Citizen science project toolkit

Here’s how to plan, communicate, manage and sustain your citizen science project.

Scientists use online app to assess and record soil information, edirt program

Design a project

Preparation is the key to developing a successful and sustainable citizen science project.

Here’s how to design, refine, plan, fund and communicate your project and engage your participants.

Define your scientific question

Citizen science works best when you clearly define and communicate project aims from the start.

First, define the scientific question that your project aims to answer.

Examples

How does the built environment affect invertebrates?

How are invasive species changing over time?

How are cicadas responding to climate change?

How do urban centres affect bird migration?

What is the distribution of koalas in NSW?

Handy tips

When defining your question:

  • consider the type and volume of data needed to meet the project’s goals
  • keep participants in mind; know their abilities, interests and limitations.

Describe your participants and their involvement

  • Who are your participants?
  • How are they involved?
  • How do they benefit?
  • Is the project safe?
  • Is the project very technical?
  • Is the project engaging?

Check if your project already exists

Search for existing projects and consider partnering with or replicating an existing one. Try searching for:

Describe your participants’ motivations 

Citizen scientists will get involved and will stay involved in a project for many different reasons. Their motivation may also change throughout the project.

Understanding participants’ motivations and ensuring they align with your project goals can ensure a smoother delivery of your project.

Describe your participants’ skills

What skills or experience do participants need (if any) to complete the activity?

Consider:

  • participant mobility
  • whether they are tech savvy and computer literate
  • whether they have computer and internet access.

List key activities

What activities and actions are needed for the project? Which activities are suitable for your project’s participants?

Compare your target participants’ skills with the project’s key activities to decide if and what type of training or outreach material is required.

Examples

For instance, citizen scientists can:

  • identify species
  • enter geolocation data
  • use a camera
  • upload data.

Promote your project to potential participants

Recruit

Consider engaging:

  • OEH partners
  • OEH’s current volunteer community
  • naturalist groups (e.g. bird watchers, invertebrate collectors)
  • photography groups
  • online groups or forums
  • schools or universities.

Engage

Ongoing engagement with participants can include:

  • rewarding them
  • social media
  • emails
  • forums
  • a website
  • offering training/outreach material.

Citizen science projects can produce large amounts of data over a short time. It is important to have ways to collect, manage, analyse and report data.

Describe the data you need

  • What type of data is your project collecting? Is it metadata, environmental data and/or social data?
  • How is the data likely to be used? Who will use it?
  • How will you store data?
  • Have you thought about using BioNet?

How will you collect data?

Examples

  • geolocation
  • web portal
  • paper
  • field surveys
  • sample collection
  • smartphone app
  • monitoring
  • taking photos.

How will you analyse the data?

Is your data quantitative, qualitative or a mixture? Which statistical tests will you apply to your data?

Ensure the quality of your data

Citizen science allows you to crowdsource large amounts of data. However, to ensure this data is robust, it is important to minimise chances for error and to understand that data quality can differ between participants.

So that errors in interpretation, measurement and identification can be quantified early, we recommend thoroughly testing the project’s protocols and participants’ capabilities.

You might also consider training participants and creating validation protocols.

Plan to share the results

Volunteers, scientists, policy makers and the media may all be interested in data from citizen science projects.

Sharing data is a good way to celebrate participants’ contributions, encourage ongoing participation and promote the success of a project.

Non-sensitive data can be available in electronic format, as this will increase the reach and accessibility to a more diverse audience.

When sharing data, it is important to recognise the participants’ contribution.

We also recommend establishing a protocol for intellectual property and providing clear definitions of data ownership.

Establishing a well thought out and researched project plan can be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful project.

At the outset, a project plan can provide a firm reality check, highlighting any possible pitfalls and project risks, while determining areas that require more work and/or additional resources.

Map your project timeline

All citizen science projects should have a fairly accurate project schedule before the start.

Calendars, project risks, timing of activities and sourcing equipment can all be scheduled.

Where possible, allow stakeholders, collaborators and participants the opportunity to provide input into the schedule to highlight any funding, recruitment or timing issues.

Tips

  • Be mindful of seasons and when species are present or in flower
  • Be aware of your participants’ work or school schedule to minimise conflicting timetables
  • Build in some flexibility to allow for any changes as the project progresses.

Define goals and key milestones

Setting project goals and milestones helps to simplify and prioritise tasks.

Examples of goals

  • Assess the migratory bird diversity at 10 locations along the NSW coast by the end of summer.
  • Test the water quality change of the Hawkesbury River project, with the aim of engaging 1000 participants over two years.

Examples of milestones

  • Potential project sites have been investigated and the necessary documentation has been completed
  • Participant training completed.

Define resources needed

List necessary resources, including personnel, equipment, training and travel, and assign resources to milestones.

If the necessary resources can’t be found (i.e. lack of funding or expertise), then you may need to restructure the project or collaborate with other organisations (e.g. museums, councils, local land services).

Define your budget

A budget can be made up of grants, donations and government funding.

Funding may fluctuate during the project, so you may need to think about how funds will be tracked and monitored.

A simple way to do this is to assign available funding to certain milestones.

Examples of funding sources

Check necessary approvals and permissions

Depending on the project, you may need certain approvals, licences and permissions.

These may relate to ethics, flora and fauna licences, and permissions to work on certain land.

It is important to assign adequate time to research and apply for these.

Have a look at the Australian Guide to Running a BioBlitz for information about the kinds of approvals and permissions needed for biological surveys.

Manage a project

Designing and launching a citizen science project is only part of the story. Next, you need to manage your project.

Here's how to communicate, celebrate, evaluate and sustain your citizen science project.

Provide continuous feedback to stakeholders using interim reports that include how the data is being used.

You can also create and monitor a discussion board to allow participants to ask and answer questions.

It is worth spending some time to celebrate a project’s success to reward participants, stakeholders and your team’s efforts.

This can be after you’ve reached a milestone or at the end of a project.

Celebrating your project can help:

  • increase participants’ long-term engagement
  • increase participant numbers
  • attract more funding or stakeholder support.

Give feedback to colleagues

Share your findings with other colleagues. Inform them of what worked well, what didn’t, who was involved and how you would improve the project’s structure.

Give feedback to participants

Ongoing evaluation and feedback can strengthen your project and help maintain participant interest. Invite and include feedback throughout the project.

Evaluate

Keeping questionnaires short, simple and direct allows more participants to provide feedback in a short amount of time.

You can evaluate participants’ involvement, their output, as well as the project’s output.

Sustain your project by considering:

  • funding and grants
  • participant retention
  • promotion and marketing
  • improvements/feedback mechanisms.