Recently, someone asked us why we require a log-in before we send people off to other websites where they can get involved in a citizen science project. Although we haven’t heard this question from our community members, we thought we’d share our perspective with you. Perhaps you’ve wondered but never asked.
When we started SciStarter, then named Science For Citizens, we wanted to simply provide a database of curated, searchable citizen science projects. A simple aggregator would do (we thought!). Our goal was, and still is, to make it easier for people to learn about and get involved in citizen science projects. Back then, we didn’t require a log-in. If you found a project you liked, you’d click on a URL and you were sent directly to that project’s website.
We started to hear from visitors that they didn’t want us to point them away from the project database, never to be heard from again. And that’s exactly what would happen. Once they left, it wasn’t easy for them to find their way back to learn about different projects. They had a “one and done” experience which wasn’t helping anyone.
At the same time, we started hearing from project organizers that, while the field of citizen science appeared to be growing, recruiting and retaining participants was still a major uphill battle. Some of the more popular projects have their own communities to tap (particularly projects done exclusively online), but most new projects have to start from ground zero to develop new communities of participants.
Our long term vision is to create and support a large, shared, vibrant community to help match and recruit people for all types of citizen science projects. There’s no shortage of opportunities available but we need to be able to reach people in order to share these opportunities.
When we spiffed up SciStarter about 1.5 years ago we made an effort to quickly build and support a dedicated, engaged community by offering a free service for project organizers and potential participants. We still curate and aggregate projects but we do a lot more than that now. Through partnerships with the National Science Teachers Association, Discover Magazine, Public Library of Science, Instructables and others, we help researchers share their projects with audiences they might not otherwise reach while providing people a one-stop-shop for projects that suite them. Bringing this community together in one, shared space, helps the researchers and the participants.
To build a community, we implemented a log-in process requiring a user name, email and password OR a sign in via Facebook. During your first visit, before we direct you away from SciStarter to a project’s website, we ask you to log in. After you log in once, you can return to our site anytime in the future and be directly connected to project websites without logging in again, unless you opt to log out, of course.
We don’t “harvest” emails, sell or share your email address, etc. So what do we do with your email address? Well, once every couple of weeks, we email you with information about new projects we think you’d enjoy. That’s it. The log-in also enables us to begin to help you keep track of projects you are interested in or have contributed to, activities you’ve performed and accomplishments you’ve made. We have more plans to help make it easier for you to get involved in multiple projects, without signing into a bunch of different project websites to create a bunch of different user accounts. This will take time, but this is our vision.
A recent development has made us more determined than ever to build and support a sustained community. In partnership with Azavea, SciStarter is wrapping up an Alfred P. Sloan-funded study to better understand the landscape of tools and platforms available to power citizen science projects. We’ll have that report to share in the coming month or two. In the process, it has become crystal clear that no matter what awesome technological tool or platform powers a project, no matter how cool the project itself is, without a sustainable community of active participants, the project will suffer.
This is a critical gap and one SciStarter hopes to fill. We are seeing some success in this area and it’s led to hundreds of project organizers adding their projects to the SciStarter Project Finder in an effort to promote their projects and recruit participants. More and more, we receive unsolicited feedback from project organizers thanking us for our work while citing success stories of how, after we featured their project, participant rates doubled and even tripled.
But we recognize our log-in process isn’t a perfect system and we’ve been looking at ways to improve it (keep it, ditch it, make it optional, test other ways to help people navigate back to the project finder, etc?). Coincidentally, this week, we received the first results of a two-part SciStarter user study conducted by a graduate class at the University of Michigan. Interestingly, the users surveyed cite our emails as added value. Here’s the report if you’d like to read it. SI 622 A4 Interviews Personas Scenarios report
The students just rolled out this related online survey. In it, they ask questions specific to the log-in process. This presents a perfect opportunity for us to invite you to weigh in. You might even win a $50 Amazon gift card. Thanks for your consideration and we look forward to hearing from you!