Thursday, April 23, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Bounty Hunter

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previous: Educator

This Week: Bounty Hunter
Next: Organizer (Coming Soon)

I've been thinking about citizen science bounties for a long time.  Back in 2011 I wrote an initial article talking about their definition and basic potential, hoping this would kick start some new thinking.  Much of that thinking is still valid and has been incorporated here.  But while people sent me some great ideas I have not seen it take off in the field yet.  Still not sure why.  Either way, there are still many great opportunities for both citizen scientists and for businesses wanting to work with them.

What I'm thinking of is very similar to, but distinct from, some of the innovation awards that groups like the Ansari XPrize and U.S. Government's site have offered.  Those are all focused on achieving a specific technical goal or development of a process.  And they are also quite large endeavors with precise rules on how the goal should be accomplished.  They may be somewhat loose rules, but they are still somewhat prescriptive in how to accomplish the goal.  

The bounties I'm thinking of are different by focusing on discovery, not creation or puzzle-solving.  They reward accomplishment of a specific tangible goal but are usually smaller in nature or more precise.  They also often involve more "brute-force" or trial-and-error searching as compared to innovative or creative puzzle solving. The example is an award to people who can find a particular rare bird, sight the first flower of a certain type to bud in spring, or discover an asteroid that will pass within a certain distance of Earth.  So it rewards a very specific discovery that is not a technical feat in and of itself, though building of tools to aid the discovery (such as building the proper telescopes of automating bird call identifications) may involve significant technical work. 

Historically people have used these types of bounty prizes to accomplish scientific goals but they haven't been popular recently.  Some of the more illustrative examples of bounty prizes I've seen are the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cooperative Computing Awards for finding the largest prime numbers.  The group offered prizes of up to $250,000 to the first person to discover a certain type of prime number.  There were no rules on how to do it, or what should be done with the number.  All the group required was someone to prove that the number was a Mersenne Prime and of the certain length.  This type of bounty-hunting is well-suited for distributed computing approaches that could crunch huge sets of numbers by brute force until the sought-after number was found.  And that's exactly what the GIMPS distributed computing project did to win the two most recent EFF bounties.

On a similar note, there is another concept that I also put into the bounties category.  These again focus on meeting a simple, tangible goal, but are used to reward progress or effort on a per-unit basis.  Again, nothing is being created here.  Instead we are rewarding someone who performs a scientific analysis task ten times, or collects three samples of a certain specimen, devotes 100 hours of computing time, identifies 200 uncharted Mars craters, or tracks the pollution in ten different streams.

Looking around I've seen a few examples of this so far but nothing major, and nothing active right now.  The closest I've found is the Cosmology@Home, a distributed computing project trying to model the current universe from various hypothetical starting points.  To encourage participation researchers offered a prize to the person whose computer model came closest to reality by a certain date; there was not a monetary prize but the winner would be mentioned in scientific articles about the work.  The most widely-known version may be's Mechanical Turk project.  Although not necessarily Citizen Science, it did provide bounties on a piecework basis for crowdsourced activities.  So people could be paid for writing ten web reviews, or transcribing a certain number of podcasts.  The private sector QMULUS Cloud Computing Platform also used this approach to encourage participation in an actual Citizen Science application.  Each month the company gave away gift certificates and free merchandise through a raffle to users of the system.  As a commercial entity they could afford to invest in these give-aways but there's no reason non-profit organizations couldn't do the same thing (ultimately I don't believe the QMULUS group was successful but that doesn't mean other firms can't be successful with similar ideas). There could also be many variations in the raffle entry for every work unit performed, or for per person using the system per month, or per participant in general.  There are many possibilities that could fit depending on the nature of the particular project.

Business Opportunities:
Much like "Solver: models, bounty models are great opportunities for companies interested in the Open Innovation benefits that come with asking the public for help on specific business problems.

One example is understanding protein folding...there are millions of potential ways a large molecule can be put together, but only one is the most stable.  So why not offer a reward to the person discovering the most stable shape using only knowledge of the molecular structure?  If the target chemicals are potential drugs or the cause of a disease, there is a lot of value in this work.  Researchers could provide the components of a key Malaria protein and offer $1,000 to the first person to identify it's shape.  Or provide the shape of an important AIDS protein and provide $5,000 to the person discovering a structure that will fit around it (thus neutralizing it's effect).

Bounty opportunities don't just involve one-of-a-kind discoveries. They can also be used to promote people finding more common items they wouldn't otherwise look for in an organized manner.  For example, a business operating in an environmentally sensitive area may want to encourage citizen scientists to survey the wildlife around a work site to show that environmental protections are working.  It can be expensive to constantly count the animals and plants in the area.  So they could pick some representative species (such as an apex predator) whose presence/lack of presence is correlated to how impacted to the area is, and then offer a bounty prize to whoever spots those animals near the firm's operations.  This rewards the citizen scientists doing the work, and since finding those species has economic value to the firm (by reducing their survey costs and protecting them from the costs of having caused pollution).  

Some people have started trying this model.  One example came up at CitSci 2015 in Tracy Lee's poster, "Unlikely Bedfellows: Industry, Conservation and Citizen Science in the Canadian Oil Sands".  A partnership put between a Canadian oil company (Cenovus) and the environmental non-profit Miistakis Institute 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.  Adding bounties as part of the reward mechanism encouraging citizen scientists to participate could potentially increase public participation greatly.

So these are my initial thoughts on bounties.  Right now there is a lot more promise with bounties than successful examples.  But hopefully we can help businesses and citizen scientists build them up together.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Educator

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previously: Paid Participant

This Week: Educator
Next Week: Bounty Hunter

A lot of value comes from the work of citizen science projects.  Some of this comes from the varied and unique perspectives that come from opening problems to the overall public; they can bring ideas that any small group would never have discovered themselves.  In fact the greatest promise (in my mind) of citizen science is this very type of benefit. But currently most value comes from another source, people volunteering to offer free services to the professional and academic researchers.  But why do they do this?

One of the main reasons people join and engage with citizen science projects is for the educational opportunities.  They want to learn about a particular area of science or about the scientific process in general.  So this opens up a new model for monetizing citizen science: Educator.  The best part is, this model provides great opportunities for both businesses providing educational services for profit, as well as individual citizen scientists retaining the value of their own work by selling it as an educational tool. Meeting our goal of businesses both rewarding, and benefiting from, the work of citizen scientists.

Incorporating Citizen Science into Educational Tools
Helping teachers involve students in citizen science is a great opportunity for everyone.  Teachers excite their students about science and help them learn.  Kids get to experience science first hand and have lots of fun in the process.  And businesses can benefit from helping them.

Remember, just because these are children does not mean they can't meaningfully contribute to new discoveries.  Even as we establish that findings of citizen scientists can equal that of paid researchers some people still doubt that extends to schoolchildren.  Yet they've been involved since the very beginning.  Many wildlife identification, weather monitoring, and environmental tracking projects rely on data from schools. The limitation is not the age of the children, but the passion of the teacher and access to the right tools.  And these tools are what businesses can provide.

I'd suggest businesses wanting to enter this market initially approach it as any other "Educational Support" opportunity.  Just take the existing product categories and add a citizen science component.  
Written Materials - For new entrants to the educational field creating supplementary materials for individual science classes.  These can either be project specific, describing a citizen science experiment and providing the educational materials that support it,or it can discuss a scientific topic area and include both experiments and educational materials covering that whole field.   For example.  creating a supplementary text for 6th graders for use when they learn about weather.  The basic science will already be covered in the regular textbook, such as cloud types and how wind is created.  But the supplementary text would go one step further, providing specific guidance on how to go outside and identify various cloud types, how to track them over time, and even how to report them to existing citizen science projects looking for that information.  NASA's S'COOL project collects that as part of it's regular research, though there are presumably others as well. 

There is also a very real market for science textbooks that include citizen science as a part of the curriculum, or even as an overriding theme throughout the book (since much of what has been discovered historically has some sort of citizen science connection).  This new focus can help publishers differentiate their texts from those of competitors. But given the high entry barriers facing new textbook publishers, this is primarily a strategy for current publishers.

Equipment, Supplies, and Kits - There are many firms that manufacture scientific equipment, and many that manufacture equipment to sell to schools.  These are different markets differentiated by the latter typically being lower quality, fewer options, and lower cost.  This meets the needs of students while keeping production numbers high, maximizing efficiencies, and staying within a tight budget.  There is also a third market manufacturing equipment where quality standards increase to be scientifically reliable, but production is still in bulk and options are few to remain cost-competitive to schools. These are perfect for citizen science education and connecting students (of all ages) to real-world research.  This is then sold to the school (or classroom) centrally and then distributed to the students.

Building on our weather example above, there is much more to data collection than just visual observations.  Much of it requires specific equipment such as wind gauges, rain gauges, thermometers and barometers, etc.  There are already non-profit citizen science projects (such as CoCoRAHS) that send out rain gauges and connect them to current research.  But an equipment manufacturing firm could design a whole line of inexpensive, but scientifically accurate, equipment and supplies designed from the beginning to perform real research and connect to ongoing science projects. Some do this for the general public now selling home weather stations that connect to research projects (e.g., National Weather Service stations or Weather Underground), so they'd just need to add educational components that tie everything together and help students learn.

Science Fair - Designing a package of materials that lets students participate in a citizen science project in a stand-alone way so they can use their research as part of a school science fair. This would include background educational material to bring students up-to-speed, detailed instructions on how to set up the project (including connecting to a larger project it would be a part of), and providing the necessary equipment/supplies needed to participate.

The main way I see to be successful is realizing that while science in classrooms is performed by teachers who are trained in the subject and can properly guide students, it is left to parents to guide students in science fairs.  Most don't have the expertise needed to properly guide those kids, so purchasing assistance from a company is a great solution for them.  This is especially because science fairs encourage students to perform more original research than they would in a classroom, leaving parents without much material to draw on.  Another key insight is that while a kit based on existing science materials and experiments might be somewhat successful, it is the citizen science component that makes it special and offers higher returns.  This shows the student performing their own research, a key goal of the science fair. S

The previous two models are focused on class-wide activities and are directed by students.  So we emphasize cost constraints and the need to focus on teacher or school board as the actual customer,  But there are also student-led initiatives, epitomized best by the classic school science fair.  And unlike the previous two models, selling for use in science fairs is much more of "retail" strategy (where units are sold in small individual units to the public) as compared to a more "organizational" strategy (where units are sold in batches to an institutional buyer purchasing for many people). Science fair materials would thus be marketed primarily to either the parents or individual students, though some school districts or teachers may help by steering students toward certain products or favored companies.

Since science fairs are much more about students following their own interests than on pre-determined coursework, any for-profit provider would have to create a wide variety of kits to be successful.  For example, the level of involvement can vary between novice/contributory levels up to expert/co-created types of projects.  Typically this will vary with the child's age (allowing companies to sell to students throughout their educational career) and approximate age level, and should also include a variety of subject areas.  So children can go from just making observations that are part of a larger national project (and learning about the science behind it through the company's supplemental materials) to purchasing kits in later years that involve projects that are much more free-form and 

This looks simple.  Making these citizen science components meaningful is the tough part, especially since the more you can have students creating new research (and not just treading over existing research) the more compelling the product will be. So the development of close ties to the citizen science community and understanding the state of the field are competitive advantages that must be cultivated.

Providing Science Education to Citizen Scientists 
Young students are not the only ones in need of science education these days.  Citizen scientists (of all ages) need it too.  They need it for the projects they join and, as people who by definition have an above average interest in science, they want education for the general learning it can provide. Opening up yet another market for entrepreneurial businesses.

Training Materials Targeted to Specific Citizen Science Projects
Proper training is key to many successful projects and is an element project designers invest a lot of time and money into.   If a company can provide high quality training in this area at a reasonable cost, they should be ale to market it quite effectively.

After initial recruitment, one of the biggest issues citizen science projects must face is properly training their volunteers. While they may come in with much zeal, and maybe even a lot of general science knowledge, they typically are not experts in the field and they certainly don't have the skills for whatever task is being asked of them.  Projects are highly specific and almost always require at least a bit of specialized training.  Even a Ph.D. ornithologist who studies birds for a living may not have training on citizen science projects researching birds not in his specific area of study.  This needs to be taught.  

The needed types of training typically fall into the following categories:
  1. How to use the physical equipment/supplies for real-world projects, or the user interface for web-based projects, and
  2. A description of the essential science specific to the project.

For some projects this is part of the intake process as new participants sign up.  If it's easy for a person to back out (as is the case for many web-based projects), the initial training can be crucial to retaining volunteers.  After that, the quality of training will show up directly in both the quantity and quality of results provided by participants.  This directly impacts the value of the project; either the cost-savings to research or profitability from selling the research.  

Historically project designers create the training themselves because it may need to be specific to the project.  But approached correctly there are many ways for-profit companies can take over that role and do so in a cost-effective way:

  1. Skilled science writers employed by companies do not need expert knowledge of the areas they develop training materials for.  They are knowledgeable enough to learn from the project designers quickly and do their own research to fill in the gaps.  Once caught up, they can develop content that can far exceed what most scientists can.  Developing the science project is where the researcher utilizes their strengths, while the writing and material development is where the science writer's strengths shine.

  2. Although the science in each project is different the methods of teaching and basic principles are often the same. So creating various "modules" that can be mixed/matched to various projects and tweaked to meet the various idiosyncrasies of those projects would be helpful. Companies could invest in them and market to researchers, and if the product is high quality everyone would win.  Especially the citizen scientist learning the new project.  The Zooniverse group of projects are a great example of this.  They do a great job with short-and-sweet trainings that quickly bring participants up to speed and teach some of the science as well. They also seem to use modular concepts, utilizing various bits from existing projects and adapt it to the new.  It's a great model to draw inspiration from.

Learning Materials Targeted to General Scientific Fields
Training citizen science participants is not just important for guiding them through the project and ensuring high quality data.  It is also a goal of its own for citizen scientists themselves.  Many times they join for the specific purpose of learning more about science, and the citizen science project is a fun way to do it.  Making general science education a key retention and recruiting tool; one that can help projects differentiate themselves and attract volunteers.  It's also one I consider a key element to success.

Fortunately providing general science education in a research environment is well-suited to development by outside experts instead of the project designer.  They can invest in developing quality training that can then be easily adapted to other projects (due to it's general nature).  All it takes is the preliminary work and some adaptation tailoring it to the specific project.  

Of course these are just a few of the ideas for how businesses and citizen scientists can team up both educate and be educated.  There are so many more examples and possibilities that can't fit into a single blog post, but are definitely worthy of discussion.  So let me know your own thoughts in the comments below and I'll keep putting together more thoughts of my own for you.