1. Citizen Science: Context

(This video can be downloaded from Media Hopper Create.)

Dylan Clements is a senior lecturer in small animal orthopaedics at the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Science. He does clinical work and does research into understanding why dogs get diseases.

What is Dogslife?

The idea for Dogslife came about from Dylan’s PhD in which he studied the genetic basis for canine osteoarthritis. On of his frustrations during his PhD was that although he knew that there were many dogs with osteoarthritis in the general population it was incredibly hard to get information or samples from those cases. So, although we know that in the human medical field there are risks for various diseases such as the way that smoking contributes to the risk of cancer, there are very few of these types of study in dogs. The reason for this is that nobody has really tried to look at large populations of dogs over a long period of time to find out what kinds of diseases they might develop.  At the end of his PhD he had a discussion with his supervisors and came up with the idea of using a web-based questionnaire on thousands of dogs because they saw that as a mechanism by which they could collect information in a cost effective manner. Cost efficiencies were important because Veterinary Sciences are very poorly funded in comparison to Human Medical Research, and this means they have to think outside of the box when they dream up ambitious projects.

Why did you use a Citizen Science Model for Dogslife?

One of the really exciting things about running Dogslife as a web-based project is that the scientists knew they could use their website as a two way portal. Owners could detail information about their pets, and the scientists could relay information back to owners about their pet and the diseases they developed.

However, the scientists could also relay information back to the wider community about the types of findings that were made during the project, which might include general health care advice and articles about diseases that dogs develop. The aim was to get owners more interested and informed about canine health. They saw the project as an opportunity to engage with different types of dog owners into thinking more about their dogs health and lifestyle, while at the same time, they contributed information to the research project.

Why did you use a website?

The really exciting thing about using a website to engage participants in a scientific research project, is that you can use it as a two way portal for information flow. So, in the example of DogsLife, owners give details about their dogs health, how they feed their dogs, and what types of activity they do with their dogs. The scientists can relate back to them information about areas of interest to them. This information is delivered to dog owners through a newsletter, which provides articles about  dog’s health, which is very often triggered because of information about the dogs that owners have reported back to the researchers.

What is the aim of Dogslife?

The primary aim of Dogslife is to try and identify modifiable risk factors. These are factors which owners can change about how they keep their dogs to enable them to lead a longer and more healthy life.  A good example of that might be that we can change the way they are fed or the way they are exercised, because this has an effect on their health condition.

The Dogslife researchers were keen to involve anyone who owns a Labrador Retriever and were registered at a Kennel Club. Labradors were chosen because they are the most popular dog in the UK. They chose Kennel Club registered dogs because they could be certain that the dog was actually a Labrador retriever, and eliminate sample errors. As well as being the most popular dog breed in the UK the researchers had had previous interactions with Labrador breed clubs, which had been very positive. Of course, Labradors are also owned by a wide demographic of society, which also helped to minimise the effects of human demographic on the research outcomes.

What is expected from participants in the study?

Owners submit information about their dogs through questionnaires at regular intervals throughout their dog’s life. The information is then recorded in a database, it is anonymised, and then it is analysed to identify risk factors in dog health. Risk factors are things that might change the way a disease develops. For example, when dogs gain more weight is this because they do more or less exercise? Perhaps it is because they are fed more and so on.

We can look at these different risks individually, to try to piece together what keeps dogs healthy.

How do you share back information to the participant community?   

Dogslife tries to produce and publish information in a variety of different forms. Most important in this is that they contact their core demographic, which is of course, dog owners. They do this through their newsletter and their website which has an area where owners can find the latest study findings.

Another way of sharing back is through scientific publications. There are a large number of scientific publications that have been based on the project. This pushes out the results to the scientific community. As well as informing other scientists of areas that may be of interest, it also stimulates interest in their project. So, there is a good number of communications from other scientists who are interested in sharing their data or to examine things that they have found in more depth.

What precautions must you take when sharing information you collect?

There is a variety of different levels of data that are shared with the public. It is always explained to dog owners that the research group would never identify their individual dogs within any of their publications. So when newsletter articles are put out, they talk about the group of dogs as a whole. They may talk about dogs that are more likely to develop for instance, vomiting and diarrhoea, because they live in a particular area or because they have other pets in the households and how these risks increase or decrease the chances of those health issues arising.

On an individual basis they try to feedback the data participants have given them by showing graphs of their dogs weight on the website, or graphs of dog height as it develops, or showing times in the course of a dogs life where they have developed different illnesses.

There is a lot of work still to be done in order to refine how the Doglife team give the information back to participants in a manner that is easy to understand, useful and interesting to them.

Why did Dogslife choose Citizen Science as a research method?

It is an interesting question to consider if it is a good idea to use Citizen Science as a method to engage with the public or if different methods should be used. A key finding of this project is that there are core group of dog owners who are able and willing to participate in a study like this. It is very difficult to predict who these people are, so of course, they try to engage as many people as possible. However, Dogslife understand that many people find the time burden onerous or that they will lose interest after a period of time and so may drop out. The Dogslife team is reliant on that core group who are continually willing to put data into the surveys and contribute to the data that leads to research findings.

The unique aspect of Dogslife is that it runs on a relatively tight budget, and that is why they use the web to collect and distribute information. This makes it relatively easy to scale a project like this. Whether you are looking at tens of people or millions of people the only limit in terms of the amount of information you can collect, is to do with how you engage with participants, and get them to remain within the project.

How do you get people involved in Citizen Science?

This is really driven by people themselves. So there are two aspects to this. Firstly you must find a project that is exciting and interesting to a demographic of people you are going to target. If you set it up in a way that they feel it is valuable and of interest to them, they will participate.  The second challenge you have is reaching those participants so that they know about the project. This has been a challenge to Dogslife, because dog owners are faced with many sources of information when they first register their dog with a kennel club, so Dogslife is simply another source of information to them. However, there is a mechanism to reach out to participants, that works reasonably efficiently, so that they have enough people to get good scientific findings from the study.

How can you get involved in a Citizen Science Project?

The first thing to do is to look on the web and find something that you are interested in. There are so many Citizen Science projects out in the ‘e-domain’, that it is really only a question of finding the thing that you are interested in. Citizen Science projects can be anything from ‘app-based’ projects, to web-based questionnaires like Dogslife. If there is anything you feel strongly or passionately about, and you go and look on the web, you will probably find something that is of interest to you.

Activity: Exploring Citizen Science Projects Online

Thinking about science in general is there any type of scientific project that you would like to be part of. Perhaps you are interested in geography, geology or social sciences. Whatever the subject, think about something you would like to get involved in and do a Google search for that subject and “Citizen Science”.

The researchers on Dogslife were not just looking for participants who had dogs. They were looking for owners of Labrador Retrievers. With this in mind, make your search more specific. You might try searching under ‘Climate change’ or ‘creative writing’.  

Next see if you can find the joining instructions for the project online. Make a note of your findings

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