Backyard Talk

Crowdsourcing Discovery: White House Celebrates Citizen Science

Expanding our environmental monitoring networks and empowering students to learn about science and the environment: both these elements are critical to advancing a more sustainable, healthier future for communities in the U.S. and worldwide. The annual White House Science Fair this past March gave special focus to citizen science, announcing that the Office of Science and Technology Policy will be holding a Citizen Science Forum before the end of 2015.

Citizen science, also known as crowd-sourced science, is a powerful tool for advancing environmental health and justice. While investigations by scientific professionals add necessary rigor to the analysis of environmental issues, citizens can contribute to monitoring environmental phenomena and gathering data on issues in their own communities that might not otherwise be brought into the light of discovery.

In a recent example from EPA Region 2, citizen science was used in Newark, New Jersey to monitor fine particulate air pollution from traffic. Kim Gaddy, a member of the NJ Environmental Federation, states that the study tried to “bring exposure to the fact that in the City of Newark, and most urban communities, one in four children is asthmatic.” The connections between asthma and air pollution are known in a general, global sense, but gathering concrete data at the local level can help stimulate changes to policies that directly affect community health. The White House’s Citizen Science Fact Sheet also speaks to the power of citizen science projects as “tools for providing students with skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering and math.”

The announcement particularly highlighted efforts by the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a group that uses do-it-yourself monitoring techniques to enable communities facing environmental hazards to more effectively participate in decision making processes.  The group is committing to “putting 6,000 low-cost, accessible sensors…into the hands of community environmental researchers to enable residents to identify pollution affecting their own backyards.” New tools include a conductivity/temperature/depth sensor and an oil testing kit. Public Lab is also partnering with SciStarter, the Museum of Science Boston, and Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society to “connect citizen scientists to data collection tools” through a lending library.

In communities facing toxic pollution and exposures, a lack of both scientific attention and the resources to conduct investigations lead many problems to go unaddressed. Citizen science can help leverage the energy and ingenuity of those who have the most at stake in environmental issues, and provide the tools and frameworks necessary for advancing policy change at the local level. Public Lab and other groups are leading the charge to address environmental hazards through crowdsourcing, and the recent White House announcements are an encouraging sign of the increasing importance of citizen science on the national policy level.

Backyard Talk

Environmental Justice – Learning from Ecuador

In a previous blog by CHEJ’s Science Director, Stephen Lester, we saw that Environmental Justice (EJ) communities are not at all confined to the US. In fact, they may be even more prevalent in developing countries, and their struggles can help us better learn how to fight for justice in our own communities.

One such example is in the South American country of Ecuador, where Texaco, later annexed by oil giants Chevron, polluted massive portions of the Amazon rain forest with their oil drilling operations for nearly 40 years during the later half of the past century. Between 1954 and 1990, the amount of contamination dumped in Ecuador’s Amazon portion is estimated to be over 30 times greater than the oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster.

In 2003, over 30,000 affected Ecuadorians – many of them indigenous people – filed a class-action lawsuit against Chevron, accusing the oil company of being directly responsible for more than 1,000 cancer deaths. Years of legal battles and stalling tactics by Chevron ensued, but in a recent development the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that a prior decision by an Ecuadorean court fining Chevron $9.5 billion in 2011 should be upheld.

Although it is still unclear what body would have the authority to enforce the ICJ’s ruling, this decision is a massive victory for the people of Ecuador. Their perseverance – over 10 years of struggle and activism – lead to this development. In addition, despite having severely limited monetary resources and little education as well as political influence, they found strength in numbers. More than 30,000 individuals came together and organized for the cause. They used the small connections they had to draw in NGOs and other organizations to help them in their cause.

In the end, the people from Ecuador may yet achieve retribution and justice from the multibillion company that polluted their homes and killed their loved ones. As for us, we should congratulate and learn from their hard work and determination.