What is Citizen Science? A Recent Webinar Explores How the Federal Government Engages the Public via Crowdsourcing

Aug 23, 2016

From the National Park Service (NPS) to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the use of citizen science has become a prominent factor in the science community and a critical tool for the federal government.

Screen capture of Citizenscience.gov, an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government.

A recent DigitalGov University (DGU) webinar provides an introduction to the concept and shows how the federal government is using it to engage the public and address important issues.

The federal government has seen a surge of citizen science initiatives thanks to several developments, starting with a memo from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that outlined ways agencies can use citizen science. The memo also gave birth to CitizenScience.gov, the government’s new hub for all things citizen science.

“It’s essentially the first portal for everything related to citizen science and crowdsourcing in the federal space,” said Kendrick Daniel, who manages the site for the General Services Administration (GSA).

Daniel used the recent webinar to provide viewers an inside look at the already thriving website. Joining him for the presentation was Elizabeth Tyson, co-director of the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Wilson Center), who helped to define what citizens science is and offered examples of projects from the federal government.

“Researchers within the federal government are always looking for new ways to involve the public,” Tyson said. “Citizen science and crowdsourcing allows for a higher and more meaningful level of public engagement.”

Tyson defined citizen science as “volunteers participating in any step of the scientific process.”

Beyond this general definition are three big ideas that are enhanced by the new website and a growing federal community of practice:

  • Big, interdisciplinary and diverse: Created through a collaboration between GSA and the Wilson Center, CitizenScience.gov encourages crowdsourcing and citizen science across a variety of disciplines. There are over 300 projects sponsored by 25 agencies listed on the site. Anyone from the general public, including elementary schoolers, may participate in these projects. The website, as explained by Daniel during the webinar, has three main components: a federal catalog where participants can find projects to take part in, a toolkit to help agencies create their own projects and access to a flourishing community of federal experts and practitioners.

  • Transforming science, learning and society: Citizen science makes use of numerous skills. According to the National Science Foundation, the big constructs of citizen science are knowledge, engagement, skills, attitudes and behaviors. With citizen science, you are able to contribute through collecting data, collaborate through developing and analyzing the data, and co-create through defining, interpreting, discussing and sharing the data. This creates a new science learning environment for students in the classroom participating in citizen science, as well as for the public as a whole. The toolkit, as shown in the webinar, shows agencies step by step how to create a project. One can see how the constructs of citizen science are reflected in the steps of creating projects for the catalog on CitizenScience.gov. Those involved with citizen science use what they have learned over the years (through scientific method) and apply it to real world science issues.

  • Requires collaboration for maximum impact: Communication plays a big role in the success of citizen science. When an issue in program design, implementation or evaluation arises, communication via different channels can alleviate the problem. Conferences, meetings and working groups are just some of the ways those involved can work together. The community page on CitizenScience.gov allows agencies to support the participants in their citizen science projects, as well as make connections throughout the federal government. This page lists nearly 30 coordinators who help organize and promote citizen projects at their respective agencies.

If this sounds like something you or your agency want to be a part of, you should check out the webinar and spend some time exploring CitizenScience.gov.

There, you will find a diverse community that is transforming society within the learning and the science worlds through a variety of collaborations. It’s a perfect illustration of public engagement and open innovation, bringing together people to help solve scientific problems regardless of age, gender, race, class, or other factors.

Zohaa Ahmad is a rising junior at Riverside High School in Leesburg, VA who is interested in pursuing the medical field in the future. She is interning with the Innovation Portfolio in the Technology Transformation Service (TTS) Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT) at GSA for summer 2016.

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