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Studying the Science of Citizen Science

Photo courtesy: Front Range Pika Project

Laura McDuffie is a faculty member in Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage and her boots are always muddy from wading through the mud in search of boreal birds. She runs a citizen science project every spring that engages Audubon volunteers in collecting information on wetland use by declining boreal wetland birds. Her project, dubbed Alaska Birds ‘n’ Bogs, is part of our community at CitSci.org. Her volunteers are part of our community. They are CitSci.org.

Megan Mueller - wildlife biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild - hikes 10+ miles up steep terrain to monitor American pikas (Ochotono princeps). She runs another CitSci.org project called the Front Range Pika Project. Her project inspired other projects such as the Cascades Pika Watch that adopted her protocols. These projects and people are also CitSci.org. They are also our community.

Yet - we are wondering the degree to which you see yourself as part of the larger CitSci.org family. Towards this end - we often ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a part of a virtual citizen science community?” So, naturally we set out to learn more about it. We had an opportunity - with help from experts in human computer interaction attending the 2017 Applied Computer Machinery: Computer Supported and Cooperative Work Conference - to participate in a workshop devoted to the science of citizen science. In particular - studying citizen science as it unfolds on virtual communities like CitSci.org.

The organizers of this workshop (Edith Law, Andrea Wiggins, Jennifer Preece, Alex Williams, Jonathan Brier and ourselves) set out to ask and try to answer questions such as:

  • How can we study citizen science?

  • What theories, methods, and platforms can be used to advance the science of citizen science?

  • How do we evaluate the success of citizen science projects that are enacted through different design and/or implementation approaches?

  • How can we ensure data quality from transient, anonymous volunteers whose expertise and interests are unknown and difficult to estimate?

  • What is the nature of the interaction between citizen scientists and scientists in different types of projects? How can we design technology to support these different kinds of interactions?

  • How do we motivate citizens to participate?

  • How can citizen science platforms be designed to adequately address the needs and concerns of scientists while simultaneously addressing the needs of participants?

Researchers, including CitSci.org, gathered in Portland, Oregon to address these very questions. Our break out group came up with a suite of 28 platform characteristics that may be relevant for platforms when designing for scientific study of the citizen science phenomenon. Many of them relate to aspects of online virtual communities - real tangible features that our community, like Laura and Megan, can use to better engage their own communities in their projects on Citsci.org. These features include forums, leaderboards, wikis, integrations with tools like Google Drive, Asana, and Sign Up Genius, and more automated email correspondence and notifications / alerts when activity happens in online project virtual spaces such as our project profile hubs for our projects on Citsci.org.

In true scientific fashion, plans are in the works to publish these characteristics in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. We’d love to hear your thoughts about adding the sorts of capabilities mentioned above to online platforms like CitSci.org. What online tools would you find interesting/useful to help you with your citizen science project? Drop us a line at webmaster@citsci.org to join the conversation!

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