ACTION (Participatory science toolkit against pollution) is a three year programme dedicated to transforming  the way citizen science (CS) is conducted today: from a mostly scientist-led process to a more participatory, inclusive, citizen-led one, which acknowledges the diversity of the CS landscape and of the challenges CS teams have to meet as their projects evolve.

ACTION applies a citizen science approach to tackling environmental pollution: One of the greatest threats to human health and wellbeing of our times, killing more people than smoking, hunger, natural disasters, war and infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and coronavirus. The research ACTION conducts accounts for the multitude of variations in CS,  addressing everything from small-scale, localised social issues to international research agendas. ACTION learns about the needs of different stakeholders throughout the lifecycle of CS, and creates methodologies, tools and guidelines to democratise the scientific process, allowing anyone to design and realise a CS project from the early stages of ideation to validating and publishing the results. All ACTION’s outputs – the infrastructure, the citizen science platform and this toolkit – are openly available. The digital infrastructure ACTION provides helps citizen scientists, to use existing specialised platforms and publish results according to responsible research and innovation principles.

ACTION takes an inclusive view on citizen science, broadly following the Green Paper on Citizen Science for Europe from January 2014, which defines it as: “general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources”. The term covers a range of activities with different levels of participation, from data collection in projects led by trained scientists to co-designing research questions and policy to education and public engagement. While inclusive, various types of relevant activities are not citizen science. For example, it is important that there is a scientific question and methodology, and that the activities are carried out by participating citizens. Citizen engagement is inherent to the CS project and their goals.

ACTION works with a cohort of 16 on-the-ground citizen science pilots tackling major forms of pollution. Some pilots were selected through an open call mechanism, allowing them to receive funding and support they might otherwise be unable to access. All pilots are part of the ACTION accelerator, which provides the support and guidance that the projects need to grow and become more sustainable. The pilots in turn help ACTION to understand different aspects of CS, co-create resources, and also act as case studies throughout this toolkit, illustrating different processes and considerations in the participatory science lifecycle. A complete list of the pilots is provided at the end of this document.


About the ACTION toolkit

The ACTION toolkit is the ultimate resource collection for everyone interested in doing citizen science the ACTION-way. The focus is on CS against environmental pollution, but other types of projects may benefit from it, too. The toolkit draws on the expertise in pollution, citizen science, participatory design, social innovation, socio-economic studies, open science, social computing, open data and software development in the ACTION team, to ensure it suits the requirements of citizen science projects, addressing the practical problems that they face throughout the different stages of each project.
The participatory science lifecycle (image below) was developed by the ACTION team to summarise and visualise the flow of CS project activities. Not all CS projects will follow the same structure: They may take the same steps in a different order, do multiple at the same time, or skip some of them altogether. The lifecycle acts as a guideline to show what activities could happen in CS projects.

Figure 1: The Participatory Science Lifecycle

Following the participatory science lifecycle, the toolkit offers guidance and resources for a wide range of citizen science elements:

  • online and offline activities conducted in the planning and execution of CS projects, both by project organisers and citizen scientists;
  • various and evolving goals and scopes of CS projects, which develop over the course of a project, and shift with new insights;
  • different stages of project development, from early ideas to initiatives that have resulted in scientific publications and other forms of impacts.

We hope it will help citizen scientists plan, create, improve, and maximize the impact of their projects.

The toolkit cannot and does not want to be exhaustive. It is based on the collective experience and expertise in the ACTION accelerator, as well as the wider citizen science community. It includes tools and resources developed by ACTION, as well as others that we have found useful in practice. We will keep adding to it for the lifetime of the ACTION project, and beyond.

Who is the toolkit for?

The toolkit is meant for pollution-focused citizen science projects of all kinds, and everyone who wishes to apply citizen science methods. While some of the aspects we discuss in it may be less relevant for non-pollution focused projects, such projects may still benefit from the insights and tools provided. The toolkit is written for citizen volunteers, local communities interested in starting a citizen science project, researchers wishing to engage with citizens in their work, public authorities interacting with citizens or working on policies where citizen science insights are relevant.

Different types of projects will need different types of resources to enable them. For this toolkit, we will distinguish five types of citizen science projects, broadly following the typology by Wiggins & Crowston (2011):

  • Action projects: These projects support local activism with environmental and/or policy goals. They are often formed bottom-up and conducted locally. They may be hard to scale to larger areas or participant numbers, but rarely need to scale at all; they may be replicated in other localities instead. For example, ACTION pilot WOWNature plants trees and sensors to assess how these improve the local air quality.
  • Conservation projects: These projects support the long-term management of natural resources, and may have an additional educational purpose. They are often run by public institutions, with data used to make or support policy decisions. They are place-bound, but the region they cover can be very large. For example, ACTION pilot De Vlinderstichting counts butterflies and dragonflies in the whole of the Netherlands, to monitor populations and inform environmental and other policy decisions.
  • Investigation projects: These projects support scientific research, and often include a strong educational purpose. They are often run across a wide geographical spread with large numbers of volunteers, supported by technology. For example, ACTION pilot Street Spectra collects data on street lighting that participants can collect and submit using their mobile phone. The data is made available in a public database, and will allow scientists to study the effects of LED streetlights on light pollution.
  • Education projects: These projects’ primary goal is to educate, and provide formal or informal learning while engaging in research tasks. They do often but not exclusively address young audiences. For example, ACTION pilot Students, air pollution and DIY sensing works with students who run their own research projects using air quality sensors, educating them about scientific methods and air pollution.
  • Virtual projects: These are large-scale projects that function totally independent of physicality;  they may share characteristics and goals with any of the other categories. Participants engage on online platforms, where task and platform design are selected to maintain interest and engagement., e.g. through gamification. For example, ACTION pilot Restart data workbench ​uses an online platform to analyse data collected by their repair workshops, to draw conclusions about their environmental impact.

While many different frameworks for citizen science exist (Schrögel & Kolleck, 2019), distinguishing projects by how they engage citizens, or how they are organised, we felt that a structure based on the goals and practical activities the projects conduct is most suitable to ACTIONs goal of inclusivity in CS. However, as no typology can be a perfect fit for all possible types of projects, we will deviate from the structure and add to it where necessary. We will use this typology to structure the toolkit, and help readers position themselves in the context of the tools and case studies we discuss. We will come back to the categories as we guide you through the participatory life cycle, and point out which types of resources may be more or less useful for different types of projects.

Users of the toolkit should consider which of the aspects they share with these categories, and note that this may be multiple. Case studies provided throughout the toolkit will be more or less relevant based on these characteristics. The ACTION pilots can broadly be categorised like this:

Project type ACTION pilots
Action In my backyard, WOWNature, Citicomplastic
Conservation Dragonflies and pesticides, Noise Maps, Tatort Streetlight, Walk Up Aniene
Investigation AZOTEA, Loss of the Night, Sonic Kayaks, Street Spectra
Education Students, air pollution and DIY sensing, Water Sentinels
Virtual Mapping Mobility, Open Soil Atlas, Restart data workbench

How to use the toolkit?

The toolkit follows the participatory science lifecycle. The lifecycle helps to orient your project through four stages: problem framing, research implementation, impact and sustainability, and policy impact, which each include a number of steps that projects can take. The framework aims to provide guidance on what a CS project could do, and a potential order of things; it helps to break down the steps, and provides a structure that is broadly applicable to all participatory science endeavours. Both the stages and the individual steps will look different for each project, and the persons and groups involved in each of the phases may differ.

While the layout of the lifecycle may suggest a neat sequence, in practice projects will find that there are feedback loops and iterations, and that some steps will have to be taken multiple times, while others can be skipped altogether.  Looking at the lifecycle as a tool in its own right will help projects understand what they will have to do and consider in the future, thus supporting their awareness and planning in earlier stages. For example, considering routes to impact and sustainability while framing the problem will help projects achieve their goals and plan for success.

The objective of the first stage, problem framing, is to define and gather background information on the problem at hand, as well as engage relevant stakeholders. This will be most relevant for local communities, citizen scientists or others looking to start a citizen science project, such as civil servants or scientists looking for ways to engage citizens. In this phase, the whole project lifecycle should be considered, to set appropriate goals for the project, such as what impact it aims to achieve, how it is going to be maintained and financed, etc. At the end of this phase, projects should have a clear plan for the research that will be carried out.

In the second stage, research implementation, the citizen science project is implemented. This encompasses three phases:

During the design phase, projects create their research question, define their methodology, and select or develop appropriate data gathering instruments. For example, Citicomplastic decided about the types of composters they would test to try and compost bioplastics.

In the data phase, projects acquire, curate, process, analyse and interpret their data. For example, ACTION pilot Noise Maps placed audio sensors in different parts of Barcelona, and refined the locations after finding that they had to be installed at ground floor level to yield usable data.

In the results phase, projects summarise, publish and disseminate their findings for different stakeholder groups, and assess their impact on both the issues they are trying to address, and society, including their own participants. For example, several ACTION pilots presented their findings at Ars Electronica in September 2020.

Citizen engagement, while often focused in the research implementation phase, should ideally happen throughout the phases of the lifecycle.

In the third stage, impact and sustainability, projects find and use routes for policy agenda setting, and achieve sustainability of their community and data, as well as finances.

In the last stage, policy impact, projects use their work to help formulate policies, influence decision-making, and the implementation of policies.

The toolkit offers an introductory overview and guidance, a selection of tools, guidelines and recommendations, activities and case studies for each phase, to help CS projects understand and replicate best practice.

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