During problem framing, projects define and refine what they want to do, and why. They outline the problem they want to solve, narrow it down to a specific aspect they want to address, gather background information on that issue to enable their project, and create a plan for what they want to do and achieve. They also explore whom they need to engage, both as citizen scientists, and as external stakeholders. At the end of this phase, projects should have a clear plan for the research that will be carried out, and the goals they want to achieve.

There’s three steps to cover in this phase:

  • Defining the topic
  • Gathering background information
  • Narrowing the topic

At first glance these may make the impression of being sequential, but they are actually rather iterative: Defining the overall topic should be treated as a starting point, as everything else will flow from this initial spark. But then, gathering background information and narrowing the topic can go hand-in-hand. Background and contextual information is required in order to narrow the topic, and narrowing it down to a more specific area or question will trigger the need for more background information. On the other hand, the background may already be well-understood in the project team, and narrowing the topic may not be necessary at all, if it is already very specific from the start. 

It is also useful to explore the landscape of citizen science, as well as the issue at hand, in the areas. Maybe there are other citizen science projects or communities already working on a similar issue, or scientists at the local university or councillors interested in the issue already. There might be businesses or (non-governmental) organisations already addressing the problem, who could be powerful allies. The stakeholder mapping tools we provide below can help to do this.

Commonly, the different categories of projects are started by different kinds of people. However, this is just a guide to help you understand where your project might sit, and what other stakeholders you may want to consider:

  • In Action projects, citizens typically frame the problem, because they want to address it locally. For example, WOWNature investigates air pollution in the Po valley.
  • Conservation projects are typically initiated by policy-makers or public institutions. For example, the Dutch government funds the conservation efforts of ACTION partner De Vlinderstichting.
  • In Investigation projects, the problem is typically framed by researchers or NGOs with a specific expertise in the relevant area. For example, AZOTEA was developed by researchers at UCM to monitor light pollution during the COVID-19 lockdown.
  • In Education projects, educators use a learning outcome they want to achieve to identify a problem that can be used to explain it. For example, to teach students about the scientific process, Students, air pollution and DIY sensing teaches students how to build and use air pollution sensors.
  • In Virtual projects experts frame the problem simultaneously with the design of a platform to address it. For example, Restart data workbench develops an online platform to allow citizens to analyse their repair data.

Regardless of who starts a project, at the end of the problem framing phase everyone with an interest or influence on the topic should be involved in some form. 

For example, a group of citizens may want to improve air quality in their neighbourhood. From that shared issue, they decide to take action and do something about it. With that decision made, the issue becomes a project, and the citizens will need to look into the background to the problem: How is air pollution defined, how is it measured, what does their city already do in this regard? This, in turn, will allow them to narrow their focus, such as to measure a specific type of pollutant, or to influence a policy decision by their local council. That, in turn, may lead them to investigate which sensors might be useful to deploy, or exactly how the decision they are seeking to influence is made, and what options they have to engage with councillors. 

On the other hand, a project could start with a researcher who has an interest in the effects of air pollution on health. They might then decide to engage citizens to measure air quality in different locations across the country, and map this data to health issues reported in that area. A researcher will likely already have some background knowledge in their respective field, and thus will focus on the specifics of the project, such as which locations would be best, or how to motivate citizen scientists to work with them. 

Regardless of the project type, at the end of the problem framing phase, the project initiator(s) should have a clear view of what they want to achieve broadly (e.g. convince policy makers to address the issue of air pollution in the neighbourhood) and specifically (e.g. collect evidence for air pollution with a number of sensors located at citizen scientists’ homes for several months), and why this is important. Goals and scope of the project should be clearly documented before moving on to the implementation phase.

Stakeholders in Citizen Science

The people with an influence on or an interest in the project are collectively termed the project’s stakeholders. There are six main stakeholder groups involved in citizen science (Göbel et al., 2017): 

  • Academia and research organisations
  • Individual volunteers 
  • Government agencies or departments
  • Informal groups / community members
  • Educational institutions
  • Businesses and industry may have a stake in these projects, for example as providers of sensors or expertise, or as polluters in the area

In the first example, above, the citizens are the project’s initiators, and they design the projects’ delivery. The local council, as policy makers, may also be stakeholders because the results of the study could influence policy decisions. Other stakeholders include citizen scientists that the project initiators recruit, who may be brought on board to consult on the design of the experiment, as data gatherers or data analysers. The project may also involve open source hardware designers as stakeholders who advise on the use and distribution of sensors.

In the second example, the researchers – who have an existing expertise in the research area – initiate the project and recruit citizens – who may or may not be affected by the problem that they are studying – to become citizen scientists. While definitions vary widely, in these examples citizen scientists can be considered to be those working on the project outside of their professional environment, whereas researchers are understood to be working somewhat within their professional environment. Other stakeholders could be policy makers – those who engage with the project as someone able to influence policy or legislation, citizens – members of the community or members of the public who are not engaging with the project directly, and participants – those who are engaging with the project in a less active way than citizen scientists. 

While professional researchers do not have to be the initiators of citizen science projects, it is recommended that projects involve a scientifically trained advisor, in order to ensure a genuine science outcome.

It is important to understand who the relevant stakeholders are to maximise chances of a citizen science projects’ success (Skarlatidou et al., 2019). It is also important to remember that any single person can represent multiple stakeholder groups at once, by being, for example, a policymaker and a participant, and that each person and stakeholder group can fulfill different project roles at different times in the project.


Stakeholder mapping

Stakeholder mapping is more commonly done in the context of business and innovation, but can be crucial to explore the environment and community around citizen science projects as well. Mindtools offers a template and process that can be used for citizen science projects, too.

Assessment and Support template

What are the underlying values that motivate you to start a citizen science project? This document has been designed to help carry out a structured analysis of values by citizen science project leaders and designers. Initially working on a values matrix, this worksheet helps map these onto project objectives, and aids decision making to steer the direction of the project. This tool is developed for use within the ACTION Accelerator, but can also be used by project leaders and team members without on their own.


Guiding questions

In defining and framing the problem, projects should consider the following questions:

  • What is the issue at the heart of the project? Why should people care about it?
  • Is the project timely? Has the issue been addressed before, and if so, why is now a good time to do so again?
  • Who are the relevant stakeholders? Who would have an interest in this issue, and why? Who will be impacted if the project finds a solution to the problem?
  • What are the geographic boundaries of the issue / the project? A problem such as air pollution can be global but be addressed locally, or on a wider scale. The intended scale has implications for the design of the project.
  • What is the timeframe of the project; is there a set deadline, or is it going to be a continuous effort?

Ways to collect background information

Your local library can be a fantastic resource that holds a wealth of information on a variety of topics. You can use their local or online catalogues to find relevant books and articles, or even policy reports. Librarians will be happy to help you get started using their systems.

Online platforms, such as Google Scholar or Researchgate, allow you to search for research publications in a specific area, and often provide access to the research output, or contact to the authors. Most researchers will be happy to send you a copy of their publications.



Astronomers at Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) wanted to know what impact the lockdown in March 2020 would have on light pollution in Madrid. As they were already experts in the field, and running other citizen science projects on light pollution (such as Street Spectra), they developed a framework for a citizen science project based on this question. They reached out to the local astronomy club, and brought a number of volunteer amateur astronomers on board to help them collect images of the night sky throughout the lockdown.

Noise Maps

A local community group wanted to explore the sonic heritage of their neighbourhoods in Barcelona and collect evidence for policy makers to tackle the growing noise pollution in the area, and approached the Barcelona Citizen Science Office, who put them in touch with NGO BitLab. BitLab had already worked on a similar project, and had a working relationship with experts from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. The NGO and community members co-developed the idea of Noise Maps, which would see audio sensors installed in those neighbourhoods to collect sound samples.

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