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.


Obama’s Legacy in Science, Technology, and Innovation

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

On Monday of this week, the White House Office of the Press Secretary released an Impact Report titled “100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.”  Upon entering office, Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and with less than 6 months left in his second term, the time has come to assess his commitment to that goal.  This list, catalogued by the affected field, serves as tangible evidence of his reinvestment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The role of science, technology, and innovation in society cannot be overstated; with a breadth of applications – from promoting economic expansion to combatting climate change – maintaining public interest in these three domains is essential.  A cornucopia of applications is on display in the report, with noted advancements and initiatives towards everything from breaking down gender stereotypes in toys and the media (#23) to safely integrating commercial drones into the national airspace (#35).

Barack Obama
Obama introduces the BRAIN Initiative (#45) to discover new methods of treating neurological disorders (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Roughly the first quarter of the list is devoted to detailing the broad brush strokes of the Administration, its goals for promoting STEM within the government, the education system, and the public.  And of particular note for us at the Commons Lab are the entries under the subheading “Promoting Innovation Nationwide”.  It’s there that items 14 and 15 laud the establishment of the prizes and challenges platforms and  The former relies on, and monetarily rewards, the input of citizens in an effort to solve issues facing an array of government agencies.  The latter comprises a catalogue, toolkit, and community page for anyone interested in joining the citizen science movement.  By highlighting these platforms, especially, which debuted in April of this year, the Administration is further fomenting its legacy of Open Innovation.

The legacy is also apparent in a host of other initiatives.  Obama and his team, namely staff within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and scholars on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), have worked tirelessly to foster participatory endeavors.  They’ve removed certain barriers-to-entry facing the prospective innovator: they’ve made the Research & Experimentation tax credit permanent (#10), increased research and development funding (#7), and opened up nearly 200,000 Federal datasets to the public (#12).  These strides, combined with those taken to cultivate future generations of STEM-savvy citizens (#16-25), have provided an optimistic trajectory for the years to come.  And by recognizing and appreciating the inextricable link between innovation and entrepreneurship, this Administration has aimed to pave the way for steady economic growth; it was in this vein that a network of nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes were established in 2012 (#30).  It’s also important to note efforts to catalyze advancements in fields as diverse as healthcare (#43-46) and space exploration (#84-87).  Of course, only the passage of time will allow for anyone to definitively measure the impact of the Obama White House on science, technology, and innovation, and their impacts on our nation in turn, but, according to the Office of the Press Secretary, we have at least 100 things to be thankful for.

Congregational Crowdsourcing

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

An exciting diversity exists in the nature and timeline of each citizen science program; from asteroid mapping to bird watching, there seems to be a project for everyone.  But those two examples also serve to expose a trend; to date the natural sciences have basked in the limelight of citizen science, while social sciences have been relegated to the shadows.

Grace United Methodist Church, home to Citizen Science Belleville (photo by: Corey Coyle)

This point was stressed recently by an audience member at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) panel, “Citizen Science: Empowering a Robust National Effort.”  What role do the social sciences play in citizen science projects?  The answer, like the question itself, is two-fold.  The first role of social science, as it relates to citizen science, is to study the field itself, asking questions like, what motivates participants to join projects? Why do scientists use this method? And, what are the learning outcomes from participation?  On this front, members of the panel were quick to enumerate and laud the contributions of social science to projects currently underway.  In its second role however, as a subject of study, social science seems to falter.  It’s something that the career scientists and advocates of citizen science at the ACS event acknowledged: the scarcity of citizen science projects tackling social science problems.  For instance, on databases like and, it can be difficult to find anyone conducting studies in psychology. But, at a church in southern Wisconsin, one group is doing just that.

On the first and third Mondays of each month, a devout faction of Belleville, Wisconsin’s 2,385 residents meets at the Grace United Methodist Church.  It’s then and there that the pews are filled with ears eager for discussion, not a sermon.  The subject of discussion, as unlikely as the locale, is citizen science.  And, while the group participates in a variety of science projects from, most recently in the FDA’s Zika-related mosquito mapping campaign,the majority of its time is spent on social science, especially the replication of social psychology studies.  On the Open Science Framework (OSF) one can read through the entirety of their work, from proposals, to data sets and summaries, along with what amounts to a mission statement, “to conduct replication studies advancing health, relationships, and/or well-being.”

Some readers may doubt whether a church group from Smalltown USA can make meaningful contributions to citizen science.  These doubts are ill-founded.  At the pulpit is Chris Santos-Lang, founder of, who, along with a small team, is in the process of conducting their first replication study.  This work wouldn’t be possible without volunteer subjects from Belleville, and a framework that mirrors established, larger-scale citizen science projects: citizen input with expert instruction and supervision.

Citizen scientist, Alfred Braceros, teaches volunteers how to monitor Belleville’s mosquito population (photo credit: Wolfgang Hoffman)

It’s also easy to imagine the imposition of an agenda; after all, many faith-based organizations have clear-cut stances on social issues – the same kind of issues that can be found under the microscope at Citizen Science Belleville.  In response to this potential concern, it is important to note that all faiths and creeds are welcome to these meetings, which, aside from their location, comprise an exclusively secular affair.  Furthermore, none of the studies published on their OSF page thus far have dealt with religion expressly. On the contrary, while some might opine that organized religion could hamper such a citizen science outfit, it may in fact be the only reason for its existence in the first place. Not only does the Grace United Methodist church provide a meeting space for amateur scientists, it also allows them to tap into one of the most established types of social networks in the world: the congregation.

For citizen science to work, you need volunteers.  But drumming up participation is easier said than done.  In fact, at the aforementioned ACS panel, this very issue was listed as one of the current limitations to citizen science.  Encouraging people to spend time or effort on projects, often with scopes vast enough to be disorienting, is challenging.  Whether or not a given individual participates in a citizen science project seems to depend on its relevancy to their daily life.  It should come as no surprise then, that some of the most successful undertakings thus far have been conducted within the field of healthcare, or in conjunction with hobbies people already enjoy, like birding.

A recent essay published in Theory and Practice, a journal run by the Citizen Science Association, highlighted the under-representation of certain socioeconomic and racial groups within the citizen science movement.  These discrepancies, the gaps between the general population and the people actively taking part in citizen science, affect both how projects are conducted and, more importantly, what questions are asked in the first place. Ideally then, every voice would be heard.  But in a myopic world, to elicit the sense of inter-connectivity that citizen science seeks to foster, people need commonalities to draw upon, ones that transcend social, economic, and racial barriers.  These unities abound in classrooms, on the playing field, and in churches as well. That’s why organizations like Citizen Science Belleville stand to gain from leveraging pre-existing social networks.  Simply put, congregations, and communities like them, might prove fertile soil for sowing the seeds of citizen science.

From Chengdu to Berlin: Commons Lab Citizen Science Activities in May

May 2016 brought the Commons Lab to Chengdu, Sichuan Provence in the People’s Republic of China. We were completing the second workshop in a series on “Storytelling is Serious Business” for environmental Chinese NGOs, supported by the Ford Foundation via the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. The Commons Lab presented on what types of citizen science tools, both analog and digital, are available for Chinese NGOs to use in their efforts. Additionally we designed and led a role playing game on the Flint Water Crisis to emphasize the importance of role and audience when engaging in complex storytelling.

To present the problem to workshop participants we designed a prezi that guided everyone through the timeline of the events leading up to the crisis and what different types of stakeholders were involved. See full prezi here:

Participants enthusiastically embraced the game, noting a lot of similarities to Chinese environmental problems (contaminants in the water) and complex interactions between levels of government (local vs. state vs. federal). However the similarities diverged when it came to the role of the public and the the press. The participants playing the role of the Michigan State government were the most successful in which they designed a multi-faceted campaign to reach the press, locals involved, the general public and a well thought out appeal to the federal government for more money.

Anne Bowser and Elizabeth Tyson in front of the poster advertising our talk at Sichuan University

Following this workshop the Commons Lab and the China Environment Forum presented to an eager freshman class at Sichuan University – Jiangan Campus on Choke Point China and Citizen Science 101. The students had excellent questions about citizen science concerning data quality, how to keep participants motivated (or even motivate them in the first place) and more importantly how to get involved. We shared resources from the multiple citizen science associations and since we had a few engineers in the crowd we pointed them to Public Labs resources for building your own environmental sensing devices.



In between workshops in China and the conference in Europe, the Commons Lab visited the mountains of Western Sichuan

Our next stop was the first International European Citizen Science Association’s Conference which was held in Berlin, Germany.

The conference theme was Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. Over 350 people attended and the growth of the movement in Europe from previous years was palpable. The focus on policy impacts and integration of citizen science into existing governance structures was celebrated (see tweet below). International goodwill was provided among the three official associations with representatives from the US Citizen Science Association and the Australian Citizen Science Association attending.

Slide by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency

ECSA released their third policy paper, “Citizen Science as part of EU Policy Delivery – EU Directives” calling for four specific involvements to fast-track citizen science at the EU level:

  1. Review key Environmental Directives & Regulations, to remove barriers to & focus the attention of Member States on, the value & power of Citizen Science applications to support quality data acquisition on the effectiveness of those Directives;
  2. Support the development of an open common data base system to store citizen science data and to provide the tools for analysis of that data by citizens in conjunction with the European Environment Agency, the United Nations Environmental Programme UNEP LIVE, and/or other relevant international organisations working in the citizen science domain;
  3. Develop a decision making framework to identify the top 5 opportunities where Citizen Science would add greatest value to the delivery of EU Policy and to support the development of EU wide common monitoring programmes; and
  4. Identify clear policy leads on citizen science across the EU Directorates and within the EU Parliament to work with ECSA and to support engagement with the Eye-on-Earth Special Interest Group to shape the emerging global citizen science coalition.

For results and summaries from the myriad of interesting panels please explore the conference website: For some wonderful photos from the conference please visit this website:

Of interesting note from the conference: because of the breadth and diversity of citizen science across multiple different research areas the vocabulary in this field is far from standardized. This was reflected when the conference organizers polled the audience on what percent of their job is actually dedicated to citizen science. It turns out there are only 15% of us that actual focus on the field as a whole.

About 15% work on citizen science full time, 60% part time, and 15% as a hobby – but with certain overlaps (Reported by Muki Haklay, Po Ve Sham Blog)


ECSA 2016 participants! Photo credit: UFZ | Florian Pappert

We look forward to seeing a similar diverse turnout with the upcoming US Citizen Science Association conference in February 2017, stay tuned for details on where and when.

4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science

Video: Google Hangout recording at the USA Science & Engineering Festival of citizen scientist experts from across the country discussing how mobile technology can assist the growth of citizen science

At the 4th USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education exposition in the United States, more than 1,000 STEM organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Department of State, presented interactive activities to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in the STEM field. Over the course of two days, tens of thousands of visitors of all ages came to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center located in Washington, D.C. to engage with STEM activities.

While the organizations covered a broad range of science and engineering areas, a common focal point was citizen science. Specifically, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Park Service, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Homeland Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and SciStarter aimed to further the general public’s participation in and understanding of citizen science, its success and significance today, and its potential applications for the future.

NOAA, for example, discussed the critical role citizen science plays with emerging technology and the numerous NOAA projects that could not have succeeded without the support of citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Continue reading “4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science”

EVENT: Citizen Science and Public Decision Making in the United States

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

How does the disconnect between professional scientists and public decision makers in normal policy settings translate for citizen science projects? To address this question, the Commons Lab and the Environmental Law Institute collaborated on a research paper that outlines the numerous legal and administrative components in the United States that impact what data and research methods can be employed when dealing with environmental issues concerning air quality, land use, water quality, and more.

A deeper understanding of these complicated facets will drastically improve citizen science project designs and the quality of research, while facilitating communications between the professional scientists and public decision makers.

In addition, we will explore the role of citizen science in the policymaking process within the Convention on Biological Diversity based on research conducted by Rob McNamara.

The event will be live webcast and you can tweet us, @STIPCommonsLab, with questions using the hashtag #impactcitsci.

Please join us and the Environmental Law Institute on Wednesday, April 27 from 2:00pm to 3:30pm at the Woodrow Wilson Center for the launch of this research paper and a panel discussion from the authors.

Moderator: David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program


James McElfish, Senior Attorney, Environmental Law Institute

Rob McNamara, Adjunct Professor,  International Environmental Studies, Sierra Nevada College

Please RSVP for the event at:

Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable

This post is re-blogged from New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. You may find the original piece here, posted on April 21, 2016. 

The author of the article, Louise Lief, is a former Wilson Center fellow and current scholar-in-residence at the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Higher release of iron is evident in the Flint water glass reactor containing iron than that with Detroit water (Photo courtesy of

A couple of weeks ago, the task force Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed to investigate Flint’s now infamous water crisis issued its long-awaited report.

The findings detailed failures in multiple government agencies to address high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, in the city’s water. To cut costs, in the spring of 2014 Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager had switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the more polluted Flint River and kept it there, despite community protests, for 18 months.

Calling the crisis “a clear case of environmental injustice,” the task force issued 44 recommendations that will cost millions to implement. The long-term damage to many Flint children is irreversible.

The hidden success story in this disheartening tale of denial and indifference was the collaboration of an ad hoc coalition of journalists, citizens, and academics whose combined efforts finally compelled the state of Michigan to act. “Without their courage and persistence,” the report noted, “this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.”

As New Jersey and Ohio have discovered, lead’s story doesn’t end in Flint. There are an estimated 10 million lead service lines in the U.S., part of the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure that will require an estimated $1 trillion to rehabilitate.

As other communities wonder what perils they face, the Flint collaboration offers a road map on how to tackle environmental and other problems when government fails to act, especially for the most vulnerable communities.

Continue reading “Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable”

CitizenScience.Gov segment on Wilson Center NOW

This week the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Wilson Center launched, a new central hub for citizen science and crowdsourcing initiatives in the public sector. The site will catalog activity and provide tools for the conduct of citizen science projects. Anne Bowser, Co-Director of the Commons Lab at the Wilson Center explains the goals and potential of the project in this edition of Wilson Center NOW.


Anne Bowser is a Senior Program Associate with the Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP). She co-directs the Commons Lab, which takes as its mission mobilizing public participation and innovation in science, technology, and policy. Anne also leads the Wilson Center’s participation in a research project on encouraging bilateral cooperation in science and technology innovation between the US and the EU. She also supports the Wilson Center’s initiative on serious games.

Anne’s personal research focuses on understanding the role that technology plays in citizen science and crowdsourcing. She recently defended her PhD at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, where her dissertation explored a cooperative approach to designing Floracaching, a geocaching game for biodiversity data collection created to mobilize participation in university communities. Anne is also working on an NSF-funded project to study location privacy in citizen science. Finally, she supports the international practice of citizen science as the co-founder of a data and metadata interoperability working group of the Citizen Science Association.

John Milewski is the executive producer and managing editor of Wilson Center NOW and also serves as director of Wilson Center ON DEMAND digital programming. Previously he served as host and producer of Dialogue at the Wilson Center and Close Up on C-SPAN. He also teaches a course on politics and media for Penn State’s Washington Program.


– See more at: