How to run a successful citizen science project

Keeping participants involved can go a long way.

9 August 2019

Gemma Conroy

Gill Conquest/EXCITES, University College London

Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) empowers participants to design their own projects, such as this initiative to map the forests of Komo, Republic of the Congo.

From keeping track of illegal poaching activity to finding black holes in deep space, citizen science projects are impacting the way scientists carry out data-heavy research.

Establishing such projects – and running them successfully – is no easy task, but the shift towards involving minimally trained volunteers in scientific research is gaining momentum, particularly in conservation and environmental management.

Since 2010, more than 3,000 initiatives have been registered on global citizen science directory, SciStarter, while the online portal, Zooinverse, has established 50 projects in the past decade involving 1.4 million registered volunteers.

These projects, powered by unprecedented numbers of eyeballs on screens and boots on the ground in far-flung locations, are enabling insights and discoveries no single team of scientists could hope to achieve alone.

The National Audubon Society’s long-running Christmas Bird Count, for example, has informed more than 200 journal papers, and data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey has been included in some 670 peer-reviewed articles so far.

Involving volunteers in research has many benefits, including speeding up data collection and enabling long-term monitoring in remote areas. But getting a citizen science project off the ground can be daunting, with participants to train, funding hurdles to overcome and tools to source or develop.

Nature Index spoke to three researchers about how they keep their citizen science projects on track.

1. Keep it simple

Peering into the night sky through a massive telescope isn’t the only way to discover new black holes. A laptop, an internet connection and a Facebook account is all RAD@home participants need to get involved in astronomy research.

Launched in 2013 by astronomer Ananda Hota from the UM-DAE Center for Excellence in Basic Sciences, based at the University of Mumbai, RAD@home is India’s first and only astronomy citizen science project.

Over six years, the project has grown to include more than 150 trained participants, or ‘e-astronomers’, and around a dozen professional scientists. Some of the project’s discoveries include a number of new episodic, star-forming and bent-lobe radio galaxies.

Hota says the key to RAD@home’s success is its simplicity: “Most people know how to upload an image on Facebook or fill out a Google doc. If contributing to science is just a few clicks, then more people can get involved.”

Volunteers are first instructed to create coloured multiwavelength images of galaxies using NASA’s Skyview Virtual Telescope tool.

These images are shared on the RAD@home Facebook group, where they are scrutinized by the rest of the team.

The best-performing volunteers are then selected to participate in training sessions at the week-long RAD@home Discovery Camp, which has been held at various institutions across India, including the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar and the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad.

These advanced participants learn how to identify black hole galaxy systems in images taken by India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope.

2. Listen to the participants

Building strong relationships with remote communities leads to better results for scientists and participants, says Muki Haklay.

Haklay leads Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS), an initiative that helps remote communities around the world develop their own research projects to solve local issues by combining their traditional knowledge with technology. The project has so far been linked to 14 peer-reviewed articles.

“We follow a fairly long process of engaging with the communities that we work with,” says Haklay, professor of geographic information science at University College London.

“The people we work with have a lot of control over the research question and the actions that will follow the study.”

The program’s five-year Analysis and Visualization project involves indigenous communities in tracking illegal poaching, plant health and wildlife in Cameroon, Brazil, Kenya and Namibia.

The program has received €2.5 million (US$2.8 million) in funding to date from the European Research Council.

In the jungles of Cameroon, ExCites researchers have teamed up with the Baka hunter-gatherer community to uncover illegal poaching of chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants.

The participants collect data using Sapelli, a custom-made smartphone app, which is shared with researchers and international law enforcement agencies working to understand wildlife trafficking networks.

When designing a citizen science project, Haklay says it’s important to get to know the participants: “Listen to them, and don’t assume that you know their lives or the issues that concern them. Treat them as your peers and partners.”

3. Give feedback, and stay in touch

Keeping track of the enormous diversity of life in the world’s oceans is no easy task for researchers. Reef Life Survey tackles this problem using recreational divers from Australia, Canada, Spain and Chile who record and monitor global marine biodiversity.

Headed by reef ecologist Graham Edgar from the University of Tasmania (UTAS) in Australia, Reef Life Survey divers explore underwater formations called transects, where they manually record the fish and invertebrate species they encounter, and take photos and video footage.

The project’s 12,882 surveys have recorded more than 4,800 reef-dwelling species in 53 countries since its conception in 2007. Data collected by Reef Life Survey divers has contributed to some 77 scientific papers and reports, six of which were published in Nature.

In 2018, Reef Life Survey divers identified a new population of the critically endangered red handfish (Thymichthys politus) on the Tasman Peninsula.

With just one other known population of red handfish consisting of no more than 40 individuals in southeast Tasmania, the discovery led to the establishment of the government-supported Handfish Conservation Program.

Along with scientists from Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO, and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) at UTAS, divers will now closely monitor the species and search for undiscovered populations.

To keep volunteers engaged, Reef Life Survey conducts regular surveying weekends that are open to the diving community.

Edgar says staying in touch with volunteers and providing prompt feedback plays a critical role in keeping participants interested in the project.

“Unless participants see that their efforts are appreciated and are making a tangible contribution, they will probably lose interest,” he says.

“But if they know they are contributing to better management, they’re keen to help out more.”

Read next:

Citizen science papers have more impact

A better measure of research from the global south

Novel findings rare from international collaborations

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