New citizen science tools database to discover and access the right instruments

Citizen science (public participation in scientific research) often calls for tools you won’t find lying around the house, such as a rain gauge to record precipitation or an air quality sensor.

pictures of citizen science tools.
Examples of tools used by citizen scientists.

Lack of access to these tools can be a barrier to engaging in citizen science projects. To address this, SciStarter is creating a relational Tools Database: a searchable inventory that links tools to projects and vice versa. This undertaking builds on prior research including a Citizen Science Maker Summit, a research project to develop a tools taxonomy, an analysis of the landscape of citizen science tools, and recent work developing loanable kits through libraries. The new database includes fields to help project participants and scientists find the right instruments based on criteria like intended use, cost, and access to data. It also includes ways to get the tools and incorporates evaluations and reviews of their applications.

“I think a database of water quality monitoring tools is something that anyone who samples recreational water quality dreams of: the idea of a one-stop-shop for such information would be incredibly helpful and save a lot of time for the people and volunteers that run water quality monitoring programs,” Colleen Henn said. She’s the clean water coordinator for Surfrider, a nonprofit that works to protect oceans and beaches and conducts local water testing, and she is not involved in developing the database.

SciStarter hosts many volunteer water-monitoring projects; along with Surfrider, you’ll find IDAH2O Master Water Stewards, the Missouri Stream Team, and Coastkeeper, among others. This makes SciStarter an apt home and hub for a comprehensive tools resource.

Creating such a one-stop-shop is no easy undertaking, but it’s a worthy one, according to Erica Prange, the coordinator for SciStarter’s emerging database. She said that “acquiring the right tools for the job can often be a barrier to citizen science.”

For this reason, she and her colleagues are making the database as accessible and practical as possible. Recently, Prange has spent her time talking with scientists who have provided an “expert’s view of how the tools in their respective fields are frequently used.”  She said that, along with guidance and reviews on intended uses, the database informs on how to “build, borrow, or buy each item, offering many ways to get the equipment needed.”

Who can the database help?

The database serves three main audiences: scientists, citizen scientists, and tool manufacturers. Scientists and project leaders can use this resource to find low-cost sensors and tools to power their projects. Participants find the tools recommended by the project leaders. And manufacturers and Makers have a place to make their tools discoverable to those who are looking for them. “Those with experience using or designing the equipment can post the tools they use and recommend, as well,” Prange said.

Julie Vastine of Dickinson College is the director of the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM), which works to empower people through science to “participate in decision making about water resources in their local community.” She has been working with Prange and others to advise on the development of the database. Vastine pointed out that the database can show how tools “hold up in the environment,” which can be useful to both the science community and to manufacturers.

“Taking [equipment] from that lab and applying it to your actual stream sometimes results in glitches and challenges, and so this is an opportunity for manufacturers to see that,” she said.

“Makers and manufacturers may even be able to use the tools database to spot an equipment need, design a solution, and post their product for others to buy, borrow, or build themselves,” Prange said.

Last but certainly not least, this resource is for the citizen scientists. Vastine explained that it could be very helpful for those citizen scientists who may be isolated or lack a local service provider like ALLARM. “For people who don’t have access to technical support, you now have a database. You can say, ‘I’m interested in this, and these are the finances I have,’ and take a look at what’s available.”

As the database grows, its resources and attributes become richer. For example, it includes links to third-party evaluations. Arizona State University evaluated five low-cost air quality sensors, and those evaluations are linked to each sensor’s record. Vastine and her team evaluated dozens of water quality kits, and those evaluations are linked, as well. The tools are also relational and linked to SciStarter citizen science projects, and vice versa.

Program Director of the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch, Elizabeth Herron, who is not working on the database, said sharing resources and feedback is important within the citizen science community. She told us, “[We] should be connected and sharing resources! There is no reason we should be re-inventing the wheel. We should build from the experiences of others to be more efficient and effective… We need a common language, but it needs to be complete.”

Developing a Common Language Across Disciplines

One of the most exciting and challenging undertakings of this project has been to create a common language between citizen science disciplines. This was necessary in order to develop a set of shared categories, fields, and search parameters for the database and to organize the instruments online in an accessible way.

Prange explained how the database team is navigating this complex terrain. “The tools database team has been working with experts in the air quality, water quality, and soil quality fields to further define the structure of the database fields in a way that is multidisciplinary… We’ve listened to the needs of our audiences of citizen scientists, project managers, makers and lenders. We’ve also received feedback from workshops and user testing. We’ve gone through multiple rounds of edits.”

Vastine said that working on a shared language for the database “kind of forced everyone to say, ‘Oh, we’re so rooted in our own esoteric terms,’ and to listen across disciplines.” As someone working with water, she personally enjoyed learning about the chemistry, techniques, and terminology used in air and soil testing.

“To create a language and be able to find those terms that transcend our different disciplines enables us to strengthen the movement,” said Vastine. “We’ll all be able to talk a similar talk, and it helps to break down the barriers of our silos.”

Prange and Vastine will be presenting a symposium at the Citizen Science Association Conference in March (CSA 2019) to “introduce participants to the context of the tools database, areas of challenge and growth, and the process for establishing a common, accessible language.” It’s called “Creating a common vernacular: Exploring conversations across citizen science sectors to accelerate discovery of and access to citizen science instruments.”

Participants will learn about cross-sector science collaboration and about how to add tools to the database so they are relational to citizen science projects and events.

Vastine, Prange, and the rest of the tools database team will continue to build out and refine this multifaceted resource. “We’re off to a great start and I’m happy with the latest version of the tools database. However, I bet our mission of ‘listening and learning’ will continue as we get more user feedback from the latest update!” Prange said.

Vastine effectively summarized how this database-in-development can serve people participating in citizen science: “It takes the guessing game out of selecting tools.”

We invite you to check out the beta version of the Tools Database, and to add or find tools. We greatly appreciate your feedback. Please email for more information.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!  

Categories: Citizen Science News, Tools

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About the Author

Julia Travers

Julia Travers

Julia Travers writes about science, tech, art and creative responses to adversity. Her work can be found with NPR, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. Find her on Twitter @traversjul.