The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on a mission to study the entire sky to search for clues about the formation the solar system. However, the agency lacks the technical capacity and manpower to sift through all this data and identify any promising leads. Fortunately, over 30,000 members of the public have volunteered to analyze this data and are helping NASA make much greater headway on its mission that it could on its own. For these and other projects, “citizen scientists” voluntarily collect and analyze data on behalf of the government. However, until recently agencies have lacked explicit authorization to take advantage of citizen science, limiting the government’s ability to solve problems in innovative ways. New guidance from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and newly proposed legislation aim to both authorize and encourage agencies to work with citizen scientists. As it becomes easier than ever for the public to collect, analyze, and share data that has important public value, the federal government should embrace the concept of citizen science and engage the public to solve tough problems.
The Obama administration had pledged to make the federal government adopt this collaborative approach to innovation in its 2013 Open Government National Action Plan, a roadmap to adhere to the principles of the Open Government Partnership, an international agreement to make government more open, accountable, and responsive. And in September 2015, OSTP completed a key component of this pledge by developing the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit to provide agencies with guidance on how to capitalize on the expertise of the public. However, simply giving agencies tools for citizen science does not guarantee they will put them to use, which is why OSTP also issued a memorandum directing agencies to advance the use of citizen science, as well as make it easier for interested volunteers to learn about and participate in citizen science and crowdsourcing efforts. By November 29, 2015—60 days after OSTP issued the memorandum—each agency is to have an employee responsible for coordinating citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and identifying areas where these projects can help agencies meet their goals. And within 180 days after the issuance of the memorandum, every agency will contribute its catalogue of projects and its relevant data to a new federal citizen science and crowdsourcing database to help volunteers find projects to join, improve interagency collaboration, and identify opportunities for new projects. Importantly, OSTP’s memo also directs agencies to design their citizen science projects so that the resulting data, code, applications, or other products are free and open to the public and to adhere to federal open data rules for crowdsourced data sets, ensuring that citizen science projects can continue to provide value long after their completion.
OSTP’s actions are an important step towards making government more open and innovative. To expand on this, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), also in September 2015, introduced the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015, which would codify OSTP’s memorandum and explicitly grant agencies permission to carry out citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. Given that crowdsourcing and citizen science can make the government more effective without using more resources, Sen. Coon’s bill should be well-received in Congress.
While a more collaborative approach to government problem solving may seem like common sense, this kind of guidance is necessary to ensure that federal agencies handle the tools of crowdsourcing and citizen science correctly. For example, if a federal agency were to fail to apply an open source license to code developed by citizen scientists, participating volunteers could be unable to later use what they had contributed to the project, disincentivizing participation and potentially exposing these volunteers to legal risks.
As agencies work to fulfill their obligations to OSTP’s new rules, Congress should pass the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act to codify these requirements and formally recognize the value of citizen scientists. And with their newly-granted authority, federal agencies should act quickly to identify new opportunities for citizen science to help solve tough and pressing challenges.