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 (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. " - 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.


  1. How would you classify the uBiome project? Seems like there should be a category for "crowdsourced data collection" for projects in which members of the public send in samples.

  2. I went back and forth on uBiome a lot. They weren't started by citizen scientists so I couldn't use that criterion. And they don't actually let people do their own analysis. But it does provide the results and I THINK they use the data internally for further research. So it went both ways in my mind.

    As it was I was already thinking about talking of uBiome (and some others) in my next post on things that were difficult to classify. Now more than even I think that's my next course.


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