Will you be attending the 2015 Citizen Science Conference (February 11-12) in San Jose, CA? Registration is now open here.

Do you want to help support the Conference? Help with the Conference Crowdfunding efforts here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crowd-Funding Citizen Science: Broadening the Search and Finding Some Initial Insights

Photo Courtesy:
Flickr User 401K (2012)
Last week I started looking at how effective crowd-funding has been to the citizen science field by searching for projects specifically designating themselves as being "citizen" science. But instead of cataloging hundreds of projects (as expected) I only found 18.  So this week I'm greatly expanding my search by looking for projects that don't call themselves citizen science, but which really are when reviewed closely enough.

Obviously the main goal is to continue uncovering the best way for citizen scientists to take advantage of the rise in crowd-funding.  But it's also beneficial as we try to understand the business and economics of citizen science; using crowd-funding insights to identify and model citizen science based businesses as well.

Performing this analysis meant reading through hundreds (though it seemed like thousands) of projects somehow tagged or categorized in each site's systems as being in the area of "science". This may have left out a tiny few potential citizen science projects, but it's still a very large sample size and certainly representative for identifying never gong citizen science models and spotting interesting funding trends. For the project population I used all publicly available information from Kickstarter, Rockethub, IndieGoGo, PetriDish, and Experiment.com (formerly Microryza). These are many of the most popular and best known sites that should cover the large majority of potential,projects.

When reviewing each project I tried to use the definition of citizen science I've described in previous posts ("The systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis"), as well as the recent OED definition and Muki Haklay's discussion of it ("Scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions).  I also used the rules of thumb described in my three-pronged test (unfortunately those rules of thumb did not help me as well as initially hoped and have led me to thinking of ways to change them...more on that another time).  But once I dove in there were a lot of "grey-area" projects that were had to classify as citizen science or not.  So I had to add the following rules that narrowed the pool of projects and ensured they were truly represented the spirit of citizen science.

  • Projects had to receive at least a minimal level of funding support.  It turns out there are many projects that received $0 or just a few percent of the requested amount.  In my mind these are project profiles that were never completed, or that the requester themselves didn't have full confidence in.  If they could not even convince one or two people (even friends or family) to contribute it makes me doubt the seriousness, and usefulness, of the project. So these have been left out of the analysis. 
  • Projects could not be based on Pseudoscience.  Although I can't disprove the existence of ghosts or UFOs, this is not the types of citizen science we are looking for.  The same goes for the use of science to support different types of new-age spiritualism or religion.
  • STEM and educational projects needed to have "new discovery" component and could not be for standard science training. There are many worthy projects devoted to purchasing lab supplies for classrooms, creating science education videos, or encouraging science experimentation by youth.  But to be truly considered citizen science (in my opinion), one needs to be performing scientific work that should be advancing the field of study.  That doesn't mean youth can't participate in citizen science since they can make solid contributions to advancing society's knowledge in many ways. Not at all.  But if they are just performing standard scientific experiments that is not part of a greater research goal, then it is not citizen science.  This could be a much larger debate for another time, but suffice it to say this did not enter my analysis. The one exception to this rule is when the educational opportunity supports citizen science. Typically this is found in projects that include adult education along with youth. We already know that successful citizen science projects often contain an educational component to both 1) explain the project so volunteers can perform their roles correctly, and 2) potential volunteers often see the learning experience as a perk of participating. So these adult science education projects take care of the training requirements and prepare people to be successful citizen science participants, and that makes them a type of citizen science project too. 


A lot of of interesting things popped out from my initial analysis (which can be found online here). But first the facts.

Between projects that specifically include the term "citizen science"  as well as those just including the vague term "science" anywhere in the title or project description, there were only 80 projects since 2010 that can be considered citizen science. This is much smaller than I anticipated given the tens of thousands projects currently listed among the targeted sites (Kickstarter alone has listed nearly 200,000 projects itself).  And of those projects they all added up to a total requested amount of less than $1 million dollars ($960,045).

One silver lining is that of those projects listed, two out of every three did meet their funding goals and overall the projects raised nearly $600,000.  Unfortunately the average project only received $12,000.  So I'm forced to re-iterate the feeling that citizen science itself is not enough to draw crowd-funding.  Instead requesters must show the innate importance and worth of each project, as well as the excitement value.  They also need to make significant efforts to market these projects to potential funders.  There are many web sites and reports about ways to market crowd-funding projects, but nearly all say you have to work hard to do it and can't just rely on the listing itself.  This is a huge topic...perhaps we can get more into it in a future post.

For the time being we still have a lot to work from based on the listing of citizen science crowd-funding projects.  As an initial step, below are a number of categories of projects found during my research.  These may change over time, but they seem to be a great place to start the conversation.  So I'd encourage you to look at the listing itself and the categories below, and let me know your own thoughts.  That's the only way to improve our understanding.

  • Device Creation: I expected to find a number of these, and projects like "miniPCR: A DNA Discovery System for Everybody" and "Dotlens - The $10 Smartphone Microscope" certainly fit the bill.  These are people who want to build a machine or device (using science and engineering principles) outside of a company structure.  In my mind, they are just individuals with a scientific idea and who want to turn it into a product.  In many ways this is citizen science since the person is a member of the public (outside of the "mainstream" scientific community) and is performing research to build and design the product.  While I found many products proposed for development, most seemed to be run by small companies, or by students/recent graduates who are already trained in those fields.  So it is difficult to classify these as "citizen-led" and thus not citizen science.  While I did not include data on "non-citizen science" projects in this analysis it is certainly a ripe area for more research. Anyone is welcome to copy my data and manipulate it for their own purposes, and to add on as much additional information as they like.  Just please let us know what you find so we can share the word with everyone else. 
  • Community-Based Environmental Research: Many environmental research projects look like traditional scientific research projects and don't mention citizen science at all.  But they are strongly reliant on volunteers from the local community and are often begun with the goal of improving the health/safety of community members.  The volunteers may play a wide variety of roles, from helping to design and even fund the study, to collecting samples or performing analyses.  Some of the examples I found (such as "Solving Critical Water Issues on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota" and "White Earth Nation in Minnesota: Water Monitoring to Ensure Healthy Wild Rice") specifically involve Native American communities, and there may be socio-cultural reasons for that specificity.  But there are also non-native examples and I see no compelling reasons not to expand this to any other local community.
  • Science Buildings and Spaces: Citizen science does not need to be a solitary pursuit. Over the years group of citizen scientists have organized themselves into supportive communities, and now these groups want to create a physical space for themselves. One of the main benefits is using it as a shared research space for the members. This allows expensive science equipment to be purchased and shared by citizen scientists who could never afford it on their own. It also allows experimentation in a safe, environmentally sound manner typically not possible in an individual's  basement lab. Secondarily, these spaces also provide a common space for citizen scientists to learn from each other.  They also offer space for bringing in guest speakers and organizing group research projects. Examples include "Forging 'The Forge' Downtown" and "BioCurious: A Hackerspace for Biotech. The Community Lab for Citizen Science".   
  • Scientific Equipment and Supplies: Like the building spaces described above, there are often projects to purchase supplies or equipment to be shared by a group of citizen scientists or to be used in a specific citizen science project.  There are also smaller projects where individual citizen scientists are asking for assistance purchasing equipment they can't afford themselves, and not for any specific purpose.  Just to use for the thrill of discovery.  "Black Rock Observatory" and "Raising Money for a 3-d Printer" are good examples of these two models, respectively.
  • Educational Materials for Citizen Scientists: Distinct from projects benefiting youth, these projects have a wide variety of ages in their audience and can be used to either promote the sciences (and citizen science) or directly support the educational development of citizen scientists.  "Astronomy on the Road" and "Science Education for Adults" are illustrative examples.
  • Publications: This type covers a couple of different things. The first publication model is creating magazine-style periodicals documenting the citizen science experience. This includes citizen science news, profiles of projects and individual citizen scientists, and discussion of emerging trends in the field. Citizen Science Quarterly and "Power Up the Voice of the Scientific Crowd"are great examples of this. Another model is the scientific journal model that offers citizen scientists opportunities to publish their research, or for publication of experimental protocols members of the public can use. "Protocols.io - Life Science Protocol Repository" is a great example of this.  I have this blog as an outlet for my research. But not everybody takes that path. 
  • Gatherings: The publications and building spaces described above are great opportunities for citizen scientists to communicate with each other and enjoy being part of a larger research community.  Another way to do this is through conferences and festivals devoted to citizen science.  Like the upcoming 2015 Citizen Science Conference, the Mozilla Festival East Africa and Open Science Summit 2012 were designed to connect independent researchers to each other and encourage the sharing of ideas.
  • Science-based Art: Finding the "Bro-BOT: Open-Source Robotic Drummer - Sci Fi Fantasy Band" project on Kickstarter was a pleasant surprise.  It shows not just the power of science and engineering, but the fun side too.  In this case a rock band is performing its own research and design work to create a robot drummer who can play with them on stage.  Not only will this drummer keep perfect time and participate musically in the band's sound, but it also provides a novelty for the crowd and a demonstration of the coolness of science.  I know many artists are interested in melding art and science so hopefully we will see more hit the crowd-funding space in the near future.

Those are some of my early thoughts.  But I think we've just scratched the surface of insights that can be gleaned.  There is much more additional analysis that can occur and many of these ideas can be further fleshed out.  There are also important questions on what people can do to improve the fundraising success on these types of crowd-funding sites.  And we still have to find what it teach us about ways to make citizen science profitable for citizen scientists themselves.

All those are coming in future posts.  I promise!  But in the meantime won't you join the conversation?  Let me know if what I found is similar to your experience, whether you think I've missed something important, of if you want to expand on any of these ideas.  I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Crowdfunding Citizen Science: Is it Working?

Photo Courtesy:
Flickr user: 401(K) 2012
Funding for citizen science has been preoccupying me recently.  In most cases I think about creating business models that can develop and use funds that support the field.  But that's not the only option.  Scientists are well-versed in requesting grant funds for citizen science support, and over the last few years crowd-funding has also been used.  In fact the 2015 Citizen Science Conference is requesting crowd-funding assistance.  But is it working?

I've done a (very) preliminary analysis and made it publicly available on the web.  Feel free to add or modify if you'd like.  You'll see this not a rigorous analysis...just a basic search of four sites (Rockethub, Experiment, IndieGoGo, and Kickstarter) for the phrase "citizen science."  While this leaves out many potential projects it still reveal a lot for or purposes here.

I thought this would take a significant amount of effort..sadly that was not the case.  For starters,  I only found 18 projects spanning the last few years. Why is this?  Partly I think it's indicative of how citizen science (as a term or identifiable field) is still not completely mainstream. So projects that may be citizen science by our definitions would not use that phrase to describe or market themselves.

Even the total of all these projects came out to a mere $81,000.  Citizen science can be an extremely cost effective way to do research, but $81,000 is not nearly enough to cover its costs. Especially when those projects only raised $62,000 (76%) of that amount. Something is missing.

Looking even more closely at these individually, many are not specifically citizen science projects. Instead they use citizen science as one small part of the research, or it is an educational project that impacts citizen scientists as one of many audiences. Again, this is not enough to make a significant impact.

But maybe we are looking at this in the wrong way. This simple analysis only looked for projects that included the specific "Citizen Science" phrase. Would evaluating projects ourselves for a citizen science connection (without relying on text searches) teach us something?

Yes.  A lot.

Here are just a few of many examples:

The good side of this is how vividly it demonstrates the potential support available for citizen science projects. The public is interested in this research and the products it creates, and they are willing to fund it.  Literally millions have already been spent and much more can come in the future.

Unfortunately, the bad side is it further demonstrates the lack of "pull" the term citizen science has for inspiring the public. In my view potential funders either a) don't feel connected to the term, and 2) care more about individual projects and not the field as a whole. So there is still much hope for project leaders who make their research interesting to the public. But just relying on goodwill sadly won't cut it. There is already a wealth of information on successfully starting a crowd funded project ( such as here and here) so I won't reinvent the wheel. But these should apply to citizen science projects just as well as they do to any other type of project.

This leads me to re-starting the analysis while asking a whole new set of questions. How do we identify other citizen science projects for additional analysis?  Can we categorize these "non-traditional" or "emerging" types of projects into a useful model?  What might that model teach us about ways to make citizen science profitable for citizen scientists themselves?

The answer to all is I don't know. But next week I'll try to answer.

Stay tuned!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Diary of a Citizen Scientist


Last month Sharman Apt Russell published the new book "Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World."   After reading it through I was amazed at how well she captures the thrill, the curiosity, and the fun of citizen science.

From her home in New Mexico's Gila Valley she writes extensively about her time researching tiger beetles.  Not just catching them, but raising the larvae and making new contributions to science's understanding of them.  Through contacts with professional entomologists who guide her through the process, she is able to observe parts of the tiger beetle life cycle never seen before.  That's a joy as a researcher, and even more so as an "amateur researcher".

But she doesn't stop there.  She also writes about the field as a whole and the many citizen science projects that are growing by the day.  Some you've read about here before, others are quite new.  But all help us find new ways to engage and enjoy our world.

As a treat for you I'm proud to offer an excerpt from the book below.  I think it does a great job of capturing not only the essence of the overall book, but also the joy and wonder of citizen science.  Hopefully you'll enjoy it too, and if you do, I encourage you to pick up a copy through the OSU Press ordering site (here),  Amazon.com (here) or at your local bookstore. You'll be glad you did.

Renaissance and Revolution
It’s 2007 and you’re a young astrophysicist on your third pint in an English pub, clothes rumpled, head in your hands. You whine: in order to prove your latest theory on star formation, you need to compare large samples of galaxies with elliptical and spiral shapes. What you have to work with are a million unclassified galaxy images from a telescope in New Mexico. The shape of galaxies is a pattern computers cannot easily recognize, and you’ve spent a week, twelve hours a day, sorting through fifty thousand photographs. You close your weary eyes. You can’t keep up the pace. A friend murmurs, “Maybe you should get some help?”

Only a year ago, NASA’s Stardust@Home project started posting images online from its interstellar dust collector, and citizen scientists eagerly began looking for stardust particles. Could people be trained to classify galaxies, too? You brighten up. A British hurrah. You publicize your idea, you set up the website, and within twenty-four hours, you are getting almost seventy thousand classifications an hour. In the first year, you will get fifty million.That’s the apocryphal story behind Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science program that has since resulted in dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers, as well as discoveries like “green-pea” galaxies, which produce stars at a high rate and may help us understand how the first stars formed. Each galaxy classification by a single volunteer is corroborated by thirty more volunteers, with a resulting accuracy equal to that of professional astronomers. The universe—which may contain as many as five hundred billion galaxies—is slowly being mapped by cartographers of all ages, all occupations, and all nationalities.

Around the world, citizen science projects are proliferating like the neural net in a prenatal brain. The sheer number of citizen scientists, combined with new technology, is beginning to shape how research gets done. Some 860,000 people have participated in Galaxy Zoo and related projects on the website Zooniverse. More than a quarter million play the video game Foldit, helping biochemists synthesize new proteins. The National Geographic Society’s search for archaeological sites in Mongolia sends satellite images from the field to thousands of citizen scientists downloading them at home. The use of crowdsourcing to take advantage of large numbers of human eyes and brains has inspired the development of algorithms to improve how computers themselves work; like Yoda, we can teach them our mysterious ways.

Although the biggest citizen science programs are online, many other citizen scientists are getting up from the computer, going outside, and joining a research team to study urban squirrels or phytoplankton or monarch butterflies. Most obviously, they help scientists count things: juniper pollen, comets, horseshoe crabs, dragonfly swarms, microbes (in your belly button and in your kitchen), picas, thunderstorms, roadkill. An estimated two hundred thousand people work with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tracking and monitoring birds, with over a million observations reported each month on the Lab’s online checklist. Citizen scientists also double as environmental activists, collecting air and water samples, documenting invasive species, and looking at changes in species behavior.

An army of human volunteers has become an army of scientific instruments, and that’s not a new idea. In China, people have been recording locust outbreaks for over three thousand years. French wine growers began tracking grape harvests in the fifteenth century. Charles Darwin relied on a network of amateurs for observations of the natural world, working-class men and middle-class women, vicars and shopkeepers with whom he corresponded by penny post. Today we’ve replaced the pen with the login, using the Internet to communicate in ways that make large-scale, long-term projects possible.

One of the newest and potentially most important branches of citizen science is the analysis and understanding of global warming, with programs like Nature’s Notebook and Project Budburst using volunteers to monitor plant and animal responses to a changing climate.  What plants are budding when? What birds are here now? What insects have emerged?

In Portland, Oregon, a couple and their two children walk the trails of urban parks watching for the first leaves of kinnikinnick, the flowers of Indian plum, the fruits of the mellifluous salmonberry, snowberry, thimbleberry. Before the start of spring, the trilliums are underground and the snowberry leafless. Suddenly the Oregon grape has clusters of yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds. Warmer and longer days bring more color and scent, camas lily and bleeding heart and lupine and salal and wild rose, and then in the fall, maples turn red and the leaves of Solomon’s seal yellow and gold. Carefully, the oldest daughter records this information online. Conscientiously, the family marks the appearance of spotted towhees and northern flying squirrels, the absence of Pacific tree frogs. Their efforts are being duplicated across rural and urban America by thousands of men, women, and children.

This is renaissance, your dentist now an authority on butterflies and you (in retrospect this happened so pleasantly, watching clouds one afternoon) connected by Twitter to the National Weather Service. This is revolution, breaking down the barriers between expert and amateur, with new collaborations across class and education. Pygmy hunters and gatherers use smartphones to document deforestation in the Congo Basin. High school students identify fossils in soils from ancient seas in upstate New York. Do-it-yourself biologists make centrifuges at home. This is falling in love with the world, and this is science, and at the risk of sounding too much the idealist, I have come to believe they are the same thing.

My own work with tiger beetles, under the guidance of two generous mentors, was done mainly during the field seasons of 2011–2012. The entries that make up this book describe that fieldwork and have been shaped from written notes and the observations of those two years. In the larger world of citizen science, not much has changed from then to the writing of this introduction now. Only the numbers have increased: more and more people are watching birds, taking water samples, staring into the heart of a red spiral galaxy, marrying curiosity with collective power, waking up and thinking--what am I going to study today?


Reprinted with Permission.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Open Source Computing and Citizen Science Innovation - Where They Start and End

The last few weeks I've been fleshing out thoughts on citizen science business models in preparation for next year's Citizen Science Conference in San Jose.  There is so much to sift through and people to talk with that I wanted to hit the ground running.  Of course there won't be nearly enough time to discuss everything during a two-day conference, but I hope this will start a discussion there, and on this blog, for a long time afterwards.

One interesting book I came across was "Making Open Innovation Work" by Stefan Lindegard, which offers great insights on companies harnessing the innovation of external researchers.  Many of these lessons can be applies to our discussion, but that's not why I'm writing.  Instead it forces me to ask a question that has bothered me a for a while but I've never successfully answered.

What is the dividing line between citizen science and open-source computing?  Is there one?

The reason I ask is the book discusses the work of TopCoder.com, a web site that connects open-source computer programmers with companies looking to pay for code.  Think of this as a for-profit version of the site Github.com.  In many ways what they do is scientific and many of the same citizen scientists in our field are the same as people drawn to open-source computing.  But the two fields have never really connected and we don't often hear them talked about in the same context.  Is this just a remnant of people not understanding the fields of data science/computer science, or is there something deeper? I have ideas on some of the differences but I want to hear yours.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  I'll keep answering this question online before the conference and keep this conversation going.  But I think it's an interesting discussion regardless of a future presentation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Citizen Science Business Models - An Idea Worth Exploring

Thank you all for your feedback.  With your advice I put together, and submitted, a proposal for the upcoming Citizen Science 2015 conference.  It's a favorite topic of mine and one that is essential to moving our field forward "For Love and Money: Business Models that support, benefit from, and share the rewards with, the work of citizen scientists."

This is an ambitious talk for me but one I feel is important.  In many ways I can only scratch the surface in a PowerPoint presentation to a conference room of citizen science professionals.  But it will kick off a whole series of follow-up reports on this blog about the topic.  There is much good background research that can't be included without overwhelming the audience, but is perfect for an online environment.  There are also nuances, subtleties, and sub-categories of information that are vitally important and can't fit on a Powerpoint slide.  But mostly I want to keep the conversation going long after the conference ends.

I'm doing this in my strong belief that the citizen science community can make important discoveries and support research that provide value to profit-making companies, and they deserve to be rewarded for that service.  But that money is also needed to support citizen science research and pay for investments that will expand what citizen scientists can do.  Research costs money and it has to come from somewhere.

Conferences also cost money.  And in true citizen science fashion they are hoping to crowdfund through the company Razoo for a significant amount of support. I'm hugely appreciative of all the opportunities this conference provides so I'm happy to make a donation.  Won't you join me?  This conference is here to help you but they need your support.  Give a little or give a lot, anything will help.

See you in Palo Alto!