Thursday, February 2, 2012

Keys to Successful Citizen Science Projects - Benefit the User

Photo Courtesy: Richard-G
I've been sorting through all the projects we've looked at to find the keys to creating a successful citizen science project.    Some have been good, some have great, and some have been ugly.  But all should help us figure out the best way to create a successful citizen science project.

While I've found a few themes around which I'm organizing these posts, I'm still very much in the exploration phase.  So these aren't hypotheses, merely ways to organize my thoughts.  Hopefully putting all this out in the open and letting the citizen science community comment will lead us to some answers.

The first common trait of many successful projects is "Benefit the User".  Although it sounds self-explanatory there are many components underneath it that deserve further discussion.  Each of these is listed below along with an example or two of projects typifying that trait.  Not that these examples are exclusive (many will fit in multiple categories) but they easily demonstrate the traits I'm describing.

  • Entertain: One of the simplest ways to benefit users is by letting them have fun with your project.  Incorporating video game concepts and technology are a great example of this, as seen in the FoldIt project.  While similar projects exist in the same area of science, FoldIt seems to be one of the most popular (as shown by the frequent press reports) as well as one of the most successful (from the completed structures solved much faster than through other methods).  The project works by showing players (citizen scientists) a protein structure they need to manipulate to its lowest energy formation.  The lower the energy the greater the points.  Players can also team up to combine their knowledge and build upon each other's work.  As a game players receive frequent feedback (by scoring points) and increasingly difficult goals to achieve, keys to any successful game design.  Compare this with the distributed computing and other protein-folding projects out there...FoldIt clearly brings in more users, keeps them more engaged, and achieves more results.  All by benefiting users who have fun participating.
  • Reward: Many citizen scientists participate for the fun of it, or because they have an interest in science and want to volunteer.  But their time is valuable.  If people are going to donate their time they want something for it.  Innocentive organizes challenges for companies willing to pay for the result, and let's citizen scientists compete for the prize.  The Great Backyard Bird Count is another example where participants receive entries for "Door Prizes" donated by local sponsors.  Both the companies and the participants win.  While there is nothing wrong with projects relying on volunteers and not providing a monetary benefit to them, you must provide participants with something.  This is also a key concept for the citizen science bounties proposed in the past.  Otherwise participants will just move on to other projects that will reward them. 
  • Challenge: A common part of citizen science games and projects with rewards is providing meaningful challenges that tap into people's competitive instincts.  It's a powerful force that keeps people engaged as they get caught up in both the goal and the contest.  A great example of this is the Ansari XPrize.  By creating daunting challenges for transformative technologies with large rewards, they inspire endless creativity and energy in participants attempting to reach the goal.  Not only are people challenged by other competing teams the goals themselves are a huge stretch from current technology that some think can't be achieved.  Yet somehow they come out on top.  Good project designers know that modern-day challenges, just like long-ago challenges to fly a plane across the Atlantic, are meant to be overcome.
  • Educate: One simple tool citizen science projects have to benefit users is educating them on the field of study.  Successful projects take advantage of this by teaching users more than they NEED to know to participate, but which is interesting to know and provides greater appreciation of the project.  So Astronomy projects looking at a single type of star can not only teach about that star type, but can also teach about stars in general and the field of Astronomy as a whole.  In fact this is what many users come for...they want to learn about the science and participating in a project is a hands-on way to do that.  The Skywarn program is a great example of this.  The government relies on citizen scientists to observe violent weather and report their findings, but only a trained observer can provide valuable data. So Skywarn scientists travel the country recruiting volunteers and teaching them the important weather facts they need to know.  But it's also a great opportunity to discuss meteorology in general and help people understand the weather around them.  Even though people are providing a service for no money, they benefit from all the education they receive. 
So those are my thoughts on benefiting the user.  It's certainly not complete and there are many more broad themes we'll discuss in future weeks.  But before I go any further...what are your thoughts on this list?  Are these important components?  Are there similar ones to also describe?  Are there better examples of each?  Just let me know in the comments below...I'm all ears!



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