The social side of citizen science

I spent last Thursday and Friday at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit, listening to a series of presentations about how the public are collaborating with scientists to achieve together what neither group can do alone. It was a fascinating couple of days which illustrated the vast variety of projects either running currently or in the pipeline. We’ve all heard of SETI@home, but there are projects now across a diverse set of disciplines, from botany to history, astronomy, meteorology, particle physics, seismology and beyond.

What was notable, however, was that the majority of the projects were about volunteers donating CPU cycles rather than brain cycles. Where communities were mentioned it was generally in passing, and when community tools were mentioned they were almost invariably forums/bulletin boards.

I had hoped to here more from the different projects about community churn, retention tactics, development tactics, social tools, and other such things, but was not totally surprised to see that most presentations focused on the science instead. There was a discussion session scheduled for Friday evening to talk some of these issues through, but I sadly couldn’t stay for it. Nevertheless, I think that the social and community aspects should have been discussed throughout the two days.

It is obvious that there is tremendous overlap of interests between the citizen science community and the social collaboration community, and there are lessons both parties could learn from each other. I’d love to see some sort of round-table organised that brought the two communities together to discuss some of the issues that citizen science faces. In lieu of that, here are a few ideas to hopefully get an online discussion going.

The forum is not the only tool
I don’t think it’s a surprise that those projects which do have a community component tend towards having a forum of some sort. They’ve been around for ages and for many people they are the default discussion tool. However, we’ve come a long way since the forum was invented and there are many social tools that are more suited to certain types of tasks.

Wikis, for example, are much better for collecting static (or slowly evolving) information such as help pages. Blogs are good for ongoing updates and discussion around them. UserVoice is great for gathering feedback on your website or software. A community is a multi-faceted thing so often needs more than just one tool.

Facebook is not a panacea 
During lunch on Friday I did get to talk to some of the other attendees about social media. Facebook, of course, came up. Whilst Facebook is a massive social network, one has to be very careful how one uses otherwise it can be a massive waste of time. Facebook Causes, for example, was said by the Washington Post to have raised money for only a tiny percentage of the nonprofits that used it. I myself have seen how Facebook encourages ‘clicktivisim’ – the aimless joining of a group or cause that isn’t followed up by any meaningful action.

Facebook as a platform, however, is a more interesting proposition. Facebook Connect allows users to log in to your site using Facebook and lets your site post updates for the user to their wall. And Facebook apps may allow citizen science to be done actually on Facebook rather than requiring users to go to another site. In this way, Facebook shows promise, but starting a group or a page and hoping that people will just go off and recruit users to your project is unlikely to be successful.

Twitter is a network of networks
Where Facebook is sitting in the kitchen being introspective over a can of cider, Twitter is the extrovert at the party. Although Facebook has more users (~500m), Twitter is now at ~150m users and growing at 300k per day. More to the point, however, Twitter is easy to use, more open, and Tweets that go viral really do go viral because it’s not just your network you’re reaching, but a network of networks. The potential value for recruitment and retention is huge, if you do it right.

Design apps to be social from the beginning
If you’re creating software for users to download and run, think about how you could make that social. The social aspects to your project don’t need to be managed exclusively on a separate website or third party software. If it makes sense for what you are doing, build in sociability.

Most of these tools are free
I’m guessing that most citizen science projects have little funding. Where social media is concerned, the good news is that the vast majority of key tools are free. The not-so-good news is that you do need to understand how to use them, which could take some investment in terms of training and consulting, and you need time to maintain your online presence. A good consultant will help you understand how to work social media into your work life so that it doesn’t become a drain on resources, but you must have some time to commit to it.

This is where JISC and other funding bodies could really help: by allocating specific funds to raising awareness of social tools in the science community, providing training, ensuring that projects can afford to work with outside social media consultants, and even by helping project leaders understand how to find a good social media consultant (sadly, there are lots of carpetbaggers).

The opportunity afforded to citizen science by social media is enormous, regardless of whether a project is focused on CPU time or more human-scale tasks. Now let’s start talking about how to realise that potential!