By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

A School of Information Studies professor’s proposal for a project researching the structuring of tasks and the motivation of participants involved in citizen science projects has been recommended for three years of funding by the National Science Foundation.

Professor Kevin Crowston has received word that the grant proposal formulated for socio computing research is on track for funding, which permits planning to move ahead for a partnership with Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and the Universe Zoo citizen science project, he said.

“This will be a good opportunity to really try to nail down some of the things [everyone] thinks are happening” in the area of citizen science and human computing interaction,” he noted. “There are various ideas about what might make [citizen science] projects more interesting for people, but this hasn’t been rigorously tested. This will be a chance to test some of those aspects more rigorously,” he commented.

The Planetarium’s Universe Zoo citizen science project’s systems and methods for involving lay scientists will be examined in a number of ways under this research, Crowston said.  In the first year, records of existing citizen scientists will be reviewed to see who participates and what motivates citizens to do so. In years two and three, research will focus on adding experiments. These will be structured to assess what motivates participants and how to increase their potential to learn, add skills, and conduct increasingly more sophisticated tasks, Crowston said. The process will examine participant selection; matching of tasks to participant capabilities;  and structuring work to provide optimal learning opportunities while taking advantage of skill development achievements. The end goals of the research include boosting the scientific validity of outcomes and enriching and continuing motivational aspects for project volunteers, according to the professor.

The interest in citizen science participation derived from earlier work done at the School of Information Studies on open source software, and the basic similarity in those concepts, Crowston noted. Working with him will be iSchool Associate Professor Carson Østerlund, who has been in Denmark for the past two years, but who is returning to Syracuse in the fall.  Also on board are two doctoral students, Gabriel Mugar and Katie Hassman, according to Crowston.

The involvement in citizen science research with the Universe Zoo and the Adler Planetarium got its start with doctoral student Andrea Wiggins, Crowston said. Her research thesis studying different types of citizen science projects, and the topic of human-centered computing, formed connections to the Adler Planetarium, which grew from there. The Adler group had been interested in doing something to improve their system for some time, and the iSchool had been delving into the general topic of citizen science. That led to the idea to collaborate on a  socio-computation research project, Crowston said. 

“What’s different [from previous work] is that this will be based around experiments,” Crowston noted. “The thing which I think is interesting is that with the Internet, there has been this profusion of different kinds of projects that people get involved in. Some people say it’s like an industrial revolution, an entirely new way for organizing work. So having a better understanding of the conditions that make that work for people and make it interesting for people [to do] is going to be important,” he suggested. “Certainly we’re hoping it will teach us something about how people learn; [citizen science] really is training a workforce,” he added.

In addition to getting citizens to voluntarily do scientific work and finding ways to continue to motivate them, there are questions about whether volunteers can ramp up their skills “to begin to actually do more of the science and to be self-directed” in their efforts, the professor said. Questions regarding the reliability of data collected by laymen is another aspect for stud under the grant program.