**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

“Citizen science comes in all shapes and sizes”. That’s a phrase that has become a mantra within the California Citizen Science Initiative. We’ve documented those shapes and sizes as part of our research, but what does that diversity really mean? During our recent workshop with program leaders from many of the Central Coast citizen science groups, we posed this question in the form of a break-time activity. photos by Jim Wicker

The question: Which program attributes work best for informing policy?

The activity: We wrote examples of program structures (small volunteer base, app-based, relatively new, etc.) on sticky notes ahead of time, and provided a few extra blanks for things we hadn’t thought of. Participants could add a sticky to posters hanging around the room, each with a heading on a spectrum from ‘hugely helpful’ to ‘hugely hindering’. They also had the option to move someone else’s sticky if they disagreed. At the end of 30 minutes, we immortalized the posters in photographic form.

While the activity is designed to foster some discussion and movement toward consensus, there is also plenty of space for disagreement. Each structure type had three sticky notes so that multiple opinions could be represented. However, the limited number of stickies encouraged people to prioritize both what is most important (not all the stickies got used) and generalize thinking outside the experiences of one programmatic context. Here’s some (literal) snapshots of the results.


hugely hindering: nothing

moderately challenging:

  • created by citizens
  • small volunteer base (<30) x2
  • government agency based
  • program new (<2 years)

neither helps nor hurts:

  • school-age volunteers x2
  • paper data sheets (can be both depending on the situation) x2
  • program new (<2 years) x2
  • paper data sheets
  • independent organization

moderately helpful:

  • independent organization
  • independent data collection
  • government agency-based
  • small volunteer base (<30)
  • expert volunteers only x3
  • app-based platform
  • university based

hugely helpful:

  • group-based data collection x3
  • created by scientist x3
  • app-based platform
  • large volunteer base (100+) x3
  • university-based x3
  • program history long (>10 years) x3
  • created by citizens

One thing you might notice is that we seem to have had plenty of optimists in the room. Most people placed their sticky in the neutral to helpful categories, with by far the most structures deemed ‘hugely helpful’. This may be a product of selection bias – that programs with experiences in the ‘hugely hindering’ category are no longer around to tell their stories. At the same time, this optimism may reflect the fact that carefully choosing organizational structure can really help. Maybe it’s easier to draw a line of causation between a program attribute and a positive outcome than to a negative one. The activity suggests that citizen science programs should carefully think about what form they take and best fit attributes to their end goals.

While there are a few attributes unanimously placed in the ‘hugely helpful’ category (group-based data collection, created by a scientist, large volunteer base, university-based, and long program history), there are others that fell into both the challenging and helpful sides of the spectrum. All of those in the ‘moderately challenging’ category could also be found on the helpful side. This suggests that while these agreed-upon attributes might be considered best practice, others should be carefully considered in a particular context.

But since we opened this in a vein of collaboratively answering this question, what do you think? If you participated, why did you place your sticky where you did?