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Why do people take part in citizen science?

Why do people take part in citizen science?

By Joe Cox, Principal Lecturer in Economics and Finance at the University of Portsmouth.


Citizen science is not a new phenomenon and many will already be aware of long-running projects such as Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count and the American Association of Variable Star Observers. However, with the rapid evolution of interactive online technologies, citizen science projects are being revolutionised through new approaches to online crowdsourcing. Suddenly, scientists are able to bring together huge numbers of volunteers from across the world to take part in large-scale projects with significant scientific and social value incredibly easily and fairly quickly as well.

An increasing number of these initiatives are facing up to the problems and challenges associated with truly ‘big data’ that would be almost impossible for teams of professional scientists or even sophisticated computer algorithms to analyse in a meaningful way, either due to sheer volume or complexity (or both). This is where the power of the crowd comes into play. 

One of the most well-known crowdsourcing platforms in citizen science is the Zooniverse, a collection of projects that harness the power of the human senses to recognise patterns in complex or noisy data which computers simply fail to see.

For example, the Galaxy Zoo project asks volunteers to look at a series of photos of galaxies that they then classify by identifying a number of key characteristics and properties. The data generated by this project is helping cosmologists to understand the nature and evolution of the Universe.

Another example is the Old Weather project, which asks volunteers to help transcribe hand-written shipping records in order to help climate change scientists map historical weather patterns.

Additionally, the Cell Slider project (in association with Cancer Research UK) requires users to investigate the properties of cancer cells that could potentially help in the development of a cure.

These are all major scientific problems that the average citizen could not realistically have hoped to directly contribute towards even a few years ago. However, new technologies are radically changing this and putting significant power into the hands of ordinary people to bring about change.

Why do people take part in citizen science?

In order to better understand how people’s relationship to volunteering is changing in the digital age, my colleagues and I have recently begun working on the VOLCROWE (Volunteer and Crowdsourcing Economics) project, which has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the New Economic Models in the Digital Economy (NEMODE) network+.

The project is running for a three year period and brings together researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth, Oxford, Manchester and Leeds with the aim of understanding the potentially significant changes in the nature of volunteering resulting from the growth of online crowdsourcing projects. Our primary goal on the project is to examine the behaviours and motivations of online volunteers and contributors to citizen science projects with a particular focus on the Zooniverse.

The project has come about because of significant gaps in the understanding of volunteering as it makes the transition into the digital world. Much of the focus within business and economics is on the effect that digitisation is having upon mainstream commercial activity, with little attention being paid to implications for the not-for-profit and voluntary sectors of the economy.

We know that, traditionally, people volunteer for the altruistic “warm glow” and social prestige. Volunteering also allows people to contribute to the public good, although individuals need to weigh up whether these benefits rationally justify the sacrifice of their scarce and valuable time. Online crowdsourcing projects, which only involve ‘micro’ contributions lasting just a few minutes at a time, may allow voluntary citizen science projects to compete against the variety of other leisure activities and work demands that participants face in their daily lives.

The VOLCROWE project is also exploring how volunteering is related to the formation of social capital, which is a measure of the degree of connectedness and the quantity and quality of social relations within a given population.

Stocks of social capital within Western economies are suggested to have declined over recent years due to the increased incidence of women joining the labour force (meaning even less available time to build social capital), increased geographical mobility (it takes time to put down roots and make connections to allow contribution to social capital formation), demographic change (fewer children, more divorce etc.) and the influence of technological change upon the way in which people spend their leisure time (e.g. online activity).

Volunteer crowdsourcing could be a means by which the trend of declining social capital is reversed, but economics still has some way to go in terms of understanding exactly how and why this might happen. Our research is not only challenging and testing the role of traditional social capital-forming activities and behaviours, but is also considering how participation might be influenced by and may lead to increased social interactions using channels of digital communication.

Over the duration of the project, our team of researchers will be collecting data from individual volunteers relating to demography, human and social capital and religiosity to challenge and develop the existing theories on the factors that influence the propensity to volunteer.

We will be using this to develop new models of volunteering that represent the changing nature of these activities and patterns of engagement in the context of crowdsourcing and the ways in which technology is making it possible to bring people together in large numbers to tackle some of society’s biggest questions and challenges. We’ll even be exploring the wider implications for society, including how lessons from the Zooniverse can help inform the use of crowdsourcing in the development of future ‘smart’ cities.

Please feel free to visit our website and follow us on Twitter so that we can keep you updated on the progress of the project as it unfolds over the next three years.

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