EPA Innovation: Sensing a Trend for Citizen Science and Involvement

By Dustin Renwick

Hand holds smartphone with the words "data collection" on the screenAmong the ways the Internet has affected scientific endeavors, creating more scientists stands as an interesting result. Thanks to the budding “citizen science” movement, you don’t need a doctorate to take part in high-quality research.

Citizen science refers to projects where non-specialists – maybe you, your neighbor, your child – can add their energies to the pursuit of specialized knowledge. Examples include efforts to:

EPA has tapped volunteer water monitors for decades. Now, developments in low-cost, portable air sensor technologies have created the opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to air monitoring.

“It’s an opportunity for these groups to leverage some kind of response to poor air quality,” said EPA’s Patricia Sheridan, who coordinates citizen science for the Agency’s regional office that serves New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight Tribal Nations (EPA Region 2). She has helped the Region lead several efforts to educate and engage citizens and community groups who are interested in assisting researchers by collecting air quality data.

EPA scientist Marie O’Shea, the Region 2 science liaison, said even low-tech methods, such as counting the number of diesel trucks driving past a neighborhood playground, can empower citizens and give them quantitative evidence to share with community leaders.

But the biggest challenges for EPA citizen science projects involve the data those projects generate, from volume to accuracy to relevancy for different applications.

“The monitoring itself has become easier,” said Thomas Baugh, science liaison for EPA’s southeast regional office (Region 4). “The other steps that are always surrounding the use of data – what it means, how to assess it, who needs to be involved with it – become more important when it’s coming from many different people and many different sources.”

For example, a network of only 10 sensors that report readings each minute for one year will yield more than 5.25 million data points in that time. With additional factors like device calibration or end uses of the data, the sensor picture starts to take the form of a Jackson Pollack painting.

“The need is for EPA to have some way to make meaningful use of that data, to evaluate it and assess it,” Baugh said.

First steps toward clarifying the role of citizen science at EPA include defining what a good data set looks like for different EPA needs and sharing how citizens can meet those standards.

Another Agency scientist, Patti Tyler, who serves as the science liaison in the regional office for the mountain and plains states (Region 8), points out that communication about data collection, standards and use remains important. She distilled the citizen science process into three C’s: coordinate, collaborate, communicate.

Air sensor technologies continue to progress toward smaller, cheaper designs, and with EPA’s guidance, citizens themselves can potentially research their own air quality.

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

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