Where to start? Your Problem, Project and People

Where to start? Your Problem, Project and People
by Trinity College Dublin

Scoping the problem is the first step in developing a Citizen Science project. This step sets the foundations of all future planning and entails:

  • Developing a research case to be explored by the project
  • Defining why it is important and what are the project’s priorities
  • Starting to identify the key stakeholders and participants that you would like to engage with
  • Placing the project in the larger picture of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects, learning basic terminology used and exploring frameworks of existing projects
  • Planning the project in terms of tasks, workflows and resources

Considering all these different elements well ahead of your project planning will ensure that by the time of the launch, the project will have clear scope, target community, tasks and workflows, contributing to its success. Focusing more on the last element of project planning, it is advisable at this stage of planning to start considering issues such as:

→ ways to validate the information collected by project participants, to ensure data quality

→ your resources, in terms of funding, staffing, equipment, needs and scope, so that you are also aware of your limitations

→ the form of sharing you will use for your project’s results and outcomes

→ ways to surround your project with a motivated and engaged community


It may sound premature to start building a community of volunteers at this stage but it seems that this element is key to project’s success. According to the findings of a 2015 workshop, organised by Zooniverse, the best practices for engagement are: building your project to be appealing and volunteer-friendly / launching your project and recruiting volunteers / managing your project from post-launch to completion.

Case Study: Selecting Resources for a Crowdsourcing Project

Prof. Melissa Terras discusses the process of selecting resources for large-scale crowdsourcing projects, such as the Transcribe Bentham project.

To find out more about the Transcribe Bentham project, click here: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/

5 strategies to find your volunteers or get them engaged

Depending on the aim, scope and scale of Citizen Science projects, there are different strategies you can use to gather your team of non-expert contributors.

  1. Libraries, and other Cultural Heritage Institutions

    Projects with a regional studies focus, for instance local history explorations, contribution to regional bibliographies, georeferencing of regional maps etc., are often advertised in, hosted and coordinated by libraries. The professional staff of librarians and curators locate are instrumental in the identifying participants, supporting them with guidance and equipping them with the required resources.

Example: Citizen Science in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden https://www.slub-dresden.de/open-science/citizen-science/

Such calls for contribution to regional heritage projects can be amplified by local newspapers or news portals.

Example:  Europeana 1914-1918 collections  https://www.sonline.hu/kultura/hazai-kultura/elso-vilaghaborus-csaladi-emlekeket-var-a-magyar-nemzeti-leveltar-1197082/

  1. Communities of Practice

    It is also possible to start out from already established communities around a specific tools for community content curation. For instance, different stakeholders and contributors to annotation and transcription projects can find each other on the Transkribus tool’s platform: https://transkribus.eu/Transkribus/

  2. Social media

    Social media is probably the most flexible tool for finding volunteers to Citizen Science projects and maintaining a real-time dialogue with them. An advantage of platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit is that reach to a critical mass who are using these platform for their daily networking and content discovery is almost guaranteed.  If your own networks are not broad, you can ask cultural heritage or research institutions to help you broadcast your call for participation, or reserve a small budget to do targetted advertising.

Example:  Wikidata + GLAM open facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Wikidata.GLAM/about/

  1. The Citizen Science community

    To get the greatest visibility and discoverability for your project and receive professional support in project organization, advocacy, or even funding, you can register it on one of the global platforms dedicated to the growing popularity of Citizen Science, where people can discover, take part in, and fund research projects. These platforms support both community-led and scholar-led projects.


  1. Wikidata

    Wikidata is an increasingly important pool of resources for Citizen Science.  Operating on the basis of open community curation along global standards, it ensures good data quality and  increases the capabilities of both professional and citizen scientists and the capacities of their organisations to find and collaborate with each other in mutually beneficial ways.

Example: Cultural Heritage Wikidata Project  https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Wikidata:WikiProject_Cultural_heritage

Case Study: Recruitment and Outreach in the Transcribe Bentham project

Prof. Melissa Terras and Dr. Justin Tonra discuss the recruitment and outreach activities as part of the Transcribe Bentham project.

To find out more about the Transcribe Bentham project, click here: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/

Software for  citizen science projects

The tools you use to collect and manage your data will vary according to the size and complexity of what you collect, as well as where you collect it from and how you engage your citizen co-researchers.  In some cases, standard tools, such as an Access database or indeed an Excel spreadsheet may be enough to keep your data safe. If you are collecting more complex oral reports, you may use a generic qualitative analysis software tools such as MaxQDA, Atlas.ti or NVivo, or you may choose to prepare them as TEI files.

There are some software choices that are more common or specially optimised for citizen science, however.  As has been mentioned above, for some projects and approaches, hosting a common platform, such as Zooniverse, may be a very good choice.  Although the functionality of their workflows may be limited in some ways, having a platform that requires no technical expertise to use will be of great benefit to some projects.

Where there are specific requirements in the project and technical expertise available, it may be useful to look for other projects that have met similar challenges, as their code may be available for reuse.  For example, the Transcribe Bentham project’s “Transcription Desk’ (itself based on the MediaWiki platform) is openly available for reuse and adaptation on GitHub.

Somewhere between these two poles, you may find that what you really want is an easy-to-use solution for presentation of objects and information from your project.  Omeka, for example, is a popular choice for creating virtual exhibitions.  Based on the WordPress platform, it treads the line between ease of set-up and flexibility to provide a popular solution for crowdsourced projects.