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Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

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“The potential of crowdsourcing and citizen science is limitless: solving puzzles, formulating new approaches to science, to creating entirely new hypotheses and eventually being able to test them. Really, the only limit is our imagination”

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Crowdsourcing and citizen science are tools that educate, engage, and empower the public to apply their curiosity and contribute their talents to a wide range of real-world problems. By enabling and scaling the use of open innovation methods such as citizen science and crowdsourcing, the federal government is increasingly harnessing the public’s ingenuity to accelerate science and technology innovation, and improve government’s efficiency and effectiveness. Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem-solving and production model where organizations submit an open call for voluntary assistance. Through citizen science, members of the public participate voluntarily in the scientific process, addressing real-world problems in ways that may include formulating research questions, conducting scientific experiments, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, making new discoveries, developing technologies and applications, and solving complex problems. Members of the public can contribute to a wide range of scientific and societal problems, including public health, disaster response, biodiversity research, and astronomy.”

Citizenscience.gov is an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government. The site provides a portal to three key assets for federal practitioners:

  • a searchable catalog of federally supported crowdsourcing and citizen science projects
  • a toolkit to assist with designing and maintaining projects, and
  • a gateway to a federal community of practice (COP) to share best practices.

In September 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) outlined the benefits of citizen science and crowdsourcing approaches that can help federal agencies including:

  • Enhance scientific research
  • Address societal needs
  • Provide hands-on learning and increase literacy of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

Enhance scientific research

Citizen science and crowdsourcing help enhance and accelerate scientific research through group discovery and co-creation of knowledge. Volunteers can collect data over large geographic areas and long periods of time that federal agencies may not be able to do given resource constraints. Volunteers also can provide unique perspectives and local expertise for interpreting data such as categorizing millions of objects or finding solutions to complex problems that computer algorithms may not be able to solve.

Address societal needs

Citizen science and crowdsourcing projects can boost and enhance the scientific process and address other societal needs while drawing on the vast skills, dedication, and ingenuity of the American people. Diverse participation by all parts of society brings in new ideas and insights and contributes to solutions. They can address societal needs and federal agency goals, ranging from enhancing the accuracy of prediction markets to tagging and transcribing national archives and records.

Provide hands-on learning and increase literacy of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

Adult and student participants in crowdsourcing and citizen science projects can acquire a life-long enthusiasm for science, along with valuable STEM skills. Students working on real-world problems can make classroom learning experiences more exciting, and adults can advance their knowledge and skills while contributing to the larger scientific enterprise. They might become more involved in community decision-making because citizen science and crowdsourcing projects helps citizens and communities gain STEM literacy and learn about issues important to them.

Examples

  • The Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) Program, sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, enhances the accuracy, precision, and timeliness of forecasts for a broad range of global events. Launched in 2010, ACE is based on the idea that combining forecasts made by an informed and diverse group of people often produces more accurate predictions of future events than those made by a single expert.

  • CoCoRaHS — Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network provides a way for volunteers to collect and submit local precipitation data and educate the public. CoCoRaHS is now used in peer-reviewed publications, in classrooms around the country, and in local communities to promote awareness of weather effects

  • The U.S. Department of State’s MapGive supports a global open mapping initiative with learning tools, satellite imagery, technical services, event support, and networks in the global OpenStreetMap and humanitarian communities.

Approach

Agencies should apply these principles, where relevant, when designing crowdsourcing and citizen science projects:

  1. Data quality. Federal agencies should ensure that data have the appropriate level of quality, credibility, and usability for the project. Also, citizen science projects should incorporate the same practices followed by all science projects, including data-quality assurance, data management, and ongoing project evaluation; relevant federal and agency policies for scientific integrity and ethics; and other applicable agency principles, policies, and practices.

  2. Openness. Information is a valuable national resource and a strategic asset to the federal government, its partners, and the public, which should be preserved and shared. Federal agencies should design projects that generate datasets, code, applications, and technologies that are transparent, open, and available to the public, consistent with applicable intellectual property, security, and privacy protections. Agencies should use machine-readable formats to share data, metadata, and results with project volunteers and the public.

  3. Public participation. Public engagement enhances the government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Project participation should be fully voluntary. Volunteers should receive acknowledgment for their contributions, understand how their contributions are meaningful to the project, and how they will benefit from participating. Where appropriate, agencies should consider engaging other countries or regions with relevant experience, programs, or citizenry to provide useful scientific data on issues that span national borders and build international understanding of shared scientific challenges.

Actions and Considerations

The Federal Toolkit for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science includes five basic process steps for planning, designing, and carrying out a crowdsourcing or citizen science project (adapted from Bonney et al. (2009). Each step includes a list of tips you can use to keep your project on track.

  1. Scope out your problem: Know your tools, engage your stakeholders and participants, know where your project fits, and get approval from your supervisors.

  2. Design a project: Know your objectives, list your resources, plan project management, and get ready to go.

  3. Build a community: Know your community partners, engage your community, nurture your community, and be sensitive to socio-cultural issues.

  4. Manage your data: Think of your data as an asset, prepare a data management plan, and acquire, process, analyze, share, and preserve your data.

  5. Sustain and improve: Adapt to cycles of participation, communicate effectively, solicit feedback from your participants, sustain your project funding, evaluate your data’s quality, evaluate your participants’ engagement, build flexibility into your project, and know how to end your project.

Interested in bringing crowdsourcing and citizen science and crowdsourcing into your work in the federal government?

  1. Join the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science to share lessons learned and develop best practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives.
  2. Network within your agency and check the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog for collaboration opportunities.
  3. Use the Federal Toolkit for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science to design and carry out a citizen science project.
  4. Contribute lessons learned and best practices back to the community, and add your project to the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog!

# Policies

In December 2016, Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which adds new authority for agencies to undertake crowdsourcing and citizen science projects. While citizen science has long been conducted by federal agencies, this new law explicitly recognizes the value of this approach and gives agencies the capacity to carry out the projects.

OSTP published a memorandum on September 30, 2015 entitled Addressing Societal and Scientific Issues through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing, which outlines principles that agencies should apply in order to ensure the greatest value and impact of citizen science and crowdsourcing. It also recommends agency actions to build capacity and provides examples of successful applications.

Legal and Policy Considerations There are many relevant legal and regulatory issues you may confront when launching citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. Certain non-federal resources have worked to identify these issues including the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Its Commons Lab within the Science and Technology Innovation Program provides independent and rigorous analysis of emerging technologies, networks, and methods that mobilize public participation in science, technology, and policy. In April 2015, it published Crowd Sourcing, Citizen Science, and the Law by Robert Gellman, which addresses some of the administrative, legal, and ethical frameworks for using citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Resources

  • Citizenscience.gov is an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government. The site provides a portal to three key assets for federal practitioners: a searchable catalog of federally supported citizen science projects, a toolkit to assist with designing and maintaining projects, and a gateway to a federal community of practice (CoP) to share best practices. Additional resources can be found in the Resource Library.
  • The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in June 2017 reviewing federal guidance for open innovation, including citizen science and crowdsourcing. Open Innovation: Executive Branch Developed Resources to Support Implementation, but Guidance Could Better Reflect Leading Practices.
  • The Citizen Science Association is a growing professional organization dedicated to sharing expertise.
  • Scistarter.com is a place to find, join, and contribute to science through more than 1600 formal and informal research projects, events and tools.
  • The Crowd and the Cloud is a four-part public television series that explores the potential and challenges of citizen science.

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