3. Citizen Science: Managing data collection

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

What are the issues you need to consider when collecting and sharing data from the public?

The main thing that they need to make sure of when they set up a project like Dogslife, is to make sure that the data is secure and safe. Dogslife try not to collect any information that they won’t use. They also tell owners how long they will keep their information, and what they are likely to do with it. So on every page on a questionnaire owners will be told exactly what they intend to do with the data they collect. Everything is done to help owners understand how the answers they give to particular questions might inform the research.

In setting up the project Doglife had to have a privacy policy, and a privacy statement must be on the website. They also needed to make sure the website itself is safe and secure. So it the website is tested regularly, and updates made to the software to enhance the security and to ensure the data is collected and stored securely.

Finally, Dogslife must consider the ethical implications for owners and their pets. Before the project began, and with every new study, the project outline is given to an ethical review body within the university that must approve each study prior to commencement. This approval must be gained before the researchers are even able to go out to get the funding needed to set the project up.

The ethics are reviewed at regular intervals within the project, to analyse whether there is a need to enhance the approach. For example there may be times when a DNA sample is needed from participants. Every time a DNA sample is required a new ethical review application must be completed to ensure that the mechanism by which Dogslife collect the data from the DNA, how it is stored, and how owners consent is obtained is independently reviewed and approved, as being both acceptable and appropriate to the population they are applying it to.

How does ethics affect what you collect?

People may not be aware that all dog research has to undergo some form of ethical approval within a university setting. This is done by a committee, which reviews the studies independently. They make the decision as to whether any project is subject to local ethical approval or, if it were deemed to cause any discomfort or harm to the pet, then it would need to be performed under the animal experimentation procedures and rules.

A good example of something that might need a very careful examination of ethics, is when Dogslife collect DNA. DNA is collected by using soft oral swabs, which are a sponge that sits at the end of a stick that the owners put into their dogs mouth. They rub the sponge against the dogs cheek to obtain the DNA from the cells in the cheek and the saliva. The swab is popped into a tube. Although this does not cause any harm to the dog, Dogslife make it very clear to owners that they should not feel compulsion to carry out the test. So, if the dog does not like the swab being put in their mouth there is no need to carry out the test.

Are there restrictions in collecting the data?

The major limitation on the data that Dogslife acquire from dog owners, is to do with the time it takes for them to answer the questions in the questionnaires. Dogslife don’t want to make the questionnaires so long, or the project so onerous, that dog owners are put off answering future questionnaires.  Of course, they still want the dog owners to spend long enough inputting information so that Dogslife are able to gather information that is valuable to the study in the long-term.

In terms of the types of questions that are asked, Dogslife must be sensitive to dog owners expectations of how they might perceive information. Dogslife is also very restricted in terms of the demographic information they can obtain from owners. As an example, Dogslife would like to know where every dog lives, but they are only able to collect the postcode because they do not want anyone to be able to identify themselves, or anyone else within the project. By restricting it to a particular postcode Dogslife know that owners should not be able to identify themselves within the cohort. In addition they only use the first three letters of the postcode. So they are careful to protect anonymity of the dogs and the dog owners through the way that they both collect and analyse the data.

Is there any information that you would not share back with the community?  

One example of information that might be shared back is height and weight data. Dogslife tell owners the average height and weight data for the breed when they reach skeletal maturity. However, they won’t tell them early on in life.

Dogslife used to plot a graph showing the height and weight of an owner’s dogs over time, and highlight the average from their cohort. What they didn’t want was for owners to look at that information and think that their dog was either too thin, or too fat, and alter their behaviour by feeding their dog differently. Because Dogslife don’t see the pets, the dog owner’s are a much better judge of how healthy their dog is. People come in different sizes and shapes, so just because your dog is slightly heavier than average, or lighter than average, it does not mean that it is abnormal.

If we take height data alone, we do not need to apply that restriction because we all accept that we are different heights. So it is easier to accept that some dogs are taller while others are shorter without thinking that something may be wrong. So, if owners submit a height reading, they are unlikely to alter how they manage their pet on the basis of the information that is shared with them about the average height of the breed across the cohort.


Discussion about Ethics

  1. Why is it important to keep the data safe?
  2. What might happen if dog owners are given premature information about their dogs’ weight?
  3. Why is it important to ensure anonymity for dog owners and their dogs?

Ethics in Citizen Science

Thinking about the Citizen Science projects you are interested in getting involved in,

  1. What would your expectations be around the ethics of the project?
  2. What checks could you make to ensure your own data is safe and secure?

Collecting information from the public for your own project idea

Thinking about a project idea you have that involves collecting data

  1. What would be your major concerns regarding the safety and security of data?
  2. What other things would you need to consider when designing the collection of data?

Make a note of your findings.

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