This blog post has been contributed by Katie Stofer, 2015 eXtension Fellow for Citizen Science. Follow her on Twitter at @dr_stofer.
On September 30, I was honored to take part in two White House Office of Science and Technology Policy-sponsored events relating to Citizen Science, representing eXtension and the Cooperative Extension Service along with Jim Kahler from the National 4-H office. First was a morning forum entitled Open Science and Innovation (webcast video archived here; presentation starts at about 14:00). Second was an afternoon workshop where small groups of us worked to figure out our common barriers and unique strengths to support big science-based challenges facing the world as well as ways to maximize the educational value of citizen science for participants.
The occasion was the release of a toolkit from the federal government, the first-ever Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit. The toolkit was built by a working group across agencies, that aims to support and further enable citizen science within and particularly across, government agencies. Particularly of interest to people outside government agencies will be the openness of data collected by projects, making much more readily available what was previously restricted by governmental policy. This means the potential for sharing and re-analyzing data, or even analyzing new data by groups outside the government should increase, lowering the barriers of entry even further. So a water-quality project that may only be able to collect local data now could have access to historical data, data from a larger spatial area, or even data on soil, air, and other related factors that would be otherwise unavailable to the local project.
Another important element of the toolkit is a “Step-by-Step” how-to guide for starting a project, which offers guidance on planning and executing a citizen science or crowdsourcing project, including offering definitions of both of those types of projects. My major concern with the toolkit is that it does not involve the community until Step 3, after the problem and study have been designed. I think it would be much more valuable, particularly in Extension, to have at least community representatives involved from the beginning in establishing the problem and even designing the study. They are much more likely to be invested in the project this way. You can use the toolkit “out of order” in that case! The toolkit also features case studies of projects, a resource guide including ways to evaluate projects (a toolkit for citizen science projects and learning by participants in particular is in the works by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), and links to listings of all sorts of existing projects with which one can get involved. Finally, there is a section on law and policy, mainly directed at federal employees, but which can provide a guide to the types of considerations one must think about when starting or getting involved in a citizen science or crowdsourcing project. For example, a recently-enacted Wyoming law seems to have made it much harder for citizen scientists to legally collect photos and samples, especially on private land.
This was truly an amazing opportunity for me to represent eXtension and Extension and to learn more about the numerous ways and groups use citizen science and crowdsourced data. I learned about innovative ways that diverse groups including the Peace Corps and local neighborhoods working for social justice were truly involving their communities not just in data collection, but in data analysis and perhaps more importantly, communication about results to make progress on issues facing them. The afternoon workshop as well I think brought a lot of good thinking to how we can really move citizen science forward from its grassroots beginnings to a more integrated system across public and private, university, government, and community groups. More on that to come in upcoming posts.