Citizen Science. How awesome is that?

The Netherlands’ National Bee Count, CoronaWatchNL and ‘Yes, I do’: a digitisation project about Amsterdam premarriage records. These are just a few research projects in which citizens are actively engaged. At the request of Peter Lugtig, Master’s student Annemarie Timmers made an overview of all these citizen science projects in the Netherlands: Awesome Citizen Science. RDM Support staff built a GitHub environment containing the list of these projects. But why did Peter Lugtig ask for this list?

Annemarie Timmers follows the Master’s degree programme Methodology and Statistics for the Behavioural, Biomedical and Social Sciences at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. “After one of his lectures, Peter Lugtig asked me if I wanted to work for him. I really enjoyed my study programme, so I told him ‘yes’ without thinking twice”, says Annemarie laughingly. “Numbers just make me very happy. One of the first things I did as a student assistant was to draw up a list with all citizen science projects in the Netherlands.” This list has been published by now.

Numbers just make me very happy.

Get going

“In order to make the list, I first searched Google. The more you read, the more familiar you become with the terminology. When no new search results came up, I added place names to certain search terms. Or I had a look at other universities. For instance Wageningen University runs seven citizen science projects, conveniently arranged on a single webpage. There are more websites like this. Or a website which lists counting events throughout the year, such as the Nationale Vogeltelling (‘National Bird Count’). Vele Handen (‘Many Hands’) is a website with a lot of information. It is about archives. In addition I have compared different news articles, because it was not always clear when a project had started.”

Annemarie created the overview of the projects, the dataset. ‘The set consists of an Excel spreadsheet containing all names, a description, the participating organisations, how long the project has been running, what websites give the most information, where the data can be found on the site and if scraping is possible, if at all. Because a lot of information cannot be downloaded.”

“I think it is special that there are so many projects in which researchers ask people to participate and that there are so many citizens contributing to research projects. There are really cool projects out there. One is about archaeology. People study elevation maps and indicate on the maps the best digs for archaeologists. When they have gone through all the maps, they may join excursions. As a kind of reward for all their work. There are also projects, especially for children, who are thinking of becoming archaeologists. They have combed through the elevation maps of the Dutch regions Utrechtse Heuvelrug and the Veluwe.”

Peter Lugtig en Annemarie Timmers van de Universiteit Utrecht op Utrecht CS

The research behind the research

But what is the reason behind this research? Why did Peter Lugtig want this inventory made? Peter Lugtig: “There is a large project called ODISSEI. Its aim is to improve the infrastructure for the social sciences. Think of matters such as accessible data, good documentation and a better data exchange between researchers. Concrete projects become a part of this. One of these projects is Awesome Citizen Science. In the long run, we want to create a better infrastructure for all these citizen science projects. We have done this research to find out: what citizen projects are there? Who are the people behind these projects? In what kind of collaborations did they work together? The projects differ to a large extent, so there is not a single infrastructure solution that would work for all these projects. However, what we can do is share our experiences in setting up such research. Infrastructure and measurement devices are certainly a part of that. The overall goal of this research is that we want to make substantial improvements to this process.”

“Together with the people from ODISSEI I want to find out if the data that people collect as part of these citizen science projects can be better linked to the data of the Central Bureau of Statistics. Spatial data are often collected in citizen science projects. A very popular one is the annual bird count. It makes a huge difference where the counting is done and what kind of garden you have. These participants are already interested in the bird population and have a love for nature. They live in relatively green surroundings, but not in the countryside. The birds being counted are mostly birds living in cities. If you know how to put these data in a spatial perspective, you are better able to specify it.”

Peter Lugtig chose to make an inventory of citizen science projects, because there are many developments in this field and a lack of infrastructure. “Citizen science projects are being carried out relatively ad hoc. In this way I can contribute to a better infrastructure, and so improve this kind of research projects.”

Anybody can add projects!

Peter Lugtig en Annemarie Timmers van de Universiteit Utrecht op Utrecht CS
Peter Lugtig and Annemarie Timmers of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences - photo by Annemiek van der Kuil |

Research engineers Jonathan de Bruijn and Leonardo Vida have set up the entire GitHub environment and organised the workflow for the Awesome Citizen Project. Peter Lugtig: “Our department of Methodology and Statistics is already collaborating with colleagues from Research IT. I really appreciated that they were not afraid to share their thoughts. They were quick in taking action.”

Annemarie continues: “I have tested the workflow by adding a new citizen science project to the GitHub environment. At the bottom of the page you will find a manual. So that means everybody can do it! Even when you are not familiar with GitHub it is very simple. That is also the idea behind it: that everyone can help in completing the overview by adding new projects. Working with GitHub has the advantage that it is based on open science, so it is very transparent. You have access to nearly all data and information. You can view the whole dataset I made on GitHub. You can download it if you want to. It is a fully open system. That is why it is reproducible. I had heard of open science and I have had lectures on the subject, but I had not worked with open science before. So by publishing your dataset and by making your code publicly available you show that you are open about your research. I am convinced that this is the right way. I think that these initiatives strengthen people’s trust in academic research and lessen the divide between researchers and the ‘ordinary public”.

Do you participate in a citizen science project or are you a researcher using this method? And is this research not part of this overview? Add it here!