Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Exploring the Economic Value of Citizen Science at CitSci2015

Bringing the worlds of citizen science and for-profit businesses together was my main goal for the 2015 Citizen Science Conference.  Now I'm happy to report it was a success!  Though much work remains I saw examples of people trying various parts of my proposed models, and learned a lot about the economics of citizen science.  I also met a number of interesting people with great insights on the topic.  All of which I'm excited to share.

At this point a mere two weeks have passed since the conference. Enough time to catch up on my sleep, go through all my notes, and let all my thoughts settle.  And time for many my colleagues to put up their posters online so everyone can see the good work that is going on (you can also find mine there too).

The core principle is that citizen scientists are creating real value with the research they are doing, so increasing financial support for them will also increase the value they can create.  To everyone's benefit.  So it was great to hear my fellow attendees confirm that often citizen science really can save researchers large amounts of money over hiring full-time technicians.  This has been much-discussed with anecdotal evidence, but I had not seen much specific evidence for it until now.

Value Created in Citizen Science Ecology Projects
In one early presentation, researchers described the difficulty of counting and tracking mountain goats in their normal environment.  These animals choose rugged and highly inaccessible places to forage, they roam around a lot, and they blend in to their surrounding easily.  All making it very difficult to find them.  Typically researchers must resort to the very expensive tactic of renting helicopters for aerial surveys with trained spotters.  However, some groups have found that despite the rugged terrain citizen scientists are able to visit mountain goat territory and provide census data equivalent to those using traditional (and expensive) methods.

From Jami Belt's presentation abstract for "Evaluating the Use of Citizen Science Data for Detecting Trends in Climate Sensitive Wildlife",
Counts of mountain goats, a notoriously difficult to study species due to the rugged terrain they inhabit, are declining throughout their range, but little is known about how resilient the species may be to climate change. Our small army of over 150 volunteers each year has provided a large amount of baseline information about mountain goats and pikas, a much-needed starting point for tracking future changes. To understand how well these population and distribution estimates can serve as an early warning signal, we needed to compare them citizen science estimates to data gathered by more traditional methods (surveys by biologist and aerial surveys). In mountain goats, although detection by biologists was significantly higher and less variable than that of volunteers, the two population density estimates overlapped and population estimates by volunteers were more similar to those from aerial surveys. 

Here we have a real case where scientists interested in mountain goat movements can hire citizen scientists to do much of the field work and save the project substantial sums of money.  Those savings can then be used for additional research (maybe on other species in the same are) or to expand goat surveys to different areas.  And that's after paying for the costs of training and supporting those citizen scientists.

But this value is not just demonstrated in ecology projects.

Comparing Value Created in Different Types of Citizen Science Projects
Expanding on the work above, some presentations looked to test this idea of citizen science value among different areas of science.  For example Brian Fauver from CitSci.org (in his presentation "Is Citizen Science Worth It: Identifying Natural Resource Managers' Values Through Cost-Benefit Analysis") compared the citizen science cost savings between some ecology projects and archaeology projects.  He looked at all of the expenses required to operate a citizen science project, such as recruitment costs, training costs, equipment/supply purchases, etc.  For citizen science projects these can be considerable, especially the recruitment and training pieces.  It costs a lot of money to find interested volunteers and bring them up-to-speed on species identification and reporting requirements (just to name a few).  These costs get even higher if you don't just have to train people once, but if you have to do it repeatedly do to people dropping out of the program.

In accounting terms these start-up costs are relatively fixed, meaning that they are the same regardless of the project size (e.g., training a class of two people or 100 people costs the same amount).  But once those fixed start-up activities are complete, you then have a cadre of trained people to do the research at a very low variable cost.  At least for ecology projects, where you can send people out without much supervision or after-action debriefing.  They can just go out to report data, and few new costs are added (whether they go out 2 times or 100 times).  This provides an economy of scale that offers project managers sizable savings when utilizing citizen scientists.

However, not all projects are like that.  In some fields, such as archaeology, you can't just leave volunteers unattended.  Even after you recruit and train a person you must stay with them and directly supervise their work.  This means sticking around to discuss what people are finding and guiding them through difficult situations.  So not only are there large fixed start-up costs (like there are in ecology projects), there are also a significant set of variable costs that stay through the lifetime of the project. Sending someone into the field 100 times is much more expensive then sending them out two times, and there are much fewer economies of scale.   This means those types of projects have a much higher break-even point and the savings (per research dollar invested by project managers) is much lower.  

Yet archaeology is still heavily reliant on a volunteer workforce.  Why?  Because despite it all these people are still offering their services for free.  They find motivation in the educational learning, opportunities to help science, and ability to connect with their past (among other reasons).  These intangible rewards make them much less expensive (financially) than trained researchers or professional technicians.  And that is how they add value to the project managers "employing" them.

Creating Value for For-Profit Businesses
When we talk about the value provided by citizen scientists we often think of it from the standpoint of reducing the cost of research.  But there are other ways to add value.  One occurs when the research they perform has economic value in and of itself.  I've previously proposed a variety of ways this can happen and I was glad to see some good examples at the conference.

One very interesting example was a partnership put together between a Canadian oil company (Cenovus) and the environmental non-profit Miistakis Institute.  Together they created the Wild Watch program for tracking wildlife around some of their oil production facilities.  These facilities extract petroleum from the Canadian Oil Sands, a highly controversial activity due to its potential environmental impact.

As described  in Tracy Lee's poster, "Unlikely Bedfellows: Industry, Conservation and Citizen Science in the Canadian Oil Sands",
The program was developed as a stewardship tool to engage and increase participant's knowledge regarding wildlife use around industrial sites as well as to inform industry wildlife mitigation planning. Wild Watch participants enter their observations through a smart phone app or interactive mapping tool. The mapping tool also enables participants to view their wildlife observations as well as all wildlife observations in the database. The program has been evolved to include bear alert warnings and notifications of rare species to environmental managers on site. Wild Watch has been shared with other industrial partners working in the Canadian Oil Sands and some are joining the program with the goal of informing broader landscape scale patterns of wildlife issues in the region.  
By participating in the program, Cenovus hopes to show that the local wildlife are not impacted by their operations and show they are good stewards of the land.  This helps them with their regulatory obligations in Canada, as well as their legal liabilities if there is ever a spill.  So there is real monetary value to this research.  Now in this particular case much of the work is done by plant personnel, but they are not specially trained.  They act as citizen scientists would in making their observations, and there is no special reason that other versions couldn't use actual citizen scientists unaffiliated with the company. And in those cases much of the value the research creates could be used to support those volunteers.

Right now the Miistakis Institute is gaining value from this project since their non-profit goal is ensuring land in that area remains untainted.  They have also used the Cenovus funds to build the program and mobile app, which they can then use for many other projects.  So these partners have found ways to share the value of citizen science research to both the company's benefit as well as the non-profit's.  Just the type of mutually beneficial relationship we need to encourage.

Summing Up
I've talked a lot about the profit motive as a key motivator for both businesses and the volunteer researchers.  But I also heard people talk about the fairness issue as well.  At one point Henry Herrera, President and CEO of the Center for Popular Research, Education & Policy and a man familiar with projects involving local communities asked the audience to think about the ethics of relying on citizen scientists for data collection without compensation.  I think that's a great question.  This doesn't mean we have to turn all citizen scientists into paid researchers (and I don't think that was his point either).  Not at all.  But if people are extracting value from their work, shouldn't they be sharing it as well?

These examples above are just the tip of the iceberg for demonstrating this sharing and the potential value citizen scientists can provide for-profit businesses if they work together. Different projects obtain value from citizen scientists in different ways, and the different activities citizen scientists also provide different rewards.  So there is a lot to sort out.  But it's a great start.


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