Tuesday, 8 December 2009

IDCC 09: Richard Cable Discusses BBC Lab UK and Citizen Science

Richard Cable, the Editor of BBC Lab UK, opened his talk with the traditional representations of science on television (“Science is Fun” vs “blow things up”) in his presentation about the BBC Lab UK initiative – designed to involve the public with science.

Cable used this comparison to illustrate that most “citizen science” seems to involve the mass engagement of people with science, whereas Lab UK is aimed at mass participation in science. The project is about new learning: creating scientifically useful surveys and experiments with the BBC audience, online.

He discussed the motives of the audience and how this forms a fundamental part of both the design of the experiment and the types of experiment that they can usefully conduct. For the audience, the experiment has to be a bit of a “voyage of self-discovery” where they learn something about themselves as well as contributing data to the wider experiment – a more altruistic motive. Cable emphasised that they work with real scientists, properly designed methodologies, ethics approval and peer-review systems so that the experiments are built on solid science and therefore make a useful contribution to scientific knowledge, rather than just entertainment for the audience.

To illustrate, Cable took us through the history of BBC online mass participation experiments which have led to the development of the new Lab UK brand. This included their Disgust experiment, involving showing users images and asking them to judge whether they would touch the item in the image. This was driven by a television programme, which directed the audience to the website after the show. He also discussed Sex ID, which worked the opposite way round – with the results of the experiment feeding the content of the programme. 250,000 participants got involved over 3 months to take a series of short flash tests which identified the sex of their brains. This exemplified his point about giving the audience a motive – with them learning something about themselves as a result of participation.

In continuing this back-story, Cable briefly introduced Stress, which was the prototype launch for the Lab UK brand itself, which was linked into the BBC's Headroom initiative. He noted that the general public would rather something that gave some lifestyle feedback, rather than just being purely sciency. This experiment – a series of flash tasks and uncomfortable questions – has since been taken down.

The more recent Brain Test Britain was a higher profile experiment launched by the programme Bang Goes The Theory which was the first longitudinal experiment, where the audience were asked to revisit the site over a period of 6 weeks to participate, rather than one-off site visit, survey model of experiment used in the previous examples. They were expecting 60,000 participants, given the issue of retention, to help establish whether brain training actually works. This was a proper clinical trial with academic sponsors from the Alzheimer's Society – the results of which will be announced in a programme later next year.

The fourth experiment Cable described was The Big Personality Test, linked with the Child Of Our Time series following children born in the year 2000. They used standard accepted models for measuring personality, to give detailed feedback to participants. They were seeking to answer the question: “Does personality shape your life or does life shape your personality?”. They attracted 100,000 participants in 3 days, which was vastly more uptake than expected. The level of data they have collected already is becoming unmanageable, so this means they are having to re-evaluate the duration of the experiment.

In the future, they are hoping to take their experiments social using Facebook and Twitter as part of the method.

Cable summed up these experiments by highlighting the rules they have found they need to apply when designing such experiments. These include a low barrier to entry, a clear motive for participation, a genuine mass participation requirement, a sound scientific methodology and an aim that will contribute to new knowledge.

Cable went on to discuss the practicalities of how experiments are designed from conception to commissioning. This involves selecting sponsor scientists, who help to design the experiment and analyse the results. He explained the selection process, which entails finding respected scientists who are flexible and adaptable to this experiment format. The role of this “sponsor academic” is to collaborate on experiment design, advise on the ethics processes, interpret the results and then write the peer-review paper resulting from the data and publish their findings.

The data collected from these experiments comes in two forms: personally identifiable data and anonymisable data. This means that the scientist cannot trace individual participants back, but the BBC (or three people within the BBC) can trace people back in the event that they need to manage the database and delete entries if requested. Cable also explained that the data they ask for is driven by the science, not editorial decisions by television programme makers, using standard measures where possible.

Finally, Cable discussed the actual data and the curation issues surrounding it. All the data from Lab UK is stored in one place, connected by the BBC ID system, which enables them to start doing secondary analysis from the data where participants have taken part in multiple experiments. The sponsor academics have a period of exclusivity before the data becomes available for academic and educational purposes only. However, they are still grappling with issues of data visualisation so they can make this data comprehensible to the general public, and data storage issues – as the BBC does not do long term data storage. There are precedents – including the People's War project where people's memories of the World War II were collected and hosted online. This data has now been passed to the British Museum and forms part of their collection. He also noted that there may be demands from the ethics committee on how long they can keep the data and before it may be destroyed.


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