Home PublicationsCommentary Citizen Science and Crowdsourced Data Can Improve Environmental Data in the United States

Citizen Science and Crowdsourced Data Can Improve Environmental Data in the United States

by Gillian Diebold

Accurate and accessible environmental data plays an important role in formulating effective environmental policy. Data on air and water quality, soil contamination, microplastic pollution, and more can reveal insights about how the environment impacts human health in a community, as well as which communities are most vulnerable to climate change-related threats. But environmental agencies do not sufficiently monitor data in some places. As a result, these communities often rely on anecdotal evidence of the environmental dangers they face and cannot articulate or prove for regulatory purposes the extent of these risks to local government officials and environmental regulators. Citizen science, or public participation in scientific research, can supplement data in otherwise under-monitored areas and improve understanding of climate-related and environmental issues. Supporting and incorporating citizen science data production and collection efforts into official statistics will help fill in gaps in monitoring and empower groups in otherwise neglected areas with the information to advocate for themselves when harms arise.

Federal and state environmental agencies do not collect enough data about high-risk areas, such as those with heavy industry that emit toxic chemicals into the air and water. For example, in 2019 a refinery explosion in Philadelphia released 5,000 lbs. of hydrofluoric acid, a toxic chemical, into the air. This explosion received widespread media coverage, and yet, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) federal air quality index scored the day as one of the cleanest for the area all year. While the EPA is responsible for 3,900 air quality monitoring devices nationwide, these devices can fail to capture the lived experience of many Americans outside of the network’s geographic footprint. More than 120 million people live in counties with no EPA pollution monitors at all for small particle pollution (less than 2.5 microns). Beyond the real-world effect of not being represented in data collection, these communities are often unable to provide data to air and water regulators that would inform their standards-setting.

Environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act often set minimum monitoring standards based on population size, leading to under-monitoring of areas with smaller populations. Citizen science can fill these gaps by creating new opportunities for data production, collection, and dissemination of environmental issues. Defined by the EPA as any public engagement to advance scientific knowledge, citizen science projects bring environmental monitoring to the hyperlocal level and empower individuals and communities to collect information about their respective situations.

Citizen science efforts have been shown to increase equitable access to scientific data and bolster community participation and advocacy. For example, the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Project trains citizens to collect water quality data to assess the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The project has built a data hub where volunteers and researchers can submit and access data on the Bay and watershed. This type of project is especially important for low-income and minority communities who often face greater environmental hazards and may lack opportunities to vocalize their experiences and concerns.

Citizen science can often be performed with the help of lower-cost technology. Purple Air and other companies build cost-effective personal sensors to monitor particle pollution. Users can monitor their indoor and outdoor air quality in real-time and therefore are better equipped with evidence as new concerns arise. For example, a neighborhood might have increased cases of asthma or other respiratory problems. Citizen scientists in the neighborhood can use air pollution sensor data as evidence to support the planting of more trees in a given location as natural filters for pollutants. When official statistics incorporate this kind of citizen science data, it enhances the accuracy of the data overall and helps policymakers implement preventative measures.

Citizen science is also closely linked with crowdsourcing data. Crowdsourcing refers to enlisting the help of a large group of people for data collection. People may submit text message-based questionnaires or report incidents within a specific app. For example, people with grievances about water quality can report visible pollution by submitting photos online or on an app. Crowdsourced data has also been proven effective in time-sensitive situations where organizations have limited capacity, such as responding to a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.

Some agencies, such as the EPA, the Department of Interior, and the National Science Foundation, provide limited funding and technical support to select citizen science projects. EPA grants for citizen science come from a myriad of categories within the agency’s budget rather than from a singular, dedicated fund. Available grants vary from year to year and cannot cover the full range of environmental concerns held by different communities, even as they fill important gaps in EPA coverage. The federal and state agencies working on environmental issues should create a dedicated budget focus for citizen science efforts to increase availability and access to data about environmental issues, especially in areas where there is limited data. A specific citizen science budget allocation will ensure sustained support for community-led projects.

Accurate data gives communities a newfound way to advocate for their concerns. Citizen science and crowdsourced environmental data can lead to increased environmental monitoring and advocacy and in turn, lead to better environmental policy.

Image credit: SEED Citizen Science Hub

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