To know if citizen science is a success, measure it – Horizon Magazine Blog
As you read this, thousands of ordinary citizens across Europe are busy labelling, categorizing and counting in the name of science. They can report on crop yields, analyze plastic waste found in nature, or monitor wildlife populations. This relatively new method of public participation in scientific research is gaining momentum both in terms of the quality and scale of projects.
Of course, people have been sharing their observations of the natural world for millennia – long before the term “citizen science” appeared on the cover of the sociologist. Alan IrwinThe 1995 book “Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise, and Sustainable Development”.
Today, citizen science is on the rise with larger, more ambitious and better interconnected projects than ever before. And while collecting seawater samples and photographing wild birds are two well-known examples of citizen science, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Citizen science is evolving thanks to new data collection techniques made possible by the Internet, smartphones and social networks. Increased connectivity encourages a wide range of observations that can be easily recorded and shared. Reams of data from crowds of members of the public are a boon for researchers working on large-scale, geographically diverse projects. It would often be too difficult and expensive to obtain this data otherwise.
Both sides win because scientists are helped to collect much better data and an enthusiastic audience can engage with the fascinating world of science.
But success has been difficult to define, let alone translate into evaluation indicators. Until now.
A group of EU researchers took up the challenge of creating the first integrated and interactive platform to measure the costs and benefits of citizen science.
Hundreds of questions
“The platform will be very complex but capable of capturing the characteristics and results of projects, and measuring their impact on several areas such as society, economy, environment, science and technology and governance,” said said Dr Luigi Ceccaroni, who coordinates the Measuring the impact of citizen science (MICS) behind the platform. Currently in the test phase, the platform should be put into service before the end of this year.
‘Imagine, we work with more than 200 variables. So you can understand the complexity and how comprehensive this platform will be. This is the first time that a project has considered so many variables and so many areas of citizen science,” he explained. “Basically, the platform captures data through questions, and like I said, we have over 200 of them. Some are simple questions; others are more complex.
The questions relate to the role and responsibilities of the public (citizen-scientists), and whether their participation in the project has influenced them in any way (changes in values, opinions, attitudes or perspectives).
Another set of questions explores the impact of a project on the different areas. For example, projects are asked whether the innovation resulting from their project translates into growth in productivity and gross domestic product (GDP). There are also questions exploring the level of trust between project participants and other stakeholders.
“We rely on the information provided by the project coordinators,” Ceccaroni added. “Sometimes they measure these aspects in a very concrete and scientific way. Sometimes they think they do, but they don’t. The platform will help them to start measuring what is not being measured and to understand how to measure.
For example, many multiple-choice answers on the platform offer the option “Yes, but it’s not measured”. By selecting this answer, project coordinators will be directed to a tool that will show them how to start measuring.
“One thing MICS has taught me is that impact evaluation is extremely complex,” said Ceccaroni, who brings more than a decade of citizen science experience to the project.
“With the platform, our goal is to make it useful even before a project starts – when it’s time to introduce impact-related elements and shape the project in a way that makes sure that the impact can be measured.”
Capture and communicate impacts
According to Dr. Raul Drachman, citizen science projects contribute to learning, skill development, scientific understanding, science awareness and enjoyment. His observation is based on the conclusions of an international investigation carried out by the CS-TRACK project he coordinates. The survey assessed the experience of more than 1,000 volunteers participating in citizen science projects on biodiversity in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
“We have discovered in our project – also through studies we have carried out on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – that the environmental subject is extremely important (in particular, but not only, climate change) in the context of the citizen science,” Drachman said. “There is no doubt that the high attention given to the subject is having an effect on individual and social perceptions and attitudes related to the main issues involved.”
Researchers also explored topics such as education, healthcare, and emerging challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our research revealed a lot of information about sex, age and other parameters at the level of individual participants. The inclusion of diverse audiences in citizen science is of great importance for the advancement of the field and for creating a real impact on science and society.
Another crucial factor considered is the perceived quality of citizen science data. It is important to show what emerges from research involving citizens who are not scientists. ‘So you saw a bird that was different from the others, and you shared that information. So what?’ said Drachman. “We need to be able to explain why it matters and show what happened with this scouting. Of course, as researchers, we are aware of the value of the information gathered by citizens. It is important to make it known more widely.
By opening up the process of knowledge creation beyond the confines of universities and research institutions, citizen science enables the inclusion of local expertise and lay knowledge into the scientific process. It also enriches the search results.
More than halfway through the three-year research project, Drachman identified another key takeaway: the need for moderation. “Citizen science brings together many actors – scientific and non-scientific – from different fields and expertise. It is never certain that they understand each other. So the question is how to ensure that interest from all sides is maintained and the project moves forward. The solution is to effectively moderate between all parties.
It is essential to respond to the data needs and the contrasting motivations of the different stakeholders (researchers, citizens, policy makers and business consultants). Moreover, reaching a common understanding of citizen science and its benefits for science and society is crucial if projects are to continue to grow and respond to both local issues and global challenges. This, in turn, will increase trust and acceptability of citizen-generated data to address grand challenges like the SDGs.