Why is it relevant?

The target audience for a Citizen Observatory might be a group of people who live in the same place, they might be similarly impacted by an environmental issue no matter where they live, or they may simply share a concern for a common environmental issue. The aim of building a community is for all observatory members to come to a shared understanding of the issue, the goals of the observatory, the organisation of the observatory, and how to perform and document the tasks ahead.

How can this be done?

Building a community entails raising awareness, supporting and encouraging two-way communication, appointing a community manager and fostering and encouraging deeper engagement.

Raising awareness about your Citizen Observatory and its goals is the first step towards building an active community. Key questions are: Who is your target audience? and How will you communicate with them? Consider which newspapers, social media channels, local community bulletin boards and other channels might be good ways to raise awareness and reach potential participants. Reach out as widely as you can to groups of people who are outside of your usual circles, who also share your concerns and have a stake in the outcome of your campaign. For example, adjacent neighbourhoods and different age groups may be easy to reach and similarly affected.

Here are some methods for raising awareness:

  • Setting up a website,
  • Setting up a Facebook page or group,
  • Setting up a dedicated Twitter account,
  • Setting up other types of social media accounts,
  • Starting a digital or print newsletter,
  • Running events that are listed on MeetUp or Eventbrite,
  • Getting local radio or news coverage,
  • Making flyers to hand out at local events or distribute from community centres,
  • Making posters to hang in public spaces,
  • Setting up promotional stands at community events,
  • Asking existing community groups to help you spread the word via their channels,
  • Writing regular short episodic stories on Medium or similar platform (e.g. https://medium.com/grow-observatory-blog/places/home),
  • Creating an Onboarding Kit that welcomes and guides a new participant into the observatory and the team – this could include informative resources as well as community-building tools, and
  • Mapping your team’s skills to identify gaps and carry out more effective recruitment efforts,

Once a critical mass of stakeholders are on board, there are different ways of co-designing the Citizen Observatory with them – you can find out more here.

Once the observatory has been set up, consider how you will keep in touch with participants and how they will keep in touch with each other. You can use many of the same channels that you established for raising awareness about your project to share ongoing developments with all participants.

Do you have a website to which all community members can add content? Can community members share photos, experiences and discoveries via social media?

Maybe you’d like to add a social element to data collection activities. For example, if a community in the same geographic area is collecting information on a local concern, they can have weekly ‘meet-ups’ to discuss the challenges they face or share insights or news.

Take the time to ask participants how they would like to communicate with each other and how they can encourage more people to get involved.

Remember that part of building a real sense of community includes the leaders or organisers as well – you and your team should be visible to the participants. If your means of communication are primarily digital, make sure that you are frequently sharing videos and photos so that participants also have a sense of who you are.

Make sure that questions and comments on your digital channels get answered. Assign a member of the team, or rotate who is ‘on-duty’, to check all channels regularly. A good community manager needs to be proactive in sharing information and news. If you cannot answer a question yourself, connect your team with someone else who can. Make sure that any suggestions or feedback are shared in a usable way.

This role is critical to the success of any online community but does not have to be filled 24/7. As long as members of the community receive responses in a timely fashion, they will be able to trust the shared communication channel that is being used. Within 24 hours is a reasonable period. However, a community manager needs to also encourage participants to answer questions themselves and actively help each other as well.

It is useful to set expectations with all participants as to how each communication channel should be used, and the community manager should actively moderate this. This can be by way of a formal user agreement, or simply a clear statement about what is considered good or bad behaviour on that channel. For example, if you want to encourage social interaction among your team but want to keep the data channel clear of chat messages, encourage members to set up a separate channel for social conversations.

Community members are most engaged when they can play a meaningful role in shaping the project, helping to make key decisions and plan how to use the resulting data for maximum impact. Make sure that you and your team include all participants in decision-making as much as possible and enable them to get more deeply involved throughout the process.

Examples include:

  • Inviting participants to write guest blog posts,
  • Inviting participants to help design campaign materials and lead their own awareness-raising activities,
  • Holding community-wide meetings to share progress, make suggestions for improvements and plan the next actions together,
  • Creating opportunities for participants to share their experiences and local knowledge of the issue with key decision-makers,
  • Inviting participants to present outcomes about the issue to key external stakeholders,
  • Sharing project data with participants while being sure to always follow sensitive data privacy regulations (e.g. not publishing personal information) to encourage data innovation, and
  • Inviting ideas for other initiatives that might benefit the project.

Consider which of the above activities would be most effective for the issues that your community members want to focus on.

Lessons learned from the Ground Truth 2.0 project

A community consists of stakeholders who identify or perceive themselves as being a part of it. For Ground Truth 2.0, a community of relevant stakeholders is at the heart of a Citizen Observatory. Community building in the Ground Truth 2.0 project was done by fostering social interactions that led stakeholders to identify with the group outcome, which requires not just intellectual, but also emotional experiences. Visible and symbolic acts, such as signing a consent form, registering an account for an app, posting to an online platform, participating in planning meetings, or in organised data collection campaigns, all served to create a sense of ‘membership’ and being a part of something bigger.

It is also important to distinguish between the initial group who sets up an observatory (often a co-design group) and the long-term community. Ground Truth 2.0 found that it is useful to approach community building in four phases to evolve a Citizen Observatory community from an initial group into a social movement:

  1. Initiation stage: The first core community members of a Citizen Observatory are recruited. With their input and participation in a co-design process, the observatory starts to take shape.
  2. Stabilisation stage: Shared group values and norms, important for bonding within any community, are (implicitly or explicitly) developed.
  3. Enlarging the Citizen Observatory core community: The community of active participants grows. More stakeholder groups will be invited to join, and the interactions in the observatories should multiply.
  4. Maintaining the community: In this final stage, less attention is directed toward recruitment or gaining the interest of potential new community members. Instead, the established Citizen Observatory focuses on sustaining the community members they have already engaged and on embedding continuity in their interactions.

Lesson learned by the LandSense and GROW projects

In the LandSense Citizen Observatory, a wide range of stakeholders have been involved, so the ways of building community have varied from case to case. In the urban case studies in Vienna, Amsterdam and Toulouse, it has been critical to engage the city administration or different local authorities who will use the data so that they have an interest in participating. In the agricultural case study, farmers and agricultural extension workers have been the key stakeholders, while for forest and habitat monitoring in Indonesia, local communities have been engaged to help co-design the Natura Alert solution. No matter what context we work in, good communication and co-creation have been vital for building strong communities with a vested interest in the success of the Citizen Observatory.

The GROW Observatory ran several citizen science activities. The main soil sensing activity was happening in GROW Places across Europe. When recruiting participants in these places, we followed a set of criteria to make sure we would have a wide range of people from different climates, agricultural contexts and socio-economic contexts. Each GROW Place was coordinated by a local Community Champion. GROW also developed a Community of Practice for Community Champions to foster collaborations across GROW Places and keep up the momentum after the GROW projects had ended.

Useful Resources

TOOL: The Making Sense toolkit includes an Onboarding Kit (p 40-43) with  guidance on how to welcome and guide a new participant into the project and the team. It also provides recruitment tips (p 48-51) on how to reach out to multiple relevant communities and how to bring them on board.

PROJECT REPORT: This Ground Truth 2.0 report explains the community building approach and associated stakeholder engagement used in different Citizen Observatories in Europe and Africa.

PROJECT REPORT: This Ground Truth 2.0 report contains methods, techniques and tools for community building during each stage of a larger co-design process of a Citizen Observatory.

This work by parties of the WeObserve consortium is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This page partially draws upon the MOOC Citizen Science Projects: How to make a difference, though the focus was shifted from citizen science projects to Citizen Observatories.