Citizen science. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (Part 2)

Figure 1: A filmic artifact in Berlin. A suburban railroad bridge with a painting showing Marlene Dietrich.

Part 2: Project description and implementation of basic requirements on citizen science projects.

Anna Luise Kiss reports from her film studies citizen research project.

6 October 2020

In the first blog post I explained how citizen science is defined and what it’s hype is attributed to. I also explained how I conceptualize citizen science. In this entry I first introduce my project The cinematic face of the city of Potsdam in rough outlines. Afterwards, I show how I implemented some basic requirements, as they are formulated in the context of, and in comparison with, existing citizen science projects. In the third entry I resolve Beckett’s “Try again, fail again, fail better” announced in the title and it’s implications for my project.

The filmic face of the city of Potsdam

In order to promote the so-called minor disciplines, the German Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) has set up third-party funding, which allows projects from fields such as Bio-statistics, Digital Humanities, Yiddish studies and Film Science to be funded. In particular, it is intended to ensure greater visibility for the research achievements of the minor disciplines. I received funding for my project “The cinematic face of cities” on the image-building of film cities as a discursive process. It runs from 1 December 2020 to 30 November 2022 and is based at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF and Aarhus University. A summary of the research program for this subordinate project can be found here.

Figure 2: Filmic artefact: a supermarket in Potsdam surrounds its logo with a film flap

An important thesis of the project is that, in addition to various actors and their textual and pictorial contributions to the discourse, it is precisely cinematic artefacts in public space that contribute to the formation of the “film city” image. Examples include streets named after filmmakers and film-related material such as posters and stills displayed in various locations, such as, in one case, a hotel breakfast room. The same applies to objects such as old film cameras and spotlights displayed as a form of interior decoration. I assume that this materialized film history, as well as references to current media productions, must be taken into account in an analysis of the film city image. One of my goals is, therefore, to account for the presence of cinematic artifacts in urban space, uncovered as a result of the two selected case studies Potsdam and Aarhus, thus making them visible and analyzable. My approach involves investigating the presence of the artifacts by asking, for example, whether they appear in the city as nodes, whether certain film professions or film characters occur more frequently, to which film historical epochs they refer, or whether gender-specific weightings can be determined. The initial thesis is that artifacts are bundled around the film’s production and distribution locations, that apart from actresses, the majority of film makers represented are male, and that, as far as the gender-distribution of characters is concerned, female characters prevail. A further assumption is that in urban space, not all the phases of film history that characterize a film city are referenced equally.

After a workshop at the University of Zurich with the title ‘Citizen Science – just try it!’, I was inspired to tackle the search for cinematic artifacts by inviting the citizens of Potsdam to participate in the project. From January 25 to March 1, 2020, I invited the citizens of Potsdam to report their cinematic finds to me and help me analyze the results. Important sources for the preparation of the sub-project were the various guidelines and advisories on citizen science projects from universities and citizen science associations. I will now discuss some basic requirements regarding citizen science projects and explain how I implemented them.


My implementation of basic requirements on citizen science projects

Open Science

As part of the open science movement, citizen research projects should take into account the standards of this new scientific culture. Research goals, theses and methods must be communicated transparently. How those involved can participate in the research project and which scientific and social goals a project pursues should be made easily understandable.[i] Data must be made openly available and stored for retrieval beyond the course of the project in such a way that it is suitable for subsequent use. And finally, results must be published in open access.[ii]

Figure 3: The cinematic face of the city of Potsdam on the page of Bürger schaffen Wissen.

The establishment of a research website was important for the presentation of the research objectives, theses and methods. It has taken some time to break down the various aspects of the project into short and concise texts. It was helpful that I prepared the project for the platform Bürger schaffen Wissen (citizens create knowledge) parallel to the construction of the site. The people in charge gave helpful feedback on the transparency and comprehensibility of the texts necessary for this online presence, which I was able to adapt for my own site.

Figure 4: Filmic artefacts in Epicollect5’s database.

I implemented the open provision of the collected data via a database of the app Epicollect5. This is a free application that was developed at the Big Data Institute of the University of Oxford and is used by many researchers. It allows users to set up an app for the collection of data according to individual requirements. The application automatically makes the collected data available via a public database either in list form or by converting it into a map. Epicollect5 allows one, for example, to capture data on filmic artifacts, including geo-data, photo and description, and to upload it in real time while walking the city. The data will remain publicly accessible until the end of the project. Since the map offered by Epicollect5 allows only a very rough approximation and does not enable differentiation of the types of filmic artifacts, the data is currently transferred to a Google Maps. Here, different colors and assignment levels can be defined. This map and the accompanying evaluation lists function as an important basis for the analysis.

Figure 5: Currently, the cinematic artefacts are being transferred to a Google Map.

I could not find a satisfactory solution for the long-term storage of the data at the start of the project. The current arrangement is that the Film University set up storage space for the data on a server of the University, and it would in principle be possible to store the data here at the end of the project and make it available to interested parties for subsequent use via a password. However, this long-term storage would not be of much use, because the data would be hard to find for other researchers. Thus my solution would not meet the first requirement – “findability” – of the FAIR data principles. I hope for developments in the next two years, which will allow an improved long-term storage for my project. The ideal solution would be a cross-institutional media repository – similar to the one at the Humboldt University, for example, but run specifically for film and media studies. This should at least be networked with the already established publication repositories media/rep/ and MediArXiv, because the data should have a presence in places that are regularly visited by film and media scholars. In general, most universities have developed their own strategies for research data management and have named contact persons for this purpose and provide comprehensive information on their websites. The latter are often universally accessible. For newcomers to the data management aspect of citizen research projects, it would be worth while to study the material depositories of the institutions involved.


Licensing of research data

Since the data of the citizen researchers will not remain locked away in the project, but will be published and possibly used by third parties, it must be clear to all participants from the beginning how the rights to the collected data will be handled.[iii]

On my website, in an explanatory video and within the Epicollect5 app, I informed the citizen researchers that their cinematic finds were immediately released into the public domain on submission. The citizen researchers were thus informed that they license their research data (location, description and photo) with a submission under Creative Commons 0. It was explained to them, that this means that the research data may not only be stored, processed and published by me, but may also be freely available to others for subsequent use in other projects. Further information about Creative Commons or the recommendations for licensing research data of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) were provided. Before each submission, the citizen researchers had to agree or disagree with this procedure. The licensing of research data in citizen research projects via Creative Commons is considered a suitable way to ensure legal certainty.[iv]


Data protection

In spite of the fundamental ethos of openness and transparency in citizen research projects, it is essential to ensure the protection of the personal data of fellow researchers.[v] Requirements concerning basic data protection regulation had to be implemented concurrent with the setting up of the project site. The first contact persons are the data protection officers of your own university, who will provide you with text templates tailored to the requirements of particular websites. They can also help to set up a special contact form that allows communication with fellow citizen researchers. The way is clear for an exchange with the citizen researchers by e-mail only if the storage and processing of an e-mail address has been agreed to and it has been actively accepted that the address may be used for communication.

When setting up the data collection or submission tools for the citizen researchers, the Epicollect5 app offers the advantage that the co-researchers do not have to register with an e-mail address. All I asked for was a freely selectable abbreviation consisting of three letters and two numbers. It is not possible for me as project leader or for those who access the public database to trace the identity of those who submitted the cinematic finds. This does not mean, however, that the co-researchers do not provide data about themselves. A fundamental problem is that when an app is downloaded, information is already sent which is inclusive of the operating system of a smartphone. It is important that the citizen researchers are informed about these data-relevant processes in data protection declarations, which must explicitly refer to the privacy policy of the app thus allowing participants to proactively agree to the transfer of data or opt out. Therefore, it seemed necessary to offer alternatives to data transfer via app. In my case e-mail and Instagram were two alternatives. Both of them again bring along their own challenges for data protection. Especially regarding Instagram, I pointed out that this way is suitable only for people who are already registered with the app and have accepted the terms of use and privacy policy for themselves. I was surprised that other citizen research projects provide little or no information about privacy on their project pages. This is certainly not due to a lack of forethought or an absence of concern to protect the citizen researchers. It is more probably a case that the loss of clarity which a privacy statement brings and the resulting increase in text makes a project seem overtaxing or even frightening. An ideal solution would be the establishment and implementation of a seal of approval process for the data protection of citizen research projects.  Then not every project would have to explain its regulations on various sub-pages so that co-researchers could be sure that data protection has been checked by a suitable authority. For the project initiators, a verification seal would have the advantage that they could work through a clear catalog of requirements and have the protective measures evaluated and, if necessary, supplemented before the project starts.


Public relations

In order to be able to do research, citizens must first learn about the project. In addition, communication with the citizen researchers must take place throughout the research process. Scholars who want to carry out a citizen science project are therefore advised that such projects can only be realized with the help of strategic and comprehensive public relations work – and on the basis of clear responsibilities and capacities for community management.[vi] The public relations work is, of course, implemented on the basis of the target group to be reached. It is the particular requirements of this group which conditions the formulation of guidelines for the forms of address and the channels for public relations work. I recommend getting a suitable media partner on board at an early stage. In my case this was the local newspaper Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten. We agreed that they would run an interview with me at the start of the project, place several free advertisements about the project and establish a social media presence.

Figure 6: One of the advertisements that the local newspaper Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten displayed for the project in its print editions.

In order to interest other regional media in the project, three press releases were produced, with the result that the newspaper Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung, Radio Potsdam and the local tv station HAUPTSTADT.TV also reported on the project. In addition, institutional multipliers such as the Film Museum Potsdam, ProWissen (a local society for the dissemination of science) and the City of Potsdam were won over to the project. They, too, reported on the project in their social media channels in addition to the Film University. Invitations were sent out to citizens’ associations and district networks, the municipal housing and construction company, the Potsdam Marketing und Service GmbH and the local Adult Education Centre. In addition to this regionally focused public relations work, the project was presented on Bürger schaffen Wissen and a Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter account were set up. It became obvious to me that this network structure for public relations work could only be set up because I already knew many of the partners mentioned. Taking this into account makes sense to focus one’s efforts on a familiar and manageable locale when starting out in citizen research.


Defining indicators and deepening knowledge on both sides

A further requirement of citizen research projects is that impact indicators should be defined and communicated in advance, including scientific papers, conference lectures and popular science presentations.[vii] The thinking here is that how interim results and findings are communicated to  the scientific community and society in general must be planned in advance. This requirement can be coupled with another, namely that citizen research projects should be designed in such a way that they contribute equally to the deepening of knowledge on the part of the professional as well as the citizen researchers. It has frequently been pointed out that this certainly requires pedagogical skills and specific formats.[viii] The Green Paper Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany published by the project BürGEr schaffen WISSen – Wissen schafft Bürger (GEWISS) also speaks of the fact that the participants should be able to learn “in a partnership of respect and at eye level”[ix]. Accordingly, my indicators include not only milestones of dissemination and knowledge transfer or science communication, but also formats in which the collected data is analyzed together with citizen researchers and transformed into practical proposals for action for urban development. In addition to workshops, this involved a collective real-time hike to the actual filimic artifacts sites and their analysis in an urban context. This joint field excursion was planned for the Read-a-Road-Map-Day on April 5, 2020. A large part of the plan, however, had to be put on hold due to the Corona crisis. In the next few weeks, I have to decide whether I can set up alternative online proposal.


Recognition for the citizen researchers

A strong emphasis is put on the fact that citizen researchers should not be exploited, but should receive thanks and recognition for their work.[x] It is recommended that they be named as co-authors and/or receive “motivational rewards”[xi]. I followed this principle by mentioning the participation of citizen researchers in the metadata, on the Google Map and in publications. Furthermore, various prizes were raffled among the participants. The partner institutions, such as Film Museum Potsdam and its cinema, donated tickets for exhibitions and film screenings. I contributed thematically matching book prizes and further prizes were donated by the newspaper Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten. In order to be able to determine winners despite the partial anonymity of those who offered submissions, the above mentioned self-chosen abbreviations were necessary. It is important to note that for each raffle, rules for participation and data protection must be developed and published.

Figure 7: Screenshot of my project page with some prizes that were raffled off among the citizen researchers.


Research ethics

In every research project one must ask oneself to what extent ethical aspects come into play. Depending on the research design, citizen research projects require ethical sensitivity on several levels. It is imperative that ethical implications must be examined and taken into account.[xii] In addition to publications specifically on the topic of citizen science and ethics, I have based my work on a document of the European Union on Ethics in Social Science and Humanities and found a lot of helpful information and suggestions on the VerbundFDB website. This is an association of research data centers in educational research, whose data management and ethics information was easily transferable to the citizen research project context. In addition to the transparent and truthful communication of the research objectives, the following is of the highest priority: disclosure of the sources of funding and the project partners; provision of contact possibilities; the protection of the participating citizens from any damage. This protection was first of all implemented by the measures for data protection and data management described above. Furthermore, it was emphasized to the interested parties at various points that participation is voluntary, that a revocation or limitation of the given consent is possible and that this would not result in disadvantages for the co-researchers.

It was also important to inform fellow researchers about the legal framework conditions for the taking of photographs in public spaces and to point out again and again that in case of doubt, no photographs should be taken. Depending on the task at hand, it may be necessary to carry out training and some pre-testing prior to data collection. In order not to burden the citizen researchers, the project, or the public with complications regarding personal rights, all submitted photos were checked and, in the case of a submission, parts of pictures were blurred, so as to render license plates and people unrecognizable. Communicating this security measure to the co-researchers meant that they could be sure that no critical data was included in the database. I, as project leader, reserved the right to exclude, delete or edit submitted research data I considered racist, obscene or a violation of personal rights. Such a notice not only protects against trolling, for example, but also protects citizen researchers from having their data found next to entries that might be deemed questionable.

The basic requirements for citizen science projects listed here are not complete. The assurance of data quality, for example, was merely touched upon; and the evaluation of citizen research projects was not mentioned at all. The third and last blog entry, however, goes precisely in the direction of an initial evaluation. There I will report on how the project has actually progressed and why, despite a discrepancy between theory and practice and an apparent mismatch between effort and the number of participants, I draw a positive interim conclusion.


[i] See Daniel Wyler, François Grey, Citizen science at universities: Trends, guidelines and recommendations, (Leuven 2016) 4 and European Citizen Science Association (ECSA), Ten Principles of Citizen Science, September 2015.

[ii] See Paul Ayris, Alea López de San Román, Katrien Maes, Ignasi Labastida, Open Science and its role in universities: A roadmap for cultural change (Leuven 2018) 21; Wyler, Grey, Citizen science at universities, 4 and ECSA, Ten Principles of Citizen Science.

[iii] See Wyler, Grey, Citizen science at universities, 13.

[iv] See Jana Rückert-John et al, Konzept zur Anwendbarkeit von Citizen Science in der Ressortforschung des Umweltbundesamtes. Abschlussbericht (Dessau-Roßlau 2017) 26–29.

[v] See Ayris et al, Open Science and its role in universities, 21, Wyler, Grey, Citizen science at universities, 4 and ECSA, Ten Principles of Citizen Science.

[vi] See Ayris et al, Open Science and its role in universities, 21 and Wyler, Grey, Citizen science at universities, 4 and 10.

[vii] Ibid., 4 and 10–11.

[viii] See ibid. and ECSA, Ten Principles of Citizen Science.

[ix] Aletta Bonn et al, Green Paper Citizen Science Strategy 2020 for Germany (Leipzig, Berlin, 2016), 13.

[x] See Ayris et al, Open Science and its role in universities, 21 and ECSA, Ten Principles of Citizen Science.

[xi] Wyler, Grey, Citizen science at universities, 4, see also 13.

[xii] See ibid., 7 and 13 and ECSA, Ten Principles of Citizen Science.


Anna Luise Kiss is a PostDoc Researcher at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF and currently heads the BMBF-funded research project The cinematic face of cities. She is editor of the anthology Jede Menge Perspektiven. Der Regisseur Herrmann Zschoche (CineGraph Babelsberg, 2014) and – together with Dieter Chill – of Pathenheimer: Filmfotografin. DEFA Movie Stills (Ch. Links Verlag, 2016) and co-editor of the current issue of the FFK Journal (Avinus, 2020). Her dissertation Topografie des Laiendarsteller-Diskurses – zur Konstruktion von Laiendarstellerinnen und Laiendarstellern im Kinospielfilm (Springer VS) was published in March 2019. Also recently published was “Eine Medienwissenschaftlerin und eine Schauspielerin unterhalten sich über Performanz in ihrem beruflichen Alltag. Eine Text-Performance“ in Thomas Etzemüller (ed.) Der Auftritt. Performance in der Wissenschaft (transcript, 2019).


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