Nappy Science Gang

Project aims:

To run an innovative and experimental citizen science project, about cloth nappies, which expands the definition of what a citizen science project can be and puts volunteers at the centre.


Run a user-led citizen science project with users of reusable nappies, where users choose the questions, design the experiments and then run them.

Use a facebook group as a way of co-ordinating this.

Involve at least 100 active volunteers and at least 200 more ‘lurkers’ or slightly active members.

Answer at least three questions of interest to the cloth nappy community using science.

Gain insight into the benefits and challenges of using Facebook as a venue for a project like this.

Evaluate project to see if the aims and outcomes have been achieved.

Summary of activity:

Nappy Science Gang is a user-led citizen science project for parents who use reusable (cloth) nappies, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society for Chemistry. The project ran from March 2015 to Feb 2016, mainly consisting of a Facebook group to discuss the science of cloth nappies, and to design and co-ordinate experiments to answer questions of interest to the group. At time of writing, the Facebook group has 1,452 members, with more joining every day. (Our target was 100 active members and 200 lurkers)
The group planned and ran three large-scale experiments in that time (into the best temperature to wash at, the best washing agent to use, and to investigate what causes a loss of performance in some nappies). These involved 85 volunteers doing tests in their own homes.
They also had weekly online Q+A sessions with various relevant experts – from detergent and washing technology experts, to statisticians, to help with planning and researching the experiments, and also various experts of general parenting interest, like developmental psychologists.
The group also ran 10 different live events – including stalls at Makefest at MOSI, and at a number of baby fairs, workshops at 2 family-friendly festivals and get-togethers to unveil the experimental results in London and Manchester.
Alongside the Facebook group, they ran a website, which is now a repository of evidence-based nappy washing and parenting information. Along with the results of their experiments. This website has 57 posts in total, 37 Q+A write ups, and the rest other news and results. The site has had over 27,000 views in total.

Evaluation approach:

We kept notes of our (project staff) thoughts and reflections throughout the project as a form of formative evaluation.

We surveyed project volunteers when they first joined the group, and again towards the end of the project to to see how taking part had affected the volunteers.

We passed a short survey around the wider cloth nappy community at the end of the project to evaluate wider impact there.

We surveyed 'experts' who the group spoke to in live chats for their experiences.

We invited members of the group to write their own short narrative case studies, to try to capture something of people's 'journeys'.

What went well:

1.We well exceeded our expected reach – there was a bigger unmet desire for an evidence-based approach to washing nappies than we had anticipated.

We expected 100 active members plus 200 lurkers. We've ended up with well over a thousand members of the group. With almost 100 of them taking part in experiments and many more actively taking part in discussions.

2. 67% of group members have changed their washing routine as a result of things they've learned from this project. So, giving 'citizens' the power to choose their own research questions and get science answering questions that are important to their daily lives has given them practical knowledge they can use, that has changed their behaviour.

3. We caused the NHS to change their guidelines on detergents for washing baby items.

What was learned:

1. It was much easier to get volunteers coming up with 'research questions' than to get them designing experimental protocols. This would probably also be true in real world settings, but online (where people can so easily 'wander off'), it was very hard to get people contributing and solving the practical problems involved. Thus, the experimental design phase took a lot longer than we'd expected.

2. Always do a trial run of your experiments. We didn't, because the experimental design phase had over-run so we thought we didn't have time. In retrospect, that cost us a lot more time than it saved us with ambiguous or unclear instructions, things we'd missed about the experimental design, things that were harder to do in practice than we'd anticipated.

3. There were various advantages and disadvantages to using Facebook, explained in depth in our full evaluation report. Advantages – people are already there, and familiar with the medium and it's quirks. Disadvantages – it's a social space and both staff and volunteers have a million other possible distractions.

Top tips and advice for others

1. Allow a lot of time for designing experimental protocols and provide a lot of structure and scaffolding.

2. Do a test run-through of your experiment. This can save time and issues later with, for example, ambiguous instructions.

3. Your volunteers doing experiments will probably need a lot of reminders and prodding. People are very competitive, so even token prizes can encourage people to do things in a timely fashion.

About this project


Project type:

Started (approximately):

Feb 2015

Ended: (approximately)

Feb 2016

Tags for this project:

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About the contributor

Sophia Collins

Sophia Collins is a science engagement specialist based in Edinburgh, with a varied background which includes TV, museums, events and storytelling. She is particularly interested in two-way engagement…

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