Science as a Team Sport: Potential for Gamified, App-Based Citizen Science in Florida

Coastal Policy Lab Blog

Science as a Team Sport: Potential for Gamified, App-Based Citizen Science in Florida

Matthew DePaolis, Coastal Policy Analyst Fellow, Center for Coastal Solutions / UF Law Conservation Clinic & Florida Sea Grant Legal Program

Data collection can be an expensive and time-consuming process for any project. It is to be expected then, that researchers are increasingly turning to volunteer citizen scientists to help with large or complicated projects. While people may be willing to donate their time towards projects they find interesting, keeping volunteers can often prove difficult. In order to combat this, projects have attempted different solutions.  MOTE marine lab lowered the  barrier to entry by creating the ‘Citizen Science Information Collaboration’ app, allowing anyone with a smartphone to participate in red tide monitoring around Florida. Researchers have turned Reef’s annual lionfish derby into an opportunity for data collection allowing massive amounts of lionfish data to be processed quickly.[1] Florida Sea Grant created a standardized data collection protocol for its Horseshoe Crab Watch that allows citizen scientists to monitor beaches and produce data that has been demonstrated to be equally as valid as trained researchers.[2] The University of Washington’s ‘Center for Game Science’ created an actual game, called ‘FoldIt’ that allows users to discover the shape of viral proteins, in some cases more effectively than a computer could.[3] By applying the engaging elements found in games to research, projects can be optimized around human motivation and entice citizen scientists to participate at a higher rate and longer than they otherwise would have.[4]

While many singular projects have been “gamified,” Florida could benefit from a comprehensive app that ties together the best elements previously used in single projects. Florida is uniquely situated with a host of various coastal issues. By incorporating principles of play that target human motivations into an app that is easy and fun to use, the untapped data collection potential by residents and tourists could be utilized. A coastal citizen science app would allow people to participate in projects that they are interested in, whether that is sea turtle nesting, coral bleaching, or fish landings. The app could then inform users of other data collection needs outside of their own niche interests, and game elements could help to keep them participating. Properly implemented, badges, quests, ranking systems, and rewards could provide users with a sense of satisfaction and progression as they move up the ranks. By allowing users to compare scores, friendly competition between different users, cities, and counties could spark increased participation. It could even be determined who are the more involved citizen scientists, tourists or native Floridians. Using gamification principles, researchers have been able to both attract novel participants, and sustain engagement from citizen scientists.[5],[6] By assigning points to the data collected and manipulating the values, researchers could target data collection based on where it is needed most. If more data on coral bleaching is needed the points associated with that data collection could be elevated. As people move up the ranks and amass points, real-world rewards could be earned, from fishing licenses and FWC gear, to data collection tools and theme park passes for highly motivated citizen scientists. 

While the particulars would need to be calibrated, such an app could provide researchers with massive amounts of quality data. The quality of citizen science generated data has been be greatly improved through validation and verification.[7] With any largescale utilization of the public, gamification of citizen science raises some ethical questions.[8] Potential issues within such an app could arise if the rewards were valuable enough to entice users to try to cheat the system, so robust data validation techniques would need to be employed to prevent the submission of falsified data. Users could be rewarded for validating the data of others, ensuring that the data collected meets the standards necessary for publication. By having users generate and validate data, massive amounts of data could be collected all over the state. The app could also provide feedback to the users by making the data publicly available. Users could be provided real-time data, boosting the sense of contribution and keeping them engaged. Properly executed, the benefits to state researchers would be massive.  By making science easy to access, easy to participate in, and fun to do, Florida could harness the power of its citizens to help craft coastal solutions all across the state.


[2] Berlynna Heres et al., Using Citizen Science to Track Population Trends in the American Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) in Florida, 6 Citizen Science: Theory and Practice 19 (2021).

[3] Brian Koepnick et al., De novo protein design by citizen scientists, 570 Nature 390–394 (2019).

[4] Yu-kai Chou, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (2019).

[5] Anne Bowser et al., Using gamification to inspire new citizen science volunteers, in Proceedings of the First International Conference on Gameful Design, Research, and Applications 18–25 (2013).

[6] Ioanna Iacovides et al., Do games attract or sustain engagement in citizen science? a study of volunteer motivations, in CHI ’13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems 1101–1106 (2013).

[7] Jane Hunter, Abdulmonem Alabri & Catharine van Ingen, Assessing the quality and trustworthiness of citizen science data, 25 Concurrency and Computation: Practice and Experience 454–466 (2013).

[8] Sebastian Deterding et al., Gamifying Research: Strategies, Opportunities, Challenges, Ethics, in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2421–2424 (2015), (last visited Oct 15, 2021).