The power of the web to harness people’s enthusiasm to collect meaningful information was ably demonstrated by the RabbitScan initiative (www.rabbitscan.net.au). Every year rabbits are estimated to cause $200 million damage to agriculture, let alone their detrimental impact on biodiversity through destruction of native plants and competition for food with native fauna. In 2009, 150 years after the first release of rabbits, the Rabbit Management Advisory Group (RMAG), a collaborative and independent group of landholders, industry, scientific and government experts launched RabbitScan to raise awareness of the impacts of rabbits on both environment and productivity. The initiative was supported by a number of government agencies and private companies, including Spatial Vision. We donated our time to build a mapping engine to capture data from field surveys conducted by members of the public on the impact of rabbits. Importantly, RMAG engaged a publicist to promote RabbitScan across the country. Within the first 12 days 720 surveys were recorded. The following images highlight how rapidly people got on board to enter their surveys.
After five months, over 3,300 surveys were recorded. This represented 3,000 people who had taken the time to conduct at least one survey and enter it into the website. These surveys are now being used to generate a national map on the impact of rabbits. The possibility now exists to use the same approach to monitor changes in rabbit numbers over time and assess the impact of other invasive animals.
RabbitScan highlights how Web 2.0 technology and thinking can be harnessed to engage the community in the collection of information. This ‘citizen science’ approach has long been used by Birds Australia to produce the Atlas of Australian Birds. Since 1998 a dedicated band of over 7,000 ‘atlassers’ have amassed over 420,000 surveys, comprising over 7.1 million bird records. This data forms the basis for research such as The State of Australia's Birds Report.
There is a challenge to convince many scientists that the broader community can play a legitimate role in contributing data. The key is to develop robust, scientifically valid data gathering methodologies .
There is a debate in the scientific community about Science 2.0, which a 2008 article in Scientific American described as the practices of scientists who post raw experimental results, nascent theories, claims of discovery and draft papers on the Web for others to see and comment on. (Is Open Access Science the Future?, May 2008 Scientific American Magazine). The idea is to make the whole scientific process more open, collaborative and productive. One could argue that science could be more open to community derived data that may deliver data that conventional methods would never otherwise afford to collect across the same geographic extent and an expedient timeframe.
In the same vein, the public sector is being challenged to take a more open and transparent approach to publishing and sharing public information under the banner of Government 2.0. In 2009, the Australian Government established a Government 2.0 Taskforce led by Dr Nicholas Gruen to investigate potential uses of public sector information and online engagement. What could Government 2.0 look like? A good example was the process used to develop the Future Melbourne plan for 2020. A draft 10 year plan was developed and made available via a wiki website for the community to review, to propose their own editorial changes, make comments or enter into a group discussions. The online processes have proved to be very successful at engaging people and soliciting their input. The City of Mossman on the northern shores of Sydney Harbour has also implemented a social networking Community Engagement Strategy with an intention to "inform", "consult", "involve" their residence, particularly in planning processes.
The final report from the Taskforce, Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 delivered a series of recommendations about making Public Sector Information (PSI) more generally available, largely via web based publishing. Importantly it recognises that (Web 2.0) technology can be used to increase citizen engagement and collaboration in making policy and service delivery to help achieve a more consultative, participatory and transparent government. One of the major challenges is to encourage public servants to make information available. Anyone with experience in the public sector will know how hard it is to get the words ‘draft’ removed from a report, let alone publish it to the world and inviting comments!
Although the thrust of Government 2.0 is aimed at engagement with the community, there are significant benefits to be realised by more open sharing of data and information between government agencies, across both jurisdictions and tiers.
However, Government 2.0 and Science 2.0 will only reach their potential when public servants and scientists utilise Web 2.0 approaches not only to publish data and information but to enable collaboration with the public and their peers to scrutinise, utilise, comment on and contribute to the content.
Web 2.0 is not just a new way to share information – it can revolutionise they way we converse with peers, constituents and customers.