Thursday, August 9, 2012

Notes from Summer Camp (aka PPSR 2012!)

What a great weekend it was.  Nearly 300 citizen science researchers from across the country.  Over 160 posters.  And one big room to hold all the excitement.

One of the interesting things for me was the focus on the use of citizen science in local communities and it's potential for environmental, public health and socioeconomic impact.  Typically this blog focuses on large scale or national projects that many people can participate in.  But the researchers I talked with often focused on smaller projects. This includes helping Native American tribes protect restore local waterways, identifying pollutants harming workers and their families, and helping endangered species native to specific areas.  So it was a great reminder that while large projects ma get a lion's share of press and attention, much of the hard work (and scientific progress) comes from local and regional efforts.

A personal highlight for me was talking with all my colleagues at the three poster sessions.  I got to speak with creators of some fine projects previously discussed on this blog(such as MAPPER and the various Zooniverse projects), talked with creators of projects to be highlighted in the next few weeks (such as YardMAP and the CitizenSort games), swapped ideas with people whose work I've enjoyed over the last few years (such as SciStarter and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and discussed citizen science with the many people dropping by to visit my poster.

The poster focused on my experience participating in over 100 citizen science projects over the last ten years and attempting to find the various methods projects used to ensure success.  After thinking long and hard I came up with 17 elements of success in four families: Trust the User, Engage the User, Benefit the User, and Keep it Simple.  All of these are described at length in my previous blog posts.  I also evaluated over 80 projects based on how much they incorporated each of the 17 elements of success, and compared these rankings with a few extremely simple success indicators: Popularity (determined though Google hits) and Scholarly Success (determined through paper citations in Google Scholar).

The actual correlations and rankings can be found in the full poster (available here).  But the overall finding is that  no single element will guarantee success for a particular project.  Instead researchers need to utilize those that are most applicable to the project.  Some project types (like distributed computing projects) have success correlated with marketing-related success factors, so researchers should concentrate on maximizing these.  Conversely ecology projects are often smaller or have a different audience, so researchers should design projects that play best for smaller audiences.  The same goes for projects focusing on youth (keep things simple for them) or use of complicated equipment (provide significant amounts of education).  We all have limited time and different strengths, so focus on the elements of success most applicable to your situation and maximize them as much as possible.

However, the conference also gave me many new perspectives on citizen science success.  First, looking at additional potential success elements such as providing users autonomy and providing users ownership of their portion of a project.  I also gained perspective on general benefits to communities involved in projects, including the socioeconomic and employment impacts it can have.  There are also similarities to models designed by others, such as the Zooniverse's contract with participants that 1) participants are not users, 2) participants should contribute to real research, and 3) don't waste people's time.  These ideas in there that cross over into my success elements and I'd like to examine them further.

As much as I learned at PPSR2012 this post only scratches the surface.  Fortunately there is a whole year's worth of blog posts to incorporate the many other things we discussed.   I also came away with new ideas on the future of this blog and the future of citizen science.  There are many opportunities as a new professional group may be forming to represent the interests of citizen science, and opportunities for yours truly to help them (including ideas for their future web presence).  So it's a very exciting time.

Finally, the biggest takeaway was not the research or the new perspectives.  It was the validation of everything we've been talking about.  That citizen science can have a positive effect on people and communities.  That data from citizen science can be as strong as, if not stronger, than data collected through traditional methods.  And that the thoughts of a humble blogger actually can make a difference and help like-minded researchers. 

That was the best of all.

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