Science and Technology Innovation Program

Commons Lab

Rapidly evolving information and communication technologies, including social media and mobile phones, coupled with new methodologies like crowdsourcing, have placed the collective “wisdom of the crowd” and power of mass collaboration into the hands of average citizens and organizations. STIP’s Commons Lab seeks to advance research and independent policy analysis of these emerging technologies, with an emphasis on their social, legal, and ethical implications. The initiative does not advocate for or against specific technological platforms, rather works to ensure that these technologies are developed and used in a way that maximizes benefits while reducing risks and unintended consequences. Our work often focuses on novel governance options at the “edges” where the crowd and social media operate –between formal and informal organizations and proprietary and open-source models of data ownership and access. For more information, please see: http://www.CommonsLab.wilsoncenter.org.

Issues in this Series

Agency Liability Stemming from Citizen-Generated Data

Bailey Smith
New ways to gather data are on the rise. One of these ways is through citizen science. While citizen science can be defined broadly, this article defines citizen science as the voluntary participation of members of the public in scientific research, including but not limited to data collection and analysis, and problem solving. Agencies can feel confident about using citizen science for a few reasons, as outlined in this report.

New Terrorism and New Media

Gabriel Weimann
This report examines how Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist organizations have moved their online presence to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets, posing challenges to counter-terrorism agencies.

Sharing data while protecting privacy in citizen science

Anne Bowser, Andrea Wiggins, Lea Shanley, Jennifer Preece, and Sandra Henderson
Article published in the Policy forum of Interactions Magazine. Citizen science projects must protect the privacy of volunteers by informing them about potential threats and implementing safeguards. Privacy laws, policies, and standards exist to guide developers of citizen science applications toward best practices.

New Visions in Citizen Science

Anne Bowser and Lea Shanley
Published by the Commons Lab, "New Visions in Citizen Science" showcases seventeen case studies that offer a mosaic view of federally-sponsored citizen science and open innovation projects, from in-the-field data collection to online games for collective problem-solving. This report offers a sampling of different models that support public contribution, potential challenges, and positive impacts that projects can have on scientific literacy, research, management, and public policy.

Connecting Grassroots and Government for Disaster Response

John Crowley
Leaders in disaster response are finding it necessary to adapt to a new reality. Although community actions have always been the core of the recovery process, collective action from the grassroots has changed response operations in ways that few would have predicted. Using new tools that interconnect over expanding mobile networks, citizens can exchange information via maps and social media, then mobilize thousands of people to collect, analyze, and act on that information. Sometimes, community-sourced intelligence may be fresher and more accurate than the information given to the responders who provide aid. This report explores approaches to the questions that commonly emerge when building an interface between the grassroots and government agencies, with a particular focus on the accompanying legal, policy, and technology challenges.

Tweeting Up a Storm: The Promise and Perils of Crisis Mapping

Lea Shanley
Crisis mapping is an inter-disciplinary field that aggregates crowd-generated input data, such as social media feeds and photographs, with geographic data, to provide real-time, interactive information in support of disaster management and humanitarian relief. This article provides a brief overview of the emerging legal and ethical issues within crisis mapping.

Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management: Workshop Summary

Ryan Burns and Lea Shanley
The growing use of social media and other mass collaboration technologies is opening up new opportunities in disaster management efforts, but is also creating new challenges for policymakers looking to incorporate these tools into existing frameworks. The Commons Lab, part of the Science & Technology Innovation Program, hosted a September 2012 workshop bringing together emergency responders, crisis mappers, researchers, and software programmers to discuss issues surrounding the adoption of these new technologies. This report discusses the key findings, policy suggestions, and success stories that emerged during the workshop.

The Power of Hackathons: A Roadmap for Sustainable Open Innovation

Zachary Bastian
Hackathons offer an opportunity to achieve innovation-oriented goals with limited resources, but require careful planning and organizational commitment to sustain engagement over the long term. This brief provides an overview of hackathons and offers strategies from previous successful events.

Transforming Earthquake Detection and Science through Citizen Seismology

Lea Shanley
This white paper describes a groundbreaking system of citizen science projects by the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific institutions to detect and monitor earthquakes and engage the public in scientific research about seismic events. These approaches seek to provide a more robust earthquake alert network and generate more real-time motion data. The paper also looks at how future efforts could be improved. Successful crowdsourcing projects at the federal level must navigate a web of practical, legal and policy considerations. This paper identifies some of these hurdles and provides lessons learned so that others may apply them to their unique missions.

The National Broadband Map: A Case Study on Open Innovation for National Policy

Zachary Bastian and Michael Byrne
A white paper on the policy and technology behind the National Broadband Map, an open-source geographic information systems application allowing users to access detailed statistics on internet connectivity. This project demonstrates the value of transparency, collaboration, and cooperation in government projects.

Responding to Liability: Evaluating and Reducing Tort Liability for Digital Volunteers

Edward S. Robson, Esq.
Major emergencies and crises can overwhelm local resources. In the last several years, self-organized digital volunteers have begun leveraging the power of social media and “crowd-mapping” for collaborative crisis response. Rather than mobilizing a physical response, these digital volunteer groups have responded virtually by creating software applications, monitoring social networks, aggregating data, and creating “crowdsourced” maps to assist both survivors and the formal response community. These virtual responses can subject digital volunteers to tort liability. This report evaluates the precise contours of potential liability for digital volunteers.

Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters

Joel R. Reidenberg, Robert Gellman, Jamela Debelak , and Adam Elewa
When a natural disaster occurs, government agencies, humanitarian organizations, private companies, volunteers, and others collect information about missing persons to aid the search effort. Often this processing of information about missing persons exacerbates the complexities and uncertainties of privacy rules. This report offers a roadmap to the legal and policy issues surrounding privacy and missing persons following natural disasters.

On Cybersecurity, Crowdsourcing, and Social Cyber-Attack

Rebecca Goolsby
Social media is responsible for much positive change in the world. But these new tools can be used by bad actors to foment strife and undermine stability, as seen during violent incidents in the Assam state of northeast India in July 2012. Cybersecurity efforts must take into account the growing potential for cyber-attack using social media, where hoax messages are incorporated into a stream of otherwise legitimate messages, and understand how quickly mobile apps and text services can disseminate false information.

Towards Trustworthy Social Media and Crowdsourcing

George Chamales
Individuals and organizations using social media and crowdsourcing need two key sets of information: a systematic assessment of the vulnerabilities in these technologies and a comprehensive set of best practices describing how to address these vulnerabilities. This report identifies certain vulnerabilities and provides a guideline to develop best practices necessary to address a growing number of incidents ranging from innocent mistakes to targeted attacks that have claimed lives and cost millions of dollars.

Too Big to Succeed: The Need for Federal IT Reform

Zachary Bastian
For IT to become sustainable, the federal government must enable change in three areas: (a) embracing agile development, modular contracting, and opensource software; (b) encouraging small business participation; and (c) shifting the federal IT culture through education and experimentation. The adoption of these reforms is vital. The current state of federal IT undermines good work because of its inefficiency and waste.

Governing on the Edge of Change

David Rejeski
Imagine, for a moment, a world that is rapidly changing along three dimensions: Structure: a shift from hierarchies to networks; Ownership: transitions from proprietary to open-source models; and Exchange: a movement from classic markets and commodities to a gift or contribution economy. For public policymakers, this emerging zone creates opportunities to craft next generation policy, leadership, and management strategies that can work on the edge of change.

2011 Social Media + Emergency Management Camp: Transforming the Response Enterprise

Clarence Wardell III and Yee San Su
By harnessing the collective power of citizens and engaging communities in their own response and recovery, social media have the power to revolutionize emergency management. Yet, many challenges—including guidelines for use by response agencies, demonstration of value, and characterization of reliability—must be addressed if the potential of social media is to be fully realized in emergency response and relief efforts in the United States.

Kite Sensorship: Regulating China’s Airways

Abi Barnes
Launched in July 2012, FLOAT Beijing—a community art project that utilizes citizen science—offers a simple, innovative, and non-confrontational approach to air quality monitoring: kites. Pioneered by two U.S. graduate students, the project tracks air pollutants using air sensor modules attached to kites.

Participatory Sensing: A citizen-powered approach to illuminating the patterns that shape our world

Katie Shilton, Jeff Burke, Deborah Estrin, Mark Hansen, Nithya Ramanathan, Sasank Reddy, Vidyut Samanta, Mani Srivastava, Ruth West, and Jeffrey Goldman
Today, people are increasingly able to create and share written and recorded media via the Internet. This phenomenon, now evident in the explosion of blogs and online social networks, is often called Web 2.0, or the new media. It has created compelling new avenues for public discourse, creative expression, and electronic commerce.

Distributed Sensing Systems for Water Quality Assessment and Management

This white paper describes the technological state of the art and examines the potential for using distributed sensing systems to improve the management of critical water resources. The paper also outlines recommendations for further research to advance the development and use of these systems by environmental resource managers. The white paper was prepared by scientists and engineers at the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA for the Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project with support from the Environmental Protection Agency's Offices of Water and Research & Development, with assistance from the Office of Air & Radiation.

Experts & Staff