world volunteering on Zooniverse platform with active facilitation by Rights Lab, University of Nottingham to detect brick kilns which are hotspots of vulnerable labor and air pollution. Applying AI algorithms to this citizen science trained data, more than 47000 brick kilns across Indo-gangetic plains of India were detected and incorporated by UNDP into GeoAI open data platform. In partnership with proactive environmental regulators like the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB), GeoAI platform aims to improve the environmental compliance of brick manufacturing industry’s which is presently causing upto 15% of air pollution across districts of Bihar.
The GeoAI platform uses novel approach of geospatial technologies, artificial intelligence and citizen science to detect the exact locations of brick kilns using satellite imagery. We are now adding more features to the platform to classify brick kilns as compliant and non-compliant ones based on image classification. Since compliant and non-compliant brick manufacturing units have distinct spatial features, image classification using satellite imagery is extremely useful. However, generating reliable training data for AI algorithms is an important challenge.
UNDP Accelerator Lab relied on citizen science efforts from digital volunteers to generate training and validation data for AI algorithms in order to improve their accuracy. The volunteers were sourced via the United Nations Volunteers online network called VFORCE. The vast network of UNV drew overwhelming response from 300-plus volunteer applications within 48 hours of posting the requirement. Selection of volunteers was done to include local youth from Bihar, gender balance, motivated volunteers with internet and computer system availability along with their willingness to perform high-intensity volunteering work. Each volunteer was given target to classify 250-300 satellite images. With active participation of officials from BSPCB and the University of Nottingham, the volunteers were trained on identifying specific features of brick kilns for segregation as compliant and non-compliant. With active facilitation and training, volunteers as young as 13 years were able to classify more than 2500 kilns within a week. The citizen science data was fed into GeoAI platform for large scale classification of brick kilns across Bihar. Such intelligence powered by both citizens and Artificial Intelligence is valuable for environmental regulators to initiate action against non-compliant kilns, facilitating targeted intervention to combat air pollution hotspots in Bihar.