Introducing: ECSA Characteristics of Citizen Science

Today the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) is launching a document that is aimed to help with identifying the type of Image of the first page of ECSA characteristics of citizen science activities that belong to citizen science. The document “ECSA Characteristics of Citizen Science” is coming ready with an interpretation document, which is called “ECSA Characteristics of Citizen Science – Explanation Notes“. They are aimed to work together (and build on) the highly successful “ECSA 10 Principles of Citizen Science“. So what are these documents? Why do we need to define the characteristics of citizen science and who exactly need them? 

I would state from the start – these documents are attempting to make a fuzzy cloud shape out of a sharp cornered box, it’s trying to have a box that is fuzzy and have a lot of out-of-the-box space. They are trying to avoid a strict definition of citizen science, while at the same time list – over 5 pages – what sort of things you can expect in a citizen science project (which is, at the end of the day, a form of a definition). This seems like a very complex way to go about it – so why not just have “ECSA definition of citizen science”? 

The answer for this is “it’s complex”. You can see that in a specific context, a definition can be very useful – especially if you need to make decisions. For example, if you are creating a national website for citizen science, you want to be transparent and open about what type of projects will be hosted there – this is why the coordinators of the Austrian platform Österreich forscht set out quality criteria for their platform, an one of the early document for the EU-Citizen.Science platform deals with criteria for inclusion and exclusion. There is also a need that comes from policymakers and research funders – as citizen science gains more profile, the response to calls such as the “Science with and for Society” programme of Horizon 2020 increased. When making funding decisions, it is important to be open and transparent about what types of projects will be eligible for funding and support. There is also an importance in a clear definition for members of the public who participate in a project, and for scientists. Although this is a fairly small group, for some participants it will be important to know if what they are participating in is a bona fide citizen science, and scientists who heard about citizen science and want to offer a project need to know if what they are offering is, indeed, appropriate. So there are multiple groups, who are not experts in citizen science, who need to know if a given project should be part of the area of citizen science or not.

However, once the Österreich forscht criteria were published in a journal paper with a call for an international definition of citizen science, came the criticism and the warning that a too narrow a definition can harm citizen science in the long run (I have contributed to the response letter). So this created a problem – on the one hand, there is a need for definition, and on the other hand, we need to avoid a narrow one. 

Two opportunities emerge last autumn – I had time as part of a short-term research fellowship at the CRI in Paris, and the EU-Citizen.Science project received requests from policy officers from the European Commission and from the Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP) to come up with a definition.

Page image of OpenStreetMap Wiki on use casesIn order to deal with the conundrum of creating a definition without making it narrow and precise, I have suggested an approach that I originally learned from the OpenStreetMap licence change process: instead of starting from the definition, start with case studies and identify all the aspects that you want to include in a definition. Once you have clarity about the plurality and the characteristics of what you want, it is possible to articulate them. The process in OpenStreetMap was lengthy and not without problems, but the case studies approach seemed to work well. The reason to use the case studies (or vignettes) approach for citizen science is that it allows for context. For example, while it seems simple to ask “is a project that pays participants can be called citizen science?”, an answer cannot be provided without clarity about the context – in some case will be appropriate, while in other it will not. By including context and issues, it can be lead to a much clearer understanding of people’s positions. I have consulted with ECSA team about this approach and we suggested the following methodology in early October 2019:

The development of the characteristics will be carried out through several online/offline workshops – currently envisaged about three of 2 to 3 hours. The first in mid/late October, the second one in November and the final one in December. This process should lead to an early draft that can be shared and commented on at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. To allow wider and deeper discussion, the effort with ECSA is envisaged to continue well into 2020, with scope for discussion during the annual conference in Trieste.

The process of engagement should progressively involve more people, both from within the citizen science practice communities and beyond. Comments should be sought from different relevant stakeholders, including the ECSA working group on national platforms, which is working on criteria for citizen science based on the Austrian experience as well as other working groups.

Wall with the word science on itThe suggested process is aimed at defining the “contours of citizen science” or “defining the landscape” and then developing a set of characteristics on the basis of the process. To identify these contours, we will start with identifying 30-50 types of activities – some of them within citizen science (bioblitz), some of them clearly outside (social survey), some in-between (an interactive exhibit in a science museum). They will be all described in more or less the same way (e.g. project owner, what is happening, what the participants do, how the results are used, payment to participants or payment to participate in the project …). These will be short descriptions (50-70 words), followed by a compilation of the case study, a survey that will include the case, a slider of “not citizen science” to “clearly citizen science”, alternative name, and space for notes. These descriptions will, eventually, be provided in the accompanying document to the characteristics but will not form part of them (similarly to the Robinson 2019 chapter and the 10 Principles).

The cases will be organised in a survey in which the people who answer see the cases in randomised order. Ideally, the participant can choose to stop when they want – even after 10 cases. They will then be asked a few demographic/professional questions, and about their knowledge of citizen science. The survey will be spread out to people in and outside the citizen science community. At the end of it, the opinions (as expressed in the slider) can define what clearly is inside and outside, and where the edge cases are. Once that is set, common characteristics across the projects will be distilled and set into different groupings. These will then be compiled to a final document.

This methodology was indeed followed through, with enhancements and improvements – with a working group of 25 people who participated in workshops, contributed their knowledge and connections, it was possible to progress with the design of the study – from identifying the framework and parameters that will use to construct the case studies, to the design of the survey (which was a vignette study), and the analysis of the results.  The survey was run in December 2019 and provided a very rich source of information – 330 people responded, and each case study received, on average, over 100 gradings and an indication of their degree of citizen science. The working group is currently working on a paper that will share the results.

With so much information, it was possible to identify the different characteristics that people disagree and agree on and construct from these the set of characteristics that are representing the views of a wide range of people on what is and what isn’t citizen science.

The characteristics are not without challenges – for example, the survey revealed a strong animosity towards commercially focused citizen science – something that we need to find a way to support in the future if we want citizen science to be able to sustain activities in the long run.

A lot of work of many people was done on these characteristics, and I would be interested to see how they are being picked up and use. The OSPP already endorsed them, which is a start.

The work was supported by the CRI short term fellowship and by my ERC grant ECSAnVis, as well as the EU-Citizen.Science project.



What I learned about online teaching and research management?

As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, UCL, like many other universities, is switching to online teaching and interaction between staff, students, and also research teams. I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the year through my use of online teaching and management tools. The experience is based on using tools such as Moodle since 2003, when I led the first departmental installation of it at UCL to the use of Basecamp since 2007 to manage research projects. Most recently, I’ve run the DITOs project, with 11 partners across Europe for over 3 years. The tools that I’ve used include online project management (Basecamp, Slack, SVN), teaching environments (mostly Moodle), and online meetings (Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, and now starting to use Microsoft Teams), as well as email and teleconferences.

I’m not eLearning or Computer-Supported-Cooperative-Work (CSCW) researcher in the main, although I have looked at the literature and had received support from people who are (and that improved my work). So what is provided below if from the perspective or teaching and research project leadership that I hope is useful to someone.

So here is what I learned:

1.  The starting point is to remember that even with video, this is a reduced interaction compared to a face-to-face meeting or teaching. There is no way around it. We’re physical beings in physical spaces and despite all the advanced in online learning (this is from my 2010 book) and it is based on work in CSCW that goes back to 1995. that means that all other modes require much more work and planning to be effective. 


2. Remember the 90-9-1 rule of online conversations – I’ve learned that originally at You need to actively work to change it by reaching out to people on your call (relevant to tutorials or seminar). Remember that it’s easier to “lurk” in a digital space, so if you are running a digital seminar or meeting, there need to be much more work on making sure that everyone is included.

3. Because of 2, Live webinars using @zoom @gotomeeting or @microsoftteams are more productive when there is a “social licence” to comment in the chat during the presentation. To make this happen, before starting the talk do start a conversation in the chat area – e.g. roll call, introduce yourself and things like that.

4. Be silly. It is OK to have puns and emojis in a group digital space and sharing “irrelevant” stuff, especially within research teams. It helps in dealing with the serious stuff and keeps the creativity. In DITOs we had a whole theme of sea slugs at some point – they are beautiful.


5. Try to have collaborative notetaking. It works well to have a summary of the meeting for other people – better than recording or transcripts. This can work with an agenda document in a shred writing space.

6. Mute everyone, and as meeting organiser be ready to mute someone else as soon as echos start. If there is a feedback loop, it reduced the quality to everyone very quickly.

7.  Plan to start the seminar or talk 5 minutes after start time, as you will have a lot of “do you hear me” process. Always.

8. Avoid Skype. God knows why, but after all these years of operations, the call quality deteriorates after a while. The number of faults is higher than any other system.

9. In webinar and lecture – make sure that video for the speaker is on, and not only the slides: it’s difficult to concentrate otherwise. Make sure the speaker is looking at the camera. My current office camera is not positioned well at the moment, and it does influence conversation. Regardless of how you feel embarrassed, the speaker should be on. In a meeting, if people can put their video on it will be more effective, but it can be effective without it.

10. In both seminar and teachings prepare a working document on a shared writing space – etherpad or Google Docs. not just an agenda, but it’s better to start with some examples or statement so people see a document that is “seeded”. People are generally a bit afraid of jumping into an empty document and need encouragement. Plan what people will do and prompt them to do the task when needed.

11. Don’t waste your time on recording over Powerpoint and share a recorded lecture – people don’t like it (I can see that in the YouTube viewing statistics of our online course). Instead, write in the notes area what you are going to say and create a PDF of slides + notes, and provide that in addition to the lecture. Run the lecture using a digital tool and use the chat (as above) as a webinar, and for everyone else – the lecture notes will be more useful. Plus to it – you can use the text for papers or maybe for a textbook eventually.

12. Break things to 10-15 minutes, especially if it is recorded. It’s difficult to maintain attention beyond that.

13. If you are using an environment like Moodle, go to YouTube or Vimeo, find a suitable video, TED talk, documentary, or similar that is no more than 20 min, and use it. It can be a great basis to start a discussion, which you can run for a seminar. Student can be asked to watch that before the lecture and it can be used for a discussion and framing of the issue. There is so much content out there that it can be useful to reuse it.

14. It takes significantly more time to prepare an online lecture than a face to face lecture – you can adlib, correct logical bugs, and deal with unclear things easily in the class situation. The online lecture needs to be well structured and self-contained. If an hour of lecturing usually takes you 2 or 3 hours to prepare, the online version of an hour can easily take 4 to 6 hours to prepare, set into segments of 15 minutes, record and test. On the plus side, the result is a much better lecture and material in notes that is going to be useful for you for a long while and can be reused (I’ve used mine in papers already!)

More useful resources (through Shannon Doesmagen):

And there is also Tool Kit for Online Instructors (and generally Tomorrow’s Professor resources)

There is even more in the Coronavirus Tech Handbook


How Does Citizen Science “Do” Governance? Reflections from the DITOs Project

This is the second post about papers in the special collection of papers in the journal “Citizen Science: Theory and Practice” was dedicated to Policy Perspectives of Citizen Science. The first paper is described in this post.

It is fairly rare to be able to catch an image close to the time when a concept for a paper was hatched but the case of the paper “How Does Citizen Science “Do” Governance? Reflections from the DITOs Project“, there is such thing:

WhatsApp Image 2018-06-27 at 8.39.12 PM

The paper emerged from discussion the Claudia Gobel started during a Doing It Together Science (DITOs) project meeting in Ljubljana in June 2018. Claudia, Aleks (both in the picture, mapping all the connections between project partners) together with Christian and myself discussed what we can learn from our project about the rationale for policy makers to commission and use citizen science. It is starting from the notion that citizen science relationships with political processes is more than a source of data or an object of research policy. DITOs, with its huge variety of events that were both aimed at policy makers and at the public, and across different places and topics, provided a good basis for the analysis. We identified four modes of governance that are relevant to DITOs, and this provided the basis for the paper. The paper can be accessed here.  The abstract of it is:

Citizen science (CS) is increasingly becoming a focal point for public policy to provide data for decision-making and to widen access to science. Yet beyond these two understandings, CS engages with political processes in a number of other ways. To develop a more nuanced understanding of governance in relation to CS, this paper brings together theoretical analysis by social science researchers and reflections from CS practice. It draws on concepts from Science and Technology Studies and political sciences as well as examples from the “Doing-It-Together Science” (DITOs) project. The paper develops a heuristic of how CS feeds into, is affected by, forms part of, and exercises governance. These four governance modes are (1) Source of information for policy-making, (2) object of research policy, (3) policy instrument, and (4) socio-technical governance. Our analysis suggests that these four dimensions represent different conceptions of how science and technology governance takes place that have not yet been articulated in the CS literature. By reflecting on the DITOs project, the paper shows how this heuristic can enrich CS. Benefits include project organisers better communicating their work and impacts. In its conclusion, the paper argues that focusing on the complexity of governance relations opens up new ways of doing CS regarding engagement methodologies and evaluation. The paper recommends foregrounding the broad range of governance impacts of CS and reflecting on them in cooperation between researchers and practitioners.

How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents

In early December, a special collection of papers in the journal “Citizen Science: Theory and Practice” was dedicated to Policy Perspectives of Citizen Science. I have contributed to two papers in this collection. The first one is “How Does Policy Conceptualise Citizen Science? A Qualitative Content Analysis of International Policy Documents“. The paper is led by Susanne Hecker who organised the writing team in March 2018. Her idea was to identify a cohort of policy documents from across the world and look at the way that they use the term “citizen science” – specifically. By so doing, the qualitative analysis of the document can help in revealing the way that the term and the practice are framed within policy circles. A lot of the collaboration and the development of the paper was carried out through online calls, and we met to discuss the paper once (during the ECSA conference in 2018). Susanne and Nina did the analysis work of the documents, while Aletta and I provided suggestions for documents, and influenced the framework for analysis. Overall, 43 policy documents were analysed – the full paper can be accessed here, and the abstract reads:

Policy and science show great interest in citizen science as a means to public participation in research. To recognize how citizen science is perceived to foster joint working at the science-society-policy interface, a mutual understanding of the term “citizen science” is required. Here, we assess the conceptualisation and strategic use of the term “citizen science” in policy through a qualitative content analysis of 43 international policy documents edited by governments and authorities. Our results show that most documents embrace the diversity of the research approach and emphasize the many benefits that citizen science may provide for science, society, and policy. These include boosting spatio-temporal data collection through volunteers, tapping into distributed knowledge domains, increasing public interest and engagement in research, and enhancing societal relevance of the respective research. In addition, policy documents attribute educational benefits to citizen science by fostering scientific literacy, individual learning, and skill development, as well as by facilitating environmental stewardship. Through active participation, enhanced ownership of research results may improve policy decision-making processes and possibly democratise research as well as public policy processes, although the latter is mentioned only in a few European Union (EU) documents. Challenges of citizen science mentioned in the analysed policy documents relate mainly to data quality and management, to organisational and governance issues, and to difficulties of the uptake of citizen science results into actual policy implementation due to a lack of citizen science alignment with current policy structures and agendas. Interestingly, documents largely fail to address the benefits and challenges of citizen science as a tool for policy development, i.e., citizen science is mainly perceived as only a science tool. Overall, policy documents seem to be influenced strongly by the citizen science discourse in the science sector, which indicates a joint advocacy for citizen science.



The role of learning in citizen science and the impact of participation inequality

From August to December I was hosted at the Centre for Research and interdisciplinarity in Paris. This short term research fellowship had a focus on learning and citizen science. The recording below is from a seminar in November 2019, titled “the role of learning in citizen science and the impact of participation inequality”.

The talk explored how learning is integrated into citizen science in its different modes. As a background, we will start with published typologies and identified goals and objectives of learning within citizen science projects. Based on these, we can examine different projects – some are more contributory (top-down projects, in which scientists are setting the project and calling to people to join) and collegial projects (bottom-up projects, in which the community have more control over the project), and in the projects of the extreme citizen science group. We will end by questions about the interaction between learning and participation (exploring the implications of participation inequality), and the way citizen science fit within different disciplinary practices.

What can we learn from analysing citizen science training materials?

As part of the EU-Citizen.Science project, UCL is leading on the training work package. This means that we coordinate the part of the platform that will help to store and share training material for citizen science projects, and generally for the field (such as the UCL online course). The stay at the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) in Paris, provided an opportunity to work with two interns of the interdisciplinary undergraduate programme in life sciences on this issue. At the beginning of the term, the UCL team, together with Myriam Fockenoy and Morgane Opoix  (the student interns) carried out a workshop to decide on the data collection scheme – identifying material, recording it and checking its content. It was especially helpful that Myriam and Morgane could analyse material in French, which will be useful for the project as a whole. They worked several hours every week, finding material and checking it thoroughly. Additional material was contributed by Earthwatch and Yaqian Wu from UCL. We ended with 30 pieces of training material that we looked at and catalogued. Finally, we worked on analysing the material, and this led to a short report, which is provided here.

You can read the report here.