Photo: Florens Förster

OpenGeoResearch – an app for open questions in the geosciences

A contribution by RWTH at ‘Science Year 2022 – Participate!’

Can you actually predict a rainbow? Why are some trees in the city painted white? And how on earth does sand from the Sahara end up in central Europe? Answers to all these questions can be found in the OpenGeoResearch app developed at RWTH, which enables anybody to ask questions of scientists while out and about.

‘Who, how, what? Why, what for? If you don’t ask, you’ll never know!’ What we learned early on as children, often in a fun, rhyming form, could often come unraveled if our parents couldn’t answer our questions. Today, however, we have access to all imaginable information on the smartphone in our pocket. All the same, if there isn’t a straightforward Wikipedia article to hand, our enthusiasm for searching quickly wanes. The more motivated among us may take the intention home to research more thoroughly on the computer, but where do you actually find out about the water quality of a river?

Help is now at hand with the OpenGeo- Research mobile app, developed by the Geodetic Institute and Chair for Computing in Civil Engineering & Geo Information Systems and with support from the RWTH Department of Geography. To the questions mentioned above it adds the spatial ‘Where?’ and enables questions to be asked in connection with their associated location and for uploaded images to be added. The questions can then be answered by the community; more complex ones are forwarded to experts, who also provide detailed information. The app is part of ‘Science Year 2022 – Participate!’, organized by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). This has resulted in many projects being set up that promote dialog between scientists and citizens. This should enable, on the one hand, scientific work and findings to be communicated in an easy-to-understand way, in the classic sense of scientific communication. On the other hand, Science Year 2022 places particular focus on the opposite direction: citizens are given a voice, in the sense that they are offered contact points for their questions and ideas. Accordingly, not only is science communicated, but on the contrary, science should also be able to learn something – the interests of the app users should be located and used as initiators for future research questions.

‘Citizen science’, participatory communication

Science and research pervade every area of our lives. Whether it is the growing significance of algorithms in everyday life or the effects of our way of life on the global climate, society at the start of the 21st century is facing major challenges. If we are to overcome these challenges together and to actively shape our society, our willingness to engage with research findings and to contribute our own perspectives is crucial.

OpenGeoResearch offers a possibility of this kind for interested persons to enter into an exchange with the geoscientists. Here again, both modes of communication can be pursued – the geoscientists can share their scientific knowledge with the interested public, while the questions asked of them can be starting points for regional research projects. Participation by the public in scientific processes is known as ‘citizen science’, or science conducted by the general public. Participation in this approach, which is highly popular at present, should however not be restricted to merely asking questions. Rather, members of the public can also serve as ‘generators of learning’ or make their personal experience available to science – which can be highly valuable, particularly in the regional context. One example could be information provided by older residents if they are asked to describe the frequency and intensity of floods that occurred before regular measurements were made.

The OpenGeoResearch project aims to bring the ‘interested public’ and ‘experts’ together, while ensuring that the latter category, as described above, is not limited only to scientists. Questions can also be answered by any member of the community, so that use can be made of specific local expertise on the one hand and discussions can be enabled between the participants on the other. These discussions could also offer a highly promising approach to the development of future research perspectives.

This participatory method is intended to cover all content relating to climate, environment, and the city: the app invites questions on all geoscientific subjects such as geology, climate, vegetation, geomorphology, hydrology, but also on related areas such as city and regional planning and architecture. A person asking a question will place it in one or another subject category. This is intended to simplify the process of answering the questions and also to aid navigation through questions already asked for other users. Tags can also be added to the question so that further categorization is possible. What is special about this app, however, is, above all, the physical location of the question. In addition to the question itself and an optional photo of the object or scene about which the question is being asked, the geocoordinates of the smartphone are captured by GNSS. This makes a more precise answer possible. Cartographic representations of situations are a key area of the geosciences, which always also represent phenomena in their spatial dimension. First experiences with the app have shown that this approach is a success; many of the questions can be answered particularly well with the use of maps. The large number of web-based map services that are freely accessible today enables experts to give references directly to a specific section of a particular map series. This approach is particularly relevant for the aspect of environmental education, since these freely accessible map series are known to very few lay people. Giving references to the applications invites the user to ‘rummage’ further through what is on offer and so initiates an engagement with spatial data and the surroundings, with the focus on an area of interest to the person asking.

First experiences with the app have shown that many of the questions can be answered particularly well with the use of maps.
Photo: Florens Förster

Cooperation with geoparks and schools

A particular form of application of local expertise is enabling the cooperation now being set up between the OpenGeoResearch app and the UNESCO Global Geoparks in Germany. The geoparks cover special areas of landscape value, such as the Felsenmeer (‘sea of rocks’) in the Geopark Bergstrasse-Odenwald. For a number of Business areas are ideal locations for the use of the OpenGeoResearch app. For one, the special and often remarkable landscapes often give rise to questions. Additionally, the geoparks are deliberately designed to act as tourism magnets that promote regional development – and this means a large number of people with little or no prior knowledge about the region. The concept is completed by the geopark employees, who act not only as local guides but also serve as experts in the app. Visitors to the geoparks thus profit from a digital, participatory educational service in which they can ask questions that go beyond the information already available to them. On the other hand, the geoparks can find out more about what their visitors are interested in and can thus gradually build up tailored information offerings, for example, in the form of display boards positioned exactly where a particular theme is asked about very frequently. Particularly when it comes to sensitizing children and young people to environmental and nature protection themes, the app should be able to make a useful contribution.

With this aim in mind, schools can also be included in the project – the app can be used, say, in geography classes and on excursions, both by the pupils and also as an additional resource for the teachers. It could thus perform the mapping and capture questions asked during a school excursion that can then be integrated into a subsequent classroom session and discussed there.

Anybody who is now curious and would like to try the OpenGeoResearch app during their next stroll across town or their next nature hike for themselves can install it free of charge from Google Play or the App Store. Questions can be asked by pressing ‘+’ on the home screen. Creating a user profile is optional. To obtain the best possible answer to the question, the location should be captured as well, otherwise the answers can only be vague. The scope of functions is being continually developed further, together with the community, and feedback is therefore always welcomed.

– Larissa Böhrkircher