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Learning about citizen science from environmental research

The explosion of citizen science, or people-powered research, means that researchers in fields from astronomy to zoology are looking for your help. We spoke to Professor Jennifer Gabrys at the University of Cambridge to see what parallels we can draw with citizen science approaches used in environmental research.

What tickles your fancy: counting birds, measuring mountains on Mars, or measuring the carbon content of soil in the name of climate change research? The explosion of citizen science, or people-powered research, means that researchers in fields from astronomy to zoology are looking for your help.

Researchers in healthcare improvement are no exception: they’re embracing citizen science approaches to gather insights from patients and staff across the NHS. But the field is young and at THIS Institute we seek inspiration from other disciplines for our citizen science endeavours. Our podcast episode on this topic explores the amazing story of creating a smartphone game where players can generate data for dementia research while they have fun. And in this blog we move further afield to see what parallels we can draw with citizen science approaches used in environmental research.

We spoke to Professor Jennifer Gabrys, Chair in Media, Culture and the Environment in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, who leads the Citizen Sense research project. Citizen Sense has worked with residents in rural Pennsylvania to monitor air pollution generated by the fracking industry, and in south-east London to monitor air pollution from traffic and construction. Many of Jennifer’s insights on environmental research ring true for healthcare improvement research.


People can engage in citizen science projects at many levels and their engagement can grow as the project progresses

A common question with citizen science is how to make the most of people’s involvement in research. Jennifer explains how local residents became involved in pollution monitoring in very different ways, some of which the research team had not even dreamt of at the outset.

“Initially, people just used their own kit to monitor pollution,” says Jennifer. “But as time went on, we started to talk to them about co-designing a study where they could develop digital toolkits for monitoring pollution and we discussed with them how we might use the data.” Those conversations led to the testing of toolkits, including the Speck particulate matter sensor and the Frackbox, which were distributed to local households to undertake pollution monitoring.

But local involvement didn’t stop there. Some people started to download their data and analyse it using open source atmospheric analysis software. They organised themselves into groups and called in state and federal level regulators to have interim conversations about their work. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency followed up with work to corroborate the citizens’ findings. “As the project evolved, it sparked a whole set of ways for citizens to engage with environmental pollution that were completely unscripted in the beginning”, says Jennifer.


Representation in citizen science projects can be achieved in many ways

The charge often levelled at citizen science approaches is that those who take part are likely to be the better educated and from more privileged backgrounds. So citizen science, may not, ironically, democratize engagement in research.

But it isn’t always an issue. “Citizens contributed to Citizen Sense because they lived locally and were affected by the problems”, says Jennifer. She adds that in this case, the rural setting happened to include residents with diverse backgrounds, from young to elderly, from less wealthy to economically privileged − though she acknowledges that is certainly not the case for every project.

Jennifer also points out there is no such thing as a “universal citizen”. Diverse people may have different things to offer to research. Some people may offer skills in analysing data in Excel, while others may have technical skills or perhaps be skilled at organisation, management, and liaising with third parties. Representation is improved when citizens can come together to contribute their particular skills to the team effort.


Generate “good enough” data to achieve your aims

Questions may be asked about the robustness of data from citizen science projects. In Jennifer’s work, could data generated by local residents really be taken as seriously as environmental data generated at official monitoring sites?

Jennifer says that one way to strengthen buy-in to the output from citizen science projects is to invite independent organisations to validate the data. For example, the data from Citizen Sense showed clear patterns of pollution that could be corroborated by other devices. That was enough for local residents to ask regulators to carry out additional monitoring, or to ask industry to look at their emissions. “Data doesn’t always have to be incredibly watertight,” says Jennifer. “You have to look at the different instances in which the data might be used. What is it just good enough to do?”

But there can be a perception that citizens might be inherently biased and try to collect data to exaggerate a pollution problem. That means Jennifer’s work can be politically sensitive. “In those cases, we have to go overboard to be sure our datasets are accurate,” she says. So the team has developed rigorous techniques for calibrating data, analysing it, and corroborating the findings with regulatory monitors.


Citizen science holds huge untapped potential

Jennifer’s more recent work focuses on creating a toolkit, called AirKit, for monitoring air quality. Anyone will be able to access the toolkit and set up and sustain their own community network for monitoring pollution. While Jennifer doesn’t envisage the professionals stepping away from the action entirely, she’s excited by the potential of providing an adaptable toolkit that will allow locals to generate meaningful data and insights about pollution problems.

Jennifer’s work is a window into the rich potential of citizen science approaches. Read more about her thoughts on “good enough” data here.

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