About SciStarter’s “Participant API,” used by 50+ citizen science projects (and counting)

By Darlene Cavalier | February 12, 2019 3:45 pm

I thought it would be helpful to provide a description of what SciStarter’s Participant API is and why a growing number of projects and platforms are implementing it and becoming SciStarter Affiliates in the process.

A little background. SciStarter had been “merely” a database where project scientists would add their projects and citizen scientists would find projects. As PBS, Discover, NSTA and others started embedding our Project Finder, more and more people were able to discover and engage in citizen science. As a research platform, one that imports and exports records with the GAO’s Federal Inventory of Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing database ( citizenscience.gov) and others, SciStarter is a useful tool to understand the landscape of projects and have a basic understanding of what projects people are viewing, saving, and clicking to join. But once someone clicked on a project and left our site, we had no idea of whether or not they actually engaged in the project.

Through National Science Foundation-funded research, we spent a lot of time interviewing citizen scientists and project leaders and we learned that people engage in multiple projects at any given time. We also discovered growing interest among: 1) citizen scientists who wanted to track their contributions across all their projects; 2) higher ed institutions (including Arizona State University, where I work) who wanted to translate that collective evidence into some form of accreditation; 3) classrooms and organizations (including the Girl Scouts of USA) who wanted to provide curated projects to their students/members *and* have evidence of engagement across those projects; and 4) researchers and practitioners who wanted to study the movement, barriers, and outcomes of citizen science across the landscape (this is typically analyzed in silos within a single project or platform).

All of these would depend on our ability to know whether someone participated in a project, which project, and how frequently.

scistarter-affiliate

To this end, the National Science Foundation provided support for SciStarter, in collaboration with ASU and NC State University, to create digital tools (we call them ” SciStarter Affiliate Tools”) that center around a “Participant API”. More than 60+ projects and platforms now use the affiliate tools to record and share “events” from their website and app and transmit the reports to SciStarter.

The “event” is a contribution. This might be an observation shared through the app or website, or it might be an online classification, depending on the project. For apps that have multiple projects or protocols, each event report includes the project or protocol ID. This does not interrupt the user’s experience. This information only takes into account SciStarter users.  The API uses safe, encrypted methods so the project can easily check to see if a citizen scientist who is contributing to their project is a SciStarter user. We don’t see or save emails, nor do the projects using the API.  We adhere to the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws. We are transparent on our end and we ask projects to include a visible confirmation message for anyone coming from SciStarter. We clarify this process on a stand-alone cookies page, and, if someone requests that we remove their SciStarter profile, we delete all historic data as well.

This enables projects that use the API to understand what other projects their anonymized participants (from SciStarter) view, save, join and contribute to, in addition to their project. This enables citizen scientists to have evidence of their contributions across projects and platforms. This enables teachers, scout leaders, and other facilitators to support their members’ progress and have evidence of participation (including the frequency of participation).

By way of a few examples:Girl Scouts USA customized a portal on SciStarter and selected a handful of projects that fit their criteria for their Outdoor STEM badge: Think Like a Citizen Scientist. Troop leaders are directed to the portal on SciStarter where they view information on the curated projects. They select and assign projects to their troops. As the troops contribute to the projects–even if they contribute through apps or other websites–their contributions are credited in their dashboard and shared with their troop leader who can then award badges once the girls completed the assignment. Girl Scouts USA has an administrative level analytics dashboard on SciStarter so they can gain a better understanding of engagement, retention, attrition, and interest levels at the troop and council levels. They use this information to improve their Outdoor STEM badge programs.

Broward County School District in FL, NC State University, and a host of corporate volunteer programs customized similar portals on SciStarter and their communities reap the same benefits of easily discovering curated, vetted projects aligned with their interests and locations (including those that use the Participant API), and producing evidence of engagement across projects. This data is so valuable to project owners and organizational partners because it provides quantifiable analytics to help them understand the effectiveness of their program and to help them better understand and respond to the needs of their communities.

We are building something similar for the NOAA-funded project led by the Museum of Science (https://www.mos.org/press/pressreleases/Museum-of-Science-Awarded-NOAA-Grant )  to engage diverse groups of participants at 28 science centers around the United States in active learning and resilience planning around heat waves, sea level rise, extreme precipitation, and drought.  This project also hinges on the use of the affiliate tools so we can report out information on engagement levels and whether or not this approach leads to ongoing engagement in citizen science (and, if so, in what types of projects).

SciStarter and ASU (with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services) recently launched similar programs and portals with public libraries through the development of Citizen Science Kits for loan through libraries. We provide tools for projects that require or can be enhanced through the use of sensors or tools/instruments. The projects currently featured in the kits, use the Affiliate Tools.  The research centers around our ability to support libraries as community hubs for citizen science and the Participant API enables us to learn whether or not participants 1) engage in projects, 2) sustain engagement and, if so, in what types of projects.

NSF recently provided SciStarter additional support to host a SciStarter Affiliate Tools workshop at the Citizen Science Association conference on 3/12 in North Carolina. At the workshop, we will onboard dozens of additional projects to support their integration of the Participant API. (NSF Abstract #1845241 “Practitioner Workshop for Deploying SciStarter Affiliate Tools to Support Strategic STEM Learning”). 

Taken together, these efforts help scale participation, measure outcomes, and lay the groundwork for accreditation.

Are you a project leader or platform developer interested in becoming a SciStarter Affiliate? Are you an organization interested in customizing a portal on SciStarter to engage your community in curated projects and access critical analytics to understand engagement levels? Contact info@SciStarter.com to let us know.

Cheers!

Darlene Cavalier

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About Darlene Cavalier

Darlene Cavalier is the founder of SciStarter and the founder of Science Cheerleader (an organization of more than 300 current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are also scientists and engineers). Cavalier is a founding partner of ECAST (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology), currently engaged in a Cooperative Agreement with NASA, a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes, and a contributing editor at Discover Magazine.

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