A New Team Strives to Coordinate Citizen Science, Crowdsourcing Across Government

Jan 20, 2016

A government can accomplish nothing without the ingenuity of its people.

Light bulb with drawing of various business and strategy imagery

This is why the federal government is committed to using online tools to make its problem-solving more open and collaborative.

A growing number of agencies are testing the applications of crowdsourcing and citizen science to accomplish more, and in many cases, do things faster and better.

Case in point: the National Archives and Records Administration’s Citizen Archivist Dashboard, which coordinates tagging and transcribing of historical records and documents. In one show of its effectiveness, more than 170,000 volunteers indexed 132 million names from the 1940 census records in just five months.

Screen capture of the Citizen Archivist Dashboard homepage.

Now, the White House, U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and partners are undertaking a series of initiatives to help manage the momentum of projects like these across the federal government.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), recently issued a memo (PDF, 229KB, 11 pages, September 2015) that outlines principles agencies should apply to achieve the greatest impact using citizen science and crowdsourcing.

In the memo, Holdren recommends ways agencies can build capacity for using these methods to address societal needs and advance science and technology. The memo also directed agencies to take two specific steps: identify a coordinator for such projects and catalog all citizen science and crowdsourcing initiatives in an online database.

Here’s the latest on what’s happening.

Published: The Public Sector’s Guide to Citizen Science

Recently, OSTP and GSA unveiled a toolkit to help federal agencies undertake crowdsourcing and citizen science projects. The toolkit—which offers case studies, how-to guides, and legal/policy advice—will help federal employees:

  • Learn how crowdsourcing and citizen science can support their agency missions
  • Partner with the public to collect and analyze meaningful data
  • Select the right methods and tools for every project
  • Pitch new kinds of projects to agency leaders and partners
  • Design crowdsourcing and citizen science projects for success.

The toolkit, however, requires agency practitioners to offer their learnings, examples and other updates to remain relevant as the crowdsourcing and citizen science initiative spreads across government.

Enter the Agency Coordinator
Silhouettes of business people having discussions

Coordinators at each federal agency, managed by GSA,have begun working with OSTP and the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, to help track and organize the growing number of crowdsourcing projects.

Appointed by their agencies, these coordinators will help with a variety of activities, including:

  • Working with OSTP and GSA to develop requirements for a citizen science and crowdsourcing database, to serve as a catalog for all such projects across government
  • Collaborating to increase interagency coordination and to participate in future policy-development discussions on this subject
  • Teaming to encourage public awareness of and participation in citizen science and crowdsourcing efforts.

As coordinators, these individuals will advocate for citizen science and crowdsourcing where possible, and provide a support network and mentoring for each other and their respective agencies for future projects.

Additionally, they will be instrumental in making the GSA crowdsourcing catalog as useful as possible for members of the federal government community and citizens everywhere.

A Project Catalog

GSA is in the process of building an online database, or catalog, that will house information on all crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives across the federal government.

The database will make it easier for the public to discover citizen science opportunities as well as inspire agencies to connect and launch new projects that deliver benefits for the government and public at large.

There are several users envisioned for this catalog, including:

  • Federal practitioners, who can use it to find information on federally supported projects
  • Federal decision makers, who can identify projects at their agencies and pinpoint opportunities to use crowdsourcing and citizen science to advance their missions
  • The public, who can find information and volunteer for projects
  • Other stakeholders, who can share data and align policies.

Ultimately, these combined efforts aim to knock down any remaining barriers to making crowdsourcing and citizen science a crucial part of every agency’s innovation strategy.

NOTE: All of the efforts described in this article have benefitted from key contributions from the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, a grassroots group founded in 2012. About 200 members from more than 40 federal agencies and departments share lessons learned, best practices and training.

The group meets monthly and operates a listserv. To subscribe, visit the community on DigitalGov or email Ruthanna Gordon with any questions.