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Citizen Science Training Day: Working with Citizen Scientists


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Community building as part of a citizen science project; citizens as project-starters; interface design taking into account disabilities; successful discussion forum use; volunteers' vulnerabilities; citizen science project design tips; case studies

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Citizen Science Training Day: Working with Citizen Scientists

  1. 1. Environmental Citizen Science Training Day Working with Citizen Scientists Alice Sheppard: UCL Long term Citizen Science volunteer – forum moderator, speaker, writer and galaxy obsessor A volunteer’s perspective Community building Problem solving
  2. 2. A volunteer’s perspective 2007: Public invited to classify 900,000 galaxies from robotic telescope Sloan Digital Sky Survey Photo: Patrick Galume
  3. 3.
  4. 4. The discussion forum became a friendly, helpful community ….. Every newcomer greeted: “Welcome to the zoo” Everyone had a different expertise so taught others: • practical astronomy • astrophysics – how to read papers, spectra • technical support – how to use the forum • programming – how to search the database
  5. 5. My job as moderator: • remove swearing and spam • ban malicious users; resolve conflicts • keep the forum organised • provide technical support • organise meet-ups • act as media contact; arrange interviews • analyse and write up volunteers’ discoveries
  6. 6. Some projects were started by astronomers And others by volunteers
  7. 7. A new way of looking at science “But what is the ANSWER?” There is no answer in the back of a textbook. We write the textbook – and it’s a living textbook that we change all the time!
  8. 8. Community building Citizen scientists need three things: (1) A job to do (2) Data to find or look for (3) A place to talk All these need to be obvious and findable
  9. 9. Community building: Alice’s Tips (3) A place to talk: Provide break time or a discussion forum! Divide the forum into areas such as these – move threads in the wrong place, explain why: • Welcome and rules • Help (data analysis; technical support) • Project related science • Dedicated place for project related questions • General science • News/blogs/regular features, “Story of the Week” • Friendly chat • ….and encourage bottom-up research to take place.
  10. 10. Community building: Alice’s Tips • Time & Effort – dedicated moderator/s • Have guidelines – but emphasise impacts, not rules • Keep updating FAQ & tutorials – encourage volunteers to write these • Have regular news updates • Interaction often works better than instructions • Keep it super-civilised • Informal area, games etc – encourage friendships • Praise, highlight & showcase efforts – invite volunteers to blog • Get your “hard core” on your side to set the tone • Be grateful!
  11. 11. Volunteers’ vulnerabilities A citizen scientist is alone in a way we academics are not. Practical: • No access to equipment / colleagues • May live far away • May speak a different language Financial: • Will not get expenses paid • May be struggling financially / lack money for equipment Educational: • May have wanted to be a scientist, but e.g. failed exams • May be missing education / knowledge • May be unaware of this – “unknown unknowns” etc. • May be aware and thus unhappy / lack confidence
  12. 12. Volunteers’ vulnerabilities Social / emotional: • May have always been “the loner”/ “the geek” • This may be their first intellectual “home” • If have lots of free time – why? • Health issues (physical / mental) • Unemployment • May struggle to fit citizen science in with other demands • May find peace through citizen science • May find this is their first real science education – may become obsessed / grieve past frustrations • Family / friends / colleagues may not be supportive of citizen science • Learning difficulties / autism
  13. 13. Financial / practical / educational: • Design: Bear in mind ease of interface, sight problems, bandwidth etc. Beta-test. • Source or invite translations • Seek and post good information websites • Write good information and tutorials / encourage volunteers to write for each other • Livetweet / blog conferences • Hold a virtual conference! • If grant money available, invite citizen scientists to conferences / seek out local ones; encourage to blog Some tips to improve things
  14. 14. Social/emotional: • In a friendly environment, volunteers will support each other • Treat each contribution as valuable • Make clear absences / reductions in work are OK • Praise in public; address problems in private • Do not bow to pressure to relax rules – public “venting” not always a good idea • Limit your responses to persistent / angry private messages • Address public discontent ASAP – never ignore until someone “throws a tantrum”! • Send a supportive message to any targets of aggression • Don’t worry – you can’t be perfect! Some tips to improve things
  15. 15. Alice’s mum’s tip: Try a citizen science project for yourself, anonymously, in an area you don’t know. (Volunteers have brilliant ideas.)
  16. 16. Problem Solving Choose a Case Study at random Consider or discuss underlying problems and good responses You have 5 minutes, then we will all discuss briefly Alice will e-mail round her solutions (yours might be different)
  17. 17. Case Study A
  18. 18. Case Study A • More arguments because longer! Not a problem. • Do not delete an area that forms friendships • Assess forum guidelines – Discourage reports to moderator for minor issues • Get community on your side! • Decide as a team who gets the Report emails • Professor Phosphorus does not understand the community: • Ask (diplomatically) if still wants to moderate • Explain benefits of chat area • State what solution you’ll choose and why
  19. 19. Case Study B
  20. 20. Case Study B • Choose purpose of forum: General science? Project science? Accurate medical info? • Guideline: No medical advice (See a doctor) • Are these volunteers contributing to project? • Foxglove = either crusader or salesman. Unlikely to negotiate. Either follows rules or leaves. • Grape Hyacinth = Create own thread; do not interrupt others’. • Suggest other more suitable forums for these. • Ensure other volunteers also in line with guidelines
  21. 21. Case Study C
  22. 22. Case Study C General problem: Lack of communication and understanding • Quantum’s day job colleagues may have bad ethics • She and Singularity not acknowledged • Allow time to cool and process emotions • Talk to Singularity • Invite both to blog about methodology. All not lost – they have much to offer other volunteers • Dr Neptunium needs to meet volunteers and appreciate their different culture
  23. 23. The words of another citizen science practitioner …..
  24. 24. Don’t worry …. You can’t do everything. Plan for being unable to plan …. Your volunteers will teach you best! Thank you! Contact me at