Citizen Science: vision and practice

Two events this week highlight the contributions of citizen scientists within the broader scientific community. The widespread adoption of citizen science methodologies has community organizations, academic institutions, the private sector, and federal agencies working together to establish best practices for creating meaningful engagements with citizens who volunteer their time to document and analyze scientific data. Both of this week’s citizen science  events are opportunities for cross-sector dialogue about next steps and ways to formalize partnerships between citizen scientists and the professional scientific community.

New Visions in Citizen Science: On November 20, 2013, the Wilson Center’s Commons Lab convened a public event to discuss the status and way forward for citizen science initiatives implemented by federal agencies, within the private sector, in academia and at the neighborhood scale. The goal of the meeting was to continue to build a community of practice and to create a forum where representative from diverse sectors could share best practices, brainstorm next steps, and outline the challenges associated with formalizing citizen science engagements.

The concept of ‘citizen science’ is over one hundred years old, and has early roots at the United States National Audubon Society. In the 1880s, the Audubon Society instituted its annual Christmas bird count, which documented live birds within a certain geographic scope. This ‘live bird’ count paralleled the infamous bird hunt, where men competed to kill the most birds. In an effort to raise awareness about the large numbers of birds being hunted each holiday season, the Audubon Society enlisted volunteers to document the living birds (See the Commons Lab’s recent New Visions In Citizen Science for more information). This relationship between the Audubon Society and bird counters is one of the earliest documented  partnerships between scientists and citizens.


Citizen Science in Practice: This afternoon, members of the public are invited to join the discussion about citizen science by tuning in to our Public Mapping Mission webinar co-sponsored by our friends at Public Lab, the MIT Media Lab, CUSP and Peer 2 Peer University. We’ll be discussing balloon mapping with panelists Francois Grey from CUSP, Beth Noveck from GovLab, and Jeff Warren of Public Lab. The panelists will share how balloon mapping can be used to amplify a community’s voice and influence policy as well as inspiring examples of balloon mapping in action.

Today’s event is one example of how citizen scientists continue to play a pivotal role in data collection and analysis across a number of scientific fields. One reason that citizen science has been adopted so widely is because it can be used across an array of sectors: academia, the private sector, and the federal level have all seized opportunities to create meaningful engagements with citizens scientists.

Zooniverse, for example, is a leader in citizen science-supported data analysis and with the help of citizen scientists’ efforts has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers to date. During the ‘New Visions in Citizen Science’ panel discussion on November 20, Zooniverse’s Stuart Lynn noted that data crunching is still an incredibly labor intensive process, and that is where citizen scientists’ efforts are most needed at Zooniverse.

Jake Weltzin from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and another speaker on the ‘New Visions in Citizen Science’ panel  shared that the USGS engages with citizens on over a dozen different initiatives, most notably in the wake of severe weather events. The ‘Did you feel it?’ platform lets users to alert the USGS when they feel earthquake activity. Similarly, ‘Did You See It?’ is the USGS’s landslide hazard portal that enables the USGS to triangulate citizen data with their own data after landslides occur.

Panelist Erin Heaney, director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, explained how her organization organizes citizens to collect air samples in their community, which is disproportionately impacted by truck emissions and other environmental hazards. The goal of the data collection is to document that the communities in which Clean Air Coalition organize are unfairly impacted by truck emissions, and the data collected does just that. The Coalition’s work has led to major victories over offending businesses based in Western New York, not without the help of the citizen scientists’ data collection efforts.

Some Questions Still Remain

Some critics of citizen science wonder how collaborating scientists validate data collected or analyzed by lay people, but those within the community note that there are measures in place to ensure that the data citizen scientists collect is held to high standards. At Zooniverse, for example, over 2 dozen citizen scientists will analyze a single data point, and Stuart Lynn notes that this validation process often renders the data more robust than traditionally collected data.

Erin Heaney from the Clean Air Coalition also acknowledged that rigorous data validation is not always the goal of her community organizing efforts (rather, it is documentation) and Lina Nilsson from the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley and Tekla Labs noted that similar questions of data validity can arise from data analyzed by professional scientists, too.  Reducing error in data collection and analysis involves implementing mechanisms that reduce the likelihood of error that renders the data useless. Zooniverse’s approach is to develop a sustained relationship with citizen scientists. Zooniverse’s citizen scientist contributors remain involved with the research until the work is completed and don’t immediately disengage after their data is collected.

Ongoing Challenges

Zooniverse’s approach of ongoing engagement works because citizen scientists who make significant contributions to Zooniverse’s research receive meaningful acknowledgement. This can even include co-authorship in prestigious science journals such as Nature. Organizations that rely on citizen scientists’ contributions will continue to grapple with ways to acknowledge the work of these lay contributors.

Ongoing challenges also exist regarding inclusion and integration. At the federal level, agencies are thinking about how to leverage the capacity of citizen scientists so they’re matched to federal projects already underway. Likewise, integration is a concern within the private sector as well: Zooniverse is looking at ways to fold citizen science efforts into organization’s broader mission. At the moment, the community lacks a dedicated place to discuss emerging trends, ethics, and scholarship within the field of citizen science. However, a new journal dedicated to these topics will soon be available and will be a forum where scientists and citizen scientists can discuss these concerns.

Although citizen science has experienced wide adoption in recent years, getting input from diverse communities is an ongoing challenge of the citizen science movement. Those within the movement grapple with extending the reach of citizen science movements to the historically disenfranchised and ensuring that citizen science initiatives do not simply become another means for those with the loudest voices to be heard. This challenge remains at the forefront of many citizen science debates. Erin Heaney from Clean Air Coalition suggests that federal agencies connect with communities on issues that matter and others on the panel agreed. When individuals and communities have a stake in the outcome of the research, it is likely they will have a greater investment in their role in the assignment. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has been one of the forerunners in outreach, and Heaney suggests that other federal agencies learn from the EPA’s engagement efforts.

Other challenges that the citizen science community seeks to address include data integration (matching data collected by citizen scientists to data collected via satellite); linking citizen science efforts to policy change; creating language that adequately reflects the contributions of citizen scientists within the field; and creating language that reflects the relationship between the lay community and professional scientists.

Moving Forward and Main Takeaways

  • Moving forward, there need to be substantives means of engagement for citizen scientists as well as acknowledgement of their tremendous contributions to research.
  • Kumar Garg, the Assistant Director of Learning Innovation at the White House, observed that interest within the maker community and the citizen science community are steadily rising. A maker faire held last year in California attracted more than 100,000 participants, and what began as a ‘garage tinker-er’ community is growing into a full-fledged hardware manufacturing and entrepreneurial movement. Federal agencies should harness the passion and interest of the citizen scientist community now to signal their commitment to sustained collaborations.
  • Stuart Lynn from Zooniverse noted that people have a desire to give of their time and contribute to scientific research. Therefore, it’s critical that the necessary equipment is reaching the citizen scientists completing data collection on behalf of federal agencies, the private sector, and academics.
  • Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation should start looking to citizen scientists for more formalized arrangements, and through seed grant opportunities, signal that the formal community is interested in sustained collaborations with the citizen science and maker community.
  • Zooniverse is working to formalize partnerships between citizen scientists and professional scientists. One means of doing that is through authorship. In instances where citizen scientists have contributed substantially to efforts, they receive co-authorship on the published paper.
  • Monitoring & evaluation and best practices should be incorporated into the work within the field so that citizen scientists can identify areas of success and challenges ahead.
  • Citizen science can be used as a diplomacy tool as well, and the greater community might consider where to target these efforts.

Scientists are keen to foster aptitude and interest in science, technology, engineering and math in the next generation, and many of their initiatives are designed with younger generations in mind:

  • Zooteach is a portal for educators to share lessons plans and resources about citizen science.
  • During the Questions and Answer period, an audience member suggested that federal agencies and other organizations develop higher education scholarship funds to support young citizen scientists that exhibit high aptitude.
  • Federal agencies should champion citizen scientists and develop a strategy to bring citizen science into classrooms so there is a new generation of students excited about STEM.


  • Ann Bowser and Lea Shanley, The Wilson Center, New Visions In Science, November 2013.
  • ‘New Visions for Citizen Science’ meeting hackpad
  • The Wilson Center ‘New Visions in Citizen Science’ event webpage:
  • EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe delivered the keynote address at the New Visions in Citizen Science event on 11/20 and wrote a related blog post.


Online Seminar: Nov 22, 2013, 3:30PM EST – 5:00PM EST.

Sign up for an online seminar about balloon/kite mapping. Meet community innovators who have mapped oil spills, landfills or industrial pollution sites. Hear examples on how mapping influenced public policy. Confirmed panelists include Francois Grey, CUSP, Jeff Warren, Public Lab, and Beth Noveck, The GovLab.

Mapday will be Dec 7, 2013 

Then sign-up for Part 2 of the series for a Hands-on MapDay. Put together a team, build a balloon/kite mapping kit, and head out to start mapping. At the end of the day, all teams will meet online to share images and stories.

The Public Mapping Mission is a collaboration between Public LabCUSPGovLabP2PU, and the MIT Media Lab.

What will you learn?

  • You will learn how to use DIY technology (like balloon mapping kits) to work with government or influence policy.
  • You will meet some of the people behind the balloon mapping technology, and some of the most inspiring case studies.


  • Online Seminar – Nov 22, 2013 – 3:30pm (US Eastern)
  • Mapday – Dec 7, 2013

Stay in touch:



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4 Responses to “Citizen Science: vision and practice”

  1. Rebecca French November 22, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    Thanks for the great post. I helped organize this event as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the EPA Office of Research and Development. I was so proud that the EPA’s #2 in command, Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, gave a keynote at the Wilson Center event as well and expressed his support for citizen science in his speech and in his blog post, “The Value of Citizen Science.” I hope that your readers take a look: – Rebecca @RebeccAFrench

  2. Asiya Wadud November 22, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

    Rebecca, thanks for the link to the EPA Deputy Administrator’s Bob Perciasepe’s blog post. I’ve added it to the ‘Further Reading’ section so that readers can take a look.

  3. John Mclaughlin November 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    It is great to see this level of energy dedicated to better understanding and advancing the field of citizen science. The New Visions in Citizen Science event held by the Wilson Center’s Commons Lab had an outstanding turnout that reflects the interest that exits in the outputs and potential of the field. The promotion and establishment of mechanisms for continued dialogue and sharing of best practices will be key to harnessing this energy and interest.

  4. Lea Shanley February 16, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    John McLaughlin (above) wrote a great blog piece recently for the Wilson Center’s Commons Lab blog on the formation of a citizen science community of practice within NOAA:

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