Using citizen science to better understand information quality

PhD student Roman Lukyanenko uses a citizen science website to examine the current models of information management. (Credit: Chris Hammond)Photo Credit: Chris Hammond

Feb. 4, 2014

A website that records sightings of plants and animals is providing data that could improve information management practices around the world.

Roman Lukyanenko, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Business Administration’s PhD in management program, studies data collected from www.nlnature.com, a citizen science website that gathers sightings of flora and fauna by enlisting ordinary citizens as data providers.

Mr. Lukyanenko developed the website in 2009, shortly after completing his bachelor of technology degree at Memorial. He was hired for the project by Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, an associate professor of landscape ecology at Memorial’s Dept. of Biology, who wanted to collect sightings of various lichens and endangered species across the province.

“We started to realize a couple of things. One was that the project held quite a bit of potential and we could increase the scope to other plants and animals. At the same time, I was meeting with local wildlife groups and citizens to understand some of the challenges in doing something like this. And by the challenges, I mean how do you take the knowledge of ordinary people and convert it into a scientifically useful resource?”

Behind the core mandate of www.nlnature.com is a broader mission to examine the current models of information management and its applications in fields as diverse as business, medicine and education.

“The biggest challenge of this project is the transfer of knowledge between a large group of non-experts, such as residents and tourists, and a smaller group of experts, such as biologists. And that’s not a trivial task,” Mr. Lukyanenko says.

His findings to date are contrary to the generally-accepted approaches to ensuring information quality, which is that imposing a standard of data collection increases the quality of the information collected, and that quality is also rooted in expertise.

“Our research is showing that non-experts can provide high quality information as long as they are able to provide that information at a level at which they are comfortable. So far, this is probably our greatest theoretical contribution,” he says.

Mr. Lukyanenko’s findings also have broader implications for information management. In tele-medicine, for example, it could improve the transfer of knowledge between a remotely-located patient, who is not an expert in medicine but understands his or her symptoms and environment, and a doctor, who is a medical expert. In industry, it could impact how oil companies manage assets by improving knowledge transfer between a small number of engineers and a larger number of equipment operators, thereby preventing equipment failures and the resulting losses.

It also has implications for customer relations, human resources, information management and other aspects of business. Mr. Lukyanenko’s research could help companies learn how to properly mine the vast quantities of information available online from customers, for example.

“We feel we are, in particular, spearheading an aspect of this information management for companies, which is how do you get quality out of the volume? What do you do with the vast amounts of data and how do you set up the system to collect the data to integrate it into the decision-making process? This is hugely important for companies.”

Mr. Lukyanenko says this citizen science setting allows for new theories and practices to be tested in an environment where revenue, security and even lives are not at stake.

“We’re using biology and citizen science as a sandbox to test out theories that would otherwise be very difficult to do in traditional corporate settings.”

Susan White-MacPherson