By Naomi Bloch
If you were following the recent climate change talks in Paris, you may have noticed a recurring theme: policymakers acknowledging the leadership of subnational governments in addressing climate change. Canada’s own delegation to the conference included representatives from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, as well as provincial and indigenous leaders.
While the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference focused on political negotiations, critics have been quick to remind legislators that more efforts are needed to involve citizens in decision-making. It’s hardly a new idea, but how can civic participation function at a global scale? Activities at the local level may hold the key. Municipalities often have established mechanisms to involve the public in deliberative activities. Cities and their citizens can also collaborate on the evidence-gathering needed to make informed decisions.
Geothink collaborator Muki Haklay is the director of the University College London’s Extreme Citizen Science group and a professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering. In 2008, he co-founded Mapping for Change, an organization that uses participatory mapping and citizen science to address environmental and social issues in cities.
“I see the value of citizen science as part of wider environmental democracy, going back to the Rio conference in 1992,” Haklay explained in an email interview with Geothink. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that, at national levels, citizens should have “appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities.” At the community level, the Declaration calls for active and informed public participation in environmental decision-making processes.
Citizen science invites non-professionals to participate in data gathering and the production of new scientific knowledge. “I see citizen science as a new part of the picture,” said Haklay, “where people also participate in creating environmental information that will influence their lives.”
In Haklay’s view, citizen science has particular benefits that can complement traditional research. “The various changes that have occurred in society and technology mean that we can open environmental decision-making further and make it more inclusive and participatory.” As with all research, appropriate rigor and attention to methodology are required. “Not all data should come from citizen science,” said Haklay. “In terms of data quality, citizen science requires us to use appropriate quality assurance methods.”
Mapping for Change provides some helpful exemplars. One collaboration with local organizations has seen thirty different communities across London measuring and mapping air quality data for their neighbourhoods. “We used a whole range of methods: wipe samples, where we checked for heavy metals in dust on different surfaces; diffusion tubes which measure NO2 levels; and bio-indicators — lichens and leaves,” Haklay said. The project’s findings provide location-specific data that can help alert authorities to potential problem zones. “The local authority responded to the results by promising to do their own monitoring in the area and consider how they can manage the traffic in the area.”
Particularly when expensive equipment or lab analysis is needed, resource limitations can create challenges. However, Haklay points out some unique benefits. “Citizen science provides additional information about the context — local knowledge about the place where the monitoring is taking place,” said Haklay. “Participants can also put equipment in their own homes, which is complex for researchers or government agencies.” The citizen science water study in Flint, Michigan, is a good example of this.
Constraints, of course, are not just funding-related. “Not all people would want to do it, and not everyone will have the skills, though we need to consider how to help people in developing them,” Haklay said. “The limitations are the knowledge that people have, their perception of science and their own capabilities, and the abilities of those who manage citizen science projects to engage at such levels. We shouldn’t expect all scientists to be able to facilitate the whole process on their own.”
Haklay suggests that government agencies looking to incorporate citizen science in their data gathering processes should consult the report, Choosing and Using Citizen Science, produced by the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The report reviews resource and management issues, political issues, as well as scientific issues.
The key to citizen science is that it can involve a range of activities. “Participants can help in setting the research question, create protocols that are suitable to their local culture and needs, analyze the information, participate in the production of reports and papers — in short, in everything,” Haklay said. “The value is in making science more open and more collaborative.”Interested in learning more about Muki Haklay’s citizen science work? Follow him on Twitter: @ If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.