Floracaching: My Dissertation Research
Citizen science is a type of crowdsourcing where public volunteers participate in scientific research. Drawing on the efforts of volunteers allows scientists to gather larger and more diverse data than would otherwise be feasible. Participants reap benefits including personal enjoyment, increased knowledge of a topic and of the scientific method, and involvement with a local community . Historically, technology has played a limited role in citizen science. One review of 340 projects found that only 39 (11%) provided volunteers with a mobile application to facilitate data collection in the field . This trend is reversing as projects incorporate mobile applications to enhance data collection, visualization tools to facilitate analysis, and algorithms to support quality control.
Researchers have also noted, “the salience of intrinsic motives stresses the need to develop game-like contribution channels” . Gamification, or the use of motivational elements of game design in non-game contexts, is thus a key potential area where technology can support citizen science activities. My research centers on the design and development of Floracaching, a gamified citizen science application that collects plant phenology data for Project Budburst. I ask the following overarching research questions: What motivates the different user groups of a gamified citizen science application? Specifically, how do the motivations of traditional citizen science volunteers differ from the motivations of new audiences such as millennial college students? And how can a gamified citizen science application be designed to appeal to multiple user groups?
These are addressed through the iterative process of designing, implementing, and evaluating the Floracaching app. We began designing Floracaching with PLACE, an iterative co-design approach to prototyping location, activities, and collective experience over time . So far, we’ve learned that people who would engage with a gamified citizen science app would, in fact, do so for different reasons than people who would participate in more traditional projects . While our earlier work drew largely on data collected from surveys, interviews, and focus groups, future efforts will include experimental interventions in the form of quests designed to evoke different motivations such as socialization, the desire to explore a local community, and the desire to advance scientific research.
Data collected through Floracaching includes GPS location, time stamp, and an optional photograph. As such, scientific data shared by volunteers can also include information about volunteers themselves, such as location trace data that documents sensitive information like personal habits . As many citizen science projects (including Project Budburst) make at least some data publically available, protecting user privacy—through policies and/or technological solutions—is a key concern .
Gamification raises additional considerations. Scientists worry that gamification could be detrimental to data quality if users try to “game the system” for personal benefit. Critics of gamification characterize it as a crass marketing tool that manipulates users without their knowledge , so establishing the benefits for users of a gamified app is a key concern—especially given citizen science’s emphasis on the dual benefit for scientists and volunteers.
A full chapter of my dissertation will be devoted to discussing ethical considerations relating to designing a gamified mobile application for citizen science.
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Biotracker is a collection of research projects that combine computer vision, mobile phone technology, and the motivational affordances of games to support citizen science. My research with Biotracker involves the design and implementation of Floracaching, a gamified data collection platform developed in collaboration with researchers at Projects Budburst.