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Quality Assurance for Citizen Science Projects

As a coordinator of a citizen science project, you may be involved in many aspects of project planning, sample collection, laboratory analysis, data review, and data assessment and data management. Therefore, it is important to consider quality assurance (e.g. planning activities you perform to manage the project, collect, assess, and review data) and quality control (e.g. technical activities you conduct to limit error of instruments or measurements used for data acquisition) in every stage of your project.

What is a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP)?

The QAPP documents the project planning process and serves as a blueprint for how your project will run. It provides the: who, what, when, where, why and how of the project. Many organizations, including EPA require QAPPs for projects that collect and use environmental data. Even at an early stage, EPA recommends projects provide some level of data quality documentation to help you communicate and make use of your data.

When do I need a QAPP?

You should consider creating a QAPP…

  • If your project collects or uses environmental data
  • If you want others to consider using your data
  • For all projects funded by EPA that involve collection and/or use of environmental data

A QAPP aims to ensure the credibility of information collected or used by citizen scientists. A QAPP should be incorporated into all environmental data collection and use projects. The QAPP should describe specific goals and quality objectives for the project. A QAPP is especially important if you want others to consider using your information.

A QAPP can help to ensure that data collected will be used for its intended purpose. If you hope to influence a decision, research the organization's data quality requirements. An organization may require a specific type of data for decision-making. However, the organization may accept other types of data as supporting information. 

There are a wide range of citizen science projects from educational to academic research or regulatory development. Similarly, a QAPP could range from a few pages to a longer, formal document. A standardized QAPP will not work for all citizen science projects. A “graded approach” allows you to determine the appropriate level of detail for the specific project. The graded approach applies to the level of detail to be documented in the QAPP based on the complexity of the project and the intended use of the data. It is a common sense approach that not all decisions require environmental data of the same quality, such as those for screening, or for educational purposes.

Although a QAPP is a great tool to outline your project timeline, goals, and specifics, it is not required. For example, if you would like your data to be considered screening level, a QAPP would aid in explaining how the data was obtained and the level of quality assurance applied. However, if you would like your data to be used for educational purposes only within your immediate community, a QAPP may not be needed.

How do I create a QAPP for my citizen science project?

Great question! A good start would be to reference the Handbook for Citizen Science Quality Assurance. The Handbook is a great tool for those starting out, or those looking to improve data quality documentation for citizen science projects. The Handbook includes:

  • A walkthrough of how to determine the level of documentation that fits your project’s needs
  • Customizable templates
  • A compendium of real-world citizen science QAPP examples

Other resources