This Blog Post is a collaboration between Anne Bowser, Sven Schade, Greg Newman, Claudia Göbel, Peter Brenton, and Darlene Cavalier.
In conjunction with the sixth and final Science Fair hosted by President Barack Obama, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released citizenscience.gov as the new home for citizen science and crowdsourcing within the US federal government. This website hosts a toolkit, the homepage for a federal community of practice on Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing (CCS), and a growing catalog of 300+ projects supported by over 25 federal agencies.
As outlined in a 2015 Memo from OSTP Director John Holdren, the goals of this catalog are:
- Help improve collaboration within and across agencies. The catalog supports collaboration by highlighting synergies. For example, a keyword search for “water quality” yields 10 projects supported by 7 Agencies. These projects likely collect complimentary data, and may have similar goals.
- Reveal opportunities for new projects. People who are planning new projects can conduct a gap analysis to see where opportunities lie. As granting agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF) have recently amplified their support for citizen science, these ideas can become a reality more easily than before.
- Make it easy for federal agencies to engage the public in citizen science and crowdsourcing. This catalog is the go-to US resource for government-verified information on citizen science and crowdsourcing projects.
At the same time, this database builds upon the groundbreaking work accomplished by early pioneers like DataONE, Citizen Science Central, SciStarter and Citsci.org, and also by more recent collaborators including the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA)’s Project Finder. These databases all support public participation in science, technology, and policy by collecting and sharing information from and with their respective communities. And we know that even more databases are planned. The European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) and Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) are mapping citizen science activities in Europe and Australia, while the European Commission is compiling information on the citizen science projects they fund.
Collaborating rather than competing with these platforms has been our goal from the time the first record was collected. To this end the Wilson Center has published a suite of APIs to share data with any interested party. Coordination between the various databases is largely managed by SciStarter, which has already ported in 109 records from the Federal Catalog (in addition to sharing 68 projects with CitSci.org, and 212 projects with ALA).
The value of sharing records between different databases can be seen from a number of perspectives.
Researchers and practitioners can see their activities and results disseminated via multiple channels, therefore tapping into multiple diverse communities. Zooniverse’s Lucy Fortson illustrates the value of listing Notes from Nature in multiple databases: “Linking globally with other transcription efforts is a great way to highlight this project. The more we can get out of the museum collections from across the world and into shared databases, the more we can truly begin to understand the world’s biodiversity and the challenges in conserving it.”
Volunteers appreciate multiple access points for joining projects. SciStarter supports over 65,000 volunteers, including teachers who use citizen science in their classrooms. Sharing records with SciStarter helps these volunteers find new projects to contribute to that not only support science, but may also drive policymaking.
Funders get insights about the priorities and focus of other funding bodies or agencies. This is especially valuable when a US funder can see how their portfolio compares with the projects supported by a similar funder in a different geography, like the EU.
Sharing records is possible only when different databases use compatible project metadata, or in other words structure their information about citizen science projects in compatible ways. Early efforts to articulate joint standards for citizen science and crowdsourcing project metadata were accelerated by a number of activities, and sponsored by groups including DataOne, CitSci.org, SciStarter, the Wilson Center, the Atlas of Living Australia, and the European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC). An international Working Group on Data and Metadata Interoperability is now hosted by the U.S. Citizen Science Association (CSA) in cooperation with ACSA and ECSA. The OSTP Memo also mobilized the federal community around this task, stipulating that “OSTP, GSA, and CCS will work with agencies to develop the metadata requirements” for the federal catalog.
All these activities reveal an interesting tension: that standardization is important for achieving interoperability, but also that each database, organization, and related community will want to collect slightly different information about the exact same projects. Hutch Brown, a citizen science supporter at the US Forest Service, explains, “A key issue for federal agencies and researchers—and for their funders in Congress—is to understand the value of citizen science, real or potential, in adding to the capacity of federal agencies to conduct research, do monitoring and assessment, and engage citizens in our work.” This audience, which is served by the Federal Catalog, will have different information needs than other users, such as the such as the researchers and volunteers that use SciStarter to learn more about citizen science projects, or the scientists that use CitSci.org to host their data.
This need for balance can also be considered form the volunteer perspective. The Internet has no international boundaries. People may choose to use project finders based on fitness for purpose, regardless of where such project finders are located. At the same time, because citizen science volunteers are often inspired by a localized context—e.g., the relevance of a project to their immediate community, or to their own backyard—users should be able to discover projects not only globally, but also locally.
A consortium including members of CCS, the Agency Coordinators, CSA, ACSA, ECSA, the European Commission, the Open Geospatial Consortium, and many more are building a roadmap to advance the interoperability of citizen science data and metadata beyond what is already in progress. It will be necessary to:
- Develop concrete use cases for each database, by distinguishing and addressing the needs of different communities by separating the contents of a particular database from the requirements to share information between different databases.
- Based on these use cases, identify and if possible resolve any necessary discrepancies. For example, the Federal Catalogue maps projects based on the location of government coordinators; SciStarter, a more public-facing platform, is moving towards mapping projects based on the boundaries of participation.
- Perform stakeholder analyses to get an overview of projects who emerge every day, to better understand different needs regarding interoperability that arise from different project designs, as well as to continue standardization efforts in an open and participatory way.
- Coordinate these activities via open and transparent online platforms, including those hosted by each partner organization, and a central coordinating node.
While this blog post is inspired by recent gains in the US Government, citizen science and crowdsourcing are global phenomena. Only if we manage to interconnect the past and ongoing efforts-within countries and between borders- will we get access to the best solutions for future use.