Monday, February 2, 2015

Industry Niches for Citizen Science - Part 2

Our analysis continues of industry niches ripe for citizen science involvement.  Now that we've identified a series of high technology industries (here) and the types of activities they are involved in (here), we can look at how citizen scientists can support them and get rewarded for their efforts.  All to everyone's mutual benefit.

Obviously there are countless ways high-tech firms could potentially benefit from the work of citizen scientists, most of which have been neither identified or explored.  But the few examples that exist can be highlighted and grouped into a few distinct activities.  This is especially for the large number of manufacturing and IT firms in the list of high technology industries.

In putting this together an interesting phenomenon surfaced. For most categories I found at least one non-profit or for-profit firm already working to organize citizen scientists in these areas.  So where applicable those are described as well.

For now I can't/won't say too much about their relative merits or success.  Some may just be startups, they may not be profitable yet, and they may not be the best way to do things. Or they may be hitting home runs. It's too early to tell. The most important thing is they offer potential case studies to learn from.  Though they also help show businesses can be formed around citizen science, and that banks or venture capital firms can see its not a complete risk.  There is a lot more that can be said about this but that is much better held until later in the Spring or even Summer.  In the meantime we still have lots of work to do.

Below is a list of some opportunities I see for citizen scientists wishing to interact with for-profit firms and share in the rewards.  I've pulled as much of these ideas possible from real-world examples, and from opportunities that don't require any large leaps.   These are (presumably) straightforward groupings based on the type of activity the citizen scientist is performing.  Because that is our ultimate goal, providing a reward model that is based around a citizen scientist's activities so they can be applied to for-profit and non-profit firms.
  • Software Coding -  Nine of the top twelve high technology industries involve direct software development as their primary product/service, or they are computer-based industries that strongly rely on software coding for their success.  This can be either a group or team effort, and if the work is divided up through proper project management techniques, coding can be handled by citizen scientists outside an actual firm.  The Open-Source computing community has shown the ability of diverse, unconnected individuals to team up and create powerful products (such as the Firefox browser).  Individuals can create their own projects or join projects created and sponsored by private firms who need the public assistance.  Various firms and platforms have sprouted to promote this type of work with GitHub as one of the most famous.
  • Product Creation - Eleven of the top twenty high technology industries involve manufacturing and ultimately the creation of physical products. But just because you may need a large firm to manufacture a product does not mean you need the same infrastructure to invent or design it.  This could be handled by citizen scientists that provide the initial idea for a company, and that firm takes ownership, markets, and mass produces it.  Proceeds are then split between the firm and the product creators.  We already see this model forming through the Innocentive Challenge web site, where companies post product design problems or market needs they can't fulfill, ask the public to offer solutions, and then financially reward the "Solver" that submitted the best idea.
  • Consulting Typically the term "consulting" implies firms bringing in outside experts to offer advice and direction in a specialized area.  This can include advice on an area outside of the companies focus (e.g., a chemist advising on a specific reaction of interest to a pharmaceutical firm) or to perform a project for a defined length of time (e.g., an IT consultant upgrading computer systems of a chemical firm).  In some ways we already see examples of both types in existing platforms such as IdeaConnection.  Differing from Innocentive which opens projects to the public, IdeaConnection develops a list of "experts" in each field and can bring them together to work on a specific project for a specific client.  In essence creating ad-hoc consulting teams from their roster of traditional experts and (conceivably) citizen scientists.
  • Writing/Publishing - For every high technology field there are groups of people interested in following that field or learning more about the science behind it. Or just writing about it.  This writing can describe new products under development, promote scientific or occupational opportunities, or explore emerging trends.  It can also be sponsored directly by a company (for advertising or marketing purposes), written independently by a citizen scientist and sold to the public, or written for citizen scientists wanting to stay abreast of their field.  The Citizen Science Quarterly was one example of this though others continue to be formed.
  • Environmental Monitoring and Remediation: Only one of the high technology fields we've been discussing is directly involved with environmental issues (Forestry).  But twelve of the top 26 high-technology industries, especially those with a manufacturing focus, must seriously deal with environmental issues and can incur significant costs if those issues are ignored.  This includes citizen scientists performing environmental impact studies, or firms organizing citizen scientists for those studies. It also includes people analyzing waste streams from firms to help them reduce pollution or turn the waste into useful products. Or, in certain circumstances, citizen scientists can help law firms investigating and litigating polluters. Citizen scientists are already well-established in researching environmental concerns and are well-positioned to take on a larger role.  This is one area where I have not yet seen a for-profit example, but either I'm just missing them or they will soon be appearing.  The potential value (monetary and non-monetary) just seems to great to be ignored.
One important assumption I make in these proposals is that it is not just one person acting as a citizen scientist, but a team of citizen scientists acting together.  Not everyone needs to be a solo entrepreneur. There is also a large need for people to organize or manage these citizen scientists, or set up systems that let those people manage themselves. So we don't just have first-order, direct interaction of citizen science firms with the high tech industries, but also second-order,  indirect connections of firms that support the citizen science work regardless of industry.

We will talk more about those opportunities in the next post. But in the meantime lets talk in the comments about you'r thoughts to these ideas.