“Every research project improves if you add some citizen science”

That’s how you cleverly link citizens to science

More and more often Utrecht University researchers experiment with citizen science, research that involves collaboration with citizens. For instance, by having them collect data. PhD candidate Fleur Froeling went one step further: she asked Dutch people which subject they would like to research scientifically, and involved a group of citizens in every step of the process.

What effects does smoke from wood-burning stoves have on the health of Dutch people? That is the question that Fleur Froeling from the Institute for Risk Assessment Services (IRAS) tried to answer in her PhD research project. The special thing about her study is that she not only carried it out with fellow-researchers; also volunteers played a decisive part.

Doing research in this way is called citizen science. A well-known example is the Dutch National Bird Count, an annual study in which the Dutch participate by counting birds in their gardens during three days and pass on the results through a webapp after which the researchers process this data.

Fleur Froeling and her colleagues took citizen science to the next level - an explicit goal of this research even (see framework). “We wanted to involve citizens in each step of the research process. As scientists we never made decisions on our own. At each step others put in their thoughts, the volunteers were really joint-owners of the project. We call that ‘co-created citizen science’."

Fleur Froeling showing the map of IJburg in Amsterdam, one of the research places (photo by Laura Hompus, Pixels en Passie)
Fleur Froeling showing the map of IJburg in Amsterdam, one of the research places (photo by Laura Hompus, Pixels en Passie)

Concerns about fumes from wood-burning stoves

Fleur Froeling and her fellow-researchers wanted to involve citizens already at the very beginning: formulating the research question. “Via social media, radio broadcasts, flyers and posters I asked the Dutch population which environmental-related question caused them to worry. I received over 130 responses. By far the most questions were about fumes from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.”

Fleur Froeling and her colleagues began their research in the Amsterdam new housing estate IJburg. ‘Many people living there are environmentally-aware. Seen from that perspective they burn wood to heat their homes.

At the same time there are many inhabitants suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma, and COPD. Because of their health they have moved to this place which was recommended as a healthy living environment.”

Sometimes the two groups of inhabitants clashed, the researcher continues. “The question that arose from a part of the local residents was: if you are walking around the neighbourhood and you smell “woodsmoke”, can you measure a peak of related substances in the air? In addition, the citizens wanted to know what effects wood fumes have on their health. This applied to both people with COPD or asthma and healthy people.”

Expensive measurements

In order to set up the research, Fleur Froeling organised meetings for inhabitants. “Every step we have thought up together: from the question which measuring equipment we were going to use and the frequency of the measurements to the process of medical-ethical approval. That’s how we came up with a plan in a number of sessions.”

Substantive contributions from the citizens were also a decisive factor, says the researcher. “People wanted us to measure a substance that is only released when burning wood: levoglucosan. Many other researches into fumes from wood-burning stoves only measure generic substances, for instance ultrafine dust that is also coming from cars or from restaurant kitchens. Who complains about fumes is often told that the complaints could also have other causes. The people were fed up with this discussion. So, although it is a lot more expensive to measure levoglucosan we still decided to focus on this substance.”

People really felt it was their project and wanted this way of doing research to be successful

Citizen science 2.0

Fleur Froeling’s PhD research project is part of the European research project Cities Health. This project consisted of five researches throughout Europe in which scientists and citizens worked together. All studies dealt with the way in which the health of people is affected by their everyday surroundings. Just as at Fleur Froeling’s project, citizens decided on the subjects and shared their thoughts on the approach. So in other words: a kind of citizen science 2.0!

Very motivated participants

Finally, the research team carried out a panel survey in four places in the Netherlands: besides IJburg also in Zutphen, Bergen (North-Holland) and De Meern. Citizens helped to recruit participants. “Neighbours informed each other, flyers and posters were distributed, and I was added to WhatsApp groups to tell more about the study. In short: people really felt it was their project and wanted this way of doing research to be successful.”

That last thing is a great advantage of this citizen science approach, emphasizes Fleur Froeling. “It is often difficult to recruit people for a study that asks a lot from them for months on end. I asked quite a lot from my participants: for three months they had to keep a diary, they had to measure their lung function twice a day and once a week they collected their saliva in the morning and in the evening. But because we involved them in this manner, people were very motivated. Almost everyone remained a loyal participant up to the end.”

New insights

Fleur Froeling shows how they operated during the research (photo by Laura Hompus, Pixels en Passie)
Fleur Froeling shows how they operated during the research (photo by Laura Hompus, Pixels en Passie)

Research becoming a lot more relevant and accessible is another merit of citizen science. Fleur Froeling: “People directly gain from the results and can apply them in everyday life. As a scientist, that makes you feel you are doing something useful.’

Moreover, citizens are an enormous source of knowledge, she emphasizes. “Before, I had never thought about the ins and outs of wood fumes. Whereas the people sharing their thoughts had often occupied themselves with this theme for years and had read everything that was published on the subject. And they know the neighbourhood. I could simply ask for the most convenient spot for a measuring station instead of having to spend hours looking for one.”

Regularly the outside view shed a new light on the research. “My colleagues and I considered it a disadvantage that we only looked at the air quality in the neighbourhood as a whole. It was not feasible to measure the precise differences per house. However, the participants regarded this as a positive thing. “You have shown that wood fumes is a societal problem,’ they said. That also opens up options to raise the matter in political circles.”

Measurements showed that woodsmoke indeed has negative effects on the health of the local residents. “We noticed an increase in shortness of breath during restive periods and more medicine use, also in the case of healthy people. On the days that there was more levoglucosan in the air, they used more nose spray or throat drops for instance. On the days with less woodsmoke the complaints were non-existent. Not quite the news you want to hear of course, but it is a positive thing that we were able to show this scientifically.”

Define clear outlines about the possibilities and impossibilities of science.

Fleur Froeling

Challenges of citizen science

Of course this intensive way of citizen science has its challenges. It takes a lot of communication, for instance, observes Fleur Froeling. “Sometimes I had fifty emails in my inbox from participants on Monday morning, while in the following days I was on the road for fieldwork from early morning till late in the evening. It also takes up a lot of time to formulate good, substantive responses. As a scholar you do not always succeed in doing that yourself, because you also have to focus on the progress of the research. That’s why it should be useful to get help, for instance from a communications officer.”

Besides, you have to think really carefully about the ethical aspects. As a scientist you cannot participate in your own study. But in the case of the citizen science studies like the one done by Fleur Froeling, some citizens involved are also participants. `Such issues must be dealt with carefully. After some good thinking we formulated strict inclusion criteria, so that not everyone sharing their thoughts automatically became a participant.’”

If you involve citizens in science, your role as researcher changes, Fleur Froeling noticed. “Define clearly outlines about the possibilities and impossibilities of science. It also requires some expectation management. Some people were strongly convinced beforehand of the negative effects of woodsmoke. Then you are forced to say: please, be aware, it could be that this research does not produce results, or that the outcome might be different from what you are thinking.’

Fleur Froeling wearing the outfit to do the research on-site (photo by Laura Hompus, Pixels en Passie)
Fleur Froeling wearing the outfit to do the research on-site (photo by Laura Hompus, Pixels en Passie)

Sounding board

Can citizen science add value to each research project? Fleur Froeling thinks so. “I would like to tell colleagues: just try it. You don’t have to go as far as we did. You can also involve citizens in just one phase. Be it during the formulating the question, or setting up a sounding board. It helped me enormously that I could check assumptions on a regular basis. I asked participants if it could be done to do all kinds of measurements at home every day. People said: well, it is quite a lot actually, but I am willing to do it. And also: your respondents feel more committed in this way and will be prepared to stick it out.”

Meanwhile the research into woodsmoke has been finished. Fleur and her colleagues are now writing a scientific article about the conclusions, for which they have asked the help of citizens. “They helped us put the subject matter into understandable language. Love it!”

Help with citizen science

Researchers who just like Fleur Froeling like to get going with citizen science-methods can ask for help at the Centre for Science and Culture. They have the expertise in the field of citizen science. You can even ask for (extra) funding there. Research Data Management Support (RDM Support) offers researchers help and support in all questions about data, hardware and software needed for the research. The experts are happy to share their thoughts on how to handle privacy sensitive data or they can help you develop software for your research. Fleur Froeling: “The university makes all kinds of useful tools available that you can use as a researcher. Check them out before you begin your research!”