Help Make Citizen Science Tools Accessible and Discoverable

SciStarter, a longtime collaborator of the Wilson Center, has always been a platform for the citizen science community to find projects to contribute to. But for many projects and would-be participants, there are significant challenges to finding and accessing the right tools for collecting and sharing scientific information.

To meet this need, SciStarter is expanding their platform to collect information on a range of tools that projects and volunteers can build, borrow, or buy.  The Wilson Center, a proud partner in this initiative, recently co-hosted a Workshop at the Arizona State University Citizen Science and Maker Summit to help design an initial taxonomy for the SciStarter Tools Database. Our next step towards finalizing this taxonomy is testing the initial list of fields by collecting information on a range of tools used by citizen science project coordinators and volunteers.

If there is a citizen science tool that you sponsor, fund, design, build, calibrate, distribute, or otherwise consider yourself an expert on, we need your help. Please add your tool to the beta version of the SciStarter Tools database by filling out this form (note: you will need a SciStarter user account to submit your information). The information you share will help us better understand how people articulate important information about citizen science tools before the database structure is finalized and populated with hundreds of tools from around the world.


Photo: A kit containing the tools required to participate in a citizen science project measuring soil moisture. For more information on citizen science tool kits, check out this video

While the taxonomy included in the beta version of the SciStarter Tools database builds upon the contributions of our workshop participants, the workshop was a single step in a longer process of user-centered design.

  1.  In early 2016, SciStarter and Arizona State University interviewed 110 people about their citizen science tool needs. The core project team, which included SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier, ASU Assistant Professor of Engineering Dr. Micah Lande, and students Brianne Fisher, David Sittenfeld, and Erica Prange, used lean launch methods to identify key “pain points” for the “customer segment” of citizen science volunteers and project organizers. Insights gleaned from this approach are documented here.
  2. Led by Erica Prange, the SciStarter team then surveyed 50 project owners about their tools. These responses were instrumental in building the initial database taxonomy.
  3. SciStarter, the Wilson Center, and Arizona State University held a workshop to test the use of key database fields through personas and use case to validate key hypotheses and identify new information to include.
  4. Based on this research, a beta version of the SciStarter Tools database will be tested by project coordinators and volunteers who enter information their tools here.
  5. Entries to the beta database will be tested and reviewed by an expert advisory panel. This step will help ensure, for example, manufacturer specifications for longevity, data quality, and other factors are accurate in a range of use conditions.

Thanks to a growing number of databases including SciStarter, the Federal Catalog, and, information about citizen science projects is now very easy to find. Information about tools- including the hardware cataloged by SciStarter, and also the software required to support data management and other key phases of the scientific research process- remains elusive. The SciStarter Tools database is one crucial step towards a research ecosystem where the public can access both opportunities for contributing to science, and the tools required to get research done.

EVENT: The Future of Federal Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing

Citizen science and crowdsourcing has gained significant momentum in the U.S. Federal government in the past four years. In September 2015 the White House issued a memorandum asking federal agencies to report on their citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and appoint coordinators within each agency. In 2016 we witnessed the launch of, a platform with an extensive toolkit on how to conduct these projects as well as a catalog and community hub. In addition to these Executive Branch initiatives, a grassroots Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS) has emerged with 300 members across 59 agencies. The Science and Technology Program (STIP) at the Wilson Center has played a role in encouraging this momentum, providing support through building a cartographic catalog of federally supported citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and through extensive research into some of the legal, administrative and intellectual property concerns for conducting projects within the Federal government.

However, a new Administration often brings new priorities, and it’s vital to preserve this momentum and history for new leadership. STIP conducted interviews with twelve representatives of the Federal Community of practice and Agency Coordinators and conducted desk research to compile 10 strategic recommendations for advancing federal policies and programs in citizen science and crowdsourcing to facilitate the transfer of knowledge on this incredible momentum.

Please join us for a discussion of these recommendations, a celebration of the history of the movement and a dialogue on the future of citizen science and crowdsourcing in the Federal government.

1:30 – 1:35 Introductions & Welcome
Elizabeth Tyson, Science & Technology Innovation Program (STIP), Wilson Center
1:35 – 1:45 Administrative Change
David Rejeski, Global Fellow, Wilson Center
1:45 – 2:00 Strategic Recommendations for Federal Citizen Science & Crowdsourcing
Elizabeth Tyson, STIP, Wilson Center
2:00 – 2:10 The Federal Community of Practice on Citizen Science & Crowdsourcing
Jennifer Couch, National Institutes of Health
2:10 – 2:15 History of Open Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy
Jenn Gustetic, National Aeronautics & Space Administration
2:15 – 2:25 Formalizing Citizen Science & Crowdsourcing within a Federal Agency
Heidi Hadley, National Science Coordinator, Bureau of Land Management
2:15 – 2:30 The Future of Federal Citizen Science & Crowdsourcing
Chris Nelson, Office of Science and Technology Policy
2:30 – 3:00 Panel Q & A 

Audio for this event will be recorded and then podcast for future listening.

WHEN: Tuesday, November 15th 1:30 – 3:00

WHERE: 5th Floor Boardroom, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars



AI- Policies for the Next Administration

This piece considers the general state of policy on AI and also gives some numbers to the federal activity encouraging research and application in this field.

Growing interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes from a range of audiences including academia, commercial industry, the entertainment industry, and now the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). On October 12, 2016, OSTP released two new documents on AI. The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan is a high level framework for prioritizing and coordinating federal research and development (R&D) to advance AI. A companion piece, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, discusses the technologies that can be identified as AI and how these may be used to benefit society. A third document, to be authored by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and released later this year, will explore how AI might affect employment.

AI—along with related initiatives on topics ranging from precision medicine to the Internet of Things (IoT)—was also showcased at the White House Frontiers Conference. But the winds of change blow fiercely in election years. With the presidential election approaching, one key task for the incoming administration will be to take account of current OSTP policies and determine whether these will be bolstered or recast. The rest of this piece considers: How can the next administration advance current policies? And what can be done in and beyond the White House to ensure that AI R&D remains a national priority in the coming years?

There are many technologies that can be grouped under the designation of AI, from general techniques to specific applications.  One general technology is deep learning, which is a set of techniques for gradually structuring data by defining it in layers. A more specific application is machine translation, which powers the familiar service Google Translate. While many AI technologies were initially created in research laboratories, innovation in AI technology is increasingly driven by industry, thanks to (for example) market incentives for investing in digital personal assistants and autonomous driving.

Any administration that makes AI a priority will want to see the US emerge as a global leader. Unfortunately, as a relatively new area of broad public interest the exact levels of financial investment in AI research are not well-defined. Thus, determining where funding originates or how exactly it is spent is challenging. As one starting point, the National AI R&D strategy gives a number of $1.1 billion in unclassified, federally funded R&D for AI. [1] However, without more statistics for AI investment, it is difficult to compare US federal investments with funding in other countries. Some other approximations of productivity are possible, including comparing the number of relevant journal articles and patents in countries like China and the US (e.g., NSTC’s strategy in the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan), or comparing the number of computer science publications by country.[2] Continue reading “AI- Policies for the Next Administration”

My Crash Course in Citizen Science: A Reflection

By Lauren Nally, a departing Commons Lab intern.

Each year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Thus far in my engineering education, the importance of social interaction has played little to no role; the customer is at the end of a long pipeline– sometimes literally– and their satisfaction is assumed as long as you have done your research and calculations correctly. It’s difficult to stay motivated if your scope of impact is limited to machinery and blue screens. I’ve noticed this sentiment among federally employed scientists and researchers. As employees of a democratic government, their work serves the American people, and should consequently benefit the shared concerns of the public. But, because science can be a highly technical profession and the educational pre-requisites are steep, there is a certain distance between the researcher and relevant communities.

Non-scientists can, and should, play a very powerful role in research, particularly when it comes to the Federal government. Local communities are the largest and most important stakeholders in their local environmental conditions, biodiversity of ecosystems, traffic patterns, and health concerns. In any regional project relating to these or other factors, the residents should be involved because they will be the most directly influenced by any results. But, self-doubt and unfamiliarity with the sciences or research can limit people’s confidence and interest in such projects.

Citizen science in the federal government is an excellent method of subverting that mentality by partnering scientists with interested citizens to perform research that both parties care about. Mobilizing citizens in this way allows them to feel empowered with regard to things that they typically wouldn’t. It increases science literacy, can produce rigorous data sets, and bridges the communication gap between research and community interests.

This methodology has proven its capabilities in regard to mass data collection and analysis across a wide range of fields in both the private and public sectors. But, there’s still room for improvement. My dream project is something along the lines of the latest international craze, Pokémon GO, but with wildlife as the subject of interest. Combining gamification with data collection through an engaging mobile application is a fantastic way to capture public interest on a wider scale. It could engage the 18-35 year old demographic that is the least likely to be involved in citizen science projects.

However, there are two distinct obstacles associated with this path:

  1. The need for an advanced and highly technological platform;
  2. Cybersecurity and the collection of information on people’s whereabouts and actions, particularly by any Federal agency

Citizen science is somewhat limited at the moment when it comes to technological scope. Many data collection apps, like iNaturalist, have been able to streamline wildlife observation projects, but beyond logging information and recording a geographic location, there is a lot of room for expansion. A bridge has yet to be formed between citizen science projects and the advanced capabilities of modern technology, particularly relating to smartphone apps. But, web-based projects like Eyewire and Foldit have proven that further expansion is possible.

Furthermore, with such advanced data collection methods involving the public, privacy concerns will rise to the surface. This draws our attention to legal, moral, and logistical problems that many organizations are facing in the Internet age, but that should not bar progress and innovation. There are many exciting new directions that citizen science could go in, but this requires new partnerships and the consideration of barriers very unique to the 21st century.

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Lauren Nalley is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, studying chemical engineering with a focus in materials science engineering. She is interested in the intersection of science and technology with public policy, and likes the idea of becoming an “engineer in context.” She hopes to continue combining these interests by pursuing a career related to the management of municipal water utilities.

White House to Host Arctic Science Ministerial

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In spring of this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced plans to host the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial.  On September 28, science ministers from Arctic and non-Arctic nations alike will convene in Washington, DC.  Joining them will be representatives from various indigenous groups that call the Arctic home.  Together, the OSTP is hoping to “advance promising, near-term science initiatives and create a context for increased international scientific collaboration on the Arctic over the long term.”  The Ministerial will revolve around four key themes: arctic science challenges and their regional and global implications, strengthening and integrating arctic observations and data sharing, applying expanded scientific understanding of the arctic to build regional resilience and shape global responses, and of particular significance to us here at the Commons Lab, arctic science as a vehicle for STEM education and citizen empowerment.  Current citizen science projects in the Arctic both address this theme, and serve as powerful examples of the near-term initiatives the OSTP intends to highlight.

One doesn’t have to look hard to discover the abundance of citizen science projects already underway in the Arctic.  Because it is often difficult or expensive to reach, researchers rely heavily on the input of citizen scientists.  This dependency has contributed to the proliferation and long history of Arctic citizen science.  One such initiative, the Kachemak Bay CoastWalk, dates all the way back to 1984.  For more than 30 years, CoastWalk participants have helped remove debris from Alaskan beaches and record observations of flora and fauna.  In fact, a CoastWalk team member was the first to spot oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill on the beaches of Homer, Alaska.  And when it comes to keeping track of invasive species, one project has proven that no age is too young.  “Early Primary Invasion Scientists,” an article published in Science and Children, highlights the contributions of a first grade class, who helped document how climate change is affecting invasive species in the far North.

Poseidon Expeditions, a Russian polar tourism outfit, recruits clients to make sea ice observations (photo credit: Lauren Farmer)

While the Inuit may have more than 50 words for snow, Arctic residents haven’t forgotten about ice either.  The SEARCH Sea Ice Outlook provides the scientific community, stakeholders, and the public with information on Arctic sea ice, and receives its funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationIce Watch, coordinated by the International Arctic Research Center out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, serves as an open source forum for data on Arctic sea ice.  By using their ASSIST software, anyone can collect, archive, and access Arctic sea ice data from around the globe.

Projects like these have cemented the role that citizen science plays in Arctic research, a field integral to monitoring climate change.  With temperatures rising twice as fast as the global average, permafrost is thawing, and glaciers are melting, at an alarming rate.  In conjunction with the Paris Agreement, the international collaboration displayed during the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit is invaluable to combating climate change globally, an issue with sobering local ramifications, especially for those in the Arctic.

Webinar on

Interested in learning more about the  platform?  Join the Wilson Center Commons Lab and the General Services Administration (GSA) for a webinar tomorrow afternoon from 11am – 12pm.  Hosted via DigitalGov University, topics of the webinar will include an introduction to the platform, a tour of the Federal Catalogue, and a few citizen science examples from federal practitioners.



Whether you’re a seasoned citizen science practitioner, aiming to promote a current project within the federal community, or simply interested in what, and the field as a whole, have to offer – all are welcome to attend.  By capturing the input and enthusiasm of the general public, citizen science and crowdsourcing projects are tackling the problems of today and tomorrow. serves as the hub for federal endeavors of this nature, providing the populace and federal practitioners with three pillars of support: a Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, a Federal Catalog, and a Community Page.

Presenting at the webinar are Elizabeth Tyson, a CoDirector of the Commons Lab, and Kendrick Daniel, a representative from the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, and the Program Lead for

Click here to register.

Open Geospatial Consortium Formally Approves Citizen Science Domain Working Group

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The international project on citizen science data and metadata interoperability, supported by the Commons Lab and organizations like the U.S. Citizen Science Association, has a new partner.  At the closing plenary of the Open Geospatial Consortium’s (OGC) recent technical committee meeting on June 23rd, the OGC formally approved the creation of a Citizen Science Domain Working Group (DWG).

The OGC’s mission is “to advance the development and use of international standards and supporting services that support geospatial interoperability.”  Simply put, whenever someone asks “where?” the OGC is there, helping more than 500 universities, government agencies, and private entities make the most of location-based information.  The organization helps researchers, public-sector, and private-sector employees alike by acting as an open-access forum for technology developers and users, each of whom benefit from implementing OGC-compliant policies and procedures.


With over 20 years of experience, it should come as no surprise that OGC members have engaged in a host of exciting initiatives.  From monitoring Climate Change to laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s Smart Cities, the group meets each challenge head-on.  Work through OGC is undertaken collaboratively through interoperability testbeds, where standards ae developed and best practices identified by experimenting with concrete use cases, and by individual members.  For example, a consortium of OGC researchers collaborated on a recent citizen science project, entitled the Citizen Observatory Web, or COBWEB for short.  Acting as a liaison between a variety of European Biosphere Reserves, the initiative aims to address data quality issues by integrating citizen and professional spatial data.  Ideally, by complying with OGC standards, the species distribution input from a citizen scientist in Greece’s Mt. Olympus Biosphere Reserve would be accessible by, and intelligible to, a Zoologist in Wales’ Dyfi Biosphere Reserve.  The toolkit and set of models the OGC is creating will help make potential citizen science projects a reality, in European Biosphere Reserves and beyond.

Given its immaculate track record and incredible potential, the OGC has plenty to offer the citizen science community.  With the launch of the COBWEB initiative, a precedent was set for supporting and advancing citizen science through OGC channels.  Now, with the establishment of the formidable team of researchers and professionals comprising the Citizen Science DWG, anyone trying to engage in citizen science data collection and sharing will have a new organization to turn to for guidance.  Geospatial data saturates the citizen science field, and while collecting it can be a challenge, making sure the results gleaned are accessible can prove to be a logistical nightmare.  That’s why this new DWG plans to underscore the importance of interoperability, eliminating the nuances that isolate projects by establishing best practices and promoting open standards.  Citizen science projects rely on their communities, and now project leaders have a new resource of their own.

For more information about the OGC Citizen Science Domain Working Group (DWG), please contact Anne Bowser,

Serious Games: A Key Player in the Years to Come

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Serious games and citizen science – at a glance both appear somewhat unconventional in nature.  As relatively new fields attempting to establish themselves alongside more conventional counterparts, formulating an appropriate vocabulary can be a challenge.  While they are each busy trying to establish common terminology, they also face remarkably similar challenges from within.

Last week the Commons Lab sat down with Eric Church, a prolific game designer and Program Associate at the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative. As relative novices when it comes to serious games, having only dabbled with the Fiscal Ship, we asked him what factors determine the success of a serious game.  His reply was cut and dry: clearly set goals and immediate feedback to participants.  The two elements he highlighted are also evident in citizen science projects, especially as a means of inspiring and maintaining participation.

Fiscal Ship
The Fiscal Ship, a product of the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative, lets players craft the Federal Budget.

Every serious game worth playing has an objective, a clearly stated mission with which participants can understand.  For example Eyewire, a serious game developed by MIT, encourages players to help scientists map the neurons of the occipital lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for vision.  This charter is clearly advertised on their website, and directly referenced in the name of the game.  By engaging the public with their message, through the medium of an interactive game, they’ve successfully mapped more than 700 neurons.  Citizen science projects within the medical and health field have proliferated as well.  A UK-based app is doing its part to fight Parkinson’s disease globally; participants in the 100 for Parkinson’s program simply upload information on ten aspects of their health over a hundred day period, all in the aims of gathering data to learn more about the affliction.

Some projects require creative participants. Projects that follow an ideation model, like the U.S. Army’s SciTech Futures exercise, are examples of open-ended crowdsourcing. Last week, participants from around the world were asked to speculate what the future will hold by answering the question, “What technological emergence or sociopolitical trend will shape the year 2040?” For the Army, a successful crowdsourcing project in this model is one replete with diverse answers or original content. Using SciTech Futures as an example, the goal of a similar venture, e.g. answering an open-ended question on future sociological trends, should be made clear to participants. The specific methods used to reach that goal depend on the nature of the assignment at hand, in this case canvasing as many scenarios as possible.

Ocean-based hydroponics, one of most popular concepts on the SciTech Futures Marketplace (photo credit: Forward Thinking Architecture)

Mr. Church’s second criterion for success is a reward system.  This is perhaps where citizen science and crowdsourcing-based serious games diverge most from one another.  While both revolve around the largesse of volunteers – citizens willing to spend time, and occasionally money, on assignments extracurricular of work and family life – each rewards participants differently.  Citizen scientists conducting research for Zooniverse might find themselves at the forefront of an incredible discovery, a thrill for amateur and professional scientists alike.  People participating in one of the National Park Service’s many BioBlitz events can rejoice in contributing valuable information to biodiversity databases, all while spending a day at the park.  Serious games, on the other hand, seem to yield more verifiable results, that is to say, the accuracy of a player’s answers can be readily determined.  Wrong answers can be addressed, while correct answers may be rewarded, either in the form of in-game progression, symbolized by achievement notifications and virtual medals, or a tangible remuneration, like cash or concept art, the prizes taken home by winners of the Department of State’s Fishackathon and the Army’s SciTech Futures events respectively.  At the end of the day however, both citizen science and serious games seek to educate and empower individual participants, whose contributions benefit their local communities and the world as a whole.

An integral part of any project though, citizen science and serious games alike, is the feedback provided to the participants.  For citizen scientists, this feedback can be a reward in and of itself; engaging in an open-dialogue with career experts in a shared field of interest is a marvelous opportunity.  Naturally, the amount of feedback depends on the nature of each task; those requiring methodological consistency would demand greater moderation, yielding a data set that’s easier to aggregate, while ideation exercises benefit from a high degree of independence, and subsequently provide more creative returns.

Moving forward, it’s safe to say that citizen science and serious games will face a few similar challenges on the road ahead, in the form of standardization, or maintaining legitimacy, but promising strides are being taken to address these obstacles.  Currently there is a team, of which the Commons Lab is a part, working to establish core standards for sharing data, and establishing metadata standards among citizen science projects.  Furthermore, in 2013 SRI and Concordia University conducted a study that highlighted the potential of serious games in the classroom: STEM students whose curriculum’s included simulations experienced a 25% improvement in achievement.  It’s steps like these that foment the open innovation movement, establishing citizen science and serious games as key players in the years to come.

First ECSA Conference 2016


The European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) will hold their first conference, Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society, and Policy, on May 19-21st in Berlin, Germany.

The call for Abstracts was recently extended to March 3rd, 2016. This intriguing list of sessions includes:

  • Citizen Science Studies: Engaging with the participatory turn in the co-production of science and society. Citizen Science (CS) reshapes pre-existing hopes for a democratization of knowledge, empowerment and a decentralization of power in science. Also professional scientists, scientific institutions and policy makers are beginning to engage with CS in terms of their own goals – which may differ from those of the citizen scientists. In this situation, it becomes important to reflect about CS. Recognizing this challenge, at least three groups of stakeholders are beginning to analyze the phenomenon of CS: ‘cs-practitioners’ themselves, ‘practitioner-reflectors’, who practice CS but are also engaged with its funding, promotion etc., and most recently also those who reflect the phenomenon from the perspective of the various academic fields which explore the shifting relationship between the sciences and society – we call them ‘academic-reflectors’.
  • Data, Metadata, Quality and Visualisation of Citizen Science Data: This session will focus of the observations themselves and how they are stored, shared, processed and visualised. This session will thus discuss various elements of data, metadata, quality and visualisation of citizen science data. Is it possible and useful to have one common data model for a number of different types of observations within and across different citizens science areas such as air quality, water quality, flooding, biodiversity, etc. ?
  • Communicating Citizen Science through storytelling: We propose a session on citizen science communication through storytelling, an engaging way of telling your story for a deeper and lasting communication experience, to share your knowledge, to link ideas or to create a vision. Or simply to celebrate the success of your citizen science experience. The aims of this workshop are to make you aware of your storytelling potential, to bring your skills alive, and thereby create stories of citizen science and show the potential of this communication tool for citizens, scientists and the media.

  • Gaming for good: Exploring the potential and pitfalls of citizen science games. The list of games that people can play while contributing to science is growing. These methods are sometimes viewed as easy ways to attract entice large numbers of citizens to contribute their time and skills to solve hard-to-automate tasks such as protein folding or image recognition. However, the convergence between games and science may stir controversy, as the two can be seen as separate – and even incompatible – paradigms.