Thursday, February 23, 2012

Keys to Successful Citizen Science Projects - Keep it Simple

Photo Courtesy: Richard-G
This week's key to creating successful citizen science projects was the first I came up with but also the hardest to describe.  Which is ironic when the topic is "Keep it Simple".  On the surface it seems to go against the many others I've talked about and seems to lessen the value of citizen scientists.  But far from it. 

I could write a lengthy introduction on this topic and describe the many themes we'll go through below.  But that wouldn't be very simple.  So let's dive right in!

  • Stay Focused: The main benefit to keeping projects simple is focusing tightly and intensely on the science at hand.  This reduces the complexity for both participants and researchers, and simplifies many aspects of implementing the project.  You only need to train users on a small number of skills, you don't need elaborate data collection tools, and you don't need to create expensive web sites.  Concentrate on the basic tasks and ignore the distractions, but make sure the tasks you do perform are done to perfection.  Project Squirrel is a prime example of this.  There is nothing complicated about the project...just identify Grey Squirrels and Fox Squirrels and report them on the project web site.  That's it.  Participants can learn quickly, scientists can set up the project quickly, and the data is easy to analyze.  Data quality problems are reduced (information is easily collected and it's easy to differentiate between types of squirrel) and there are few variables to control, all leading to a very successful project.  Now if the researchers want to expand from here and tackle more difficult questions they still can, but keeping the project simple from the start provides a solid framework further studies can build upon.
  • Make it Convenient: By staying focused researchers can design projects that are convenient and easy to use by participants.  Focused projects are also smaller projects, which lets designers devote resources to improving the user's experience.  This opens up possibilities for mobile devices and applications participants can use wherever they go.  The Meteor Counter application is a great example of this.  Shooting stars are transient events and even during a meteor shower people can go a long time between seeing one.  A meteor tracking project can't rely on participants knowing when one will occur and giving them time to prepare.  Instead they must allow users to react after one has been seen.  So creating a mobile application for meteor counting is the perfect fit...participants can carry it with them wherever they go and when a meteor does fly by they just open up their phone, provide the few observations possible during the 5 second event, and click "submit".  Scientists can then take advantage of the data and ensure sightings aren't miss because users weren't ready for them.
  • Make Learning Easy: Helping citizen scientists understand your project in a timely and effective manner is vital to the project's success.  We've seen this theme in previous posts as it impacts so many of the important design keys.   By simplifying the project you minimize the amount of training required of participants, thereby reducing the time they spend learning and the time you spend training them.  It also helps ensure the training you provide sticks; shoving too much toward them at once guarantees some of it gets missed.  An example of keeping projects simple to make learning easy is seen in the Zooniverse initiatives, such as the MoonZoo project.  In the MoonZoo scientists ask users to identify and outline moon craters.  It's a relatively simple task, and scientists could ask many important questions on the exact same images. But they've stuck to just tracing craters.  By doing so all the information on how to participate and the science behind the study fit on a single web page.  Not only that, but it can be described in writing as well as in tutorial videos.  This allows users of different learning types to use the system most comfortable to them while minimizing the amount of training the project has to provide.  All by keeping things simple and focusing on only the most important scientific tasks.
  • Make Participating Easy: Another theme we've seen before is the importance of how citizen scientists actually participate and how they interact with your project.  This includes a user interface for the many computer-based projects we've looked at.  The easier you make a project to use, the less training is required and the more reliable the data.  It also increases the chance citizen scientists will join since they won't be intimidated by your project.  There are many examples of this, but in particular is Creekwatch project.  Like the others it is narrowly focused and conveniently designed as a mobile application for tracking water pollution.  The designers have succeeded because they kept it very simple...just take a picture of the stream and answer three short questions (water level, flow rate, and amount of trash).  That's it. Easy to design, easy to learn, and easy to entice participants to join  That's something everyone is looking for.
Hopefully I've shown all the many benefits of keeping citizen science projects simple.  It's not to diminish the project's scope or to "talk down" to users.  Instead it provides a clarity of focus and lets designers focus on the most important aspects of each project.  We all have limited time and budgets...the key is using them wisely.  And I don't think this contradicts my earlier advice to "Be Audacious".  Projects should still aim high and trust their users to be up for the challenge.  Just make sure you stay focused on that challenge and do all you can to simplify the journey toward that goal.



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