Kate & Krystian with Turing's Sunflowers grown on their allotment

Turing’s Sunflowers: Growing community through #citizenscience

As part of my fellowship I want to reflect on past work in order to learn from citizen science practice. So, I jumped at the chance to reflect on Turing’s Sunflowers, a citizen science experiment I coordinated for MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester) in 2012, through the lens of the ethics of community based participatory research. It will be published at some point on the NCCPE website, but since I keep referring to this case study and have nothing to link to, I have decided to post it on my blog. I’ve also updated the case study with reference to a paper by Amy Freitag which encapsulates the idea of citizen science as a means to ‘recognize the wider contexts of science, including culture and policy‘.

This case study draws heavily on the findings of the independent evaluation report on Turing’s Sunflowers for MOSI by Sally Fort.

Turing’s Sunflowers: Growing community through citizen science.

Erinma Ochu, Jonathan Swinton and Natalie Ireland

Project Description

Citizen Science is where the public participate in scientific research on a voluntarily basis. Participation might include shaping the research question, crowdsourcing a dataset and/or analyzing data [1]. Turing’s Sunflowers [2] was a citizen science experiment led by MOSI and Manchester Science Festival to celebrate mathematician, Alan Turing, in the 2012 centenary of his birth [3]. Best known for cracking the enigma code during World War II, Turing was also fascinated by how mathematics works in nature, e.g. in pattern formation [4]. In sunflowers he noticed that the spiral patterns in the seed heads often followed the Fibonacci number sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 (where the next number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two). Turing hoped that by studying sunflowers he might better understand how plants grow, but died before he could finish or publish this work [5]. Turing’s Sunflowers aimed to raise public awareness of Alan Turing’s scientific legacy by encouraging the public to grow sunflowers to create enough data to test Turing’s and other scientists’ theories [6].

Who does it involve? Originally conceived by computational biologist, Professor Jonathan Swinton, who approached MOSI with his citizen science idea [7], the project was coordinated by public engagement specialist, Erinma Ochu, who was hired as a freelancer to work with MOSI’s Learning Team and Jonathan Swinton.

Aims & Objectives

  1. To raise awareness of Alan Turing’s work on Fibonacci numbers by involving 3000 people from Greater Manchester
  2. To explore the role of maths in nature through a series of public engagement activities
  3. To collect sufficient data to carry out the maths analysis and present the results at Manchester Science Festival.

The team worked with a range of cultural and community partners to develop a community engagement programme inviting members of the Greater Manchester public to grow sunflowers, document this activity (through photographs, videos and social media), collect data from their sunflowers and submit this online. The data was then verified against photographs of sunflowers and analysed by Jonathan Swinton. The preliminary results were presented at Manchester Science Festival and online [7, 8].

Manchester City Council provided free sunflower seeds, pots & gardening canes for Manchester schools & community & growing groups and raised the profile of the project through gardening festivals e.g. Dig the City and planting events in public parks in Manchester City Centre. Traditional and social media were used extensively to engage the public in the programme and to encourage partners and the public to host their own activities. These groups spread the word, planted sunflowers, played with ideas of mathematics in nature and sunflowers, submitted data, created learning resources and experimented with the results [8]. The project secured enough data to analyse and confirmed Turing’s observations whilst achieving a global media reach of 62.8 million people and participation of well over 3000 people in Greater Manchester. Project evaluation demonstrated that all of the aims and objectives were met [8].

2. Ethical issues anticipated in the project A range of ethical issues were considered at the planning stage, including data ownership, photographic consents, recognition of public contributions, the differing capacities of community groups and schools to participate and to understand the results. Whilst MOSI had the final say on all decisions, a creative workshop at the outset involved all partners to address and provide innovative solutions to challenges including ethical ones. It was agreed at the outset that participants would be credited on the Turing’s Sunflowers website and on academic publications that resulted by linking to this page [9]. The public were encouraged to visualize, document and share their progress through blogs, photographs, video diaries and learning resources [8]. To avoid ownership issues over content, creative commons licensing was encouraged for people to share their content with MOSI and more widely. Sourcing user produced content for use within MOSI’s website enabled recognition of participants contributions and added value and saved a lot of time creating resources from scratch.

bothPhoto by Looby.Lu

3. Ethical issues emerging and developing. Additional issues emerged at the first partner meeting and online via social media including considering environmental sustainability. Additional partners were sought or emerged (often via social media) to advise on several issues, including enabling public access to the results data whilst maintaining privacy over personal data. Whilst a map indicating where participants were growing sunflowers was used to drive participation and to recognise contributions, it was important to not pinpoint individual houses were sunflowers were grown.

Sunflower Harvest Map
Sunflower Harvest Map

Not everyone had the capacity to grow sunflowers outdoors as many people lived in flats or didn’t have a garden. Whilst several large cultural partners grew sunflowers on site and invited the public to planting events, financial support was secured from the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufacturing and Industry NorthWest Venture Fund and the Granada Foundation to widen community involvement.

Kate & Krystian with Turing's Sunflowers grown on their allotment
Support worker and volunteer, Kate & Krystian with Turing’s Sunflowers grown on the Booth Centre’s allotment

This meant that homeless individuals could be involved through Manchester Booth Centre and through Eastland Homes, a housing association, several hundred Manchester residents were engaged through a residents’ family fun day and a Turing’s Sunflowers float at Manchester Pride parade.

Sunflower FloatSpot the Fibonacci Numbers, Photo by Lucy Bridges

In terms of data ownership, people were given the option to submit their results to the research project. Only one person opted out of this. We felt it was important that people were opting in to the experiment. To ensure that people could understand the results, MOSI’s Turing costume character put on a public show ‘cracking nature’s code’ explaining the results through stories. To facilitate a tacit knowledge of Fibonacci numbers and how they work, Open Voice community choir was invited to compose (by Carol Donaldson) and perform a simple song that illustrated the Fibonacci numbers in music [7]. This was particularly important because the final evaluation revealed that some children and older adults found it difficult to count spirals.

4.  Learning from the experience of working with these ethical issues. Whilst not replacing traditional approaches, creative and crowdsourcing solutions to ethical challenges seemed to work well, as did the use of creative commons licensing on photographic content. We worked with a number of partners who advised us along the way, including Open Data Manchester, BBC Outreach, Manchester City Council, Jodrell Bank, Manchester Museum, gardeners and allotment growers who grew sunflowers. It worked well, getting hackers to interpret and analyse the data, but it is also important to enable participants without digital expertise to analyse and understand the dataset. As part of the project legacy, I’m exploring ways to better support this through a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship, including the possibility of working with an LGBT group to create relevant resources. The crowdsourcing of resources often needs more time and planning to be effective. However the project reached a wide diversity of people in terms of ethnicity, learning abilities, age and geographic location.


  • Apply the ethical guidelines at the outset to help shape the research and plan the project [10]
  • Contribute to and learn from others addressing ethical issues for citizen science [11]
  • Build in time to crowdsource and co-produce learning resources [1]
  • Celebrate and encourage the cultural side to citizen science, data collection, analysis and interpretation and community building [12]
  • Support and encourage conversations, relationship and skills development to build community and learning beyond the project [12]

Further details:

[1] Tweddle, J.C., Robinson, L.D., Pocock, M.J.O & Roy, H.E. (2012). Guide to citizen science: developing, implementing and evaluating citizen science to study biodiversity and the environment in the UK. Natural History Museum and NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology for UK-EOF.

[2] Turing’s Sunflowers website www.turingsunflowers.com

[3] 2012 Alan Turing Year website: http://www.mathcomp.leeds.ac.uk/turing2012/

[4] Turing A.M. Morphogenesis, volume 3. Elsevier, 1992.

[5] Swinton J. Watching the daisies grow: Turing and Fibonacci phyllotaxis. Springer, second edition, 2004.

[6] Roger V.Jean. Phyllotaxis: A Systemic Study in Plant Morphogenesis (Cambridge Studies in Mathematics). Cambridge University Press, January 1994.

[7] Turing’s sunflowers results: http://www.turingsunflowers.com/results

[8] Sally Fort. (2012) Turing’s Sunflowers Evaluation Report for MOSI.

[9] Turing’s Sunflowers acknowledgements: http://www.turingsunflowers.com/results/citizenscientists

[10] Centre for Social Justice, Durham Ethical Guidance: http://www.dur.ac.uk/beacon/socialjustice/ethics_consultation/

[11] Stone J. (2013) Of Citizen Science, Ethics, and IRBS – the view from science online: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/molecules-to-medicine/2013/02/05/of-citizen-science-ethics-and-irbs-the-view-from-science-online/

[12] Freitag A, Pfeffer MJ (2013) Process, Not Product: Investigating Recommendations for Improving Citizen Science “Success”. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64079. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064079

So glad i posted this myself. Just finished inserting all the audiovisual content from the project into this blog post and watching it all again has brought back the memories of the sheer joys of running this project.

Huge thanks again to everyone who took part, to Jonathan Swinton for his brilliant idea, to Natalie Ireland (MOSI) for picking me out of the 45 or so people who applied to coordinate the project.

This project really changed my outlook on life and work – that’s the thing that will stay with me – and, I can’t really articulate it in words – its something that’s wedged inside my brain and felt in my heart every time i look at or think about sunflowers. Turing’s Sunflowers has created, what Antonio Damasio calls, a feeling of what happened (check out his book of the same name).  Its this ‘feeling’ that science often lacks in its methods to convey the knowledge that it creates (which actually then, is only a half-knowledge) – by putting society back into science – rather than stripping it of feelings and emotions – fibonacci numbers, Alan Turing and Sunflowers are now part of my emotional world. If science is to become truly embedded within society – the cultural context in which science happens needs desperately to be opened up and explored.

Whilst in the New York, after a trip to the surreal ‘Sleep no more‘ set in a hotel, and later, surrounded by churches in Harlem, I had a truly mad idea about how to experiment with this… next stop Transmedia Next, London.

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