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Lessons on Participation and Engagement From Europe's Citizen Science Projects and Initiatives

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

This article focuses on participation techniques and strategies employed by various Citizen Science projects across Europe. We examine how other initiatives addressed participation risks to better engage and retain volunteers. This is preceded by a literature review on what motivates people to join environmental monitoring in the first place.

Young people holding hands and jumping in air with back to camera

Image courtesy: Pixabay


Why do people choose to participate in Citizen Science? Next to delivering environmental data at local and national scales, Citizen Science also plays an important role in connecting people with nature, and has been used to help organisations communicate the importance of their work in the area of nature conservation. However, without an understanding of why and how people (non professional volunteers) participate in Citizen Science, some initiatives could miss their mark and fail to provide the expected benefits to science and society. This study explores the motivations of environmental-based Citizen Science participants and stakeholders from ‘science’, ‘policy’ and ‘practice’ (Dyke, 2016).


The environmental volunteering literature frequently categorises motivations for participants as intrinsic ( inherently valuable or satisfying) or extrinsic (leading to some other benefit, such as future career prospects). Citizen Science literature provides more detail on these types of motivations, with categories such as: egoism, where the motivation is personal growth or gain; altruism, where others benefit; collectivism, where a particular group benefits; or principalism, where individual principles are upheld. Digitally mediated Citizen Science projects frequently use motivations of competition or reputation to encourage (continued) participation. Of course, participants vary individually and will not necessarily conform to one type.


An earlier study by West and Pateman (2016), which examined motivations in data submission to environmental Citizen Science projects, found that the most commonly held motivations of participants were wanting to help nature in general, followed by a desire to contribute to scientific understanding and the purely intrinsic motivation (‘it’s a valuable thing to do’). A desire to please others by participating and a category of ‘other’ motivations came next. The results of the survey done within this study are broadly in agreement with this list. Further definition of intrinsic values were illustrated through comments on enjoyment of the activity.


It is suggested in the volunteering literature that continued participation is motivated by the fulfilment of initial motivations to participate. Poor organisation often contributes to a decline in participation. Most participants, with the exception of those involved in science-led (hypothesis driven research, Dyke, 2016) projects, said that their motives had not changed over time. Participants in science-led projects said they were now more motivated by contributing to science, sharing knowledge and caring more about conservation.


The majority of respondents to the online survey were encouraged to continue participating because their initial motivation was satisfied. There were also respondents who were encouraged to continue participating in projects despite their dissatisfaction, indicating that other variables also play a role.


Two other potential incentives for continued participation that emerged from the online survey were skills development, and feedback and communication. In summary, shared motivations and the importance of communication and feedback for meaningful participation in environmental volunteer projects suggest that Citizen Science may be attractive to many environmental volunteers.


Overview of inspiring projects, papers and guidelines


WeCount

WeCount (Citizens Observing Urban Transport; 2019-2021) was a Horizon 2020 funded project, part of a Science with and for Society call (SwafS). Uniquely, this Citizen Science project empowered citizens to take a leading role in the production of data, evidence and knowledge about mobility in their own neighbourhoods. WeCount aimed at quantifying local road transport (cars, large vehicles, active travel modes and speed), produce scientific knowledge in the field of mobility and environmental pollution, and co-design informed solutions to tackle a variety of urban mobility challenges (from traffic to air pollution and safety issues). Participatory Citizen Science methodologies were used to co-create and use an innovative low cost, automated traffic counting sensor.


Citizen Scientists (citizens) in five case studies across Europe were trained on how to install the sensors in their own homes, enabling them to collect and analyse traffic data, as well as how to engage with key stakeholders throughout the process. Citizens took part in several workshops, from assembling the sensor to learning how to interpret and analyse the data. The five cases followed a similar execution pathway, Leuven and Madrid deploying first and serving as pilots for the remaining three case studies.


Citizens were recruited through traditional media and social media. The project put extra effort in working with community groups, specifically those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and schools. Citizens with a suitable window qualified to install a sensor. These counting citizens could then connect their data on an online platform (www.telraam.net/en). Not only did this allow other counters to access their neighbours’ data; it provided cost-effective data for local authorities, at a far greater temporal and spatial scale than what would be possible through classic traffic counting campaigns. Professional stakeholders and decision makers saw huge added value in the data collected by citizens. Several local authorities plan to continue working with citizens in the production of data to monitor planned traffic interventions.


The WeCount engagement approach was a five-step framework, as can be seen in the figure below.


WeCount 5 step framework

The WeCount engagement approach


Thanks to the monitoring and evaluation framework within the WeCount project, all steps of engagement were evaluated extensively. This resulted in a Practitioners guide for citizen science on urban mobility (Laggan e.a., 2021). Out of this guide, the following lessons learnt throughout the WeCount project on the engagement work are summarised in the next figure.


TRACE

The mission of the H2020 EU project TRACE was to trigger innovative behaviour change initiatives and urban planning practises by expanding the knowledge about cycling and walking and leveraging the potential of cycling and walking tracking in changing behaviour. TRACE assessed the potential of tracking to carry out new and improved initiatives to tackle urban road congestion by promoting cycling and walking in the scope of different contexts, stakeholders and target groups. This research addressed how to apply tracking for behaviour change initiatives, how to use tracking data to improve urban mobility planning, and how to tackle ICT challenges posed by the development of tracking services that meet the interests of stakeholders. The knowledge generated by TRACE was consolidated in three tracking tools and one planning tool. Each of the tools was tested at different pilot locations and evaluated in terms of impact, success factors and benefits (Bossuyt, E., e.a., 2016).


Within the TRACE project, a report ‘Assessment of the potential and conditions for use in behaviour change initiatives’ was delivered. This deliverable assessed the potential and conditions for the use of tracking in the context of behaviour change initiatives. The deliverable can be used by stakeholders to develop a strategy for using tracking tools to support behaviour change campaigns and other initiatives aimed at changing behaviour. This report provides (a) a description of stakeholder interests in tracking, (b) an analysis of the benefits of tracking data to different types of behaviour change initiatives, (c) the identification of new potential initiatives made viable by tracking, (d) a review and evaluation of past and ongoing cases, and (e) the identification of challenges for the implementation of tracking tools, including ICT aspects.


This deliverable explains the psychological theories behind a set up of behavioural change campaigns using tracking services. Therefore, it functions as a useful guidebook to set up a Citizen Science strategy making use of these tracking tools and behavioural change.


An important focus, are of course the users of these tracking tools, and what they expect, when looking at participation risks. What do users expect from a tracking tool?

  • Delivering data to improve the mobility policy is a huge motivator for individuals to start using tracking apps.

  • Leader boards tend to motivate people to track more trips. Group participation and group competitions additionally motivated people to install the application.

  • Individual feedback after a trip (e.g., in terms of burned kcal, distance covered) is perceived as interesting and useful. In some cases this even motivates users to track and/or bike more.

The potential risk related to the use of tracking tools are as follows:

  • People tend to delete behaviour change apps when the campaign has ended.

  • An important issue within all apps is the accuracy of data and the stability of the app. By evaluating existing tools, this seems to be a crucial issue that will determine if users will keep on using the app or not.


Guidebook ‘Citizen Science for local governments’

The Guidebook ‘Citizen Science for local governments’ is a Belgian guidebook. This Guidebook is an initiative of the Flemish government and has been made by the consortium imec-SMIT, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Scivil and IDEA Consult. This roadmap outlines what Citizen Science can mean for local governments, how a local government can get started and what the success factors are (Veeckman, 2021).


The guidebook’s roadmap consists of 22 steps within 6 phases: Phase 0: Consider, Phase 1: Define, Phase 2: Develop, Phase 3: Launch, Phase 4: Analyse and Phase 5: Valorise. The guidebook wraps up with some general points to consider in order to successfully participate in or support Citizen Science in a city or municipality. These elements emerged most strongly from the interviews and workshops that were held with local authorities and Citizen Science projects.


  1. Scientific support: Collaboration often adds great value to the research in Citizen Science. The scientific partners bring expert knowledge of the researched domain and know the most reliable ways of collecting or interpreting certain data.

  2. Activating and engaging citizens: Keep in mind that with Citizen Science it is easy to reach a certain target group and that this can have consequences for the representativeness of the data that is collected. When air pollution is mapped, for example, it is not a good idea to only map this in the neighbourhoods and streets where older, highly educated people live.

  3. Expectation management: When a local government commits to a Citizen Science initiative, it sends a signal to citizen science participants that the administration is taking the research seriously. This will create expectations among citizen scientists that the local government will also take action if the results of the research shown that this is necessary or desirable. The residents of a city or municipality are not always fully informed about how their government works and therefore it is necessary that the government clearly communicates their commitment during and after the project.

  4. Sustainability: Most Citizen Science projects see a large peak in participation at the beginning of the project. Keeping large numbers of participants engaged during a long-term project is a challenge in itself, which requires its own communication and participation strategy.

  5. Control: A local authority can choose whether or not to support a Citizen Science project. In both cases, it is recommended that the government does not disregard Citizen Science and openly communicate why it may or may not commit itself to action.


The second element is the expectations that Citizen Science initiatives have towards local governments:

  1. Gaining the trust of the local government. Recognising that what citizen scientists do is scientifically responsible and that this data can be valuable for administration and policy.

  2. The research can have an impact in the city or municipality. Measures are taken by or with the support of the local government to meet the research results. Even though this sometimes takes a lot of time.

  3. Use the extensive network of the city administration to find partners or participants for the Citizen Science project.

  4. Citizen scientists want to be appreciated for the work they do. Citizen Science is usually set up to make the world a better place and it is nice when that is recognised.

  5. News about the Citizen Science project are communicated through the channels of the city or the municipality. This can be a message in the newsletter at the launch of the project, or spreading the research results via an interactive screen in front of the town hall.

  6. Citizen Science projects sometimes experience only temporary support t of the local government for their research. A policy strategy that can guarantee some continuity would certainly be welcome.

  7. More resources are welcome. Small-scale and local Citizen Science projects indicate that limited funding from the city or municipality could help them a lot.

  8. Local authorities can also help Citizen Science in help in kind, by offering logistical and technical support. This may include providing a room for activities, offering data infrastructure or technical support in building or maintaining sensors.


D-Noses

D-NOSES project stands for The Distributed Network for Odour Sensing, Empowerment and Sustainability) (Woods T., 2021). Each Citizen Science project is different in terms of its scale, participants, location and focus. Likewise, the resources that each project can draw upon will vary. The trick for project organisers is to establish which resources are available, and decide how to make the best use of them. Resources you will need for your project are likely to include the following:

  • Financial resources: The dedicated budget for the project will determine many aspects, such as the level of engagement of your stakeholders, tools and equipment you use for data collection, how you communicate the data and results, and even where you hold project meetings. You could see if there are small environmental grants available locally. Alternatively, there may be a nearby university that conducts research on environmental issues, which may be able to support a Citizen Science project.

  • Time: Running an odour-pollution project is likely to require a lot of time for the project organisers and the participants. Early discussions with stakeholders should cover the amount of time they are willing or able to commit.

  • People: A lot of people need to contribute to the project for it to be successful: policy-makers, industry players, professional scientists and local communities. It is important to make contact with them at an early stage, and continue this at regular intervals to keep them engaged throughout. Moreover, community engagement requires a lot of time and human resources to be successful.

  • Tools and equipment: One way to save money is to borrow the equipment and tools you need to measure odours. Try asking the odour-emitting industry (if they have engaged with the project) or local sources of scientific equipment (e.g. universities, companies, research institutes).


Lessons and recommendations from the reviews

Project planning

  • Find out what people's motivations might be for participating in your project

  • Make sure your project is well-organised with clear expectations and meaningful tasks

  • Create tasks that appeal to different motivations

  • Consider the potential barriers to participation and how you could overcome them

  • Design your monitoring and evaluation plan


Awareness of opportunity and decision to participate

  • Advertise to diverse groups through diverse means, including through the use of community champions

  • Ensure a diverse range of people are represented in the advertising material

  • Appeal to the breadth of motivations in advertising

  • Make it clear what the project is about, what the tasks are, and consider 'taster sessions' for potential participants


Initial participation

  • Make sure participants' expectations of the role are managed from the start; avoid promising something that cannot be realistically delivered

  • Consider providing opportunities for learning and development

  • Find out what motivated participants to join the project


Sustained participation

  • Make sure your project is well organised with regular communication and volunteers

  • Provide volunteers with feedback to let them know their time is well spent

  • Try to understand how your participants' motivations change over time

  • Refine the project if possible to meet changing motivations or provide alternative tasks for participants

  • Provide opportunities for participants to interact with each other

  • Consider rewarding participants

  • Talk to participants to find out if they want to change role e.g. due to available time or skills


End of participation

Allow participants to give feedback and learn from this, including with peers


Bibliography

Dyke, A., Pateman, R., & West, S., (2016), Understanding Motivations for Citizen Science, Geoghegan, The UK Environmental Observation Framework, H. University of Reading, , Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, Everett, G. University of the West of England.


Lagan, S., Sardo, M., Bracke, A., Franchois, E., Maccanni, G., (2021). Citizen science on urban mobility. A practitioner’s guide to evaluation, engagement and policy change. WeCount. (https://zenodo.org/record/5742726#.YgJn0-pKhPZ).


Penner, L.A., (2002), Dispositional and organizational influences on sustained volunteerism: An interactionist perspective. Journal of Social Issues, 58(3): 447–67. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.00270.


West, S and Pateman, R., (2016), Recruiting and Retaining Participants in Citizen Science: What Can Be Learned from the Volunteering Literature? Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 1(2): 15, pp. 1–10, DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.8


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