Crowds and Clouds Workshop, Chicago

The Crowds and Clouds workshop, held at the University of Chicago on 4–5 April 2014, brought historical and contemporary perspectives to bear on two outstanding issues in contemporary science: the involvement of large populations of lay citizens in active research, and the advent of massive archiving and data-mining facilities. It asked how have crowds and clouds been managed historically, and what implications such historical understanding might have for contemporary approaches to the same challenges? One of the principal issues that emerged from the workshop was the importance of terminology, and how this helps to reveal the many tensions implicit in the citizen science model of knowledge production. There was much discussion of how, at different times and in different national contexts, labels such as ‘citizen’ or ‘lay’ could have very different and often problematic meanings; the former, for instance, having distinct political connotations going back to the French Revolution, and the latter having manifest connections to Church hierarchy (lay preachers etc.). A range of alternative terms were also discussed, including volunteer researchers, explorers, quarriers and even prospectors. The difficulty in deciding on any of these alternatives showed how difficult it is to infer the precise motives why people from outside the established science community contribute to the making of scientific knowledge. Participating in this very stimulating and productive workshop nevertheless made me feel that ‘prospector’ is also a good description for those of us, primed with our scholarly pickaxes, in the rich new field of studying citizen science from both historical and contemporary perspectives.

The team from the AHRC-funded ‘Constructing Scientific Communities (CSC)’ project (Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Professor Gowan Dawson and Dr Chris Lintott) gave presentations as part of a panel on new approaches to citizen science, both in the nineteenth century and in the present, with the discussion ranging from Victorian epidemiology to urban health initiatives in the South Side of Chicago. The CSC team were joined by Laura Whyte, the Director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium, who outlined the range of Zooniverse activities undertaken in Chicago, as well as in Oxford. Discussion during the panel both underlined the enormous diversity of current approaches to citizen science (and medicine), as well as the potential for historical perspectives to help in shaping contemporary formulations of what constitutes citizen participation in a wide variety of different areas.

The Crowds and Clouds workshop was sponsored by the Fishbein Center for the History of Science, the Disciplines & Technologies Project at the Franke Institute (both University of Chicago), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin), and the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Constructing Scientific Communities project’s ‘Science in Culture’ large grant. Several leading historians were invited to give papers examining the historical issues raised by crowds and clouds, including James Secord, Katharine Anderson, Adrian Johns, Lorraine Daston, Anne Secord, Elena Aronova and Alison Winter.

Professor Gowan Dawson

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