July 6, 2015: Founder's Note

Big changes are coming soon that will expand my personal world, the OpenScientist world, and the broader citizen science world. So stay tuned for all the details!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Bounty Hunter

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previous: Educator

This Week: Bounty Hunter
Next: Organizer (Coming Soon)

I've been thinking about citizen science bounties for a long time.  Back in 2011 I wrote an initial article talking about their definition and basic potential, hoping this would kick start some new thinking.  Much of that thinking is still valid and has been incorporated here.  But while people sent me some great ideas I have not seen it take off in the field yet.  Still not sure why.  Either way, there are still many great opportunities for both citizen scientists and for businesses wanting to work with them.

What I'm thinking of is very similar to, but distinct from, some of the innovation awards that groups like the Ansari XPrize and U.S. Government's Challenge.gov site have offered.  Those are all focused on achieving a specific technical goal or development of a process.  And they are also quite large endeavors with precise rules on how the goal should be accomplished.  They may be somewhat loose rules, but they are still somewhat prescriptive in how to accomplish the goal.  

The bounties I'm thinking of are different by focusing on discovery, not creation or puzzle-solving.  They reward accomplishment of a specific tangible goal but are usually smaller in nature or more precise.  They also often involve more "brute-force" or trial-and-error searching as compared to innovative or creative puzzle solving. The example is an award to people who can find a particular rare bird, sight the first flower of a certain type to bud in spring, or discover an asteroid that will pass within a certain distance of Earth.  So it rewards a very specific discovery that is not a technical feat in and of itself, though building of tools to aid the discovery (such as building the proper telescopes of automating bird call identifications) may involve significant technical work. 

Historically people have used these types of bounty prizes to accomplish scientific goals but they haven't been popular recently.  Some of the more illustrative examples of bounty prizes I've seen are the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cooperative Computing Awards for finding the largest prime numbers.  The group offered prizes of up to $250,000 to the first person to discover a certain type of prime number.  There were no rules on how to do it, or what should be done with the number.  All the group required was someone to prove that the number was a Mersenne Prime and of the certain length.  This type of bounty-hunting is well-suited for distributed computing approaches that could crunch huge sets of numbers by brute force until the sought-after number was found.  And that's exactly what the GIMPS distributed computing project did to win the two most recent EFF bounties.

On a similar note, there is another concept that I also put into the bounties category.  These again focus on meeting a simple, tangible goal, but are used to reward progress or effort on a per-unit basis.  Again, nothing is being created here.  Instead we are rewarding someone who performs a scientific analysis task ten times, or collects three samples of a certain specimen, devotes 100 hours of computing time, identifies 200 uncharted Mars craters, or tracks the pollution in ten different streams.

Looking around I've seen a few examples of this so far but nothing major, and nothing active right now.  The closest I've found is the Cosmology@Home, a distributed computing project trying to model the current universe from various hypothetical starting points.  To encourage participation researchers offered a prize to the person whose computer model came closest to reality by a certain date; there was not a monetary prize but the winner would be mentioned in scientific articles about the work.  The most widely-known version may be Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk project.  Although not necessarily Citizen Science, it did provide bounties on a piecework basis for crowdsourced activities.  So people could be paid for writing ten web reviews, or transcribing a certain number of podcasts.  The private sector QMULUS Cloud Computing Platform also used this approach to encourage participation in an actual Citizen Science application.  Each month the company gave away gift certificates and free merchandise through a raffle to users of the system.  As a commercial entity they could afford to invest in these give-aways but there's no reason non-profit organizations couldn't do the same thing (ultimately I don't believe the QMULUS group was successful but that doesn't mean other firms can't be successful with similar ideas). There could also be many variations in the raffle system...an entry for every work unit performed, or for per person using the system per month, or per participant in general.  There are many possibilities that could fit depending on the nature of the particular project.

Business Opportunities:
Much like "Solver: models, bounty models are great opportunities for companies interested in the Open Innovation benefits that come with asking the public for help on specific business problems.

One example is understanding protein folding...there are millions of potential ways a large molecule can be put together, but only one is the most stable.  So why not offer a reward to the person discovering the most stable shape using only knowledge of the molecular structure?  If the target chemicals are potential drugs or the cause of a disease, there is a lot of value in this work.  Researchers could provide the components of a key Malaria protein and offer $1,000 to the first person to identify it's shape.  Or provide the shape of an important AIDS protein and provide $5,000 to the person discovering a structure that will fit around it (thus neutralizing it's effect).

Bounty opportunities don't just involve one-of-a-kind discoveries. They can also be used to promote people finding more common items they wouldn't otherwise look for in an organized manner.  For example, a business operating in an environmentally sensitive area may want to encourage citizen scientists to survey the wildlife around a work site to show that environmental protections are working.  It can be expensive to constantly count the animals and plants in the area.  So they could pick some representative species (such as an apex predator) whose presence/lack of presence is correlated to how impacted to the area is, and then offer a bounty prize to whoever spots those animals near the firm's operations.  This rewards the citizen scientists doing the work, and since finding those species has economic value to the firm (by reducing their survey costs and protecting them from the costs of having caused pollution).  

Some people have started trying this model.  One example came up at CitSci 2015 in Tracy Lee's poster, "Unlikely Bedfellows: Industry, Conservation and Citizen Science in the Canadian Oil Sands".  A partnership put between a Canadian oil company (Cenovus) and the environmental non-profit Miistakis Institute created the Wild Watch program for tracking wildlife around some of their oil production facilities.  These facilities extract petroleum from the Canadian Oil Sands, a highly controversial activity due to its potential environmental impact.  Adding bounties as part of the reward mechanism encouraging citizen scientists to participate could potentially increase public participation greatly.

So these are my initial thoughts on bounties.  Right now there is a lot more promise with bounties than successful examples.  But hopefully we can help businesses and citizen scientists build them up together.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Educator

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previously: Paid Participant

This Week: Educator
Next Week: Bounty Hunter

A lot of value comes from the work of citizen science projects.  Some of this comes from the varied and unique perspectives that come from opening problems to the overall public; they can bring ideas that any small group would never have discovered themselves.  In fact the greatest promise (in my mind) of citizen science is this very type of benefit. But currently most value comes from another source, people volunteering to offer free services to the professional and academic researchers.  But why do they do this?

One of the main reasons people join and engage with citizen science projects is for the educational opportunities.  They want to learn about a particular area of science or about the scientific process in general.  So this opens up a new model for monetizing citizen science: Educator.  The best part is, this model provides great opportunities for both businesses providing educational services for profit, as well as individual citizen scientists retaining the value of their own work by selling it as an educational tool. Meeting our goal of businesses both rewarding, and benefiting from, the work of citizen scientists.

Incorporating Citizen Science into Educational Tools
Helping teachers involve students in citizen science is a great opportunity for everyone.  Teachers excite their students about science and help them learn.  Kids get to experience science first hand and have lots of fun in the process.  And businesses can benefit from helping them.

Remember, just because these are children does not mean they can't meaningfully contribute to new discoveries.  Even as we establish that findings of citizen scientists can equal that of paid researchers some people still doubt that extends to schoolchildren.  Yet they've been involved since the very beginning.  Many wildlife identification, weather monitoring, and environmental tracking projects rely on data from schools. The limitation is not the age of the children, but the passion of the teacher and access to the right tools.  And these tools are what businesses can provide.

I'd suggest businesses wanting to enter this market initially approach it as any other "Educational Support" opportunity.  Just take the existing product categories and add a citizen science component.  
Written Materials - For new entrants to the educational field creating supplementary materials for individual science classes.  These can either be project specific, describing a citizen science experiment and providing the educational materials that support it,or it can discuss a scientific topic area and include both experiments and educational materials covering that whole field.   For example.  creating a supplementary text for 6th graders for use when they learn about weather.  The basic science will already be covered in the regular textbook, such as cloud types and how wind is created.  But the supplementary text would go one step further, providing specific guidance on how to go outside and identify various cloud types, how to track them over time, and even how to report them to existing citizen science projects looking for that information.  NASA's S'COOL project collects that as part of it's regular research, though there are presumably others as well. 

There is also a very real market for science textbooks that include citizen science as a part of the curriculum, or even as an overriding theme throughout the book (since much of what has been discovered historically has some sort of citizen science connection).  This new focus can help publishers differentiate their texts from those of competitors. But given the high entry barriers facing new textbook publishers, this is primarily a strategy for current publishers.

Equipment, Supplies, and Kits - There are many firms that manufacture scientific equipment, and many that manufacture equipment to sell to schools.  These are different markets differentiated by the latter typically being lower quality, fewer options, and lower cost.  This meets the needs of students while keeping production numbers high, maximizing efficiencies, and staying within a tight budget.  There is also a third market manufacturing equipment where quality standards increase to be scientifically reliable, but production is still in bulk and options are few to remain cost-competitive to schools. These are perfect for citizen science education and connecting students (of all ages) to real-world research.  This is then sold to the school (or classroom) centrally and then distributed to the students.

Building on our weather example above, there is much more to data collection than just visual observations.  Much of it requires specific equipment such as wind gauges, rain gauges, thermometers and barometers, etc.  There are already non-profit citizen science projects (such as CoCoRAHS) that send out rain gauges and connect them to current research.  But an equipment manufacturing firm could design a whole line of inexpensive, but scientifically accurate, equipment and supplies designed from the beginning to perform real research and connect to ongoing science projects. Some do this for the general public now selling home weather stations that connect to research projects (e.g., National Weather Service stations or Weather Underground), so they'd just need to add educational components that tie everything together and help students learn.

Science Fair - Designing a package of materials that lets students participate in a citizen science project in a stand-alone way so they can use their research as part of a school science fair. This would include background educational material to bring students up-to-speed, detailed instructions on how to set up the project (including connecting to a larger project it would be a part of), and providing the necessary equipment/supplies needed to participate.

The main way I see to be successful is realizing that while science in classrooms is performed by teachers who are trained in the subject and can properly guide students, it is left to parents to guide students in science fairs.  Most don't have the expertise needed to properly guide those kids, so purchasing assistance from a company is a great solution for them.  This is especially because science fairs encourage students to perform more original research than they would in a classroom, leaving parents without much material to draw on.  Another key insight is that while a kit based on existing science materials and experiments might be somewhat successful, it is the citizen science component that makes it special and offers higher returns.  This shows the student performing their own research, a key goal of the science fair. S

The previous two models are focused on class-wide activities and are directed by students.  So we emphasize cost constraints and the need to focus on teacher or school board as the actual customer,  But there are also student-led initiatives, epitomized best by the classic school science fair.  And unlike the previous two models, selling for use in science fairs is much more of "retail" strategy (where units are sold in small individual units to the public) as compared to a more "organizational" strategy (where units are sold in batches to an institutional buyer purchasing for many people). Science fair materials would thus be marketed primarily to either the parents or individual students, though some school districts or teachers may help by steering students toward certain products or favored companies.

Since science fairs are much more about students following their own interests than on pre-determined coursework, any for-profit provider would have to create a wide variety of kits to be successful.  For example, the level of involvement can vary between novice/contributory levels up to expert/co-created types of projects.  Typically this will vary with the child's age (allowing companies to sell to students throughout their educational career) and approximate age level, and should also include a variety of subject areas.  So children can go from just making observations that are part of a larger national project (and learning about the science behind it through the company's supplemental materials) to purchasing kits in later years that involve projects that are much more free-form and 

This looks simple.  Making these citizen science components meaningful is the tough part, especially since the more you can have students creating new research (and not just treading over existing research) the more compelling the product will be. So the development of close ties to the citizen science community and understanding the state of the field are competitive advantages that must be cultivated.

Providing Science Education to Citizen Scientists 
Young students are not the only ones in need of science education these days.  Citizen scientists (of all ages) need it too.  They need it for the projects they join and, as people who by definition have an above average interest in science, they want education for the general learning it can provide. Opening up yet another market for entrepreneurial businesses.

Training Materials Targeted to Specific Citizen Science Projects
Proper training is key to many successful projects and is an element project designers invest a lot of time and money into.   If a company can provide high quality training in this area at a reasonable cost, they should be ale to market it quite effectively.

After initial recruitment, one of the biggest issues citizen science projects must face is properly training their volunteers. While they may come in with much zeal, and maybe even a lot of general science knowledge, they typically are not experts in the field and they certainly don't have the skills for whatever task is being asked of them.  Projects are highly specific and almost always require at least a bit of specialized training.  Even a Ph.D. ornithologist who studies birds for a living may not have training on citizen science projects researching birds not in his specific area of study.  This needs to be taught.  

The needed types of training typically fall into the following categories:
  1. How to use the physical equipment/supplies for real-world projects, or the user interface for web-based projects, and
  2. A description of the essential science specific to the project.

For some projects this is part of the intake process as new participants sign up.  If it's easy for a person to back out (as is the case for many web-based projects), the initial training can be crucial to retaining volunteers.  After that, the quality of training will show up directly in both the quantity and quality of results provided by participants.  This directly impacts the value of the project; either the cost-savings to research or profitability from selling the research.  

Historically project designers create the training themselves because it may need to be specific to the project.  But approached correctly there are many ways for-profit companies can take over that role and do so in a cost-effective way:

  1. Skilled science writers employed by companies do not need expert knowledge of the areas they develop training materials for.  They are knowledgeable enough to learn from the project designers quickly and do their own research to fill in the gaps.  Once caught up, they can develop content that can far exceed what most scientists can.  Developing the science project is where the researcher utilizes their strengths, while the writing and material development is where the science writer's strengths shine.

  2. Although the science in each project is different the methods of teaching and basic principles are often the same. So creating various "modules" that can be mixed/matched to various projects and tweaked to meet the various idiosyncrasies of those projects would be helpful. Companies could invest in them and market to researchers, and if the product is high quality everyone would win.  Especially the citizen scientist learning the new project.  The Zooniverse group of projects are a great example of this.  They do a great job with short-and-sweet trainings that quickly bring participants up to speed and teach some of the science as well. They also seem to use modular concepts, utilizing various bits from existing projects and adapt it to the new.  It's a great model to draw inspiration from.

Learning Materials Targeted to General Scientific Fields
Training citizen science participants is not just important for guiding them through the project and ensuring high quality data.  It is also a goal of its own for citizen scientists themselves.  Many times they join for the specific purpose of learning more about science, and the citizen science project is a fun way to do it.  Making general science education a key retention and recruiting tool; one that can help projects differentiate themselves and attract volunteers.  It's also one I consider a key element to success.

Fortunately providing general science education in a research environment is well-suited to development by outside experts instead of the project designer.  They can invest in developing quality training that can then be easily adapted to other projects (due to it's general nature).  All it takes is the preliminary work and some adaptation tailoring it to the specific project.  

Of course these are just a few of the ideas for how businesses and citizen scientists can team up both educate and be educated.  There are so many more examples and possibilities that can't fit into a single blog post, but are definitely worthy of discussion.  So let me know your own thoughts in the comments below and I'll keep putting together more thoughts of my own for you.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Paid Participant

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previously: Analyzer

This Week: Paid Participant
Next: Educator

Ideal partnerships between citizen scientists and for-profit businesses have them sharing the rewards, and profits, together.  Last week we talked about Analyzer services companies can sell to help citizen scientists.  Now it's time to discuss ways for citizen scientists to get paid.  This time through the simplest method of all...as a Paid Participant.

This is exactly what it sounds like, providing cash or in-kind payments to volunteers based solely on their joining a citizen science project.  It's one of the more popular methods of rewarding citizen science volunteers and also a commonly used technique for recruiting new participants. Wildlife census projects sometimes offer people a cash stipend for hiking a particular area while cataloging the animals they see.  Other may offer a shirt or other promotional item in exchange for that same type of hike. There are also projects that offer to pay people small amounts per picture they analyze or puzzle they solve.  And archaeology projects sometimes pay participants in the form of free lunches and expenses while at dig sites. 

While we use the term "paid" I've always tried to emphasize that this does not always have to mean cash.  In-kind rewards such as free lunches, free t-shirts, or offers of discounted equipment would count as well.  The important distinction is that participants are provided "tangible" rewards.  While non-tangible rewards such as educational opportunities or civic pride are important parts of many projects, they aren't included in the "Paid Participant" discussion.

Payment can be based on a number of different variables.

  • Stipends: Some projects handle payment like a stipend providing a set amount of money for participating over a length of time.  For example, people may show up for a day-long research project in the field a State park or wildlife preserve; in return they receive a $20 bill or some free merchandise.  This is less than the minimum wage in most places (based on an 8-hour day) so nobody is getting rich from it.  But this payment does show appreciation for the person's work and can offset some of their participation costs, such as travel to/from the site, purchasing special clothing or boots due to weather extremes, or buying other types of special equipment. In a strange way you might even consider the stipends people receive for participating in clinical research as human subjects as a type of paid participation.  While payment is made once the volunteer signs up it in no way covers all the time, effort, and risk the volunteer commits to.  In fact it would usually be considered unethical to provide too high a stipend for fear of motivating people to participate for just monetary reasons.  Instead you want people participating for the many intangible benefits they also receive.  Which sounds like many citizen science projects to me. 

  • Per Task: There are actually a number of scholarly articles (such as this one) describing the benefits of using distinct "tasks" as the basis of non-paid citizen science projects.  Or, in some cases where volunteers work for free, showing the value that would be received if payment WAS being made for the work.  A great example of this is the Amazon.com Mechanical Turk system.  In the case of Mechanical Turk participants are rewarded on a per-task basis, making as much as a dollar or as little as a penny per task.  Each one is not much.  But add them up and an individual person can find themselves well rewarded for the work.  Much like many citizen science projects, Mechanical Turk develops large projects that can be broken into large numbers of small, discrete tasks (called HITs: Human Intelligence Tasks) that can't be effectively performed by computers.  These are typically very easy tasks on their own that require minimal time or effort to complete, but the large number of them in the overall project would overwhelm any individual researcher. This is similar to the premise of CitzenSort and the original GalaxyZoo project (and the eventual collection Zooniverse projects).  This similarity of these projects to Mechanical Turk is so close they were actually used as the basis for determining the economic value of Zooniverse projects in a scientific paper (click HERE for the original article).

There are two other ways projects can pay their participants that have not already been mentioned.  These have been written about much less in the academic literature and there is not as much describing them on project web pages.  Though talking with citizen science project managers I know they exist.

  • Providing Equipment and Supplies: An example of this is the CoCoRAHS (Colorado Community Rain, Hail and Snow) project measuring rainfall across the country.  One can't participate without a rain gauge, so they are given out for free to all who wish to join.  Now obviously this is not completely altruistic and is a necessity for having people participate.  But you must contrast this with the large number of projects that DON'T provide equipment to participants.  When I got into weather as a citizen science project I had to research all my equipment options and shell out my own money; in this case participants get the equipment for free!
  • Raffles and Prizes: Payment does not have to be made to every person equally.  As a way to save money organizers may choose to offer money through raffles and prizes open to all who participate. An investment is still required for the prize but only a few need to be purchased.  And some people end up winning and being rewarded quite handsomely through it. There's just no guarantee they will win.

Going back to our initial premise, all business models should benefit both citizen scientists and for-profit businesses in a mutually beneficial manner.  In the case of Paid Participants the direct beneficiary is definitely the citizen scientists.  But it helps businesses and professional researchers as a motivation and recruitment tool.  In other words, the value paid participants provide is very high compared to other options such as hiring professional technicians or relying on unpaid volunteers.  It's also a reminder to not just look at the costs of a business model, but also all the benefits. Something we will see more of as this series continues. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Citizen Science of the Ocean: An Idea Whose Time Has Come - by Guest Blogger Mike Bear

One of the best parts about citizen science is the interesting people you meet.  Sure, research and discovery are cool, but sharing that with like-minded amateurs makes it all the more fun.  Mike Bear is a gentleman I first talked with few months ago and who I've learned much from since.  And he's a passionate advocate for ocean-based projects.

Like many citizen scientists his initial background was not in science at all.  But after starting to scuba dive in 2000 he enrolled in several ocean-related citizen science programs that offered training in basic scientific method and data collection.  As a diver myself I completely see the connection...seeing the ocean's beauty makes you want to protect it, and participating in citizen science gives you a means to do so.  As time went on his interest grew to where he and a friend started their own ocean-related non-profit dedicated to creating and supporting citizen science programs called Ocean Sanctuaries.

This week I'm excited to have him talk about his program and a variety of others devoted to the oceans.  It has been updated and adapted from a piece originally published on Medium.com (here) which I also encourage you to check out. 


In the bad old days of ivory tower academia, only scientists with white coats and Ph.Ds were considered qualified to gather and interpret scientific data—and, God forbid you should suggest otherwise.

Enter the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where citizen scientists from all over the world (without Ph.Ds or white lab coats) can enter data about their bird sightings and even discover new species.

“Collecting the observations of everyday birders for scientific use is a hallmark of the Lab. Bird watchers of all ages and skill levels help gather the data needed to capture the big picture about the distribution and abundance of birds. Approximately 200,000 people participate in the Lab’s projects. The eBird database allows birders to track any of the earth’s 10,005 bird species to a single scientific database. So far, observations on 8,650 species from 200 countries have been recorded.

The observations of citizen scientists have helped document the declines of some species, the range expansions of others, and the spread of avian diseases. The observations of birders help the Cornell Lab study birds in cities, suburbs, and forests and help answer questions about how proximity to humans, pollution, climate change, and loss of habitat affect different species.”
Source: Wikipedia.org: Citizen_Science

And, this is only one example.

So, what is a "citizen scientist" anyway?

The simplest definition is: ...anyone without formal training in science, who collects data using the scientific method, under the mentorship or supervision of a scientist. Some prefer the term community science and it is coming under more and more acceptance within the formal academic community as citizen scientists around the world prove that, with proper mentoring, accurate scientific data can be collected by non-scientists. 

Citizen science and the oceans

For those with a bent towards SCUBA diving and the oceans, there are several citizen science groups dedicated to training certified SCUBA divers how to collect and enter data about marine life.


Reef.org’s mission is to “to conserve marine ecosystems for their recreational, commercial, and intrinsic value by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active stewards and citizen scientists. REEF links the diving community with scientists, resource managers and conservationists through marine-life data collection and related activities. 

REEF envisions divers and marine enthusiasts actively engaging in marine conservation. With knowledge, training and the opportunity to get involved, these marine citizen scientists make significant and ongoing contributions through REEF’s strategic partnerships with government agencies, science and academic institutions, the non-profit sector, and local communities. Divers and snorkelers are in a unique position to observe and document the many valuable and vulnerable living marine resources. They play an important role in bringing information to the surface that adds to the knowledge base of ocean ecosystems and facilitates informed decision-making. Through REEF’s efforts, marine citizen scientists impart an ethic of stewardship to current and future generations.”

Reef Check

Reef Check is a slightly more rigorous program whose training is not free, but enables volunteer divers to collect data using many of the same methods used by professional marine biologists.
“Founded in 1996 by marine ecologist Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the Reef Check Foundation is an international non-profit organization dedicated to conservation of two ecosystems: tropical coral reefs and California rocky reefs. With headquarters in Los Angeles and volunteer teams in more than 90 countries and territories, Reef Check works to create partnerships among community volunteers, government agencies, businesses, universities and other non-profits. Reef Check goals are to: educate the public about the value of reef ecosystems and the current crisis affecting marine life; to create a global network of volunteer teams trained in Reef Check’s scientific methods who regularly monitor and report on reef health; to facilitate collaboration that produces ecologically sound and economically sustainable solutions; and to stimulate local community action to protect remaining pristine reefs and rehabilitate damaged reefs worldwide.”

Ocean Sanctuaries and National Geographic’s Citizen Science Tool: Fieldscope

San Diego’s most recent ocean-related non-profit, Ocean Sanctuaries [http://oceansanctuaries.org/], recently teamed up with National Geographic to test its newest citizen science tool, called ‘Fieldscope,’ specifically adapted for documenting shark encounters along the California coastline.  Local divers can log sightings and submit photos of Leopard sharks, Horn sharks, Angel sharks, Tope sharks as well as pelagic species such as Blue, Mako, Great White and Thresher. Also, the Fieldscope app for smartphones is available for both Androids (on Google Play) as well as for iPhones here.

Learn more about Ocean Sanctuaries at: 

Learn more about Fieldscope at:

Ocean Sanctuaries and Sevengill Shark Sightings

Sevengill Shark Sightings was originally set up as a citizen science project to establish a baseline population study for the Sevengill Shark (Notorynchus cepedianus) in the San Diego and Southern California area and is now an Ocean Sanctuaries project. Local divers take high quality video or photographs and submit them for analysis by the pattern recognition algorithms in ‘Wildbook,’ a software program originally designed by Jason Holmberg to be used in identifying Whale sharks.

For more information on this project see:

And, for those with doubts about the quality of data collected in citizen science, a recent scientific paper in PLOS ONE by Gabriel Vianna of the University of Western Australia in showed that data collected by divers was as reliable as the telemetry used by marine biologists.  

Learn more about the study here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Analyzer

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

This week: Analyzer.

We start with a new business opportunity for firms wishing to sell to citizen scientists: marketing sample analysis services to citizen scientists that expand their research capabilities. There are many firms that already have the equipment, infrastructure, and staff expertise to offer this at a competitive rate.  They just need help identifying the citizen science market and deciding how to best package those services.

As background, a popular way researchers utilize citizen scientists is as field technicians who collects and analyze samples of whatever the researcher is interested in. Typically these projects require frequent collections from sites that cover a wide area.  This is very expensive for the scientists or professional technicians to handle by themselves.  But citizen scientists living close to those areas can much more easily access those sample sites.  Not only is it less difficult and less expensive for those volunteers to do the research, they also don't charge nearly as much (if at all) for their time.  All providing a large cost savings to the researchers.

There are many examples. In California, citizen scientists help local water boards ensure the quality of water available for drinking.  In States like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, water is sampled for tracking pollution from drilling or agriculture, and Maryland uses it to ensure the health of local waterways (such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed) to protect native species.  And people from across the country are sending in swabs of their homes and bodies to identify micro-organisms living in the world with them. 

Participants in those types of programs are often considered the "Contributory" or "Collector" type of citizen scientist.  The defining common element is that while they collect the data, it is then sent to a central location to be combined with data from other collectors, and then analyzed independently by the research team.  But there are also smaller-scale examples where the citizen scientist acts as more of an independent researcher performing those tasks themselves on projects of their own design.

Taking on your own research project, especially one based on field studies and sample collection, can be difficult.  Most are willing to dedicate the time to collecting and either already have, or are happy to learn, the scientific basis for the work.  The difficult piece comes with actual sample testing.

While citizen scientists currently rely on a handful of different sources for analysis these are not optimal solutions.  Some use portable sensor devices, including some that can be attached to smartphones (such as SensorDrone), but those can't always be calibrated and do not provide scientifically reliable results.  Others use testing kits available from local retailers (such as home water quality kits sold at a local Home Depot), but these have many problems as well:

  1. They don't provide scientifically reliable results.  This can be because the sample preparation is not standard or because the supplier cannot connect the results to calibrated equipment or accepted industry/regulatory standards.
  2. The expense of testing limits the number of samples.  This increases statistical fluctuations, hinders discovery of procedural flaws in the testing process, and limits reproducibilty.
  3. They only offer tests on a limited number of compounds.  Although these may be bundled together for convenience sake, this still leaves large holes in the available options.  It could be that some tests are too generic, such as only providing "total organic molecules" instead of the amount of a specific compound (like benzene) in a sample.  Or, since citizen science is about discovery, they may not test for the novel or rare compound that happens to be of interest to the researcher.
  4. They only offer tests at a limited number of sensitivities.  This can be because the testing lab has limited equipment or does not offer the more sensitive equipment to retail customers.  It could also be that they only test in a certain range because it is the typical "actionable range", but is not what the citizen scientist requires (for example, testing water for a substance to the range where the water is considered "safe to drink" but not any further, though the researcher is looking for trace amounts for other reasons).

Industrial firms and government agencies solve this problem by using one of the many commercial testing services available to organizational users (such as Lancaster Laboratories). Unfortunately these companies don't offer their services to citizen scientists.  But why?  Although there are some reasons listed below none are insurmountable.

  1. Legal and Regulatory Concerns: There has always been an odd relationship between independent scientists and chemical firms.  Whether manufacturing or analyzing chemicals, it has always been difficult for independent scientists to have these firms accept their business. While there are some economic reasons, there are also concerns about how those services would be used.  Many firms fear being tangled up in terrorism issues or illicit drug manufacturing.  Since passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and the rise of home methamphetamine labs this is somewhat understandable.  In fact, I used to work for a chemical firm that had these exact concerns.  But chemical testing is different.  You know that samples are coming in to you, and you are only selling information (not products).  You can also quickly tell if the analysis is for something innocuous or if it is connected to illegal activity. Sadly fear can still override the market, and nobody wants to take that risk while also trying to build a new market.  But (as we'll continue seeing) there is a sizable market worth building and a profitable business to be built.
  2. Economies of Scale (Testing): Custom services of any type can be very expensive to sell; that's as true for picture framing and furniture making as it is for sample analysis.  Just the time spent setting up equipment can take up most of the cost for custom services when you don't have an "Economy of Scale"  But just because companies are selling to citizen scientists, who are themselves working on individual projects, does not mean that everything must be custom. There are likely many people requiring similar testing services even if the specifics are slightly different.   For example, anyone analyzing water quality of any type must be following standard protocols developed by the EPA and industry groups. There is no re-inventing the wheel here and the same tests citizen scientists would request would be the same ones a waste-water treatment plant might also order.  Although the scale for any individual request is small, lumping them in with tests for other clients, or for other groups of citizen scientists, may help greatly in creating economies of scale and making the service price-competitive. That would cover the majority of customers and help build a client base that would also make more custom research more economically feasible.
  3. Economies of Scale (Sales and Advertising): Citizen scientists are a diverse group with many interests and located in a variety of places.  This makes finding, advertising, and selling to them very difficult.  Much like with manufacturing and testing, developing economies of scale for the sales function is also important. But I think that difficulty is a myth when it comes to citizen science.  Many citizen science projects involve thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people.  For web-based projects they can all be reached through a single web portal.  For projects that are national in scope there are usually government agencies or national non-profits running them, and who can help with advertising if it will benefit the participants.  Similarly, local projects are often connected to larger groups (for example, local bird projects may connect to the National Audobon Society), providing another central advertising location. There are also citizen science support sites such as the Citizen Science Association, SciStarter, and even my OpenScientist web site that could be convinced to hep if shown the value proposition. All that on top of the standard print publications (such as Discover Magazine of National Geographic) that accept advertising targeted a many of the same people who are also interested in citizen science.

Now that it's established that businesses utilizing the "Analyzer" model can succeed, what is the actual market they should target?  There are a few ideas for that:

  1. Soil and Water Testing: Pollution testing often focuses on the methods for conveying that pollution into humans, either through the water we drink or the soil that grows our food. Citizen Science projects may be monitoring individual sites over a long period of time to track existing problems, or may be investigating multiple sites trying to find where problems occur.  For soil, citizen scientists may start testing local sites suspected of being polluted or which once hosted potentially-polluting activities.  There are thousands of these sites around the country (if not in each state) as well as bodies of water impacting the health of local communities.  
  2. DNA Sequencing: A few firms such as uBiome and 23andMe already compete in this space but looking at different types of genetic material.  For 23andMe they take human skin samples and test for various genetic traits carried by the customer.  For uBiome, they also collect human samples but look for bacterial DNA as a way to identify the microorganisms hosted by each person.  Both sell kits to collect the data and provide back the test results.  Both then go a step further, using composite results from all users and selling it to pharmaceutical firms to help identify new drug targets or diagnostic tests.  Selling the kits keeps them in business and pays the bills, while selling the data let's them take bigger risks attempting to earn big money from potential health discoveries.  It's a strategy that can be extended to other types of scientific analysis as well.
  3. Food Testing: The quality and safety of food is a prime concern for many people and can be the source of many interesting citizen science projects.  A few examples include testing raw foods for bacterial contamination, especially comparing producers or cuts of meat.  Testing those same foods for pesticide residues or other concerns of the organic food movement are additional opportunities for citizen scientists and services that can help with the analyses.  There are also opportunities in testing the fish sold at local markets and restaurants, ensuring that what is sold as salmon is actually salmon and not a pink-tinted replacement (companies like SeafoodID are already attempting this in some markets).

To sum it all up, there is a large market of citizen scientists who are ready to expand their research but don't have access to all the analysis tools they need.  Fortunately there are companies with the right equipment and know-how to perform those services.  They just need to overcome a few obstacles and start marketing their services correctly.  And once they do, a whole new set of sales opportunities will open up while citizen scientists  greatly increase the knowledge they bring to the world.  A win-win situation for us all.