22 November 2012, Geneva, Switzerland - “Citizen Cyberscience is a tremendous opportunity for scientists in developing regions, because it offers them valuable support from thousands of volunteers, and enhanced global exposure for their research. Projects like ForestWatchers in Brazil are trailblazing what we think will become a global trend”. These words by Francois Grey, Coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre - a partnership established by UNITAR, CERN and the University of Geneva - capture well one of the aspects driving the research of new applications connecting the crowd to scientists and international experts.

Forestwatchers presentationDuring a meeting at the Palais des Nations, experts from the research project known as ForesWatchers and representatives from member states and UN agencies discussed of the results and the future potential of the idea. Cloud computing and collaborative on-line technology evolve steadily, allowing for larger networks to interconnect via internet. The ideas underpinning UNITAR’s research in citizen science have been tested at UNOSAT several times already. Francesco Pisano who heads the research on technology applications and knowledge systems at UNITAR confirms that “ForestWatchers is part of a family of technology-based initiatives that UNOSAT and partners developed two years ago with the help of the CCC and become known as Cybermappr”. One of these applications helped the international community map the impact of the conflict in Libya on civilian infrastructure.

The idea is to involve citizens directly in the work of the experts by farming out a number of preselected tasks. As Mr Grey explains “our tests have shown that if  a particular task requires say 100 days, it can be accomplished by 200 people in half a day, provided the task is feasible and well explained”. In the case of deforestation in Brazil, volunteers help by going through hundreds of satellite images and selecting the best ones. This saves experts hundreds of hours of work and speeds up the analysis of data that really matters.

Soon these solutions may be able to leverage via existing social networks thousands of individuals who could volunteer small amounts of their time to carry out easy tasks for the sake of helping in humanitarian situations or help those in greater need. Yet, no matter how many volunteers enter the circle, the idea is not to replace the experts. In the case of ForesWatchers, the expertise and technical capacity of the Brazilian experts of INPE (the National Institute for Space Research) are essential to the success of the project.

Mr. Fernando Ramos, Senior Researcher at INPEDuring the meeting Fernando Ramos, Senior Researcher at INPE, explained how INPE’s research was embedded in the project and how the Institute’s scientists helped implement the entire activity together with UNOSAT analysts and CCC programmers. One of them, Daniel Lombrana Gonzalez, has been contracted by UNITAR to work with the UNOSAT team to develop the code used by CyberMappr in Libya and by ForestWatchers in the Brazilian test.

On the heels of its success in the pilot phase, ForestWatchers may have a brilliant future depending on the support the idea receives from donors and users alike. Among the UN agencies present at the meeting, UN-REDD and UNEP expressed positive comments on the results so far and the will to discuss with UNITAR and partners the next areas of application.

Photo: 1: UNITAR’s Executive Director Sally Fegan-Wyles and Francesco Pisano flanked by project partners from INPE (left on the image) and CCC (right).

Photo 2: Mr. Ramos of INPE addresses participants at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.