Center for Policy Informatics Releases Findings on Virtual Citizen Science

Andrew Young — August 14, 2015

Arizona State University’s Center for Policy Informatics, led by Network member Erik Johnston, recently presented new findings from a study of citizen science initiatives at the National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop, “ Future Technology to Preserve College Student Health and Foster Wellbeing (StudentHealth).” The project team was led by  Justin Longo, a former Research Network and CPI post-doctoral fellow who is now an assistant professor and Cisco Research Chair in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.

The CPI team focused on the transition from virtual citizen science (VCS) to virtual citizen-ship. VCS is defined as “one particular approach to citizen science, where volunteer participation is facilitated through websites and Internet-enabled mobile applications. This approach has grown since the mid-2000s, developing amid larger growth in opportunities for using the Internet to access information, enjoy entertainment, engage in game play, and pursue educational activities. Virtual citizen science has also developed in response to increasing scientific data flows that have outstripped the capacity of professional scientists to analyze them, and takes advantage of the desire of some Internet participants to contribute rather than just consume content.”

Through a study of a diversity of tools and initiatives, the CPI team found that VCS is “dead” or “obsolete.”

Longo describes the central learnings:

“The central findings of our study is that it’s not enough for web and app design of VCS projects to focus on standard usability criteria. Rather, that VCS projects must focus on engagement (that is – why should an Internet-based volunteer choose their project over another, and – more to the point – why should they choose citizen science over one of the many other activities the Internet affords?) and retention (that it, how to keep them doing what they started? Because having many volunteers do one thing is great; having them do two is really great, but having them do several is really powerful). So we propose that successful VCS projects will do these three things well –engagement, usability, and retention. Unfortunately, what we found it that VCS sites do one thing well – usability – but they don’t consistently do engagement and retention well. And the reason they discount engagement and retention is because VCS projects rely on the inherent motivation of volunteers to contribute to citizen science projects and don’t worry themselves about whether the volunteer is gaining from the experience, or will find a reason to stay connected.”

He concludes: “While VCS (virtual citizen science), with its narrow focus on providing free labour to science initiatives may be mostly dead, VCS (virtual citizen-ship) may be the model that can fill the void for people longing to do something meaningful with their cognitive surplus.”

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