CitizenScience.gov: Not your grandfather's GSA

Steve Kelman checks in on the bootstrap effort to better crowdsource government research.

steve kelman

I suspect that relatively few readers of this blog have heard of "citizen science." I hadn't either before I read a story on FCW.com in mid-April about the General Services Administration launching a new site called CitizenScience.gov. I sent a Twitter private message about the article to GSA's Kelly Olson, who runs Challenge.gov -- the government's site for organizing contests where anyone out there has the opportunity to solve a problem the government has, with the winner or winners receiving cash prizes. She wrote back saying she'd love to talk, adding the teaser: "The story of how we built it with $0 & volunteers is pretty incredible too. :)"

And recently, we finally got a chance to talk.

"Citizen science" refers to efforts to involve grassroots volunteers in the process of science, often by participating in taking measurements of a phenomenon or organizing information about it. As I soon discovered, the concept is by no means new, having been around the U.S. (and some foreign) governments for a number of years, with a fair number of practical examples.

Citizen science shares a lot in common with other innovative, bottom-up ways for government to do some of its work, such as crowdsourcing and volunteering for government, about which I have previously blogged. One prominent early example was a NASA/Environmental Protection Agency project that allowed citizens to record air quality data in their neighborhoods, to supplement air quality measurements taken by the government using more conventional (and expensive) means.

Another was the National Archives and Records Administration's Citizen Archivist, under which 170,000 volunteers indexed 130 million names from records of the 1940 census. One month after announcement of the initiative, the CitizenScience.gov site already includes 300 projects from 25 agencies. A fantastic new initiative, as reported by the Associated Press, involves the Department of Agriculture recruiting volunteers "to collect mosquito eggs in their communities and upload the data to populate an online map, which in turn will provide real-time information about hot spots to help researchers and mosquito controllers respond."

Olson became involved in crowdsourcing several years ago through her friendship with a staffer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (Jenn Gustetic, now assistant director for open innovation) who shared her interest in challenges in particular and crowdsourced government in general. Citizen science advocates in government had been lobbying OSTP to put out guidance encouraging citizen science efforts. OSTP issued a memo last fall directing establishment of a government-wide citizen science initiative (agencies were to appoint citizen science coordinators, and coordinator teams were put in charge of developing a catalogue of projects from their agency to go on the new website). GSA, based on Olson's enthusiasm and expertise in organizing government-wide initiatives, was put in charge of shepherding the effort.

Olson was given no budget for this, but developed a partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which developed the catalogue with a grant. She then enlisted volunteer efforts from agency citizen science coordinators to help with developing common metadata for listing projects, establishing a government-wide community of practice for those in government interested in citizen science, and setting up procedures for entering new projects into the system.

CitizenScience.gov is a descendent of the push by Dave McClure, the former head of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, for GSA to become involved in developing shared solutions infrastructure and organization for government-wide management efforts, with the idea that a new approach could be developed for anyone in government who wanted to use it, so people wouldn't need to reinvent the wheel.

In a blog post on Challenge.gov that discussed how GSA was working to promote the spread of challenges, I noted that the agency had gotten involved in training people on the new approach, establishing a community of practice for people doing challenges. Olson has now applied this playbook to citizen science efforts.

When I read, for example, that there were 170,000 (!) volunteers working on census archiving, hardly a sexy project, I immediately asked myself how the government could have corralled so many to volunteer. Olson shared with me the secret sauce. Any guesses? (Please pause for a moment to think before reading the next paragraph!)

The secret is schoolteachers and students. Organizations promoting citizen science contact local schools. Teachers are always interested in projects for their students to tackle. The neat thing is that once some smart person thought up this idea, it could be applied over and over again in lots of situations.

CitizenScience.gov is certainly outside GSA's traditional wheelhouse. Despite some similarities with Challenge.gov, the latter is a method for government procurement, right at the center of GSA's mission, which CitizenScience.gov is not. Olson argues that GSA is using a capability it has already developed to manage government-wide initiatives. "We are acting as a proactive partner for agencies, regardless of what they are trying to do. We have new tools that make it easier for them to work together."

Nobody would suggest that what Olson is doing is wrong, only that it doesn't conform readily to GSA's mission. Counting in her favor is that she has assembled partnerships and volunteer resources from inside and outside government (including the nonprofit Citizens Science Association and several universities) to make her vision happen. I think it's a good thing that government has some people like Kelly Olson, mixing things up a bit rather than sticking to well-trod paths.

Back in the early 1990s, GSA gave up its status as monopoly supplier of many products to government agencies and decided to compete for business rather than have it handed to them. Observing how GSA became more nimble and entrepreneurial during that decade, Dave Barram, who was GSA Administrator in the late 90's, would often say, "This is not your grandfather's GSA."

CitizenScience.gov is the latest example of that. I think, all things considered, I definitely approve -- but I can also imagine others coming to a different conclusion, and arguing that GSA should stick to its knitting. Reader thoughts on this?

Note: This article was updated on June 1 to correct the number of projects listed on CitizenScience.gov.

NEXT STORY: Build or buy? Census chooses both

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