Catching the Citizen Science Curve

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.