4. Citizen Science: Benefits and limitations of citizen science

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

What are the benefits to dogs who’s owners participate in this project?

There are two good examples of scientific discoveries in Dogslife that are beneficial to dogs. The first was the identification of a condition called Limber Tail. This is a condition that affects dog’s tails that makes them painful and limp for a period of time. The condition was relatively under identified or under reported previously. So the scientific literature on this condition was very limited and suggested that the frequency with which the condition occurs was relatively rare. However, when Dogslife looked in their cohort for the condition they identified a number of dogs developed it and sent them a questionnaire. Then they matched some dogs that had not developed the condition with the same questionnaire. When they got the results of both sets of questionnaires, they found that many of the dogs where the condition had not been reported, were showing signs that were consistent with Limber Tail. So when they analysed all the data, they identified that the frequency of the condition was around twenty times more common than had previously been reported.

One of the questions was designed to find out how painful Limber Tail was, and how it affected the dog’s quality of life. It was very clear from those results that although people often dismiss the condition, dog owners do find that it causes their dog pain and that is affects their quality of life. The final finding of this piece of research was discovering that dogs that developed the condition were more related to one another, than dogs that did not. This suggests that there is a genetic risk to developing it. Some preliminary work has now been done, with the aim of identifying the genes that cause it. The hope is that sometime in the future we will be able to screen dogs for the condition.

Is Dogslife just beneficial to dog owners, or does it have bigger impact?

One of the biggest benefits of Dogslife to the general population, is that it engages a demographic of society in high-level scientific research. When Dogslife ask participants what they think of the project and whether they feel that they have contributed to the results, participants universally tell them that they feel they have contributed and that they are aware of the findings of the study. This is really important to Dogslife because that tells them that members of the general public are willing to engage and give their time to scientific research, whether it is Dogslife or another project. It also tells the scientists that participants feel they get something back from it – the feeling that they have helped to contribute to scientific discovery. Of course, that interest and contribution may then be moved from Dogslife, to many other facets of scientific and health research.

How do participants use the information you share with them?

Dogslife do not really know how dog owners use the information they give them. This is a question they often ask themselves, because they want to know that the scientific discoveries from a project like this, makes impact on the lives of the participants and other dog owners. It is hard to know with certainty whether Dogslife does modulate dog owner’s behaviour, and whether they will then spread the word to others. This is not something that Dogslife pursued, as the focus of Dogslife is on analysing the dataset that participants have contributed to. However, it is a question that they would love to answer.

What numbers of people engage in a project like this?

Although Dogslife do not know how many people are actively impacted by the results of the project, they do know from Google Analytics (which run on the Dogslife site) how many people visit the site. Dogslife have had over one hundred and fifty thousand visitors to the website, about seven thousand participants who have joined the project, and nine thousand individuals who have looked at the results of the project. Although the project is based in the UK, Dogslife know that interest is global, and that people have actively looked at the website from over one hundred and fifty countries. Therefor, the Dogslife team are aware, that there is an interest in both the project and its findings beyond the small remit of the people who participate in it.

What are your views on open resources?

Dylan is fully supportive of open research resources, and where possible, making data open too.

Under the permissions that owners give for the data Dogslife collect, other researchers within the Roslin Institute are able to actively engage in the data analysis. The Dogslife team also have collaborators who come to the institute to look at the data that they collate. However, data is not shared further than that at this point.

What are the challenges of open data?

Dogslife will never sell the data they collect, and that is made very clear to the dog owners. However, they do need to raise grant income on the basis of analysing the data. In an ideal world it would be fantastic to release the entire data set openly to the general scientific community. However, there are challenges with obtaining the consent of owners.

There is very specific information about owner’s pets, the diseases they have developed, how the dogs are fed and so on. This means that owners would rightly be concerned about the anonymity of their pet within that dataset. So, from the project start, the data was set up so that it would not be completely open, in order to protect the anonymity of the pets.

Are there any other resources that Dogslife made open?

One thing that was done, was to make the website portable. This means the website was set up so that it could be easily modified to, for instance, study a different dog breed or to study cats. There has been some interest in using the (white label) website. The aim was to enable other people to reconfigure the website easily as the original design and development was expensive and time consuming. This way others can benefit from the knowledge developed to create the technology behind the project, as well as benefit more directly through the findings of the research study itself.  

It was a little surprising to the team that no other research group or dog breed community has shown interest in pursuing their model of research as yet. However, there is plenty of time for that interest to develop in the future.  


Thinking about some of the Citizen Science projects you identified in the previous exercises,

  1. Which project topic is about something you care about deeply?
  2. Which project do you think would have the biggest benefit to society?
  3. Which project do you think is the best match for your expertise or experience?
  4. Which project do you feel has the most interesting or engaged community?
  5. Which project makes it simple and easy to commit to… and why?
  6.  Which project are you ready to contribute to now?

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