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Catching the Citizen Science Curve

2012 November 20

By Dustin Renwick

Baseball is notorious for overloaded statistics.

Data doesn’t equate to knowledge, but data does set the stage for better interpretations of a given scenario.

Low-cost environmental sensors represent the next step in air quality monitoring statistics. The hardware revolution that will make these sensors widely available to citizen scientists— volunteers who might work with scientists to collect data—stands squarely on the horizon. But what will happen with all the new data remains unclear.

Ensuring that citizen-recorded measurements are interpreted correctly remains an important point, said Nick Masson, an engineering research assistant at the University of Colorado. Masson attended the September EPA Air Pollution Sensor Evaluation and Collaboration event in Research Triangle Park, NC (see my previous blog post, Sensing the Future).

Tim Dye, senior vice president at Sonoma Technology, said events like the September collaboration engage EPA researchers and sensor developers in conversations about how these devices fit into the larger framework for improving the environment.

For example, problems with data could arise depending on the quality of the sensors located in backyards and porches across the country. For instance, the sensors might not always produce statistically useful results. EPA researchers and their partners need to understand these challenges in order to harness the appropriate data, so policy makers and the public can enjoy the benefits of such information.

With the right type of calibrations, low-cost monitors might fill gaps and supplement federally-regulated data gathered by permanent, high-tech (and expensive) government air quality monitoring stations located across the country, said Michael Heimbinder, executive director of HabitatMap, who attended the September event.

“Inevitably there is going to be a deluge of information collected by citizen scientists,” Heimbinder said. “This information is coming. The question is: How do we grapple with it?”

Scientists and researchers will have to explore questions such as how data collected by non-scientists can help inform health policies, health messaging, or even daily weather forecasts. Through initiatives like the external collaboration event and the March 2013 workshop for sensor developers, academics, DIYers, community groups, and federal, state and local officials, EPA won’t play benchwarmer in the era of citizen science.

About the author:  Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Ernest Martinson permalink
    November 20, 2012

    I am wondering if citizens could use relatively inexpensive or insensitive monitors to detect pollution action limits that could trigger followup by more professional monitors. An example is radiation fallout that can vary with location and weather conditions.

    • Dustin permalink
      November 21, 2012

      Ernest – Using citizen-based monitoring to act as a guide for the more expensive equipment is a possible scenario in the future. Your example of radiation ties in to a problem with air pollution: It moves. Having smaller, portable monitors that are inexpensive yet still sensitive and reliable would be great as one part of a front line that could signal areas that need further measurements with the super-precise equipment.

  2. w harter permalink
    November 21, 2012

    This is interesting information and hope that EPA will make use of such data in a constructive manner. It is most interesting in that just this year I attended an enviromental meeting where EPA was quoted as going to use only “air quality modeling” data and disregard the monitoring data that our state has collected.

    • Dustin permalink
      November 21, 2012

      w harter – I can’t speak to what happened at that meeting, but data collected at local and state levels presents similar opportunities and risks compared with citizen science data. The March workshop will focus on ideas and discussions such as the definition of “good” data and the ways in which different qualities of data can be used.

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