Article

Modes and Existences in Citizen Science

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Abstract

In the Bay Area of San Francisco, the earthquake contours are not easy to define: seismology is still a relatively recent science, and controversies around methods to evaluate the earthquake risk are constant. In this context, the invitation to think about the modes of citizen science is an opportunity to reflect on the modality of hybridized scientific practices as well as the process by which the plurality and complexity of the earthquake characteristics can be articulated, and sometime reconciled. Looking at different existences of the earthquake risk, the paper investigates different assemblages that question the clear-cut distinction between citizen science and science. I’ll situate the question of the mode of citizen science within the larger framework of interdisciplinarity knowledge infrastructures and the work on ‘mode of existence’ initiated by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers (2009). Expanding our understanding with regard to how CS is performed opens the possibility of reconsidering the specific types of assemblages and infrastructures from which these modes emerge and on their distinct trajectories. It is also an invitation to make visible the integration processes, the communities, and the imaginations that “make” science.

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The 1906 earthquake has been both blessing and curse in its influence on Bay Area and California progress toward more effective management of earthquake risk. This earthquake, and the historical record of its impacts, have both motivated and discouraged policymakers to take action through mitigation and improved emergency response. The San Francisco Bay Area has been blessed with a relative lack of damaging earthquakes in the past 100 years, due, in part, to the occurrence of the 1906 earthquake and the period of relative quiescence following it. Yet many Bay Area residents view the lack of damage in the recent past, not in its historical and seismological context, but as "proof" that the Bay Area's built environment is earthquake-resistant. Efforts to adopt each new seismic mitigation strategy or policy have had to deal with this misperception by providing scientific and historical information about the hazard and risk. The Bay Area bears little resemblance to the relatively rural area that existed in 1906. At that time, the population of the region was approximately 800,000. Today, it is 7 million - over eight times as large. The region's earthquake risk, while clearly not as rapidly growing as its population, is no doubt many times greater than in 1906. While it is easy to criticize Bay Area public policy makers for not doing enough in the last 100 years to protect the safety, property, and economy of the region, there are numerous examples of projects large and small that illustrate great progress. But are these investments in reducing earthquake risk keeping up with the region's growth in overall risk? This paper places the 1906 earthquake into a public policy perspective, using that experience to derive inspiration and course corrections for the region's future earthquake risk management efforts.
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The U.S. Geological Survey is tapping a vast new source of engineering seismology data through its “Did You Feel It?” (DYFI) program, which collects online citizen responses to earthquakes. To date, more than 750,000 responses have been compiled in the United States alone. The DYFI data make up in quantity what they may lack in scientific quality and offer the potential to resolve longstanding issues in earthquake ground-motion science. Such issues have been difficult to address due to the paucity of instrumental ground-motion data in regions of low seismicity. In particular, DYFI data provide strong evidence that earthquake stress drops, which control the strength of high-frequency ground shaking, are higher in the central and eastern United States (CEUS) than in California. Higher earthquake stress drops, coupled with lower attenuation of shaking with distance, result in stronger overall shaking over a wider area and thus more potential damage for CEUS earthquakes in comparison to those of equal magnitude in California—a fact also definitively captured with these new DYFI data and maps.