How many citizen scientists in the world?

Since the development of the proposal for the Doing It Together Science project (DITOs), I have been using the “DITOs escalator” model to express the different levels of engagement in science, while also demonstrating that the higher level have fewer participants, which mean that there is a potential for people to move between levels of engagement – sometime towards deeper engagement, and sometime towards lighter one according to life stages, family commitments, etc. This is what the escalator, after several revisions, look like:

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I have an ongoing interest in participation inequality (the observation that very few participants are doing most of the work) and the way it plays out and influences citizen science projects. When you start attaching numbers to the different levels of public engagement in science, participation inequality is appearing in this area, too. Since writing the proposal in 2015, I have been looking for indications that will support the estimation of the number of participants. During the process of working on a paper that uses the escalator, I’ve done the research to identify sources of information to support these estimations. While the paper is starting its peer review journey, I am putting out the part that relates to these numbers so this part can get open peer review here. I have decided to use 2017 as a recent year for which we can carry out the analysis. As for geographical scale, I’m using the United Kingdom as a country with very active citizen science community as my starting point.

At the bottom of the escalator, Level 1 considers the whole population, about 65 million people. Because of the impact of science across society, the vast majority, if not all, will have some exposure to science – even if this is only in the form of medical encounters.

However, the bare minimum of engagement is to passively consume information about science through newspapers, websites, and TV and Radio programme (Level 2). We can gauge the number of people at this level from the BBC programmes Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II, both focusing on natural history, with viewing figures of 14 million and about 10 million, respectively. We can, therefore, estimate these “passive consumers” at about 25% of the population.

At the next level is active consumption of science – such as visits to London’s Science Museum (UK visitors in 2017 – about 1.3), or the Natural History Museum (UK visitors in 2017 – about 2.1m), so an estimation of participation at 10% of the population seem justified.

Next, we can look at active engagement in citizen science but to a limited degree. Here, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) annual Big Garden Birdwatch requires the participants to dedicate a single hour in the year. The project attracted about 500,000 participants in 2017, and we can, therefore, estimate participation at this level at about 1% of the population. This should also include about 170,000 people who carried out a single task on Zooniverse and other online projects.

At the fifth level, there are projects that require remote engagement, such as volunteer thinking on the Zooniverse platform, or in volunteer computing on the IBM World Community Grid (WCG), in which participants download a software on their computer to allow processing to assist scientific research. The number of participants in WCG from the UK in 2017 was about 18,000. In Zooniverse about 74,0000 people carried out more than a single task in 2017, thus estimating participation at this level at 0.1% of the population (thanks to Grant Miller, Zooniverse and Caitlin Larkin, IBM for these details).

The sixth level requires the regular data collection, such as the participation in the British Trust of Ornithology Garden Birdwatch got about 6,500 active participants in 2017 (BTO 2018), while about 5000 contributed to the biodiversity recording system iRecord (thanks to Tom August, CEH) and it will be reasonable to estimate that the participation is about 0.01% of the population.

The most engaged level include those who are engaged in DIY Science, such as exploring DIY Bio, or developing their own sensors, etc. We can estimate that it represents 0.001% of the UK population at most (thanks to Philippe Boeing & Ilia Levantis).

We can see that as the level of engagement increases, the demand from participants increase and the number of participants drops. Not that this is earth-shattering, though what is interesting is that the difference between levels is in order of magnitude. We also know that the UK enjoys all the possible benefits that are needed to foster citizen science: a long history of citizen science activities, established NGOs and academic institutions that support citizen science, good technological infrastructure (broadband, mobile phone use), well-educated population (39.1% with tertiary education), etc. So we’re talking about a best-case scenario.

It is also important, already at this point, to note that UNESCO’s estimates of the percentage of UK population who are active scientists (working in research jobs), is 0.4% which is bigger than the 0.111 for levels 5,6 and 7.  

Let’s try to extrapolate from the UK to the world.

First, how many people we can estimate to have the potential of being citizen scientists? We want them to be connected and educated, with a middle-class lifestyle that gives them leisure time for hobbies and volunteering.

The connectivity gives us a large number – according to ITU, 3.5 Billion people are using the Internet. The estimation of the size of middle-class is a bit smaller, at 3.2 Billion people.  However, we know that participants in most citizen science projects which use passive inclusiveness, where everyone is welcome without an active effort in outreach to under-represented groups, tend to be from people with higher education (a.k.a tertiary education). There is actually data about it – here is the information from Wikipedia about tertiary educational attainment. According to UNESCO’s statistics, there were over 672 million people with a form of tertiary education in 2017. Let’s say that not everyone in citizen science is with tertiary education (which is true) so our potential starting number is 1 Billion.

I’ll assume the same proportion of the UK, ignoring that it present for us the best case. So about 250 million of these are passive consumers of science (L2), and 100 million are active consumer (e.g. going to science museums) (L3). We can then have 10 million people that participate in the once a year events (L4); 1 million that are active in online citizen science (this is more than a one-off visit or trial) (L5); about 100,000 who are the committed participants (mostly nature observers) and about 10,000 DIY bio, makers, and DIY science people (L6 and L7).

Are these numbers make sense? Looking at the visits to science/natural history museums on Wikipedia, level 3 seems about right. Level 4 looks very optimistic – in addition to Big Garden Birdwatch, there were about 17,000 people participating in City Nature Challenge, and 73,000 participants in the Christmas Bird Count, and about 888,000 done a single task on Zooniverse – it looks like that a more realistic number is 3 million or 4 million. Level 5 is an underestimate – IBM Word Community Grid have 753,000 members, and there are other volunteer computing projects which will make it about 1 million, then there were about 163,000 global Zooniverse contributors (thanks to the information from Grant Miller), 130,000 Wikipedians, 50,000 active contributors in OpenStreetMap, and other online projects such as EyeWire etc. So let’s say that it’s about 1.5 Million. At level 6, again the number is about right – e.g. eBird reports 20,000 birders in their peak day. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that it’s double the number – 200,000. Level 7 also seems right, based on estimations of biohackers numbers in Europe.

Now let’s look at the number of scientists globally: in 2013 there were 7.3 million researchers worldwide. With the estimation of “serious” citizen scientists (levels 5,6 and 7) at about 1.7 million, we can see the issue of crowdsourcing here: the potential crowdsourcer community is, at the moment, much bigger than the volunteers.

Something that is important to highlight here is the amazing productivity of citizen scientists in terms of their ability to analyse, collect information, or inventing tools – we know from participation inequality that this tiny group of participants are doing a huge amount of work – the 50,000 OSM volunteers are mapping the world or the 73,000 Christmas Bird Count participants provided 56,000,000 observations or the attention impact of the Open Insulin Project. So numbers are not the only thing that we need to think about.

Moreover, this is not a reason to give up on increasing the number of citizen scientists. Look at the numbers of Google Local Guides – out of 1 Billion users, a passive crowdsourcing approach reached 50 million single time contributors, and 465,000 in the equivalent of levels 5 to 7. Therefore, citizen science has the potential of reaching much larger numbers. At the minimum, there is the large cohort of people with tertiary education, with at least 98 million people with Masters and PhD in the world.

Therefore, to enable a wider and deeper public engagement with science, apart from the obvious point of providing funding, institutional support, and frameworks to scale up citizen science, we can think of an “escalator” like process, which makes people aware of the various levels and assists them in moving up or down the engagement level. For example, due to a change in care responsibilities or life stages, people can become less active for a period of time and then chose to become more active later. With appropriate funding, support, and attention, growing the global citizen science should be possible. 

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Citizen Science 2017 – Day 2 (Afternoon) – online projects insights and final reception with The Crowd and the Cloud

The afternoon session started with Web development insights

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Taking on the Challenges of Broadening Participation in Data Visualization and Analysis with FieldScope
Daniel Edelson – BSCS – cover fieldscope that allow people to collect data, design the form, and visualise and analyse it. He covered the Chesapeake Watershed Water Quality study. The area that influences the bay is a very large area. Information is being collected at times when school is doing things, so there are issues with the variability of data collection. Challenges to collect data – very few teachers and students get to the stage of analysing. All the time allocated was used to get people to the stage of data collection, and people used certain analysis tools to understand where to collect data. They want to have flexibility in data protocols, aimed at more reliable participation, and try to get people to analysis. The lesson is that effort should be paid to more active and structured process of engagement and involving schools in the process.

Patterns of Behaviour Across Online Citizen Science
Chris Lintott – Zooniverse.org; Helen Spiers* – University of Oxford; Grant Miller – University of Oxford / Zooniverse; Lucy Fortson – University of Minnesota; Laura Trouille – Adler Planetarium. Zoonivrse is now 10 years, with many projects, and pull data from 63 projects (ecology and astronomy) from 2012 to 2016 with 146,243,599 classification dataset. Looking at different classifications – in the first 100 days post launch, there is a range of classification. Projects have a peak after the launch and drop, apart from regular communication with the. High heterogeneity in the number of unique volunteers, with more volunteers in Astronomy. There is participation inequality across the projects. What they see from google analytics is that projects appeal across projects. in astronomy more male participation, closer participation by females in ecology. There are questions about what to do with over and under-represented groups. They are also analysing user movement between projects. helen@zooniverse.org

Validated Dynamic Consensus Approach for Citizen Science Projects Employing Crowd-based Detection Tasks
Pietro Michelucci – Human Computation Institute. Pietro runs with EyesonAlz and want to share problem and solutions. The goal is crowdsourced classification and wants to explore things. They had a problem with random responders with bots, also people who want to do other malicious things – so using lessons from psycho-physics – learning about separating sensitivity and bias – the operator need to decide if it is real object that requires alarm, in signal detection theory you can tease apart the sensitivity of the apparatus to the bias of the operator. When using an approach that measures the process of putting information in. Another problem is how you combine the results from the crowd. They carried out validation study and found that around 15 they get into the research threshold that they can use the data. They use 20 classifications to get high quality of data. Another problem is analytic efficiency – not to waste people time and they started assigning weights to a participant and stop when you have enough information – a paper from Willett et al. 2013 on Galaxy Zoo 2 that allow you to assess expertise. Marshall et al. 2015 Space Warps paper and extends this approach to measuring in a collective way. The number is between 2 and 10 and usually 5 so it is much better to use of people’s time.

Working Together: Developers and Project Leads
Robert Pastel – Michigan Technological University – app development is not done in a vacuum: participants, developers and project lead. For a successful application, all those core participants need to work together. The methodology includes participatory design and UCD principles, together with an Agile development. The participatory design is done with project leads. Aiming to have an MVP in the first three months and starting a new app development after it.

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DSC_0349A ‘Night in the Cloud’  – Geoff described the background in TV programming and the noticing that there are plenty of definition of citizen science, but for the Crowd and the Cloud, they use “science for, and by, the people” – and they set the programme to turn viewers to doors. Waleed recalls his interest in science – and he pointed to “earth rising” and the “blue marble” as influential ways of viewing the earth. There is also the power of face to face the perspective of close and personal. There is impressive data – 2.3m volunteers in environmental conservation – $2.5b worth of effort. Rick Bonney pointed that for many years, there was a need to see involvement of television in making citizen science visible, and when Geoff called, and after quick google check which reveal the involvement in Cosmos, he contacted him back to support the process of the programme. The programme also helped with EyesOnAltz that address the analysis of vessels in a video. The visibility of the project on the Crowd and the Cloud has helped in increasing participation. Waleed was noticing the commitments and interest of participants and enthusiasm and connection to the environment. The best way for high-quality data is to care passionately about what they are measuring. Jennifer Shirk – used resources from the crowd and the cloud to create a programme for out of school activities. The link to SciStarter helped in converting viewers to active participants and Waleed was struck by the commitment and passion of participants and their commitment to producing real science of high quality. The close and personal perspective is important to understand the world and the potential of it.

Below are the clips that were prepared by the crown and the cloud – the second shows the late Gill Conquest

 

 

Diary of a a citizen scientist by Sharman Apt Russell

The academic literature on Citizen Science is expanding quickly, with hundreds of papers that are published in peer review publications every years about it. These papers are written by professional scientists and practitioners, mostly for an audience of other professional scientists and practitioners. A very common concern of researchers is to understand the motivations and incentives that get citizen scientists involved in projects. Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of research evaluating these aspects through questionnaires and interviews, but there is relatively little on how citizen science is experienced from the point of view of the participants (although it does come out in the research notes of Public Lab or Clare Griffiths’ account of community air quality study).

So what is it like to be a citizen scientist? 

Luckily, Sharman Apt Russell has decided to find out, and because she is a talented author with plenty of experience in creative writing of non-fiction books about science and nature, she is well placed to provide an engaging account of the experience. Covering a period of about year and a half,  her book ‘diary of citizen scientist: chasing tiger beetles and other new ways of engaging the world‘ is interesting, insightful and enjoyable read. 

Sharman didn’t took the easy route to citizen science, but decided to jump in and find out an unknown detail about the life of Tiger Beetles by studying them in the Gila river, near her home. The tasks that she took upon herself (and her family) include chasing beetles and capturing them, grow them in terrariums at home, dismember some and analyse them under microscope and so on. This quest is sparked by a statement from Dick Vane-Wright,  then the Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum that ‘You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would know more than anyone else on the planet. Our ignorance is profound‘ (p. 15). This, of course, is not only true about insects, or animals, but also to the night sky, or our understanding of urban air pollution. I think that this can be a crucial statement for the potential of discovery in citizen science in general.

While the story about understanding the lives of the tiger beetles provide the core of the book, Sharman explores many other aspects of citizen science, from online activities, to observing the changes in nature over the seasons (phenology), and noticing the footprints in the sand. Her love of nature in her area is coming through in the descriptions of her scientific observations and also when she describes a coming storm or other aspects of her local environment.

Throughout the book, you can come across issues that citizen scientists experience – from difficulties in following instructions that seem obvious to scientists, to figuring out what the jargon mean, to the critical importance of supportive mentoring by professional scientists. All this make the book a very interesting source to understand the experience. If you want to read her short summary of Sharman’s experience, see her writing in Entomology Today.

One disclosure, though: Sharman has contacted me while working on the book, and she note the interview in her book so I was intrigued to read her description of Extreme Citizen Science, which is excellent.