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Citizen science in environmental monitoring

Good environmental research is crucially dependent on solid environmental data. However, research communities often lack the time and resources required to gather environmental data with sufficient volume and resolution to provide adequate knowledge about the environment.

The solution may be to invite non-scientists to contribute to research projects. Such activities are called citizen science (also known as participatory monitoring, crowd-sourced science or citizen observatories). Citizen science emphasises collaboration and co-creation as a basis for scientific and community-based solutions.

In environmental research, professional science alone cannot provide information at the scales and resolutions necessary to understand environmental change. And that is where citizen scientists can contribute. For instance, they can go to geographic areas professional scientists cannot access due to a lack of resources. Collaboration between the public and professional scientists can also be educational; citizen science conducted by young people is rapidly expanding.

These types of research projects can be adapted to accommodate educational programmes for schools and to suit essentially any age group. Citizen science projects can spread knowledge about various environmental challenges, and generate increased awareness and commitment to environmental issues in the population.

For centuries, volunteers have been observing nature – without being called “citizen scientists”. Just think of the contributions of amateur astronomers, butterfly enthusiasts and bird watchers. Today, the list of citizen science programmes is endless, thanks to the rapid development of smart technologies over the last decade. Access to internet, use of smart phones, and increased understanding of scientific concepts have contributed to this expansion.

A large number of citizen science projects focus on monitoring the environment. NILU has been involved in several of these projects in recent years. Most of them involve volunteers measuring air quality with low-cost sensor systems in cities spread across Norway and Europe. Although the data obtained from sensor systems are less accurate than the data from reference instruments, initial testing shows that these sensors have great potential and can provide indicative measurements of air quality. If sensor systems are deployed in large quantities, their data can be complemented by air quality models and used, for example, to develop high-resolution urban-scale air quality maps – and provide you with real-time information about conditions wherever you are.

In 2017, NILU was part of the national research campaign “Check your artificial soccer turf!” Schoolchildren all over Norway surveyed the use of crumb rubber on artificial turf soccer fields and figured out how much of the crumb rubber disappeared from the field and ended up in the environment.

NILU is partner of ECSA, the European Citizen Science Association, and chair of the working group on air quality (https://ecsa.citizen-science.net/air-quality). The vision of the working group is to support citizen science communities working on air quality across Europe, and help them mobilise, meet and learn from each other’s experiences.

Current and past activities: