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Monitoring for nature recovery and local change: how to set up new initiatives and contribute new data

The expertise of multiple partners has been drawn together to provide one useful resource for those who are considering setting up a citizen science survey and contributing to existing data. Although not comprehensive, we have included the necessary considerations. In the cases where there is already sufficient advice and guidance available, links and references will be provided in future.

Following best practice outlined in this resource will help you choose an appropriate survey purpose, and make sure that the data you collect follows best practice and is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR).

Planning

A valuable citizen science initiative will have a clearly identified purpose. Having a purpose and setting clear aims and objectives to achieve that purpose allows for the collection of quality data that is relevant, and facilitates effective tracking of progress. A clear purpose or research question will help to shape and inform future decisions on the initiative. Citizen science surveys can have multiple aims. Possible driving factors could be policy needs, filling environmental data gaps, academic study, community interest and supporting ongoing monitoring initiatives.

Purpose

Purposes may include the following:

Consideration Explanation
Community interest To understand a particular taxa / species / habitat
Scientific research Collecting robust data to answer scientific questions
Expanding membership Increasing supporter network through local initiatives
Supporting local planning needs Assisting spatial prioritisation and landscape decisions
Evidence to support existing monitoring schemes In cases where methodologies and standards in data collection are complimentary
Support policy Used as evidence to support policy decisions

 

Parameters

The parameters to record may include the following:

Consideration Explanation
Species diversity The number of different species that are represented in a given community measured through a combination of species richness (the number of species present) and species evenness (the abundance of each species).
Habitat characteristics Features of the environment, such as vegetation type, soil composition, wetness.
Climate data Temperature, precipitation, and other relevant climate information to assess the impact of weather patterns on biodiversity.
Human impact Any human activities in the area, like deforestation, pollution, or land-use changes. 
Indicator species Species that can indicate the habitat type and the overall health of an ecosystem.

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Survey design

For citizen science initiatives, the survey design should be kept simple if possible – while still enabling capture of the required data. A complex survey can be off-putting and is also more likely to result in errors. The use of existing standardised methods/protocols should be considered, as it will make the data collected more compatible and open to wider use.

Consideration Explanation 
Volunteers versus professional surveyors As you start designing your survey, one of the early aspects to determine is whether citizen science is the best approach to gather data, or whether it is best to use professionals. You need to identify whether your idea is compatible with what citizen science can offer, and whether you have the resource to provide ongoing engagement and support for volunteers. Citizen science can be hugely beneficial when deployed in the right setting. In general terms, citizen science can provide large quantities of data, which often is far beyond what could be achieved using a more limited and expensive professional network.
Methods

Tailor the scope of data collection to the needs of the survey both spatially and temporally. Methods should be simple, repeatable and tied to the objectives of the project. Methodologies should be appropriate for the skill level of the participants – or rather, you should recruit participants with the appropriate skills level to the survey methods. It is useful to use methods that have already been piloted/tested and refined.

Link to survey methods and protocols page

Site selection/ Permissions You will need clear guidance on how to obtain landowner permission for the survey. If appropriate, have a mechanism in place for the organiser to do this.
Resources Appropriate health and safety equipment and technologies should be considered.

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Survey development – People

Once the survey design has been realised, it is then time to lead into the development phase of the survey. When developing a citizen science survey, it is essential to consider volunteers, funders, partners, and the wider public, as each group plays a distinct role: volunteers contribute valuable data, funders provide necessary financial support, partners help with expertise and resources, and the wider public's interest and participation ensure the project's relevance and sustainability.

Volunteer Recruitment

The success of citizen science depends heavily on the organisers' ability to recruit volunteers appropriately and effectively. Integral to this stage is identifying and engaging a wide pool of volunteers and ensuring that the purpose of the survey is communicated and understood clearly with them right from the start. Ascertaining the demographic, attributes and personal circumstances of volunteers will ensure that an initiative is able to facilitate individual need, and being clear on the limitations regarding accessibility is key, so that expectations can be met.

Consideration Explanation
Targeting

When promoting your initiative, it is important to consider the pool of volunteers you aim to recruit, including the size and demographic. It is recommended that a structured communications plan be put in place to publicise survey initiatives and source volunteers.

For local surveys, existing networks are a good starting point (e.g. school groups, community groups, biodiversity networks), and professional guidance can assist you when choosing which of these groups to engage with (e.g. DAISY, Ethics checklist, etc.). EDI activities can help to attract a more representative pool of volunteers, and steps need to be taken to seek out barriers that may exist for volunteers and take action to remove them. It is worth noting that recruiting people new to volunteering is achievable, but will require additional time and resource for engagement. Furthermore, professional surveyors should be considered where specific skills are needed, or technical equipment needs to be used, and the level of funding is there to realise this option.

Participant journey The participant journey should be clearly communicated and outlined from the point of recruitment. Opportunities for recognition and certification across initiatives could incentivise continued engagement, as well as the interoperability of an initiative.
Selection criteria for recruitment It is important to recruit a large enough pool of volunteers to gather data in adequate quantity and quality for the defined purpose.
Accessibility

Survey organisers should make every reasonable effort to ensure accessibility needs are met/accommodated. During the recruitment stage, demands of the survey should be clearly communicated to potential volunteers including the time commitment, location/site, facilities and the level of fitness and skill required. Any feasible additional measures for accessibility should be identified and clearly outlined.

When choosing tools for data collection/storage, ensure that they are straightforward to understand, and that all volunteers are trained in using them.

Additional training could be made available for those who would like to take on further responsibilities.

Training

Implementing appropriate training and providing complimentary resources ensures that a pool of participants with varied expertise is adequately prepared for surveying, providing all contributors with the necessary baseline level of knowledge needed to successfully collect data to a high standard. Based on the recruited pool, skill levels must be identified and training catered to meet the specific needs of the group. Continued investment in relevant training will contribute to the success of a citizen science survey.

Consideration Explanation
Methods The data collection process needs to be appropriate for the type of data to be collected (taxa, species, etc.), and the methods of evaluation should be established before data collection begins. To ensure continued participation, the data collection process needs to be as simple as possible. Survey design and methods need to be clearly defined and easy to understand, to build volunteer confidence in biodiversity monitoring.
Resources

The level of resource required will be dependent on funding and the scale of your project. It is important to consider the full life-cycle of your project and at which points you will need the most resource (e.g. recruitment and training may require more resource than the data collection phase). This will allow you to plan effectively and ensure that you do not run out of money.

Resources need to be up-to-date and consistent, as well as accessible (e.g. reachable online / multiple ways to access). This will help volunteers to feel supported. The costs of in-person training sessions should be taken into account – provision of free training sessions will attract more interest.

Where possible, re-use resources from other initiatives to reduce costs. This would also help with standardisation of data collection.

Health and Safety It is integral to consider the health and safety of participants, and to take into account participant physical abilities. Where necessary, the need for PPE should be identified and addressed.

Communication

 Clear and transparent communication through appropriate platforms is necessary to demonstrate the reasons for data collection, the value of submitted data, and to raise awareness of local initiatives. This is useful for engaging volunteers, attracting potential funders, and inspiring the establishment of other local initiatives.
Consideration Explanation
Communicating results with involved stakeholders (participants + sponsors)

Publishing of annual reports and/or other results such as trend data will enable all stakeholders involved to understand the impact of the initiative. These reports could be publicised through volunteer networks to raise awareness of monitoring and survey initiatives across the UK.

Newsletters provide a useful platform to delve into more detail on a particular topic of interest, such as a novel techniques utilising volunteer data.

Emails to mailing lists and social media posts can be used to raise the profile of project developments and results.

Progress updates could feature case studies highlighting the impact of submitted records. Similarly, statistics of ground covered, or area mapped, by volunteers collectively could be publicised to celebrate volunteer contributions to local initiatives.

Data collection efforts to date could be visualised using a map, highlighting locations where to target future recording.

Feedback also needs to be provided to survey sponsors, with consideration of the legal permissions/IP/GDPR in place.

Communicating results with the wider public Social media pieces and circulating good news stories via newsletters on a regular basis will help inform the wider public about the work.

Participant support

Putting in place participant support, both direct and indirect, ensures that volunteers feel valued and nurtured throughout every stage of the process. Communication is integral from the point of recruitment through to the dissemination of results, whilst maintaining engagement is a key consideration in between.

Constructive, consistent and accessible communication channels will not only allow the circulation of relevant and up-to-date information quickly and effectively, but also ensure that any concerns or feedback are received and dealt with in a timely manner.

Consideration Explanation
Management/Communication The more you invest in communication with participants, the more they will feel valued. Methods of communication should be clearly identified and accessible, you may wish to consider platforms or mailing lists. It is also integral that participants receive regular and consistent updates and communication, which will ensure that they feel supported and connected to the project, and feel confident in their collection of data. It is worth considering having a team member dedicated to liaison to ensure that all participants' questions are being answered, as well as providing ad-hoc support.
Volunteer coordination You should consider having professional back-office support in place, as well as local specialists reachable and regularly engaged to support participants with queries.

Feedback/Reward

It's important to provide opportunities for participants to feedback and share their thoughts throughout the project both formally and informally. Not only does this lead to improvements to how the survey is run but it also keeps participants engaged. Additionally, providing feedback to participants can help resolve any issues that may have arisen through the data collection process and can act as a motivator for participants. Positive reinforcement acknowledges their efforts and encourages continued participation.

Consideration Explanation
Participant feedback The project should have a clearly defined route for providing feedback and raising concerns, and a procedure for managing those.
Information Feedback

It is worth considering the drip-feeding of information and summaries of the data/contributions made so far through stages of the project and what this means.

Presenting the collected data in a representational way through spatial maps can be helpful.

The feedback of data should be considered, using the most appropriate communication methods. For local initiatives, this could include in-person feedback sessions.

Rewards It is important to acknowledge the efforts of participants. It can be useful to provide incentives such as digital badges and gamification, which will encourage continued engagement. Social events and excursions are also a means of relationship-building and showing value. 

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Survey development – Programme

When setting up your citizen science initiative, it is also important to consider the following:  health and safety to protect participants and maintain ethical standards; permissions to ensure legal compliance and respect for private and protected areas; project evaluation to measure effectiveness and impact; and sustainability/longevity to ensure the project can deliver long-term benefits and maintain engagement over time.

Health and safety

In accordance with the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), an employer has a lawful obligation to ensure that every reasonable effort is taken to identify and minimise risk. Where risk is unavoidable, protocols must be put in place to ensure that volunteers are aware of these risks and what they/the organisation must do to minimise them. Risk management should be regularly assessed and integrated into volunteer training, and key guidance should be readily available at all times.

The nature of citizen science could mean that volunteers work autonomously and so clear and thorough identification and assessment of risks and communication of those is paramount.

Consideration Explanation
Risk assessments / Lone working If you are working with under-represented or vulnerable groups, make sure that risk assessments reflect this. You may have to consider additional measures such as access to facilities in the field, clear guidance or maps, etc.
PPE In some situations PPE may be required. To ensure safety, volunteers must be issued with appropriate equipment and trained in its use.
Risk management Surveys need to make significant efforts to reduce the need for operating in risk prone ways.
Guidance Relevant guidance on health and safety must be up-to-date and accessible to all participants.
Biosecurity  Volunteers should be made aware of any biosecurity risks, and how to mitigate them.

Permissions

Leaders of citizen science initiatives must consider ethical and legal issues surrounding copyright, intellectual property, data sharing agreements, and land access of any activities. This is not only to ensure that sensitive records are protected, but also to ensure that participants know how their personal data are being used. Project data and metadata should be made publicly available, and where possible, results should be published in an open access format.

Consideration Explanation
Data protection Rare species and other such considerations may legitimately restrict data access beyond the data originator(s).
Land access Provide the volunteers with clear guidance on how to obtain landowner permission for the survey. If appropriate, a mechanism should be put in place for the organiser to do this.
Data sharing Project data and metadata are made publicly available and where possible, results are published in an open access format. Data sharing may occur during or after the project, unless there are security or privacy concerns that prevent this.
GDPR  Under the Data Protection Act 2018, organisations must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under this act, everyone responsible for using personal data has to follow strict rules called 'data protection principles'. Privacy notices need to be produced and shared with anyone interacting with the survey to explain how their personal data are used. Permanent attachment of the recorder’s name as an integral part of each biological record, and its storage and sharing with the records is a specific provision allowed under the GDPR.
Specialist qualifications (permits, licensing, qualifications)

Any qualifications, licenses, and permits that are required to take part in a survey (such as a Schedule 1 licence to enter a bat hibernation site) need to be clearly set out at the point of recruitment.

Have a system in place to check participants’ licences and permits and to keep a record of them where this is a requirement (e.g. for reporting or auditing).

Project Evaluation

Evaluating citizen science initiatives is crucial for maintaining their scientific credibility, improving their effectiveness, and demonstrating their impact. This not only benefits the initiatives themselves but also the broader scientific community and society as a whole. Investing time into evaluating each step of the data cycle ensures that citizen science continues to be a powerful and valuable tool for scientific research and public engagement, whilst allowing adaptive management to commence.

Consideration Explanation
Design from the start Clear description of verification and quality assurance (QA) processes.
Ongoing/review Monitoring and evaluation should happen at every stage of the data cycle to understand the success and effectiveness of: (i) EDI initiatives; (ii) comms engagement; (iii) training materials; (iv) uptake of survey by volunteers (reports on trends); (v) data analysis; (vi) data verification; (vii) policy or decision-making (more difficult).
Data quality Data collected meets the scientific quality standards that are valuable for scientific research; accuracy and reliability of the data must be assessed.
Survey of participants Conducting regular surveys of volunteers is necessary to understand the effectiveness of feedback, support and training materials offered by the survey/monitoring initiative. Specific EDI survey can help develop the demographic diversity the volunteer base.
Survey of stakeholders Surveying other stakeholders such as project managers, data engineers, policy makers, and funders is integral to understanding the success of local monitoring initiatives.
Impact of data capture and awareness This can be measured through continued support and funding for the project.

Sustainability/Longevity

The life-cycle of the project should be realised from inception, and project leaders have a responsibility to ensure that there is sufficient funding to support the project in the long term.

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Collecting and processing data

Data collection

Well-defined data collection protocols are essential for ensuring the quality and reliability of the information collected. Ensuring that the collection follows standardised protocols provides consistency across participants, reduces variability and error in the collected data and maximises the quality of the collected data. Consideration must be given to how the data will be collected - the format it will be stored in and where it will be stored; and the metadata collected must be stored properly for it to be useful.

Consideration Explanation
Data Standards Data collection should follow standardised protocols or already established and proven standards used in other comparable surveys. Common terms and definitions should be used to refer to characteristics of data and data-related activities and roles. Comprehensive metadata should accompany any dataset to make data more easily interpretable, which will in turn lead to helping address larger-scale questions.
Metadata

Metadata is crucially important regardless of how the data are collected, to ensure comparability and repeatability.

With machine learning methods increasingly being used for species identification, it is important to include the means of identification, such as a unique identifier of the machine learning model used for the classification, into the metadata.

Capture method (e.g. app, tech) Data must be captured in a way that is appropriate for the taxa under study, the relevant data repository, and the type of data to be collected. Ensure this is captured in metadata.
Data Storage It is important to have an established procedure for storing the core and metadata to ensure that the dataset is findable and accessible. Archiving the collected data in a trusted, reachable space will secure the long-term value of the data.
Verification The verification pathway and final repository for the dataset must be determined in advance of data collection.

Data flows

Data flows need to be transparent, complete, and simplified, with limited and well-defined routes and platforms to submit and access data. Clear signposting of what data are collected and where data are ultimately hosted would assure recorders that submitted records reach a central repository. Data flows do not necessarily need to comprise a single repository, but it is essential that all repositories link together to create one flow. Clarity around the role and purpose of each data system is also crucial, for example one platform could be used for analysis and a different platform could be used for visualisation and mapping.

Consideration Explanation
FAIR data principles Resultant data needs to conform with FAIR data principles – Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable. This allows data providers to control access, while users can easily find all data and metadata.
Data ownership – use agreements

Unless specifically agreed and stipulated at the very start, the volunteers are the ultimate owners of their records, and they need to agree terms of data sharing at the point of data submission, including the metadata that accompanies the dataset.

If a number of groups / organisations are involved in a project, consider drafting out a data sharing agreement between the delivery partners.

Validation and quality assurance All data collected must go through a validation/quality assurance process before being used for analysis and/or shared for use. This can happen at a local level as an option, but always at the point when records/datasets are submitted to a data repository.
Compatibility Where possible, local surveys should use the same methods already in use by national monitoring schemes or other major initiatives (e.g. EES), that are practical to apply at the scale of the survey. If certain methodologies are selected and certain standards in data collection and data quality are achieved, survey data from surveys at different geographic scales can be analysed and interpreted together, making the overall benefit greater than a sum of their parts.
Licensing It is highly recommended that all new environmental data are made available as “open data” – in other words, any stakeholder would have access to the data for use, interpretation and analysis, and to put their own dataset in context with data from other surveys. When volunteers submit their records, make sure that they agree to make their records accessible as open data – in many existing recording schemes this is a pre-requisition for data submission. The recommended licence is the OGL (Open Government Licence) or equivalent to enable access to survey data to all stakeholders.
Data repository – where it goes

Survey data should be uploaded in a timely fashion into a data repository appropriate for the type of data collected, and made accessible for use in conjunction with other datasets. 

The data repository must: (i) be operational (i.e. able to receive local/landscape scale data): (ii) be free to use (as far as possible); (iii) have as few barriers to sharing and accessing biological survey data as possible (with the exception for rare species); (iv) allow users to freely download datasets for analysis and use.

The data itself does not necessarily need to be hosted in one repository, but a central hub would signpost existing data meeting criteria, identify the data provider and the data location.

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Citizen science for local change

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