The Role of Citizen Science in Water Quality Monitoring

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  • 2020/08/10     Dresden, Germany

    Distribution of citizen science activities on a global level

    By Shuvojit Nath

    Water quality is one of the indicators in the implementation of a Nexus Approach to environmental resources management. However, water quality data are scarce on a global level, as the first data drive for SDG indicator 6.3.2 on good ambient water quality has shown. To address this data gap, citizens are increasingly involved in water quality monitoring. But what does citizen science actually mean? Where does it take place and how are citizen science projects designed?

    The Nexus Seminar No. 46, titled “The Role of Citizen Science in Water Quality Monitoring”, held on 20 July 2020 by Dr Sabrina Kirschke, Senior Research Associate at UNU-FLORES, brought to the foreground the various aspects of monitoring water quality by citizens. It was the third and final Nexus Seminar of the summer semester and was held online.

    Dr Kirschke began the seminar by emphasising the important need of freshwater quality data for implementing a Nexus Approach in environmental resource management. However, at the global level, freshwater data are quite scarce. Referring to information from GEMStat database which collects water quality data globally, she stated that only 75 countries have provided data and only for a limited number of stations and types of parameters. A lack of important data can be found in less developed countries, which may also go back to capacity challenges with respect to financial, human, and technical capacity (see Kirschke et al. 2020). In line with global reports, such as the Synthesis Report on SDG 6, and initiatives such as the Citizen Science Global Partnership, citizen science may help to address these data gaps. However, a better understanding of citizen science and of its contribution to addressing this data gap is important.

    To set the record straight, Dr Kirschke clarified that citizen science is not simply a buzzword but has rather a clear analytical concept. She listed and compared a couple of terms used interchangeably with citizen science, amongst them: community-based monitoring, participation, involvement, voluntary monitoring, and transdisciplinary. While there are many overlaps, citizen science also differs from these terms, with citizen science being defined as: “The collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists” (Source: Oxford dictionary). It is an activity which can be more than just collecting data; it could also include the design of citizen science activities and the uptake of the research results.

    But how many of such citizen science projects can be found globally? In this regard, Dr Kirschke introduced the intermediate results of her project at UNU-FLORES. Applying different methodologies such as systematic literature reviews and platform research, her team had found 449 citizen science activities, related to 196 projects in 96 countries worldwide. These projects are wide-ranging, from Freshwater Watch to the Missouri Stream Team, and from a bottom-up citizen involvement in Iran to the Rede InfoAmazonia. She also highlighted the uneven distribution of projects globally, with the United States having almost one-fourth of the total activities. The reasons for this distribution can be varied; a few of them can be economic, environmental, political, institutional, and educational, among others. She also showed a weak, but significant, direct relationship between the Human Development Index and the number of activities in a country.

    Dr Kirschke continued her talk by pointing out the characteristics of such projects. Based on a systematic literature review (San Llorente Capdevila et al. 2020), project managers generally aim for increasing the quantity of data, improving the quality of data, generating knowledge products, and creating awareness. The citizens generally aim for learning more about nature, scientific methods, and to contribute to solving local environmental problems. The literature study also identified basic success factors for citizen science projects, looking at the attributes of citizens, institutions, and their various interactions. For example, projects would have to be designed according to the goals and background of all parties involved, and the technology supporting structure and feedback culture seem to be particularly important for creating mutual wins.

    Dr Kirschke concluded her talk by advocating citizen science as an important complementary tool to address the lack of data in freshwater quality. She posed a few open questions which are still left to be addressed, such as the comparative effects of various factors on the outcome of citizen science projects. In this regard, an online survey is being prepared by UNU-FLORES and will be sent out to managers of citizen science projects. Further, the influence of third factors on success also needs better understanding which can be done through statistical analysis and in-depth case study research. In addition, the influence of policy fields on the success of citizen science projects is unclear. Finally, capacity development for citizen science activities is key, and an ongoing task, calling for engagement in networks and in supporting e-learning activities.

    Following the presentation, participants remain engaged, sparking a lively discussion on awareness about citizen science projects, barriers to them in various regions, and how barriers may be overcome.

    Further Reading

    Kirschke S., Avellán T., Bärlund I., Bogardi J. J., Carvalho L., Chapman D., Dickens CWS., Irvine K., Lee SB., Mehner T. and Warner S. 2020. “Capacity challenges in water quality monitoring: understanding the role of human development.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 192:1-16.

    San Llorente Capdevila A., Kokimova A., Ray S. S., Avellán T., Kim J. and Kirschke S. 2020. “Success factors for citizen science projects in water quality monitoring.” Science of The Total Environment, 137843.