Daniel Lombraña González: Human Stories in Citizen Science

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 27 December 2018

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Created by Daniel Lombraña González

In many ways, Daniel Lombraña González is the perfect representation of why we have faith in the Shuttleworth Foundation model. He is a bright, driven individual who came to the Fellowship in 2013 with Crowdcrafting, an idea formed while collaborating with former Fellows Francois Grey and Rufus Pollock, and he has established his for-profit company, Scifabric, as a completely sustainable social venture that pays for itself.

But most importantly, he has broken citizen science free from its box. Once the preserve of hard research, Daniel has taken a crowbar to open up crowdsourcing and made it accessible for a range of diverse people and fields, from researchers through to volunteer citizen scientists.

The story of PYBOSSA, Crowdcrafting and, eventually, Scifabric have been told before. This time, we spoke to Daniel to hear in his own words about his inspiration, journey as one of the Foundation’s most successful, sustainable Fellows, and the remarkable impact his work has had on the world.

Shuttleworth Foundation: Hi Daniel - thanks for talking to us. We first met you while you were working with Francois Grey. How did that come about?

Daniel Lombraña González: By happy accident! While I was doing my PhD at the University of Extremadura, I heard that someone from CERN was looking for students and teachers. You had to move to Geneva, so lots of people rejected it. I went, and that’s where I met Francois. He wasn’t a Fellow at the time, but that was my first contact with him.

I worked on volunteer computing. Instead of using massive computers you use humans - you ask people to use their computer memory and CPU to run simulations in the background. That was in 2006, and I stayed in contact, doing occasional workshops. In parallel I was getting frustrated with academia and when I finished my PhD I just wanted to leave.

So I told Francois I was looking for a job and by luck, he had just been awarded the Fellowship. So that’s how I met the crew…he gave me a job, and I worked with him at the Citizen Cyberlab.

And managed to build PYBOSSA…

We were using the BOSSA software for some time. The fundamentals and the direct idea were excellent, but from the technical perspective, I didn’t like it. At one workshop I convinced Francois and Rufus Pollock we could rebuild it with Python, and call it PYBOSSA. It was much easier to use, even from a technical perspective.

So that went well, and we started to get some attention, but unfortunately, Francois only had a one-year Fellowship. We began to look for funding in other avenues and obtained a grant from the Sloan Foundation but eventually ran out of money. Francois suggested I apply to the Shuttleworth Foundation. He told me about the Gatherings, and I knew if I wanted to carry this on I only had two choices: go look for a regular job or try something crazy.

You spent three years as a Shuttleworth Fellow. What do you remember, both professionally and personally?

The first steps were to set up a company, try and find new clients, hire a team and learn to manage them. The central technical part was PYBOSSA. We did a lot of things with it in the first year, which was also about getting Crowdcrafting up and running as a portal.

It took three years of refining, modifying and learning. Most of that learning was about how to run a business and a team - as Philipp Schmidt says, the Fellowship forces you to think like a businessman. It’s like an MBA on steroids.

You don’t have other ways of learning like this, and it made me question why universities don’t teach you how to run a business. It’s a valuable lesson because you are putting a lot of people at risk; not just the staff but also their families. It’s like a rollercoaster, and you never know what’s going to be next.

I remember one of the first people we hired left me…it was disappointing because he was excellent and we relied on him a lot. That was a learning point. They will come and go there is nothing you can do.

But overall it went very well. One of the aims of the Fellowship was to make PYBOSSA a default for this kind of research, and it’s now the main solution for open source.

And by the end of the Fellowship, we weren’t talking about citizen science at all. More people started asking if they could have PYBOSSA customised for their needs, and it proved to be the right direction. It became more about the project or problem we were solving with the help of real people than the software.

Now, we provide a consultancy service: Scifabric. Anyone can use the software, and they can do whatever they want with it. Our service offers quick development and modification, and we can do it for anyone and anything. Our main message is that we are problem solvers, helping clients find what they are looking for in their data, and that message is more important than saying: Hey, this is powered by PYBOSSA.

When you say ‘anyone,’ you really mean it. You have worked with a diverse range of organisations and had a big impact on people’s lives. What sort of projects stand out most?

Working with the British Museum was huge for us. We learned they have the bronze age collection in cabinets, abandoned in a barrack room - that was like - wow, we are losing a lot of information from our history. Being able to record that and make it available to anyone in the world was big. I can say we have helped record part of our history as humans, thanks to my work.

We also did some important work with Cancer Research UK. They have a citizen science department and were using a competitor’s software, but they were unhappy with the technology. We got involved, helped them run more experiments than they had before and proved that the crowd could behave as well as trained doctors in defining cancer cells, which is huge. Anyone could volunteer and take part with only 25 minutes of training.

Everyone has a family member or a friend or someone you know with experience of cancer. You can’t do anything when other than donate money and pay them, but it still feels like you’re not doing enough. We enable people to fight cancer from home - they can donate their time doing this stuff, and it can be more valuable than giving money.

There was also a Guardian project in Australia. A journalist was looking for illegalities in an election and found out that politicians can get presents from companies and individuals, and the only record is in paper form. He asked for all these paper documents and realised it would be impossible to get through them all and they weren’t machine readable. So, he convinced the newspaper to use PYBOSSA and then scanned everything and put it online - they actually found two guilty people that didn’t do it correctly.

Just one guy in an institution and he changed the game. But what I loved most is that the journalist said it was the work from his readers, not his. This is exactly what I want - the people helping make things happen.

We have many more stories: fighting malaria in Africa, finding places to give soil crops, recovering the history of the Circus in Spain and Europe. We also help (Shuttleworth Alum) Jonny West from Open Oil analyse the contracts they have with petrol companies. I would say 98 percent of our projects have a human impact - it’s these kinds of things make me proud.

How is life as a Shuttleworth Alum?

Everyone has their own problems and lives, but I’m still involved. You learn something new from all the amazing people on the Fellowship. I miss being ‘in it’ but I’m still connected, and I hope it will stay like that for a very long time. I’m still fixing things for Shuttleworth website, too.

Looking back, I found my Everest in the Fellowship - what I’m worst at. I’ve tried to bring in people to help with that, and I’ve realised I need to delegate and trust people. These last three weeks have been on holidays for the first time in eight years because I haven’t heard anything from the team. They have dealt with everything for the first time.

But still, I always feel like something is going to happen. The brain and heart are always in the company and the projects. I’m always wondering what is going to happen next, what is going to fail and when are we done. Those thoughts never go out of my mind, but that’s life when you are a Fellow or Alum.

Thanks for your time, Daniel. Any final thoughts on your memories of the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship?

Most people say university was their best experience, but for me, it was the Fellowship. Everyone loves what they do, and that makes it amazing. I feel like I learned a lot and grew as a person and professional. It’s completely changed the way I am, and it has been the most rewarding experience in my life.

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