Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in delivering Citizen Science projects: Insights from the WeCount project

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Margarida Sardo and Sophie Laggan

WeCount is a citizen science research project funded by the H2020 SwafS-programme and aims to empower citizens to take a leading role in the production of data, evidence and knowledge around mobility in their own neighbourhoods. The project started in December 2019 and was designed to have lots of face-to-face engagement and interaction between the project team and citizens in five European cities and regions (Leuven in Belgium; Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Dublin in Ireland and Cardiff in the UK).

Just as the project started recruiting citizens and running workshops, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant restrictions on who we could meet and where we could meet them. Eventually, all WeCount countries went into lockdown, which placed additional challenges on delivering the project as it was originally planned.

Dr Margarida Sardo, from the Science Communication Unit conducted a short evaluation aimed at understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in running and delivering a large-scale, international citizen science project.

Main challenges faced by the WeCount team:

  • Uncertainty
  • Changing priorities
  • Reaching specific groups, such as senior citizens and low socio-economic groups
  • Online fatigue
  • Fear of face-to-face
  • Digital skills
  • Logistics

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt created new challenges for some citizen science projects, but with hybrid approaches to participant recruitment and engagement, projects can still thrive. This study provides useful advice for creating the flexibility, adaptability, refocus required to overcome the challenges faced.

Based on the findings of this evaluation, Sophie Laggan has created a full infographic, highlighting both the challenges faced by the WeCount team, but also offering helpful approaches to counterbalance the impacts of the pandemic on delivering the project.

For a closer look at the infographic below or to download a copy, please click here.

Providing space for social communication in a STEM engagement project

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This post was originally published on the Engineering our Future and Curiosity Connections blogs.

Neurodiversity Week (15-21 March 2021) celebrates our unique strengths and differences, while recognising that the many talents of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse ways of thinking and learning are often not suited to traditional, formal learning environments. Science Hunters is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) outreach and research programme that uses Minecraft to engage children from under-represented groups with STEM. Projects have covered a wide range of topics such as the Amazon rainforest, understanding diabetes, earth science and volcanoes and space, with the Building to Break Barriers project currently running at UWE Bristol engaging children with many aspects of engineering.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge range of constructions. It can be played either as a single-player game or in a shared virtual world with multiple users playing together, and was chosen for Science Hunters because of its popularity (children want to play it!), particular appeal to children who learn differently, and suitability for explaining science.

Food inside lunar base.

A key target group for Science Hunters is children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly through a dedicated Minecraft Club that has been running since 2015. It soon became clear that taking part in the club, alongside children with similar needs in an accepting environment, and playing a game which was a shared special interest, had more benefits for participants than STEM learning alone.

When face-to-face sessions are possible, as they were until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minecraft Club uses a dedicated server, so that children can play together in a safe social online space. Most of the children who attend have ADHD, autism and/or dyslexia. Spaces are limited to no more than 16 at a time, with simple guidelines to keep the club fun; children are not under pressure to conform to ‘neurotypical’ behaviour norms as may be expected in non-specific settings. STEM topics are briefly introduced, and then participants are free to build in Minecraft in relation to that topic; while adults are there to guide and support, children are encouraged to follow their own interests and ideas to create their own unique designs. For four years, data were collected from participating children and their parents/carers, who attended with them, through surveys and interviews.

During this time, 101 children aged 5-17 years attended; responses were gathered from 29 children and 37 caregivers. Results indicated that children both enjoyed and learnt something from attending, and while their feedback understandably often focused on Minecraft, they also indicated that they had benefitted socially and emotionally from being in the shared space with other children with similar interests. This was supported by insights from parents and carers, who described benefits outside the club, such as improved confidence and wellbeing, improved social skills, and reduced need for formal learning support.

Interest in playing Minecraft is what motivates children to attend, and the game provides a range of opportunities for children to potentially develop social and educational skills. This is supported by the process of designing and completing builds, independently or collaboratively, and communicating with others within the shared virtual world. Playing in the same physical space enhances this, as communication can move between the virtual and real worlds and allow in-person peer support and the ‘safe space’ provided in our Minecraft Club supports children with SEN to interact naturally and spontaneously. While it was set up as part of STEM outreach, the social communication impacts of our Minecraft Club – such as making friends, fitting in, and feeling valued without judgement regardless of completing tasks or conforming to expected social behaviours – are at least as important.

Minecraft Club is currently running virtually as part of Building to Break Barriers. We’ve looked at earthquake-proof buildings, protecting against flooding, tunnels, drones and more, and are exploring the effects of the change to meeting online.

More information about Minecraft Club, and its impacts reported here, is available in Hobbs et al. (2020) Shared special interest play in a specific extra-curricular group setting: A Minecraft Club for children with Special Educational Needs, Educational and Child Psychology, 37(4), 81-95.

If you have any queries about the project please contact ExtendingSTEM@uwe.ac.uk .

What is an engineer anyway? – Communicating engineering careers to pupils with DETI’s Engineering Curiosity project

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When children are asked what an engineer is, and what they look like, it can often be a tricky question.  They may jump to the image of an engine mechanic, or a man in overalls with a spanner and a hard-hat.  They may also have trouble recognising familiar jobs as coming under the umbrella of engineering. 

Engineering is defined as ‘working artfully to bring something about’. More literally, it is the application of science and maths to solve problems. And it’s a career that is more relevant than ever – to achieve net zero and a low carbon global economy, everything we make and use, from aircraft to cars, batteries to wind turbines, will need to be completely re-imagined and re-engineered.

When a child does not personally know an engineer, or does not recognise the role of engineering in solving the problems faced by a society, then this notion of an engineer becomes more removed from their view, and critically, from their career aspirations.  In science communication, we encounter children with low science capital throughout our work.  So how can the children dream of becoming an engineer, if they don’t know what one is? 

You can’t be what you can’t see

It is difficult for children to imagine themselves in that job, when the engineer does not look like them.  Encouraging girls and children from minority ethnic groups into engineering careers, and STEM careers more broadly, is a key focus of the DETI Inspire team working out of UWE. 

In collaboration with My Future My Choice, as well as many local engineers; the DETI Inspire team at UWE have developed the Engineering Curiosity cards and lesson resources for schools.  The aim is to bring the diversity of the West of England’s amazing engineers into the classroom and enthuse and inspire both primary and secondary pupils.  Through not only learning about what an engineer is and recognising their role, but also introducing them to real-life local engineers that may come from similar beginnings, so that they can start to think of engineering as something that could be for them!

Engineering Curiosity

Engineering Curiosity is a collection of 52 cards, based upon 52 local engineers in a wide variety of different roles and industries, in a kind of ‘Top Trumps’ meets ‘Happy Families’ style game.  The engineers featured have also each produced an engaging TikTok style video, giving a fun snapshot of their role and their route into it.  The project has developed lesson plans, curriculum linked worksheets and activities, and school-wide assemblies to accompany the cards and videos, all to aid schools in running sessions that involve the real engineers joining them live in the classroom through video link. 

During the recent British Science Week, local schools around the West have been taking part in DETI’s ‘Big Beam In!’, bringing the sessions to life and reaching over 3500 pupils.  Some of which may just be the West’s future engineers!

Looking to inspire in your science communication, or want to check out all the engineering roles for yourself?  You can find the resources, lesson plans and cards on the Curiosity Connections website.

DETI Inspire builds on the success of previous projects founded and launched in the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol, including Curiosity Connections – the network for inspirational primary STEM education in the West of England, and Women Like Me – a tiered mentoring project for women engineers. The project is led by Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers and includes Ana Bristow, Sophie Laggan and Josh Warren from the SCU.

Josh Warren

Seeing people in the data

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By Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers

We’re living through a Climate and Ecological Emergency and we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions. And yet society seems frozen into inaction. Could a new modelling and communication approach help to gather momentum?

The ClairCity project was led by UWE Bristol and brought together the Air Quality Monitoring Resource Centre and the Science Communication Unit. The project reached over 818,000 citizens through innovative public engagement methods including an online game, extensive workshops and surveys, and schools activities.

In a journal paper recently released, the research team detailed their innovative method to bring these results together, through citizen-centred source apportionment. Traditional methods for monitoring air pollution and carbon emissions look at what is creating the emissions (vehicles, heating etc), and where the emissions end up (pollution hot spots).

Focus on Who and Why

This new approach focusses on who is burning fossil fuels and why they are doing so. This means we can understand the human dimension of emissions to improve policymaking, accounting for demographics (gender or age groups), socio-economic factors (income/car ownership) and motives for specific behaviours (e.g., commuting to work, leisure, shopping, etc.).

The modelling produced some surprises when applied to traffic in Bristol – as leisure travel accounted for the most km travelled, and therefore the most emissions per year.  Local councils usually focus on school traffic or commuting, but this provides a new way to approach emissions reduction. Policymakers plan to look at ways to reduce car use for leisure travel, for instance locating leisure venues near to public transport or cycling paths, or even considering plans for 15 minute cities, where any necessary city amenities are within a 15 minute walk from homes.

Figure 1. (a) This infographic presents the relative contribution of each motive to total kilometres travelled by car in Bristol in 2015. It was designed to highlight recognisable social practices and activities.
Figure 1. (b) This social card links to the data and was designed to resonate with activities that people do every day that contribute to carbon emissions and air pollution.

For science communicators, there is also much to think through as well. The modelling showed that emissions are not evenly produced; certain types of people produce more emissions than others, and some feel the effects of pollution more than others. For instance, men travel by car more than women, and people who earn over £50,000 per year tend to own more cars, and therefore drive far more often.

Figure 2. Infographic (top) and social card (bottom) showing differences in air pollution produced through men’s and women’s different travel habits.

Perceptions of ‘sensible’ climate action vary between groups

We therefore need a far more nuanced approach to communicating about climate action. Climate Outreach have done some excellent work on this topic, with their work on seven segments of British society and their attitudes to climate action. Science communicators need to focus on the segments polluting the most, and tailor communications showing the benefits of each relevant action they can take.

The UWE team’s new journal paper take this further using social psychology theories, explaining how the social contexts of the groups to which we belong influence what we perceive to be ‘normal’ in society. This means that cultural realities can change between social groups, cities, regions and countries. This ‘Overton Window of Political Possibility’ can shift over time so that an idea moves from unthinkable to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular and finally into policy. For example, a climate change policy which is considered quite sensible in one city, such as an extensive network of segregated bike lanes allowing for cars to be curtailed in the city centre (Amsterdam in the Netherlands), may be considered to be quite radical in another city (such as Bristol, U.K.).

Science communications needs to focus on group lived experience of this ‘normality’, in order to understand more about why our day-to-day behaviours happen, and how we can change if we see others doing the same. Politicians will generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options, or otherwise, they may risk losing popular support and become unelectable. In order to introduce new policies, we therefore need to show how an idea can be communicated so that it resonates with what is deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘sensible’ to the majority of citizens.

People like me create emissions, and people like me can take action

The UWE team showed how social cognitive theory can be used to help improve individual and collective self-efficacy for climate action. Using an example of more women cycling to activities, we need to focus on:

  1. Vicarious experiences (i.e., comparisons of capability to others, modelling and observing)—a woman deciding whether to cycle will be influenced by whether other women cycle; if this is considered a ’normal’ thing for women to do, then other women will likely join in.
  2. Mastery or performance accomplishments (i.e., experiences of relevant success)—a beginner female cyclist will be more likely to continue cycling if they have a positive experience cycling on main roads; they will then have a memory to recall about their ability to cycle alongside cars.
  3. Verbal persuasions (positive feedback from peers and supervisors, coaching)—to continue cycling, the female cyclist would need to receive direct positive feedback on this activity.
  4. Emotional arousal – both vicarious (indirect) and mastery (direct) experiences can influence our emotional states. To improve self-efficacy for an activity, we need to experience positive emotional responses. Therefore, the woman would need to feel that she is capable and confident at cycling and that other people approve or admire her behaviour.

So climate action needs positive (and relevant) role models, alongside positive press or communications (in relevant media) in order to help change our behaviours.

The ClairCity project showed how new thinking about the role of people in relation to air pollution and carbon emissions can widen options for action, leading to more acceptable and effective policies. Climate communications should draw on social learning in order to tailor communication efforts towards relevant groups. Ultimately, we need to become more aware that ’people like me’ create emissions and, equally, ‘people like me’ can take action to reduce emissions.


Fogg-Rogers, L.; Hayes, E.; Vanherle, K.; Pápics, P.I..; Chatterton, T.; Barnes, J.; Slingerland, S.; Boushel, C.; Laggan, S.; Longhurst, J.. Applying Social Learning to Climate Communications—Visualising ‘People Like Me’ in Air Pollution and Climate Change Data. Sustainability 2021, 13(6) 3406 doi.org/10.3390/su13063406

Mutual Shaping in Swarm Robotics: User Studies in Fire and Rescue, Storage Organization, and Bridge Inspection

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Fire engine at the Bristol Robotics Lab after a focus group session with local firefighters

I remember this story as if it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2013. I was laying on my bed, listening to music. All of the sudden, I heard someone screaming louder than my music, and banging on the door of my flat. I quickly took off my headphones, dashed to the door, opened it, and found my neighbour shaking, with her face as pale as chalk. Without any word, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her flat. Then, I went into panic. Smoke was coming out of the door! As we entered the flat running, my neighbour quickly managed to explain that the heater above the wooden bathroom door had caught fire while she was giving a bath to the old lady she was caring for. The old lady needed rescuing. Luckily, we both could take the old lady out of the bathroom before the fire developed more. A fire brigade came in a matter of minutes. The bathroom was destroyed, but no-one was injured.

After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something useful for firefighters because I had experienced how extremely dangerous it is for them to enter a building covered in smoke to put out a fire. Did I become a firefighter? Not quite. I decided to do a PhD in swarm robotics at the Bristol Robotics Lab to design useful technology for fire brigades. Swarm robotics is the study of hundreds and thousands of robots that collaborate with each other to solve tasks without any leader, just like swarms of ants, bees, fish or even cells in our bodies. Imagine if firefighters could release a swarm of robots at the entrance of a building on fire to create a map of the hazards, source of fire and casualties, so that firefighters don’t waste time searching (which is one of the most dangerous parts of their profession). Swarm robotics could also be applied in other settings. How about if warehouses had a swarm of robots automatically organising the stock so that employees only have to ask the swarm for the products they want? Or what if a swarm of robots could spread all over a bridge to monitor cracks? In my opinion, robot swarms are almost ready to leave the lab and enter the real world. We just need to know the type of robot swarms that potential users need. So, along with co-authors Emma Milner, Julian Hird, Georgios Tzoumas, Paul Vardanega, Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Manuel Giuliani, Alan Winfield and Sabine Hauert, we did three studies where we spoke with 37 professionals from fire brigades, storage organisation and bridge inspection. The results have recently been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI (you can read the paper here).





Mutual shaping: a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developer

For the three studies, we followed the framework of mutual shaping. The long-term aim is to create a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developers so that we can incorporate societal choices at all stages of the research and development process, as opposed to more traditional methods where users are asked what they care about once the technology has already been designed. In our studies, we first had a discussion with participants to find out about their job, their challenges and their needs, without any introduction to swarm robotics. After listening to their explanation of the art of their profession, we introduced them to swarm robotics, and gave them examples where robot swarms could be useful for them. Finally, we had another discussion around how useful those examples were for them, and challenged them to think about any other scenarios where robot swarms could assist them.

We found very helpful take-home messages. The first one was that participants were open to the idea of using robot swarms in their jobs. That was somewhat surprising, as we were expecting them to focus more on the downsides of the technology, given how robot swarms are frequently portrayed in science fiction. The second point had to do with the particular tasks that participants felt robot swarms could/couldn’t do. This was an extraordinary insight because we identified their priorities, hence the next steps to advance in the swarm robotics research. For example, firefighters said they would highly benefit from robot swarms that could gather information for them very quickly. On the contrary, they wouldn’t like robot swarms extinguishing fires because of the tremendous amount of variables involved in fire extinguishing. That’s exactly the art of their profession – they know how to extinguish fires. In the study with the sector of storage organisation, a participant from a charity shop said that they wouldn’t like robots valuing the items they receive, but robot swarms could be useful for organising the stock more efficiently. Bridge inspectors would rather assess whether there’s damage by themselves, given the information about the bridge that a robot swarm sends them. Finally, most participants brought up concerns to tackle if we want to successfully deploy swarms in the real world. These mainly had to do with transparency, accountability, safety, reliability and usability. Some of the challenges for swarm robotics that were collectively identified in the studies are the following:

  • How can we really understand what’s happening within a robot swarm?
  • How can we make safe robot swarms for users?
  • How can we manufacture robot swarms to be used out of the box without expert training or difficult maintenance?


Bar chart of answers to one of the questions asked to fire brigades

Personally, what struck me the most in my study was that almost three quarters of the participants from fire brigades expressed that they would like to be included in the research and development process from the very beginning. So, engaging with them through mutual shaping was a good choice because it opened up the relationship that they apparently want to have. And that’s really inspiring! I hope our research opens up exciting paths to explore in the future. Paths that will take swarm robotics a step closer to making robot swarms useful for society.

Daniel Carrillo-Zapata, PhD in swarm robotics and self-organisation, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Evaluating Europe’s largest project on citizen-inclusive decision making for clean air and carbon management

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With just ten years left to change our carbon intensive lifestyles to mitigate climate chaos, urgent decisions need to be made about how we can reach net zero and clean air. Meanwhile, the Covid19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement show that citizen involvement in science communication has never been more critical to ensure a socially just transition. 

At this critical moment, the ClairCity project has reached its final dissemination stage; Europe’s largest ever research project on citizen-led decision making for clean air and carbon reductions. Six cities and regions came together to share engagement methods to involve citizens in policymaking, namely, Amsterdam in The Netherlands, the Aveiro Region of Portugal, Bristol in the UK, the Liguria region of Italy, Ljubljana in Slovenia and Sosnowiec in Poland.

As a result of the project team’s efforts, 818,736 citizens were involved in some form or another. Of these, 8,302 were directly engaged through workshops, events, schools’ activities, mobile games and apps, and even videos, a number which far exceeded the expectations of the team.

Why was this significant? Because these 8,302 citizens all influenced clean air and climate change decisions in their local context.

Over four years, the project partners and Council officers made many collaborations with local community organisations and together with a strong social media presence, the project’s on- and offline presence grew. Through a variety of engagement tools, citizens were able to have their say on what mattered to them regarding transport and home heating and what they would like to see change to enable them to make greener choices. There were also candid discussions on the potential barriers to such changes to not only make these concerns known to decision makers, but to have a deeper understanding of the challenges and trade-offs that need to be made when taking policy decisions.

Equipped with this information, ClairCity was then able to consult policy makers about the policies proposed by citizens and discuss how to operationalise them. As a final step, the top citizen policies were modelled against current policy plans for each case study to assess whether citizens’ demands could affect future emissions and associated health impacts. In nearly every context, citizens were more ambitious than ‘business as usual’, with the exception of Amsterdam where the local government was in fact more ambitious than its citizens.

An evaluation of epic proportion

ClairCity was a fascinating project to evaluate for our SCU team including Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Dr Margarida Sardo, Dr Corra Boushel, Sophie Laggan, and David Judge. We have produced a full evaluation report with all of the findings, which you’re welcome to read if you have the time, and a shorter one if you have less time. For those visual learners, there is also a visual evaluation report and our webinar recording. Finally, to satisfy blog readers, we have you covered too! Read on to hear our reflections and key findings.

The aim of the evaluation was to see whether the project had fulfilled its aim of ‘raising awareness of environmental challenges and their solutions through proactive dissemination of the project outcomes’. To do this, we explored the demographics of participants and those less directly involved, examined indicators of awareness, attitudes, knowledge and enjoyment (so called Generic Learning Outcomes) and citizen’s intended behavioural changes. Additionally, we explored differences across countries, demographics and engagement tools, to understand perceptions in different contexts. ­Data collection was carried out through paper/online questionnaires, including pop-up windows in the game and app, as well as in-depth interviews with staff and social media analysis.

All tools exceeded their targets for audience reach, apart from the App which remained at BETA testing due to technical issues. The Delphi workshops were particularly impressive, with 4887 participants compared with 200 expected, and the ClairCity Skylines game, with 2,800 players worldwide compared with 1500 players expected. Both successes can be largely attributed to the on-the-ground outreach and marketing activities of our case study partners, who made connections with community organisations, produced flyers, spoke on the radio, attended events, and generally made lots of noise to attract people. The cities that spent less time and resources on this groundwork had fewer participants as a result.

Social prowess

Our social media platforms gained a lot of traction over the years, although they were again limited by time and resources available. Our Communication Coordinator in Bristol was able to orchestrate our main sites, resulting in (at the time of writing) 1,392 Twitter followers and 416 Facebook followers, and 36,482 website visitors. Sites managed by our partners – who weren’t dedicated science communicators – had considerably less traffic.

Demographics

Data was collected for age, gender and educational attainment. Given the fact that ClairCity had targeted schools’ engagements, with several team members having direct connections to local schools, in addition to a mobile game, over 40% of participants were aged between 13-24. Working adults occupied around 50% of participants, and over 55+ represented less than 10%. This is quite an impressive finding considering most engagement projects fail to capture the full spectrum of ages. 

63% of participants in the study identified as male. The biggest gender differential came from the game, with more than twice as many male players than female, which skewed the gender balance. Alongside this, many stakeholder workshop participants were senior men in regional organisations, which again skewed the gender balance.

Participants were asked about their education level in our workshops. 81% of respondents held a Bachelor’s degree or above. On the other hand, in the game, 79% ranked their level of knowledge on air quality as being low/none. In other words meaning, the game appealed to people with less expertise.

Learning outcomes

Both policy makers and teachers were asked about the usefulness of the tool relevant to them. An overwhelming percentage of policy makers found the policy workshop useful/very useful (95%), compared with a more modest percentage of teachers finding for the schools’ competition (61%). The schools’ activities have since been expanded following this feedback, and our Educator Pack (part one and two) is freely available online, and has been featured in the British Science Association Science Week pack, and through Sustainable Learning.

The majority of participants enjoyed or loved the activities in which they were involved.  Both the Delphi and Stakeholder workshops greatly improved participants’ understanding of air quality (88% and 82% more understanding, respectively). 39% of game players left with more understanding, however for 45% their understanding stayed the same. The app mainly left people with the same understanding (47%), or feeling confused (18%).

Perhaps one of the biggest findings was in regards to behaviour change. At least half of all participants in the Delphi workshops, game, schools’ activities and stakeholder intended to change their behaviours as a result of their involvement (58%, 80%, 67% and 79%, respectively).

Upon cross-comparison, it was found that the more participants enjoyed the activity, the more they reported that their understanding of air quality had improved. Similarly, the more participants reported that their understanding had improved, the more they reported that they would change their behaviour. Younger people and those with lower education to start with were more likely to say they would change their behaviour. All of these relationships were highly statistically significant.

Ultimately, the more enjoyable the engagement activities, the more people gain understanding about the issues, and the more likely people are to make a change to their behaviour to reduce air pollution and carbon emissi0ns, and improve the health of our cities.

Reflections on the evaluation process

  • In future we would recommend other projects take additional time to target women’s groups, or develop ‘tools’ that appeal to women
  • While efforts were made to reach representivity through undertaking the Delphi process in low socio-economic status neighbourhoods, in hindsight we would have worked harder to amplify under represented voices. Recent Black Lives Matter protests have been a stark reminder of the need to make our work inclusive..
  • Working on an international project presented issues with translating the website and evaluation forms. More dedicated evaluation time, or expert science communicators in each country, would have helped researchers who were less experienced in social science research methods.   
  • We benefitted from having evaluation embedded from the beginning (rather than an add-on), and as such designed our evaluation methods to work in different contexts and cultures

Most ClairCity staff found engaging with citizens challenging (due to not having experience in this) but highly rewarding. By the end of the project the vast majority stated they have enjoyed engaging with citizens. This was a rich experience in terms of new skills, with our staff reporting to have learned how to pitch their ideas, how to talk to citizens and how important is to listen to people as well.

If you are interested in our experiences, or in benefitting from our reports, please check out our website for a variety of resources and tools to aid future citizen-led decision making on climate change and air pollution.

Sophie Laggan, Communications Officer, ClairCity

COVID-19 opportunities to shift artificial intelligence towards serving the common good

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Contact tracing apps are just one measure governments have been using in their attempts to contain the current coronavirus outbreak. Such apps have also raised concerns about privacy and data security. COVID-19 – and the current calls for AI-led healthcare solutions – highlight the pressing need to consider wider ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence (AI). This blog discusses some of the ethical issues raised in a recent report and brief on moral issues and dilemmas linked to AI, written by the Science Communication Unit for the European Parliament . 

AI means, broadly, machines that mimic human cognitive functions, such as learning, problem-solving, speech recognition and visual perception. One of the key benefits touted for AI is to reduce healthcare inefficiencies; indeed, AI is already widespread in healthcare settings in developed economies, and its use is set to increase. 

There are clear benefits for strained healthcare systems. In some fundamental areas of medicine, such as medical image diagnostics, machine learning has been shown to match or even surpass human ability to detect illnesses. New technologies, such as health monitoring devices, may free up medical staff time for more direct interactions with patients, and so potentially increase the overall quality of care. Intelligent robots may also work as companions or carers, remind you to take your medications, help you with your mobility or cleaning tasks, or help you stay in contact with your family, friends and healthcare providers via video link.

AI technologies have been an important tool in tracking and tracing contacts during the COVID-19 outbreak in countries such as South Korea. There are clear benefits to such life-saving AI, but widespread use of a contact-tracing app also raises ethical questions. South Korea has tried to flatten its curve using intense scraping of personal data, and other countries have been using digital surveillance and AI-supported drones to monitor the population in attempts to stem the spread. The curtailing of individual privacy may be a price we have to pay, but it is a tricky ethical balance to strike – for example, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has expressed its concern about excessive disclosure of private information of COVID-19 patients.  

The case of the missing AI laws

As adoption of AI continues to grow apace – in healthcare, as well as in other sectors such as transportation, energy, defence, services, entertainment, finance, cybersecurity –legislation has lagged behind. There remains a significant time lag between the pace of AI development and the pace of AI lawmaking. The World Economic Forum calls for much-needed ‘governance architectures’ to build public trust in AI to ensure that the technology can be used for health crises such as COVID in future.There exist several laws and regulations dealing with aspects relevant to AI (such as the EU’s GDPR on data, or several country laws on autonomous vehicles) but no countries yet have specific laws on ethical and responsible AI. Several countries are discussing restrictions on the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).[1] However, governments in general have been reluctant to create restrictive laws.

A new report commissioned by the European Parliament will feed into the work of their Scientific Foresight Unit, STOA. The report, written by the Science Communication Unit, was led by Professor of Robot Ethics, Alan Winfield.

Broad ethical questions

Reviewing the scientific literature and existing frameworks around the world, we found there are diverse, complex ethical concerns arising from the development of artificial intelligence.

 In relation to healthcare, for diseases like COVID-19, where disease is spread via social contact, care robots  could provide necessary, protective, socially distanced support for vulnerable people. However, if this technology becomes more pervasive, it could be used in more routine settings as well. Questions then arise over whether a care robot or a companion robot can really substitute for human interaction – particularly pertinent in the long-term caring of vulnerable and often lonely people, who derive basic companionship from caregivers.

As with many areas of AI technology, the privacy and dignity of users’ needs to be carefully considered when designing healthcare service and companion robots. Robots do not have the capacity for ethical reflection or a moral basis for decision-making, and so humans must hold ultimate control over any decision-making in healthcare and other contexts.

Other applications raise further concerns, ranging from large-scale and well-known issues such job losses from automation, to more personal, moral quandaries such as how AI will affect our sense of trust, our ability to judge what is real, and our personal relationships.

Perhaps unexpectedly, we also found that AI has a significant energy cost and furthers social inequalities – and that, crucially, these aspects are not being covered by existing frameworks.

Our Policy Options Brief highlights four key gaps in current frameworks, which don’t currently cover:

  • ensuring benefits from AI are shared fairly;
  • ensuring workers are not exploited;
  • reducing energy demands in the context of environmental and climate change;
  • and reducing the risk of AI-assisted financial crime.

It is also clear that, while AI has global applications and potential benefits, there are enormous disparities in access and benefits between global regions. It is incumbent upon today’s policy- and law-makers to ensure that AI does not widen global inequalities further. Progressive steps could include data-sharing and collaborative approaches (such as India’s promise to share its AI solutions with other developing economies), and efforts to make teaching around computational approaches a fundamental part of education, available to all.

Is AI developed for the common good?

Calls have been issued for contributions from AI experts and contributors worldwide to help find further solutions to the COVID-19 crisis – for example, the AI-ROBOTICS vs COVID-19 initiative of the European AI Alliance is compiling a ‘solutions repository’. At the time of writing, there were 248 organisations and individuals offering COVID-related solutions via AI development. These include a deep-learning hand-washing coach AI, which gives you immediate feedback on how to handwash better. 

Other solutions include gathering and screening knowledge; software enabling a robot to disinfect areas, or to screen people’s body temperature; robots that deliver objects to people in quarantine; automated detection of early breathing difficulties; and FAQ chatbots or even psychological support chatbots.

Government calls for AI-supported COVID-19 solutions are producing an interesting ethical interface between sectors that have previously kept each other at arm’s length. In the hyper-competitive world of AI companies, co-operation (or even information sharing) towards a common goal is unchartered territory. These developments crystallise one of the ethical questions at the core of AI debates – should AI be developed and used for private or public ends? In this time of COVID-19, increased attention by governments (and the increased media attention on some of the privacy-related costs of AI) provide an opportunity to open up and move forward this debate. Moreover, the IEEE urges that the sense of ‘emerging solidarity’ and ‘common global destiny’ accompanying the COVID-19 crisis are perfect levers to make the sustainability and wellbeing changes required.

One barrier to debate is in the difficulty of understanding some of the most advanced AI technologies, which is why good science communication is crucial. It is vitally important that the public are able to formulate and voice informed opinions on potentially society-changing developments. Governments need better information too – and up-to-date, independent and evidence-based forms of technology assessment. Organisations such as the Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team in the US Government Accountability Office or the European Foresight platform are examples that are trying to enable governments and lawmakers to understand such technologies deeply while they can still be shaped.

In order to enjoy the benefits of AI, good governance frameworks are urgently needed to balance the ethical considerations and manage the risks. It is yet to be seen if the COVID-19-prompted developments in AI will herald a new era of public-private cooperation for the common good, but if there was ever a time to amplify this conversation, it is now.

Ruth Larbey, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol.


[1] Belgium has already passed legislation to prevent the use or development of LAWS. 


WeCount: a new European citizen science project aimed at improving local mobility

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Air quality and traffic congestion are among the main causes of poor urban living and have sparked rising concerns about the negative impact that transport has on people’s health and wellbeing in urban areas. According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution caused 400,000 premature European deaths in 2016.  As several European cities in Europe embark on bold action to improve local transport and promote the use of alternative and clean modes of transport, citizens are now mobilising to have their voice heard and to actively participate in local transport policy development.

WeCount (Citizens Observing UrbaN Transport), a new Horizon 2020 funded project, aims to empower citizens in five European cities to take a leading role in the production of the data, evidence and knowledge that is generated around mobility in their own communities.  Five cities: Madrid, Ljubljana, Dublin, Cardiff and Leuven are coming together to mobilise 1,500 citizens throughout the coming year (2020) by following participatory citizen science methods to co-create road traffic counting sensors based on the popular Telraam experience in Flanders.

The WeCount project brings together UWE Bristol staff from the Science Communication Unit (Dr Margarida Sardo and Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers)  and the Air Quality Management Resource Centre (Prof Enda Hayes and Dr Ben Williams).

A number of low-cost, automated, road traffic counting sensors (Telraams) will be mounted on each participating household’s window facing a road, which will allow authorities to determine the number and speeds of cars, large vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. Furthermore, it will generate scientific knowledge in the field of mobility and environmental pollution and encourage the development of co-designed, informed solutions to tackle a variety of road transport challenges.

WeCount intends to establish a multi-stakeholder engagement mechanism to gather data in these five pilot cities. Data will then be used to formulate informed solutions to tackle a variety of road transport challenges, thus improving quality of life at the neighborhood level. WeCount aims to break down technological and societal silos, by putting citizens at the heart of the innovation process. The project is the perfect vehicle to not only generate data but also promote and support citizen advocacy to work towards cleaner and healthier cities.

UWE is one of seven knowledge partners involved in the WeCount project, a list which includes SMEs, academic institutions and non-profit organisations. UWE is participating alongside Transport & Mobility Leuven, Ideas for Change, University College Dublin, University of Ljubljana, Polis and Mobiel 21.

WeCount operates under the Research and Innovation Actions funding scheme, as facilitated by Horizon 2020 and the ‘Science with and for Society’ programme. WeCount will run until November 2021 and has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No 872743.

Details of the project were also featured in a recent UWE Bristol press release.

How do the residents of former metal mining areas value this heritage?

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By Danni Sinnett (Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments) and Margarida Sardo (Science Communication Unit).

There are around 5,000 former metal mines in England and Wales, and many hundreds of thousands globally. Many of these mines have a legacy of highly polluted wastes, which can pose a risk to water quality and human health. As metal supplies diminish and new sources of metals are needed, especially for use in smart technologies, the potential to extract metals from these mine wastes is being examined. However, they often support important habitats and species assemblages, or are important for their historical significance. For example, around 20% of former metal mines are associated with Sites of Special Scientific Interest, around 14% are protected by European designations including in the lead mining areas in the Pennines and North Wales, and the tin-copper mines of Cornwall. Around 15% of former metal mines in England are in a World Heritage Site including the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (Sinnett, 2018).

Wheal Maid mine Cornwall

Much of the research and policy concerned with the management of abandoned mine wastes is focussed on environmental protection, landscape quality and the need to balance this with the conservation of nature and, to a lesser extent, heritage. In recent years there have also be a number of studies examining the motivation and preferences of those visiting restored mineral extraction sites.

However, there has been very little research on how local residents value their mining heritage and their preferences for its long-term management. This is important as it is ultimately local people who are affected by both the positive and negative impacts of this legacy, as well as any changes to the status quo. It is also essential to ensure that local people are supportive of any plans for the management of the sites. Understanding their preferences and concerns can inform this process.

We undertook some research with residents of former mining areas to address this gap in our understanding. Specifically, we explored the following questions: how do those living in former metal mining landscapes value them in terms of aesthetic appearance, role in preserving cultural heritage, nature conservation and tourism? What are the preferred options for managing abandoned metal mines?

We used the Q Method to examine the preferences of those living in six areas of metal mining in England and Wales. Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject. We selected a set of statements from the academic literature, policy and articles in local press. They covered a range of opinions and options on the mining legacy and its management.

Our analysis revealed five perspectives:

  • Preservationists want to maintain the status quo, and recognise the value of the mining landscape for its industrial heritage and nature conservation. They want former mine sites to be left alone, and protected, primarily for their heritage value.
  • Environmentalists are more motivated by water quality and pollution mitigation. They feel that that mine wastes would benefit from vegetation establishment and recognise their contribution to nature conservation. They value the role of experts.
  • Industry supporters prioritise the local economy and are the most supportive of mineral extraction in general and the reworking of mine wastes, feeling that it would create jobs and bring in new people.
  • Nature enthusiasts prioritise vegetation establishment on mine sites. They recognise the contribution mine sites make, or could make, to nature conservation. They want to see the sites restored, feeling they should not be left as they are.
  • Landscape lovers are focussed on improving the aesthetic appearance of the mine wastes. They are most concerned with the impact of mines on the landscape, but are open to the idea of reworking the mines to aid the local economy.

There were also several areas of agreement:

  • All residents prioritised water quality to some degree, with environmentalists and landscape lovers in particular feeling very strongly that this should take precedence over heritage features and nature conservation.
  • They also felt that the preference of the people living locally should take be a priority in deciding the future of the post-mining landscape, with most disagreeing that the future management of mine waste should be expert-led.

In summary, we found that most residents view their mining heritage positively for the cultural and ecological benefits that it provides, but they are concerned about the adverse impact on water quality and the lack of vegetation on many sites. There may be some support for metal recovery from abandoned mines if it is combined with high quality restoration that mitigates water pollution and revegetates the sites, whilst preserving their cultural heritage. Residents must be part of the process – too many feel that landscape decisions are taken out of the hands of local communities and do not benefit them.

This work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council through INSPIRE: IN Situ Processes In Resource Extraction from waste repositories; Grant number: NE/L013908/1.

You can read the papers from this research here:

Sinnett, D. (2019) Going to waste? The potential impacts on nature conservation and cultural heritage from resource recovery on former mineral extraction sites in England and Wales. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 62(7), 1227-1248. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/852458.

Sinnett, D. E., & Sardo, A. M. (2020) Former metal mining landscapes in England and Wales: Five perspectives from local residents. Landscape and Urban Planning, 193. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/3851958.