Why is it relevant?

Ethics touch upon a range of topics, including mutual respect; gender, equality and inclusion; democratic participation; active learning; collective action; personal integrity; privacy; and data security. Ethics are essential to all areas of science, and as such should be incorporated into every aspect of a Citizen Observatory.

How can this be done?

Ethical practice dictates that Citizen Observatories should strive to use information that is up to date and well-grounded in relation to strategic policy and to technological, social and cultural developments, while also taking into account the needs and desires of the wide range of stakeholders that are involved. Naturally, this will require engaging with these stakeholders and potentially including them in the development of relevant ethical frameworks. The potential social and environmental impacts of Citizen Observatories should also be considered as part of the ethics of your Citizen Observatory.

Particular attention needs to be paid to the principle of proportionality, the right to privacy, the right to the protection of personal data, the right to physical and mental integrity, the right to non-discrimination and the need to ensure high levels of human health protection.

To simplify ethics is to underestimate its potential complexity when applied, especially in Citizen Observatories. Nevertheless, ethics can be presented on the basis that

  1. the research should do no harm, either physical or non-physical, and
  2. participation in research should be voluntary.

By adopting ethical approaches across the board, the potential for poor practice is reduced. Ethics relate to ‘responsibility’ for all stakeholders within the research and innovation community. They are part of a broad paradigm and framework for Citizen Observatories that also form an important part of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

The Ethics Canvas helps you structure ideas about the ethical implications of any project (so also your Citizen Observatory), allowing you to visualise them on the canvas and to resolve them. It was developed by the ADAPT Centre for Digital Content Technology and is itself based on the original Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder.

Image: EthicsCanvas

Among the range of issues to be addressed in order for Citizen Observatories to comply with ethical requirements, data security and data privacy are key. The General Data Protection Regulation is a European Union (EU) law on data privacy and security. This law came into force in May 2018 and imposes obligations on organizations anywhere that target or collect data related to people in the EU. As a general principle, you should limit the use of personal information to the minimum and define why you need it. The categories of personal data that are often collected and stored by Citizen Observatories are participant first name and surname; participant email address; participant organisation.

Lessons learned from the GROW project

The GROW Observatory conducted an exercise to foster long-term engagement for soil monitoring with people by understanding and reflecting on three key questions: 1) What is harm? 2) What is risk? 3) What is the benefit?

 What is ‘harm’?

We need to consider the probability of harm occurring, understand its severity, and explain any risks.  Harm can include subjective evaluations like distress, embarrassment and anxiety, which can be difficult to either predict or to control for. Other typical harms include inconvenience, time lost, intrusion, and boredom or discomfort. These may not seem like serious issues, but they may be serious to the person concerned. People can feel mistreated by participating if, for example, they feel that they have not been treated well, have been deceived, or that their values have been disregarded. GROW explained harms and how probable and severe these might be, and listened to people’s views.

 How is ‘risk’ defined?

Risk is vague and covers harm, but for GROW it was important and useful to consider practical

matters such as incurred costs and inconvenience. In contrast, ‘reward’ implies that there will be a definite ‘good’ for the participant, wider community, society and even the environment. Assessing the ‘risk-reward’ balance involves evaluating the relative significance of these two areas. It can be useful to think of this as an assessment between risks and ‘anticipated’ benefits or rewards; this is a more tentative approach and possibly more honest. The danger is that we may justify any research by claiming huge hoped-for rewards at an individual or project level. GROW was clear about the risk and reward to the individual participant, e.g. community champions and, where appropriate, used a looser equation of risk to the participant and hoped-for benefits to society and the environment. 

How is ‘benefit’ defined?

The GROW consortium was clear about the difference that having a vision and specifying the benefits to individual and personal objectives can mean for an organisation (e.g. reputation and publications), participants (citizen scientists and community champions) and the wider community. It was important to be realistic about what GROW could achieve. GROW intended to improve knowledge about soil and growing, and to demonstrate new innovative services for society. GROW needed to disseminate this in ways that participants could also access and understand. GROW was careful not to raise people’s expectations unfairly, and to be honest and realistic about what would happen as a result of their involvement in the research.

Among the range of issues to be addressed in order for Citizen Observatories to comply with ethical requirements, data security and data privacy are key. The General Data Protection Regulation is a European Union (EU) law on data privacy and security. This law came into force in May 2018 and imposes obligations on organisations anywhere that target or collect data related to people in the EU. As a general principle, you should limit the use of personal information to a minimum and define why you need it. The categories of personal data that are often collected and stored by Citizen Observatories are participant’s first name and surname, participant’s email address and participant’s organisation.

Implementing data protection in the LandSense project

TThe LandSense Citizen Observatory links many different applications together, which have been developed by different partners. To ensure compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU, all applications that use any type of personal data must have an associated Privacy Statement. This statement clearly indicates the data that are collected (including any personal data) and the purpose for which the data will be used, providing users with complete transparency. Users also always have opt-in consent, which means they must give their agreement to any application regarding their personal information, and they can request that their personal information be deleted at any time. In general, applications in LandSense have adopted a minimisation principle, i.e., only requesting personal information if it is necessary. Finally, any personal data are always securely stored in an encrypted database. More information can be found on theLandSense Engagement Platform.

LandSense and users' privacy

Ethics are also relevant to the way in which participants are selected to join your Citizen Observatory. They are relevant to gender, equality and inclusion to ensure equitable and appropriate participation. The GROW project elaborated the following ethical questions, which can help you evaluate recruitment strategies that aim to ensure best practice:

  • Equitable selection of participants: Does the recruitment strategy help to ensure that selection of participants is equitable and appropriate? 
  • Respect for privacy: Does the recruitment strategy respect an individual’s reasonable expectations for privacy? Will participants recruited from an existing database have given their permission beforehand for this use of their information? 
  • Lack of pressure: Is the activity introduced in a way that allows subjects time to consider, with no undue pressure caused by the timing of the request, and no offering of excessive benefits or rewards? 
  • Unbiased presentation: Is all information accurate, balanced and free of misleading emphases? Is the information as complete as is appropriate? 
  • Conflicting concerns: Individuals in a community may feel under pressure from a community champion, colleagues may feel obliged to participate in a study if it is in geographic proximity to them, and students may feel obliged to join if a researcher is also their professor.

Useful Resources

TOOL: The Data Ethics Canvas is based on the Ethics Canvas (see above) and was developed by the Open Data Institute to help identify and manage ethical issues at the start of a project that uses data, and throughout.

TOOLS: The Citizen Science Association (CSA) Working Group on Ethics has developed a range of materials, ranging from codes of ethics to consent forms and webinars.

WEBSITE: GDPR.eu is an online resource to help you achieve compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union.

PROJECT REPORT: The LandSense Citizen Observatory user guidelines and training material provides useful information on the GDPR and how it was handled in this Citizen Observatory. Observatory.

TOOL: Under the umbrella of the European Citizen Science Association, an international community of citizen science practitioners and researchers produced Ten Principles available in >25 languages to foster excellence in all aspects of citizen science which can be equally applied to Citizen Observatories.

TOOLKIT: The RRI Toolkit on Ethics provides resources, tools and training materials to help promote research integrity and to integrate ethics into various phases of the research and innovation process.

VIDEO: This CSA webinar, featuring scientific experts and citizen science experts, explores the challenges of meeting data collection needs while protecting participant privacy.

VIDEO: This presentation provides a useful introduction to copyright and data protection in citizen science.

PROJECT REPORT: This COST Action workshop report (2020) describes work towards a citizens’ information packet on legal and ethical issues around ICTs and highlights remaining data privacy and ethical/legal issues.

You may also be interested in:

This work by parties of the WeObserve consortium is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.