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The Impact of Citizen Science on Environmental Change

An interview with dr. Anna Berti Suman

by Elena Gkiola

The concept of “Citizen Science” namely “the non-professional involvement of volunteers in the scientific process, whether in the data collection phase or in other phases of the research” (EU Science Hub) is not quite new to the world. In a 2009 study, citizens were found to provide 86% of biological survey data in Europe (Schmeller et al., 2009). Volunteers were working alongside scientists to observe plants and animal life (Hochachka et al., 2012), to identify natural resources (Vitos et al., 2013), or to analyse the molecular structure of drugs (Khatib et al., 2011) among other tasks. With the Internet revolution (Van Kranenburg, 2011) those communities of citizens, who shared a passion for science, were able to grow and interconnect globally. Peters M. A. (2020) describes this as a “democratic science culture”. Lukyanenko et al. (2020) put it : “[Citizen Science] increases public trust in the scientific enterprise, engages the public in policies and debates, involves people in addressing climate change and environmental sustainability and it fosters education, literacy, and awareness of science”.

Environmental science can benefit from citizen sensing projects. “Citizen sensing” is a form of Citizen Science focused on the environment: people join scientists to participate in the fieldwork, take part in environmental studies and make use of sensing applications for research purposes (Eitzel et al., 2017). In other words, individuals engage in responsible — scientific led- environmental action to instigate change. Those projects often result in the production of valuable primary research, while at the same time prove the central role of citizen participation in complex issues such as the environmental change (Fritz et al., 2019).

For this month’s blog post I reached out to dr. Anna Berti Suman, postdoctoral fellow at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, seconded there by the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society, and author of the bookSensing the risk: An accessible ‘toolbox’ for interested citizen science communities and policy-makers wishing to integrate citizen-sensed data into risk governance.”

Dr. Berti Suman is principal investigator of the project SensJus with the mission to “provide newly required research capacity in the EU by redefining citizen sensing as source of evidence acceptable in environmental litigation and as a tool for mediating environmental conflicts”.

Q: What was the trigger for this project?

A: The project is called Sensing for Justice (SensJus) and researches how citizen generated data can be used as a source of evidence in environmental litigation, but also as a tool to mediate environmental conflicts. I initiated this project because I truly believe in the ideal (and reality) of the “sensing citizens”- individuals that investigate and rely on evidence for spotting problems related to the environment. From my personal experience, since I was little, I was curious about the surrounding environment. I wanted to examine with my own hands and to look with my own eyes anything that triggered my interest.

Q: How is the project designed?

A: The project is designed on three pillars. The first is about the condition under which citizen generated data i.e. data deriving from citizen sensing initiatives — can be used as source of evidence for legal and judicial enforcement.

We start from a fantastic case in the US, the Formosa case , where fishermen and fisherwomen searched Lavaca Bay for plastic nurdles — little plastic pellets and PVC powder. They managed to bring this as evidence to the court which was consequently able to convict the dispatcher chemical company for violating the Clean Water Act. That was based essentially on citizen-produced-evidence, because the competent authority didn’t have enough evidence.

The second pillar explores the conditions under which citizens have the right to contribute to environmental information, for example when the information is scarce or lacking altogether from the authority side. This right to contribute is extracted from the Aarhus Convention framework on access to information. Essentially, we question whether we need to consider a truly new right. All that in order to legitimize the production of environmental data from the grassroots when this is needed.

The last pillar of the project is about environmental mediation. A court’s ruling is a long process and often comes too late. With proper mediation, a settlement and an agreement might be achieved without even the need to resort to the court stage.

Q: Are official authorities generally open to the idea of accepting citizen’s data?

A: In my PhD project, I was focusing on the conditions that facilitate the policy uptake of citizen sensing in environmental risk policies and decision-making. It appears that when there is an imminent environmental risk, authorities are more likely to rely on citizen sensing.

Solid technology is of course fundamental for citizen contributions; it is a sort of precondition: if the technology is not good and precise methods are not there, then the authority would never be convinced. The data should be right. Not necessarily comparable to the official ones, but they should prove that they are either complementary or that they are filling data gaps in order to have a value.

In addition, the higher the level of environmental risk the easiest citizen action is acceptable; so, if there is a pressing risk, like after the Fukushima disaster authorities were more motivated to uptake citizen monitoring initiatives and their data.

Lastly, we even discovered that a discourse of mistrust in official authorities might be facilitating policy uptake; when the community shows that they are not fully trusting the government and they are looking for their data to crosscheck, at times this can even trigger the authority to consider citizen data.

Q: Technology seems to be a key factor. Is that always the case?

A: In some cases, the evidence that need to be submitted are simple to collect, and we do not need sophisticated technologies but just our own senses. There the key point is primarily the methodology behind the way the data were collected. For other cases, however, like air pollution, water pollution or soil pollution, technology should be more advanced. When citizens conduct analysis, the other side might challenge the technology, the lab etc. So everything should be carefully designed and the strongest technology possible should be used.

Q: Could one see “citizen sensing” as a movement?

People are upset by not having agency over environmental issues. The idea of SensJus project is to give back this sense of agency to the citizens. Citizens do have both the responsibility and the right to act for their environment. They should not be excluded from any environmental-related debate.

Q: How is the project bullet-proofed from other agendas?

A: I am aware that in the era of false news, there may be the risk of manipulated data and evidence that do not originate from facts. And this has the potential to undermine the social texture. It is thus essential for the mission of citizen science to accurately represent the scientific values and to have zero tolerance for conspiracy theories or other actors’ agendas. I would say that the majority, in fact all the projects that I could get to know better, where clear about that and genuine to the cause. They all really believed in sound science.

Q: Can you share with us one of your experiences as a principal investigator of SensJus project?

A: Basilicata, a region at the southern part of Italy is not that known abroad for being an oil hub, but it is a big oil extraction site. I visited the region and I met farmers and breeders, who at one point found oil spills in their lands and animals that were sick.

They started questioning or distrusting local authorities and local sources of information. It was this genuine questioning that pushed them to look for data and to partner with activists in order to start monitoring their environment.

Imagine that us researchers, we could not even take pictures on public lands or take samples. Private security of oil companies was coming after us. Even the public Italian security -the national police department- made a report about our attempt to photograph public lands. People, farmers who live there and depend on their lands for their living, might as well feel intimidated and powerless.

To my amazement however, locals were very informed about Europe and the role of EU institutions. They saw there an alternative to what they believe to be a locally corrupted and unjust system.

Q: What about the media outlets in the region?

A: Unfortunately, the work of investigative journalists is hard in Basilicata. One of the few local presses attempted to expose the environmental damage, found one of their cars burned. So, I think it is a difficult context to produce high quality journalism. Those that are doing that often are not living in Basilicata. It is important however for those cases to be published. On that note, I think journalists really need the watchful citizens and vice versa.

Q: How can citizens participate in a “citizen sensing” project?

A: There is always a tiny citizen sensing instance that one can contribute to. During these lockdowns for example, there were people that monitored how the birds’ sound changed. I think everybody can contribute first by acting when there is a need, an environmental problem for which they feel that there is not enough information out there. It is important to check what kind of initiatives already exist and not every time invent something new. So maybe the authorities already have a record of that X problem, and that is fine. They are dealing with that. If not, I think it’s important to network with other sensing citizens and try to also learn from them. The great achievement of the Citizen Science community all over the world is that it’s very much networked and they really support each other; no project is isolated, but each project starts from the point where the other ended.

Find more about SensJus project here

Find and follow dr. Anna Berti Suman on Google Scholar

References:

Eitzel, M. V. et al. (2017). Citizen science terminology matters: exploring key terms. Citizen Sci.: Theory Pract. 2, 1.

Fritz, S., See, L., Carlson, T. et al. (2019). Citizen science and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nat Sustain 2, 922–930https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0390-3

Hochachka, W. M., Fink, D., Hutchinson, R. A., Sheldon, D., Wong, W. K., & Kelling, S. (2012). Data-intensive science applied to broad-scale citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(2), 130–137.

Khatib, F., DiMaio, F., Cooper, S., Kazmierczyk, M., Gilski, M., Krzywda, S., Zabranska, H., Pichova, I., Thompson, J., & Popović, Z. (2011). Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, 18(10), 1175–1177.

Lukyanenko, R., Wiggins, A. & Rosser, H.K. Citizen Science: An Information Quality Research Frontier. Inf Syst Front 22, 961–983 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10796-019-09915-z

Peters M. A. (2020) Citizen science and ecological democracy in the global science regime: The need for openness and participation, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 52:3, 221–226, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2019.1584148

Schmeller, D. S., HENRY, P., Julliard, R., Gruber, B., Clobert, J., Dziock, F., Lengyel, S., Nowicki, P., Déri, E., & Budrys, E. (2009). Advantages of volunteer-based biodiversity monitoring in Europe. Conservation Biology, 23(2), 307–316.

Van Kranenburg, R. (2011). The Internet Of Things: Radical transparency within the reach of all. World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, 15(4), 126–141. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/48505085

Vitos M, Lewis J, Stevens M, Haklay M (2013) Making local knowledge matter: supporting non-literate people to monitor poaching in Congo. (ACM), 1–10.

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