Gamifying citizen science has the potential to engage existing volunteers in new ways, and to attract a new segment of the gaming-set: millennials. Millennials who were born after 1980 are known to be notorious technology enthusiasts. But what would draw, lets say, the average business student or technology major into playing a game that contributes data to Project Budburst, a citizen science project that’s used to monitor how plant species respond to weather from year to year? Ultimately that allows scientists to draw conclusions on climate change.
A group of researchers from the University of Maryland, Brigham Young University, and Project Budburst have been searching for answers to that question as they prepare to launch a new location-based game called Floracaching as a beta version. (Note: Because this is still in beta, there is no official link for the site just yet.) The team has identified a few key motivators for mobilizing volunteers: in particular, rewards such as online badges and competitions, for creating enthusiasm, engaging and keeping volunteers.
What does Floracaching do, and how does it work? The app can be used to collect plant phenology data for Project Budburst. “For example, when do plants first put out leaves or flowers or fruit? When does leaf color change? When do leaves start to drop or wither? For now a simple, single observation can be made, but as further developments are made, we will ask individuals to ‘adopt’ a plant and make regular observations,” said Dr. Sandra Henderson, the director of Budburst.
Based on the highly successful geocaching craze, floracaches are programmed into the app so that any user can find them. They might have coordinates mapped in for a maple tree in Vermont, or an oak tree in Massachusetts, and by following the prompts in a GPS location-enabled device such as an iPhone or an Android, the participant then searches for the cache.
When a player is within GPS range of a floracache, they “check in” to the cache by selecting the appropriate phenological state of the plant, such as “all leaves withered,” or “full flowering.” They can also leave a “log book” comment for future floracachers to find, upload a photo for researchers to use, and validate the identification of the plant. Users can also create a new floracache, by securing the geographic coordinates for it and photographing the plant. This requires some botanical knowledge because they have to be able to identify it, but they can start with the plants they know.
Matching the rewards of the game to both the motivational aspects researchers found to be appealing for millennials, and to the data required by Budburst, is where the app finds its gaming traction. Badges associated with particular activities are placed on the virtual profile pages of users. Each badge is linked to an activity that has been identified as a motivation for gamers: fun, community involvement, competition or personal performance. For example, the Invasive Patroller badge requires users to create a cache of an invasive species, and the Friendly Floracacher requires players to check in with another person. “Some of our badges relate to collecting a certain number of different plants, uploading images of plants that the Encyclopedia of Life needs photos of, validating the identification of other people’s caches, and being the first to find a new species,” adds Dr. Derek Hansen a developer of the application from Brigham Young University.
A group of 71 first-year science & technologies students who used the app completed an online survey afterward. Data from open-ended questions revealed three types of ‘fun’ that motivated participation with the app: creativity, exploration of a local environment, and relaxation. One participant identified creativity with this comment about her favorite tasks: “They all involve being able to perform a concrete action or set of actions that create a physical result. It allows for the ability to create something as well as merely observing native flora.” Another user identified creativity and competition, “It allows for creativity in photography. I’m not an expert photographer by an means, but I’d like to achieve having the best picture of a tree.”
Regarding competition as a motivating force, a user wrote, “Introducing competition to citizen science applications can have a lasting impact on the overall effectiveness of the application.” As to the motivation for contributing to science one participant said, “I would be motivated if I was helping someone use these statistics for a project because it is going to a good cause.” (Bowser, 2013, 5)
The main drawback of the app is related to the location-finding accuracy on some Android devices. According to Anne Bowser, a designer at the University of Maryland, “Because Floracaching will be used by citizen scientists who already contribute their observations to the Project Budburst database, we need to make sure that location awareness issues are completely resolved before the Beta version is released. We really don’t want glitches in the technology to demotivate this important group of contributors, potentially preventing them from submitting future data.”
The research team drew two general conclusions from the combined results of this exploratory research. While not all Millennials will embrace a gamified citizen science app, a significant portion say they will, and it is precisely the game aspects of the app that will lead them to participate. That argues for a new user group of citizen scientists—those who don’t find the motivation of volunteering to be enough, but who do find appeal in the fact that it is gamified.
Meanwhile, those with a plant sciences background liked the idea of adding game elements and were surprisingly open to competition, particularly when it leverages their plant expertise. Floracaching also serves as a nice excuse for sharing their plant expertise with others—so much so that some have said they’d like to invite a date along.
More about how the app works:
Using gamification to inspire new citizen science volunteers. 2013. Anne Bowser, Derek Hansen, Yurong He, Carol Boston, Matthew Reid, Logan Gunnell, Jennifer Preece.
Photos: Project Budburst
Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles.