GROUP workshop: Crowds on the trail

A work session at the ACM GROUP Technology on the Trail Workshop featured the theme “Crowds on the Trail”, led by Tim Stelter.  Tim explored how citizen science efforts can be used to inspire modest and appropriate tech uses on trails and in other outdoor settings that will be minimally intrusive to those doing the work but helpful to scientists who need to collect information.

Tim started by presenting two similar examples of signage meant to inspire photo taking which have prompted very different reactions.  The “change bracket” signs encourage people to take timestamped pictures of an area of ecological interest, while the “photo frame” signs sought to provide a fun addition to a favorite viewing spot.

Both photos are shown below, with links to the articles that featured them.

One of the “Change Bracket” signs designed and deployed by the Nerds for Nature group to track recovery from wildfires and other habitat changes.  The sign and accompanying bracket encourages hikers in an area to take a picture, positioned on a post-mounted bracket, that captures an area recovering from wildfires.  Hikers post the pictures to social media, and scientists use timestamped images to track recovery over time.  Image from Dan Rademacher.
A frame was added to an overlook at the Garden of the Gods to encourage picture-taking for personal enjoyment.  Some people enjoyed the frame, but protests over the lack of input to the addition to the park and the changes caused by the sign to the view of nature resulted in its removal.  Image from KKTV, reproduced per their terms of service.

Differences in the preparation and instantiation of these signs contributed to their very different reception by visitors.  The “change bracket” group was well-integrated within the park and community, seeking guidance at every stage of integration.  Their sign clearly reflected a purpose rooted in common good, and contributions from participants are visible on social media.  The “blue frame” group did not seem to take public opinion into account, and their sign changed the nature of an established overlook.  The sign was intended for fun, with minimal societally-useful purpose.

Tim couched the discussion within the principles of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), which describes a spectrum of public participation that increases decision impact.  Spectrum levels include: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower.  A breakdown at any level can result in a corresponding breakdown in trust and participation.  Tim led a discussion that looked at citizen science examples through the lens of this spectrum, noting that efforts like the “blue frame” group failed in the inform and involve levels.  The discussion led to a prototype ideation activity in which breakout groups designed a citizen science project and prototype that supports the levels.  Group ideas included a solar charging station that asked hikers to do a task while they were charging their devices, a flow control plan designed to discourage hiker bubbles that overcrowd shelters, and a Yelp for hikers device for identifying (and, thus, tracking) animals.

The framework proved useful, leading to discussion about its relationship to motivation of use, and of other factors that contribute to motivation.  When I discuss the change bracket project with groups, I ask for a show of hands indicating who would be willing to take part in this daily when on a hike, and generally almost every hand goes up.  I then ask who would do it hourly, and there are far fewer hands.  Motivation will have its limits, and the “asks” can’t grow too large.  Tim continues to explore these issues…input welcome!

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