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

Reflections on Bridging the Gulf

By Christian Belcher, Departing Commons Lab Intern

EachChristian year the Commons Lab hosts a number of Interns for 3-12 month appointments. These Interns support our research and outreach efforts, learning about citizen science and meeting key community members in the process. Because we are interested in understanding how newcomers appreciate the paradigm of citizen science, we ask each to blog about their experiences during their last week at the Wilson Center.

Christian Belcher is a rising senior at Georgetown University, majoring in Political Economy and minoring in Political and Social Thought. He hopes to shape public policy one day by employing the skills he has garnered in both the professional and academic settings.

Admittedly, I haven’t taken a science class since my freshman year of college – an introductory course in astronomy aimed at appeasing the “monkey on my back” that was general education requirements. To make matters worse, I’m about as fluent in Python or C++ as I am in Esperanto. So at first glance, I was perhaps the least-likely candidate for an internship with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Program. That said, the skill transfer from previous academic research projects, and the value of an “outsider perspective,” enabled me to feel that, despite being out-of-my-league at times, at least I was playing the same sport.

The initial unfamiliarity, and subsequent intimidation, that I felt during my first week on the job may in fact mirror how other laymen regard professional science as a whole. But if that is at all the case, then citizen science projects are perhaps the best way to address these inhibitions; they help bridge the gulf between the public and the ivory tower of academia. Citizen science is science democratized. As such, it presents us with many of the same opportunities and challenges that face our system of government today. Just as we should strive to increase voter turnout, we must encourage participation in community-based science. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the most politically-active demographics, and those most likely to participate in a citizen science project – neither of which offers an accurate depiction of the population as a whole.

I believe that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the tremendous potential that citizen science and crowdsourcing methods bare, for the citizen, the scientist, and society alike. Whether it’s documenting the effects of climate change, altered migratory patterns, or health diagnostics for epidemiological studies, anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can make meaningful contributions to revolutionary studies. The field is still in its adolescence; common vocabularies and standardization are on their way, along with federal policies aimed proliferating their implementation. The Holdren memo got the ball rolling, but what’s next? How about integrating a nation-wide citizen science project into primary school curricula? First-graders in Alaska have proven invaluable in the effort to document the spread of invasive species – imagine what fifty states’ worth of them could do.

Crowdsourcing has already begun to stand on its own, and proven profitable to the private sector, through platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Researchers and companies are starting to appreciate the “wisdom of the crowd,” and won’t need the training wheels of federal backing much longer. That said, I think that the role played by the federal government, and federally sponsored platforms like Challenge.gov and Citizenscience.gov, will only become more invaluable in time. And with ubiquity will come an even greater demand for accessible resources and best practices, the kind provided and promoted by groups like the CSA, ECSA, and ACSA. Who knows, maybe there will be a day when crowdsourcing and citizen science are seen not as novel or innovative, but normal and instinctive.

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.

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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.

NOAA on Citizen Science: It’s in America’s DNA

This is a cross post from NOAA’s blog at the Office of Education: The article is drawn from a keynote by NOAA Chief Scientist, Dr. Richard Spinrad, at a forum hosted by the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program and the Wilson Center Commons Lab. With a focus on the vital role of citizen science, the forum was entitled, Tracking a Changing Climate.

Citizen science is part of America’s DNA.  For centuries, citizens not trained in science have helped shaped our understanding of Earth.

Thomas Jefferson turned Lewis and Clark into citizen scientists when he asked them to explore the landscape, wildlife and weather during their journeys of the West. They investigated plants, animals and geography, and came back with maps, sketches and journals.  These new data were some of the first pieces of environmental intelligence defining our young nation.  President Jefferson instilled citizen science in my own agency’s DNA by creating the Survey of the Coast, a NOAA legacy agency focused on charting  and protecting the entire coast of our Nation.

2014-11-18 02 48 07The National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program, begun in 1890, is an outstanding example of citizen science. Last year, NOAA honored an observer who has provided weather observations every day for 80 years. Volunteer citizen scientists have transcribed more than 68,000 pages of Arctic ship logs, adding to the long-term climate record by populating a database with historic weather and sea ice observations. Also, citizen scientists are providing new estimates of cyclone intensity by interpreting satellite images.

Continue reading “NOAA on Citizen Science: It’s in America’s DNA”

Try it, you might like it

It is the trying, rather than the quitting, that is newsworthy

Margaret Mead, the world-famous anthropologist said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The sentiment rings true for citizen science.

Yet, recent news in the citizen science world has been headlined “Most participants in citizen science projects give up almost immediately.” This was based on a study of participation in seven different projects within the crowdsourcing hub called Zooniverse. Most participants tried a project once, very briefly, and never returned.


What’s unusual about Zooniverse projects is not the high turnover of quitters. Rather, it’s unusual that even early quitters do some important work. That’s a cleverly designed project. An ethical principle of Zooniverse is to not waste people’s time. The crowdsourcing tasks are pivotal to advancing research. They cannot be accomplished by computer algorithms or machines. They require crowds of people, each chipping in a tiny bit. What is remarkable is that the quitters matter at all.

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Tracking a Changing Climate Workshop Summary

How can Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing play a role in tracking our changing climate?  The Commons Lab collaborated with US Global Climate Research Program and the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science to find out how a system like this could work.  The vision for the sustained National Climate Assessment involves identifying a set of indicators – or physical, ecological, and societal variables – that track climate changes, impacts and responses.  We held a public roundtable (November 18th) and an invitation-only workshop (November 19th) to explore the following questions:

  • Which indicators could benefit from the incorporation of citizen science—10 years from now, five years from now, and today?
  • What existing citizen science projects can be leveraged? Are there opportunities for new uses of citizen science?
  • How can citizen science and indicators be used together to help a range of audiences better understand climate change?
A graphic recording of the roundtable discussions. (Credit: Emily Cloyd)

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Why Citizen Science and Public Media Need to Get Together

lilybuiThis is a cross-post, originally published in Medium, by Lily Bui. She is ​a researcher and M.S. candidate for MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Most recently, she has been a STEM Story Project Associate at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX); the Executive Editor at SciStarter, PLOS CitizenSci, and Discover Magazine’s Citizen Science Salon. In her spare time, she ​tinkers with electronics and t​hinks of cheesy science puns.


Broadcasting, believe it or not, comes from farming.

In modern vernacular, “to broadcast” means to transmit information by TV or radio, but the verb’s original definition meant “to scatter (seeds) by hand or machine rather than placing in drills or rows.” It may or may not come as a surprise to you that broadcasting has just as much to do with farming and media as it has to do with citizen science.

[For this context, let’s regard citizen science as public involvement in inquiry, discovery, and construction of scientific knowledge, typically in the form of data collection, classification, or documentation.]

In 1792, Robert B. Thomas started the Old Farmers’ Almanac, a periodical circulated widely and regularly to farmers. Still in publication today, the Almanac serves two important purposes: (1) It acts as an objective reference for weather and astronomical predictions, sourcing its observations from the farming community. (2) It facilitates a space where the community can share advice, anecdotes, recipes, and more with each other.

(But what does this have to do with citizen science?)

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Monitoring Arms Control Compliance With Web Intelligence

Traditional monitoring of arms control treaties, agreements, and commitments has required the use of National Technical Means (NTM)—large satellites, phased array radars, and other technological solutions. NTM was a good solution when the treaties focused on large items for observation, such as missile silos or nuclear test facilities. As the targets of interest have shrunk by orders of magnitude, the need for other, more ubiquitous, sensor capabilities has increased. The rise in web-based, or cloud-based, analytic capabilities will have a significant influence on the future of arms control monitoring and the role of citizen involvement.

Since 1999, the U.S. Department of State has had at its disposal the Key Verification Assets Fund (V Fund), which was established by Congress. The Fund helps preserve critical verification assets and promotes the development of new technologies that support the verification of and compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament requirements.

Sponsored by the V Fund to advance web-based analytic capabilities, Sandia National Laboratories, in collaboration with Recorded Future (RF), synthesized open-source data streams from a wide variety of traditional and nontraditional web sources in multiple languages along with topical texts and articles on national security policy to determine the efficacy of monitoring chemical and biological arms control agreements and compliance. The team used novel technology involving linguistic algorithms to extract temporal signals from unstructured text and organize that unstructured text into a multidimensional structure for analysis. In doing so, the algorithm identifies the underlying associations between entities and events across documents and sources over time. Using this capability, the team analyzed several events that could serve as analogs to treaty noncompliance, technical breakout, or an intentional attack. These events included the H7N9 bird flu outbreak in China, the Shanghai pig die-off and the fungal meningitis outbreak in the United States last year.


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CollaborativeScience.org: Sustaining Ecological Communities Through Citizen Science and Online Collaboration

Virginia Master Naturalists conducting stream water quality monitoring.

In any endeavor, there can be a tradeoff between intimacy and impact. The same is true for science in general and citizen science in particular. Large projects with thousands of collaborators can have incredible impact and robust, global implications. On the other hand, locally based projects can foster close-knit ties that encourage collaboration and learning, but face an uphill battle when it comes to creating rigorous and broadly relevant investigations. Online collaboration has the potential to harness the strengths of both of these strategies if a space can be created that allows for the easy sharing of complex ideas and conservation strategies.

CollaborativeScience.org was created by researchers from five different universities to train Master Naturalists in ecology, scientific modeling and adaptive management, and then give these capable volunteers a space to put their training to work and create conservation plans in collaboration with researchers and land managers.

We are focusing on scientific modeling throughout this process because environmental managers and ecologists have been trained to intuitively create explanations based on a very large number of related observations. As new data are collected, these explanations are revised and are put to use in generating new, testable hypotheses. The modeling tools that we are providing to our volunteers allow them to formalize this scientific reasoning by adding information, sources and connections, then making predictions based on possible changes to the system. We integrate their projects into the well-established citizen science tools at CitSci.org and guide them through the creation of an adaptive management plan, a proven conservation project framework.

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