EPA Offers up to $80,000 to Communities to Develop Air Sensor Data Best Practices

By Ann Dunkin, Chief Information Officer, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


  • Application Deadline: October 28, 2016
  • Announcement of Winners: Around December 1, 2016
  • Initial award: Up to $40,000 each to two communities to deploy air sensors, share data with the public, and develop data management best practices from sensors
  • Additional funding: Up to $10,000 each to the winning communities in 2017 based on their accomplishments and collaboration.

I came to the EPA with a firm belief that data can make a difference in environmental protection. Since I’ve been here I’ve found that communities are leading the way by using data to understand local conditions and operate efficiently. That’s why I’m excited to announce EPA’s Smart City Air Challenge.

This new challenge encourages communities to install hundreds of air quality sensors and manage the resulting data. EPA is offering two communities up to $40,000 each to work with their residents to crowdsource air quality data and share it with the public online. The projects will give individuals a role in collecting the data and understanding how environmental conditions affect their health and their community.

Air quality sensors are becoming less expensive and people are beginning to use them to measure pollution levels in their neighborhoods and homes. They’re developing rapidly, but most sensors aren’t ready for regulatory use. However, by networking these devices, communities can better understand what is happening at the local level. Communities will figure out where to place the sensors and how to maintain the devices. It’s up to each community to decide what pollutants they want to measure.

The prize funds serve as seed money, so communities will need to partner with other parties, such as sensor manufacturers, data management companies and universities. These partners can provide resources and expertise in topics where communities lack experience. In doing so, communities will learn how to use data analytics, which can be applied to other aspects of community life.

What does EPA get out of this? We’ll learn how communities collect, store and manage large amounts of data. We’ll also get a better understanding of the quality of data communities collect using sensors for non-regulatory purposes. We’ll see how communities transfer data from sensors to databases and visualize the results. Finally, the sensors will produce as much as 150 gigabytes of open data a year —data anyone can use.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy often says communities are “incubators for innovation.” We’re hoping the challenge will inspire communities to come up with innovative approaches for managing data so their residents and other communities can benefit. Show us how it’s done.

For more information: http://www.challenge.gov/challenge/smart-city-air-challenge/

For more information: https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2016/08/smart-cities-air-challenge

From Chengdu to Berlin: Commons Lab Citizen Science Activities in May

May 2016 brought the Commons Lab to Chengdu, Sichuan Provence in the People’s Republic of China. We were completing the second workshop in a series on “Storytelling is Serious Business” for environmental Chinese NGOs, supported by the Ford Foundation via the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. The Commons Lab presented on what types of citizen science tools, both analog and digital, are available for Chinese NGOs to use in their efforts. Additionally we designed and led a role playing game on the Flint Water Crisis to emphasize the importance of role and audience when engaging in complex storytelling.

To present the problem to workshop participants we designed a prezi that guided everyone through the timeline of the events leading up to the crisis and what different types of stakeholders were involved. See full prezi here: http://bit.ly/1RQzf8e

Participants enthusiastically embraced the game, noting a lot of similarities to Chinese environmental problems (contaminants in the water) and complex interactions between levels of government (local vs. state vs. federal). However the similarities diverged when it came to the role of the public and the the press. The participants playing the role of the Michigan State government were the most successful in which they designed a multi-faceted campaign to reach the press, locals involved, the general public and a well thought out appeal to the federal government for more money.

Anne Bowser and Elizabeth Tyson in front of the poster advertising our talk at Sichuan University

Following this workshop the Commons Lab and the China Environment Forum presented to an eager freshman class at Sichuan University – Jiangan Campus on Choke Point China and Citizen Science 101. The students had excellent questions about citizen science concerning data quality, how to keep participants motivated (or even motivate them in the first place) and more importantly how to get involved. We shared resources from the multiple citizen science associations and since we had a few engineers in the crowd we pointed them to Public Labs resources for building your own environmental sensing devices.



In between workshops in China and the conference in Europe, the Commons Lab visited the mountains of Western Sichuan

Our next stop was the first International European Citizen Science Association’s Conference which was held in Berlin, Germany.

The conference theme was Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. Over 350 people attended and the growth of the movement in Europe from previous years was palpable. The focus on policy impacts and integration of citizen science into existing governance structures was celebrated (see tweet below). International goodwill was provided among the three official associations with representatives from the US Citizen Science Association and the Australian Citizen Science Association attending.

Slide by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency

ECSA released their third policy paper, “Citizen Science as part of EU Policy Delivery – EU Directives” calling for four specific involvements to fast-track citizen science at the EU level:

  1. Review key Environmental Directives & Regulations, to remove barriers to & focus the attention of Member States on, the value & power of Citizen Science applications to support quality data acquisition on the effectiveness of those Directives;
  2. Support the development of an open common data base system to store citizen science data and to provide the tools for analysis of that data by citizens in conjunction with the European Environment Agency, the United Nations Environmental Programme UNEP LIVE, and/or other relevant international organisations working in the citizen science domain;
  3. Develop a decision making framework to identify the top 5 opportunities where Citizen Science would add greatest value to the delivery of EU Policy and to support the development of EU wide common monitoring programmes; and
  4. Identify clear policy leads on citizen science across the EU Directorates and within the EU Parliament to work with ECSA and to support engagement with the Eye-on-Earth Special Interest Group to shape the emerging global citizen science coalition.

For results and summaries from the myriad of interesting panels please explore the conference website: http://www.ecsa2016.eu/index.html. For some wonderful photos from the conference please visit this website: http://ogarit.jalbum.net/ECSA%202016/.

Of interesting note from the conference: because of the breadth and diversity of citizen science across multiple different research areas the vocabulary in this field is far from standardized. This was reflected when the conference organizers polled the audience on what percent of their job is actually dedicated to citizen science. It turns out there are only 15% of us that actual focus on the field as a whole.

About 15% work on citizen science full time, 60% part time, and 15% as a hobby – but with certain overlaps (Reported by Muki Haklay, Po Ve Sham Blog)


ECSA 2016 participants! Photo credit: UFZ | Florian Pappert

We look forward to seeing a similar diverse turnout with the upcoming US Citizen Science Association conference in February 2017, stay tuned for details on where and when.

EVENT: Citizen Science and Public Decision Making in the United States

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

How does the disconnect between professional scientists and public decision makers in normal policy settings translate for citizen science projects? To address this question, the Commons Lab and the Environmental Law Institute collaborated on a research paper that outlines the numerous legal and administrative components in the United States that impact what data and research methods can be employed when dealing with environmental issues concerning air quality, land use, water quality, and more.

A deeper understanding of these complicated facets will drastically improve citizen science project designs and the quality of research, while facilitating communications between the professional scientists and public decision makers.

In addition, we will explore the role of citizen science in the policymaking process within the Convention on Biological Diversity based on research conducted by Rob McNamara.

The event will be live webcast and you can tweet us, @STIPCommonsLab, with questions using the hashtag #impactcitsci.

Please join us and the Environmental Law Institute on Wednesday, April 27 from 2:00pm to 3:30pm at the Woodrow Wilson Center for the launch of this research paper and a panel discussion from the authors.

Moderator: David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program


James McElfish, Senior Attorney, Environmental Law Institute

Rob McNamara, Adjunct Professor,  International Environmental Studies, Sierra Nevada College

Please RSVP for the event at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/clearing-the-path-citizen-science-and-public-decision-making-the-united-states

Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable

This post is re-blogged from New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. You may find the original piece here, posted on April 21, 2016. 

The author of the article, Louise Lief, is a former Wilson Center fellow and current scholar-in-residence at the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Higher release of iron is evident in the Flint water glass reactor containing iron than that with Detroit water (Photo courtesy of FlintWaterStudy.org)

A couple of weeks ago, the task force Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed to investigate Flint’s now infamous water crisis issued its long-awaited report.

The findings detailed failures in multiple government agencies to address high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, in the city’s water. To cut costs, in the spring of 2014 Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager had switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the more polluted Flint River and kept it there, despite community protests, for 18 months.

Calling the crisis “a clear case of environmental injustice,” the task force issued 44 recommendations that will cost millions to implement. The long-term damage to many Flint children is irreversible.

The hidden success story in this disheartening tale of denial and indifference was the collaboration of an ad hoc coalition of journalists, citizens, and academics whose combined efforts finally compelled the state of Michigan to act. “Without their courage and persistence,” the report noted, “this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.”

As New Jersey and Ohio have discovered, lead’s story doesn’t end in Flint. There are an estimated 10 million lead service lines in the U.S., part of the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure that will require an estimated $1 trillion to rehabilitate.

As other communities wonder what perils they face, the Flint collaboration offers a road map on how to tackle environmental and other problems when government fails to act, especially for the most vulnerable communities.

Continue reading “Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable”

CitizenScience.Gov segment on Wilson Center NOW

This week the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Wilson Center launched citizenscience.gov, a new central hub for citizen science and crowdsourcing initiatives in the public sector. The site will catalog activity and provide tools for the conduct of citizen science projects. Anne Bowser, Co-Director of the Commons Lab at the Wilson Center explains the goals and potential of the project in this edition of Wilson Center NOW.


Anne Bowser is a Senior Program Associate with the Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP). She co-directs the Commons Lab, which takes as its mission mobilizing public participation and innovation in science, technology, and policy. Anne also leads the Wilson Center’s participation in a research project on encouraging bilateral cooperation in science and technology innovation between the US and the EU. She also supports the Wilson Center’s initiative on serious games.

Anne’s personal research focuses on understanding the role that technology plays in citizen science and crowdsourcing. She recently defended her PhD at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, where her dissertation explored a cooperative approach to designing Floracaching, a geocaching game for biodiversity data collection created to mobilize participation in university communities. Anne is also working on an NSF-funded project to study location privacy in citizen science. Finally, she supports the international practice of citizen science as the co-founder of a data and metadata interoperability working group of the Citizen Science Association.

John Milewski is the executive producer and managing editor of Wilson Center NOW and also serves as director of Wilson Center ON DEMAND digital programming. Previously he served as host and producer of Dialogue at the Wilson Center and Close Up on C-SPAN. He also teaches a course on politics and media for Penn State’s Washington Program.


– See more at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/launch-citizensciencegov#sthash.lzpLI2Wk.dpuf

Foul and Filthy Rivers, Water School and Hunting Plants: Citizen Science in China

Beijing River Bend taken by Peter Morgan (source)

By Elizabeth Tyson and Kate Logan (Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs)

Blackened rivers snake the ring roads of Beijing, carrying pollution and often smelly water from one end of the city to another. The most polluted of these have been dubbed “foul and filthy rivers” (黑臭河) by China’s Ministry of the Environment (MEP) and Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD). However, the government has decided to clean these up – and it is enlisting the help of the public to do so.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) is an independent civil society organization based in Beijing dedicated to the transparency and disclosure of environmental information. The group’s founder, former journalist, author, and 2012 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Ma Jun has written prolifically on environmental issues in China and created the country’s first pollution map database. IPE’s online air and water pollution maps use government data not only to show water and air pollution quality in every province and prefecture in China, but also to shine a light on specific emissions of factories, waste treatment plants, and factory farms. These days IPE is embarking on a new project to amplify a unique MEP and MOHURD crowdsourcing initiative that aims to tap citizens in Beijing to identify the foul and filthy rivers in the city.

The government has set targets for cleaning up the capital’s worst waterways: by 2020, the percentage of waters in built urban areas designated as “foul and filthy” must be contained to less than 10 percent and cleaned up completely by 2030. MEP and MOHURD kicked off this undertaking just after the 2016 Chinese New Year holiday by publishing the names and detailed statistics about the water bodies designated for clean-up. IPE has since integrated this information into the new 3.0 version of its Blue Map app (created by IPE to provide information on pollution) that will launch later this month, allowing the public to see exactly where these polluted waters are located.

But this initiative is not only about making information available to the public – it also capitalizes on the power of citizens to assist in clean-up efforts. To that end, MEP has opened a public account on We Chat (a wildly popular Chinese app that is a cross between What’s App and Facebook) where the public can submit photographs and descriptions of any waters that they believe should be designated as “foul and filthy,” guaranteeing that each report will receive an official response in seven business days or less. Meanwhile, IPE’s revised Blue Map app includes a “foul and filthy river” module; more than 3 million users have downloaded the app and, hopefully, even more users will download the new version once it is released.

The Commons Lab in collaboration with the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum gave a series of lectures and workshops on citizen science and communication techniques in Beijing two weeks ago. First, we introduced the citizen science field to 13 small environmental and health NGOs based in Beijing and western China. Then we stopped off at a hip bar in downtown Beijing to present to a room full of energetic Chinese and foreign energy and environmental workers of the Beijing Energy Network (BEN). Our last stop was Renmin University, where we discussed the potential for citizen science in natural resources. The feedback was tremendous and it’s clear that citizen science is growing in China and organizations are eager to expand their public participation in environmental issues.

Elizabeth Tyson presenting to the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs
Global Environmental Institute presenting on one of their citizen science project ideas.








Here are just a few of the stellar citizen science initiatives either poised to begin or underway that we learned about:

The Beijing-based Global Environment Institute is developing a climate change monitoring and adaptation citizen science pilot project in Western China, in the Sanjiangyun (Three Rivers) Nature Reserve in Qinghai Provence. This remote region provides drinking water for 1.4 billion people and contains fragile, yet critical, ecosystems. Information about the state of this environment is difficult to obtain due to its remoteness, and the region is only visited by the nomadic residents. This project aims to train the semi-nomadic herders how to monitor their local environment so scientists and environmental policymakers can make decisions based on more accurate and real-time data.

Botany wins for the longest standing citizen science project in China. Run by a collaboration of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, this project encourages naturalist enthusiasts to record observations of plants, and submit them the researchers which are then uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. It also serves as a discussion forum and RSS feed on relevant citizen science work from around the world.

Finally, the Chinese Water School is a primarily educational project run by the Chinese NGO Shangri-la Institute for Sustainable Communities based in the mountains of Yunnan Province in southwest China, which educates teachers how to collect water samples who then teach their students. The Ministry of Education in China administers volunteer certificates for children who participate in activities outside of their school. It was suggested during the BEN talk that a citizen science certificate could be created to encourage student participation in projects like these.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the challenges facing the projects here in China are similar to those faced by other countries: lack of funding, cracks in the project-to-decision-making pipeline; data quality standards vary across different projects; lack of interoperability of the collected data; and little knowledge about other projects.

However, China is lucky in that a number of these projects are still growing and some of the project ideas have yet to create databases, so the opportunity to build these with interoperability in mind is still wide open.

Despite the differences in Chinese policy and governance from Western countries, it appears as if the Ministry of Environmental Protection is eager to involve the public in solving environmental problems and environmental information is becoming increasingly available thanks to third party institutions like IPE. Through engaging the local and provincial governments, these nascent citizen science projects can encourage the use of their data and analysis by the MEP in collaboratively solving China’s environmental problems.

Citizen Science and the Flint Water Crisis


Flint Image
LeeAnne Walters shows Dr. Marc Edwards a used filter that was filled with rust after seven days of use (Photo courtesy of FlintWaterStudy.org)

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan decided to switch its water supply source from the Detroit water system to a cheaper alternative, the Flint River. But in exchange for the cheaper price tag, the Flint residents paid a greater price with one of the worst public health crises of the past decade.

Despite concerns from Flint citizens about the quality of the water, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly attributed the problem to the plumbing system. It was 37-year-old mother of four, LeeAnne Walters who, after noticing physical and behavioral changes in her children and herself, set off a chain of events that exposed the national scandal. Eventually, with the support of Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech (VT), Walters discovered lead concentration levels of 13,200 parts per billion in her water, 880 times the maximum concentration allowed by law and more than twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers to be hazardous waste. Continue reading “Citizen Science and the Flint Water Crisis”

Event Recap: Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science, and the Law

With the inherent role that open data and open science plays in crowdsourcing and citizen science, understanding how intellectual property rights (IP) and legal issues could impact federal citizen science project designs becomes critical. In December, the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center hosted an expert panel addressing these IP and legal issues. Additionally, the Commons Lab created a web-enabled policy tool that allows federal agencies to better navigate the different legal barriers surrounding citizen science.

Experts on the panel include Teresa Scassa (Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa); Haewon Chung (Doctoral candidate in law at the University of Ottawa); Jay Benforado (Office of Research and Development at US EPA); and Robert Gellman (Privacy and Information Policy Consultant).