Soil sampling at the 2019 Public Lab Barnraising in Galveston and Houston.

Exploring the Roots: The Evolution of Civic and Community Science

This piece is a historical synopsis of the evolution of the terms “civic science” and “community science” framed through the lens of my work with Public Lab — from the rise to popularity of civic technology, to using “civic science” as a founding structure, to switching to the “community science” nomenclature, leading the rapid growth of a movement, and now a field of practice. As both civic and community science grow and become popularized through new communities, this piece is written to document the foundation of these concepts.

The Backstory

Several months ago, I received an email indicating there was an “emerging field” of community science in development. At the same time, over the past couple of years, there has been reuse of the concept civic science. My feelings about where we’re at in the evolution of these concepts are complicated; for Public Lab, civic and community science have been one in the same: a progression of terminology. As these terms have experienced significant use over the last few years, they are in fact now quite distinct. Why I’m writing this is much more simple — Public Lab [1], of which I am a co-founder and have been the executive director for a decade, is well placed to weave a historical thread between these two concepts as they have been clearly situated in the history of our work. As early adopters of “civic science” and originators of applying “community science” to our model of work, there is a story to be told in how these terms evolved and an interest in sharing thoughts on what can make all of our work, under either banner, stronger.

In 2019, I wrote an article in Science for the People [2], that lays groundwork for our approach to community science, but more importantly calls for stronger human-centered practices to not just be used in community science, but to be used across participatory sciences (citizen, civic, etc.). The concern that now drives me to write this piece is two-fold: 1) there is a history of putting walls and boxes around concepts that come from outside of academia, turning them into a field of practice before they have an opportunity to find their own wings, and 2) there is a trend of already-institutionalized forms of science in layering different approaches under their own activities, although the work is quite different. It is a practice that can quickly shift narratives away from original intent and be harmful to the work of others.

My point of view is derived from over a decade of work in these emerging fields. Concepts evolve, ideas change, and different versions can exist, but we need to understand foundations, where the original intent and ideas came from, and acknowledge and champion these as our starting points.

The Rise of Civic Technology

The period from 2008–2011 was an important time in the history of media and technology. The internet fundamentally disrupted how news worked, switching us away from a 24-hour cycle to daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute cycles. The internet enabled a platform for people to self-publish, seemingly democratizing the internet (though often corporations stymied the ability for democratic distribution of this information). As ad revenues began shifting to digital platforms, newspaper staffing levels were cut and people began to address the decline of community media and information sharing. It was an area waiting to be disrupted and created a surge of new start-ups in the local information and media space. In 2010–11, when Public Lab was finding its legs, the internet was in this moment of rapid creation. Although people were able to contribute content online at that time, the structure that would allow people to contribute data was (and is) still being developed. Social media also had yet to be standardized and this demonstrated where alternate forms of governance and socio-technical solutions could help solve some of the cracks in our formal governance systems.

This gave rise to a moment where there were lots of groups, Public Lab included, experimenting in the spaces of OpenGov/Gov 2.0, civic technology, crisis mapping, civic media, and civic science. It was a time of rapid experimentation, innovation, and crowdsourcing becoming mainstream. The idea of lone innovators was shifting as people began to recognize the power of the crowd. Public Lab was nurtured in this framework. Important to note was that part of the success of early groups testing ideas in this space was because of a funding program run by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight News Challenge and later the Prototype Fund [3] gave seed funding to visions of what media from the grassroots could look like. Yearly, grantees and others in the “civic media” space would meet at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media (now the Center for Civic Media). Also early in this funding space was the Rita Allen Foundation.

At the start of Public Lab [4], we came together to question the top-down models of science that prevailed in public places. We also wanted to create a world in which tools for environmental monitoring weren’t just accessible to research institutions, governments, and corporations themselves, but to anyone who wanted to use science as a tool to answer their own questions. We were 2011 and 2013 grantees under the Knight News Challenge, operating in a landscape that encouraged us to question the breaks and flaws in systems. Our work during the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where we created a 100,000+ image “community atlas” collected by Gulf residents using kites, balloons, and point-and-shoot cameras, was in recognition that there was a failure in the governance systems built to protect people. During the disaster there was lack of access for Gulf residents to access timely and accurate data and information about the extent and spread of the oil and the effects the region experienced. Top-down science prevailed, and there weren’t enough approaches for people to drive and be involved in asking and answering their own questions. This was especially true in a landscape of broken enforcement and regulatory structures while government allowed industry self-regulation [5]. The rapid advancements in data, technology, and media had opened a door in which, although we may have been localized on the Gulf Coast, the world could watch, support, and even be an intrinsic part of the solution.

Public Lab emerged from the BP disaster and our early work in 2010 using the term “civic science” as our framing. Civic science was not citizen science, nor a subsection of it. We moved away from civic science in 2013 (explained in subsequent sections) and started calling the same methodology “community science.” Community science also is not citizen science, nor a subsection of it. In its current iteration and reuse, civic science is also not the same as community science.

Civic Science

The concept of “civic science” as incorporated in the work of Public Lab, was articulated by Science and Technology Studies researchers Kim and Mike Fortun in their 2005 article, “Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology.” [6] A guiding concept from this article was that civic science was a science “that questions the state of things, not a science that simply serves the state.” Public Lab adopted this concept, writing about it early in the context of our work for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest in an article called, “Grassroots Mapping: Creating a Participatory Mapmaking Process Centered on Discourse.” [7]

The civic science model Public Lab started to create was influenced by the Fortun’s work, but also brought in the various experience of our seven founders — the Bucket Brigade organizing model which linked community collected data with grassroots activism; facilitation of open communities; design; geography; rethinking the use of commonly found objects into data collection devices, and then all of the movements, organizing strategies and ideas that had come before to influence these practices we’d each brought to Public Lab. We never practiced a science that was apolitical [8]; we recognized that science could and should be used to create a different and more healthy future for the people who are most impacted by environmental pollution.

The Public Lab model [9], as developed by early Public Lab staff looked (and looks like):

And was grounded in practices, such as:

  • Building relationships based on equity from the beginning (resource distribution, ownership of processes and data)
  • Honoring different types of expertise, local knowledge, and experience
  • Considering the many places where collaboration can happen
  • Leveraging scientific knowledge to help distribute power
  • Thinking critically about the use of terms such as “inclusion” and “empowerment”
  • Being careful not to co-opt people and their work into a definition that suits yours
  • Moving beyond feedback loops and stepping into solution finding
  • Addressing tech-solutionism before it becomes a problem

When Public Lab began moving away from the term civic science in 2013, it was because the term didn’t quite resonate with our community partners. Notably, the transition to community science wasn’t a well documented transition, one that has required me to dig through old emails, articles, and online documentation to articulate this moment a bit better.

Civic science has found a new life with its reboot through an article, The Civic Science Imperative [10], which, with guidance from the Rita Allen Foundation, heralded a new use in 2018 for the concept of civic science. The Rita Allen Foundation has launched a practice of civic science, highlighted by a fellows program where this work will be carried on. In the program, they “seek to foster a culture of civic science, in which broad engagement with science and evidence helps to inform solutions to society’s most pressing problems. Making progress toward this goal requires building new knowledge and collaborations across many sectors.” [11]

The fellowship program — sponsored by a funders collaborative led by Rita Allen Foundation with a number of partners from academia, and scientific networks and associations — is in its infancy, but early indications suggest that a reframing of the concept is happening. Through recent gatherings of this group, I found myself coming to three understandings: 1) that the renewed interest in civic science is largely being driven by the fields of science communication and engagement (which it seems are having a moment in their own need to shake up historic practices), 2) civic science in its new form is still intended to shift systems, structures, and practices in science generally, and 3) civic science and community science are no longer one in the same, but have a strong potential to work in tandem.

Perhaps the role of civic science will be to address inherent modes of top-down scientific practice, supporting a reframing of institutional science into one that is more human-centered. This might address the challenges that have been identified in bringing scientists and scientific institutions closer to questions that are coming from outside of academia. Though it is clear that civic science, in its reincarnation, is a field still growing and finding its identity, there is hope in that, despite the different type of work people are involved in (from basic science to science philanthropy to science media), there is a values-driven lens that is being applied to the approach. As indicated by curriculum that Tufts University has created around civic science, [12] perhaps we are seeing it transform into practical training, assessment of the places where scientists can be better allies and partners, and a call for scientists and other practitioners to reassert the power of science in supporting civically engaged activities.

Community Science

Here we land at community science, a term and concept that is trending beyond what I would have imagined six years ago. Community science is in a pivotal moment of evolution, so here I’ll review where we’re at as of early 2020.

Community science in its original intent linked grassroots organizing, socially situated data collection, and accessible technology. [13] This was the model of Communities for a Better Environment, Global Community Monitor (now-defunct), and the many Bucket Brigades that arose from it. [14] The actions of community science can date as far back as the 1980s and early 1990s with models deeply rooted in environmental justice organizing, but the term itself we started using around 2013. In November 2014, aligned with Public Lab’s annual community science convening (the “Barnraising”) and the American Public Health Association annual conference in New Orleans, Global Community Monitor, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Public Lab co-hosted the first “Community-based Science for Action Convening.” [15] At this event, we featured community science as a track, highlighted how low-cost tools were used in the work of health and justice organizing, and brought together people from around the country that were strategically thinking about applying science to questions of industrial oversight.

It is important to note that, in our collective push to position community science as a beneficial model for science in society, there are other fields of practice and ways of doing that we need to be cautious about not sweeping up under this banner. Similar to how other models of participatory science shouldn’t claim community science under its umbrella, community science practitioners and researchers must be careful not to position environmental justice organizing, indigenous research practices or even fields of practice such as Community Based Participatory Research under the banner of community science — unless its a banner that these groups and practices want to be associated with. Though all of these areas are places we learn and incorporate best practices from as we build the community science model, there are also potential portions that stand in difference.

Though these are the roots of community science, as these things go when you’re innovating in a space and trying something different, it’s messy. Public Lab’s version of community science was different from Global Community Monitor; groups that have built off of Public Lab’s version have differences as well. In 2015, my colleague Gretchen Gehrke and I first wrote an essay [16] (published in 2017) in which we defined community science as:

“…collaboratively-led scientific investigation and exploration to address community defined questions, allowing for engagement in the entirety of the scientific process. Unique in comparison to citizen science, community science may or may not include partnerships with professional scientists, emphasizes the community’s ownership of research and access to resulting data, and orients towards community goals and working together in scalable networks to encourage collaborative learning and civic engagement.”

Later in 2016, I worked on editing a report [17] from the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology (also now-defunct [18]) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While using the same 2015 definition, the council changed “community science” to “community citizen science” [19][20] since the council charge was a report on citizen science to EPA. Other definitions and attempts to highlight the differences of community science and citizen science, and attempts to position community science as a subsection of citizen science [21] have been steadily rolling out over the last few years. But what I can be clear about here is that community science is not intended to be a subsection of citizen science. For Public Lab, community science was a direct continuation of our original framing of civic science, resting heavily on the concept of a science “that questions the state of things, not a science that simply serves the state.” [22] Neither concept was framed as an apolitical form of science, but science that builds on, supports, and can be a powerful tool for organizing. However, in current form civic and community science have diverged, but there is an opportunity for them to meet in the middle, to learn from and with each other, with aligned values and the ability to collectively remake the landscape of science in, with and for society. If civic science can disrupt and shift paradigms in scientific institutions, our work in community science will benefit. If community science can impact the ability for science to be beneficial in addressing questions in our daily lives, that’s also a win for civic science.

In early 2017, we started to see a rapid shift of groups renaming their programs, starting with Milwaukee based Urban Ecology Center [23][24], who changed the name of their citizen science department to community science in March of that year. Audubon made the change in 2018 [25]. In congruence with this timeline of late 2016 onward, groups such American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, UC-Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, among many others, moved towards using the terminology community science. In 2019 and 2020, we now see community science covering an even wider definition and type of project, with open science hardware and DIY biology (DIYbio) groups [26] taking up the banner. I can squarely credit many of the larger networks, such as The National Audubon Society and the American Geophysical Union, as leading the charge to rapid popularization of this term (more so than Public Lab).

We’re at an interesting moment in the evolution of community science and there are several things that I don’t think those involved in community science are being critical or direct enough on addressing. There are a number of groups, who have found that their audiences are more comfortable with the concept of “community” science as an identifier on their program rather than “citizen” science. The way we feel about the concept of “citizen” varies vastly from one place to another. For instance, in the U.S., [27] who is and isn’t considered a citizen is deeply non-inclusive because current administration policy has indicated that the word now has political ramifications around exclusion or acceptance. What once was meant to be democratizing, the concept of “citizen” isn’t anymore; it’s a term that is being used to divide people. In previous times, democracies enabled the pathway to citizenship, but now they are used to refuse the humanity of people. What was a celebration of becoming a member of a citizenry is now a way to dehumanize someone who is not. This presents a conundrum for citizen science as a field. Community science entered and was popularized at a time that made it a natural and easy concept to turn to, without explicitly having to change program structures to resemble the foundational model of community science as practiced by groups such as Public Lab. This was in part because there was almost nothing written about it; it was a practice-based way to use science in organizing, and the concept of community was straightforward enough (though notably with its own issues). I’m going to diverge from this type of community science for a moment, but circle back in the last section as I talk about where we’re headed.

I’m interested in the deepening split that seems to be occurring between the community science movement and the community science field of practice. There are two different things that are happening, both which can co-exist and be bound in a similar values system and model of practice, but should be clearly articulated for what they are. Public Lab’s version that has built on years of grassroots organizing is done through learning by building (part of the reason why, outside of our wiki documentation, we have little written about the model itself), doing, and creating, rather than learning through researching. The work that community science takes in this frame is not through time-bound projects, because environmental pollution and the harm it causes can be both quick and sudden and slow and long-term. It means that from the first moment to the closing action (if there ever is one), can be a five-year process with many changes, turns, and stalls along the way because of the social, cultural, and political contexts in which the work is wrapped. And sometimes the work never comes to a close. It is science that is part of the broad range of solutions that assist us in moving towards action.

The field of community science that is emerging is being shaped and molded in a way that typically doesn’t happen early on in movement building. This is where the frameworks for evaluation, the checklists on how to model successful projects, and the timelines that keep things moving will come from (as happens in other forms of participatory science). As community science moves into institutional science and academia and into structures that require formal programming because of institutional set-up and funder requirements, my hope is that it keeps the spirit of democratization alive and can contribute an added depth and understanding about impact and importance that those of us out doing the work don’t have time to write up or have the opportunity to be peer-reviewed [28]. Over the last year, while I’ve felt uplifted by knowing there are great organizations and projects doing the hard work of embedding human-centered practices into their efforts, I’ve also experienced a creeping weariness as I am invited into conversations about community science that lack the perspectives of those without institutional affiliations. In some of these spaces, I’ve heard the concept of community science engaged with in a way that does a disservice to the work of navigating the complexity of science embedded in social context.

So here we are: full circle. For a decade, we’ve tested out new theories about better ways to use science to support organizing — from civic to community science, to movement building towards refining a field of practice that has already seen scale.

Where do we go from here?

We’re at an important time in which we need to be better stewards of our collective work and provide clear ways for people to see themselves in this work. At the same time, we can all do better at highlighting, acknowledging, and building better structures for our work to co-exist. Here are some of my hopes:

  • I’m often involved in conversations that revolve around some form of participatory science, but the vast majority of the time it is people with paid positions and institutional affiliations that are leading these discussions. Scientific and academic organizations hold enormous power and can easily control the narrative, but there is also an opportunity for them to intentionally make room for other voices to collectively shape a narrative together. I would like to see a more productive and intentional framing that could move from institutions controlling narratives to institutions asking how they can be better allies in co-creating or sharing existing narratives.
  • When concepts are institutionalized and frameworks are applied, the organic nature necessary for creating movements can be squashed before they find their footing. Let’s be mindful of how we adopt concepts such as community science so that the concept doesn’t lose the powerful foundation from which it came, rooted in advocacy.
  • There are lots of groups similar to Public Lab that are innovating and creating change across many different spaces, but their currency and social capital is not peer-reviewed publication, it’s by doing the work. This means we are largely beholden to how others write about our work. My thoughts here are three-fold:

i) Attribute your work. I’d like for us to be able to rely on academic partners to do service to the work we do by citing, correctly attributing, and co-authoring with people that have welcomed them in as research partners.

ii) Acknowledge partners. If you’ve been invited in as an academic research partner, you should consider those doing the work as co-researchers in the process and acknowledge them as such. Part of your role is to publish and put things into the world that you learn. Make sure you follow through on your commitments and attribute them correctly.

iii) Share and embrace, as core to “the literature,” things that are written, video-taped, or audio-recorded by people doing the work [29]. Working outside academia means not having the same capital to operate in peer-reviewed frameworks, but alternate mediums can be just as valuable.

  • Community science and the renewed civic science are at exciting places that need support, resources, and the ability to test out different strategies. My hope is that we can see increased funding and support for people to do this work, to understand its impact, and to gather for concentrated “field building” activities. To make sure that funding structures invite from the beginning, funding for these kinds of activities should make sure to offer upfront compensation, and focus on building in other best practices of creating equitable spaces (ex. childcare).
  • As we further develop both community and civic science, I would like us to collectively identify the things we can come together around, such as values and principles, grounding them in practices that will truly be transformative to institutions, communities and others. This may mean for some that it requires seeing your organization or self in systems and practices that don’t easily align with what is, or has, historically been done. If you don’t see your organization in these values and can’t see how you’d follow the principles in practice, perhaps community or civic science isn’t the right framing for your work. We need true alignment of all involved to make both community and civic science strong future models.
  • This bears repeating: we can all build deeply good, human-centered practices into our work without having to call it community science. If your purpose isn’t to ensure that community questions drive work and that outcomes are actionable for the people guiding the work, perhaps structure your project under a different umbrella term so that it doesn’t muddy the water of what the movement of community science is attempting to do.

Ultimately, in writing this piece my goal is to pull together threads of conversations, ideas from blogs and articles, and moments in our short history that have collectively formed the foundation for where the work of civic and community science has come from. Nothing is formed in isolation and the influence inherent from grassroots organizing and the earlier days of civic technology brought us here. Without understanding this history more deeply though, we would be setting a course to strip the core intentions from the organizing model of community science. But in understanding the history, appreciating and acknowledging the decades of practice and thought that came before this particular moment, in which community and civic science have risen to popularity, we can find ourselves heading down a path better equipped to collectively do justice to the work that needs to be done.

Acknowledgment: I’ve been privy to conversations and meetings over the last decade, as civic and community science have evolved. I share my thoughts here with the utmost gratitude to those whom I’ve talked to, have shared with me, and who have included Public Lab in their conversations. I also appreciate that the world Public Lab was pushing for back in 2010 is now happening. I am hopeful to see people take this work forward, knowing that it will continue to evolve, and that as new histories emerge, they will be shared in responsible and appropriate ways.


[1] More here: Public Lab.

[2 ]For a People-Centered Science: A Call for Action

[3] Both funding programs are now inoperative, though Knight Foundation still provides other grants for technology experimentation.

[4] First organized as Grassroots Mapping in 2010.

[5] Reimaging the Data Lifecycle

[6] Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology (thank you to Dr. Kim Fortun for opening access to this article!)

[7] Grassroots Mapping: Creating a participatory map-making process centered on discourse

[8] Action and activism can be inherently political, but the methods, processes and data in themselves aren’t. The skepticism of community generated data indicates that this is not the norm in thinking.

[9] To note, the four labels in the bubbles are examples, but many others could be included.

[10] The original is listed on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, I found an open access version of The Civic Science Imperative here.

[11] Rita Allen Foundation: Civic Science

[12] Tufts University: Civic Science

[13] I discuss this more in the article For a People-Centered Science:A Call for Action.

[14] Including Louisiana Bucket Brigade (where I had early experiences over a decade ago)

[15] Citizen Science in New Orleans

[16] Civic Technology and Community Science: A new model for public participation in environmental decisions

[17] Environmental Protection Belongs to the Public

[18] White House Order Shutters Some Key Advisory Councils

[19] “EPA has engaged in citizen science primarily by working with community groups engaged in community citizen science.”

[20] To note, when community science was not a popular term, we would also refer to it as “community citizen science” or “community-based citizen science” because it was language that funders and scientific institutions understood.

[21] For instance the article Citizen Science Terminology Matters: Exploring Key Terms

[22] Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology

[23] Urban Ecology Center: Community Science

[24] I was an intern with UEC 20 years ago, though this has nothing to do with the programmatic name change, just a small world moment.

[25] This is an article from a local branch, but the best description I’ve found on their reason for changing from citizen to community science.

[26] Community Science: Not just a hobby

[27] Notably the frame of citizenship differs in every country.

[28] Although, see my note later in the “where do we go from here?” section. Please still be a good partner, cite others and co-author with non-academics.

[29] For instance, Public Lab has a 10-year-old publication called the “Community Science Forum” where we document these kinds of stories.

Building collaborative spaces for dealing w/ pollution. @ShuttleworthFdn Fellow working on @OpenEnviroData / co-founder & advisor @PublicLab . she/her