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

White House to Host Arctic Science Ministerial

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In spring of this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced plans to host the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial.  On September 28, science ministers from Arctic and non-Arctic nations alike will convene in Washington, DC.  Joining them will be representatives from various indigenous groups that call the Arctic home.  Together, the OSTP is hoping to “advance promising, near-term science initiatives and create a context for increased international scientific collaboration on the Arctic over the long term.”  The Ministerial will revolve around four key themes: arctic science challenges and their regional and global implications, strengthening and integrating arctic observations and data sharing, applying expanded scientific understanding of the arctic to build regional resilience and shape global responses, and of particular significance to us here at the Commons Lab, arctic science as a vehicle for STEM education and citizen empowerment.  Current citizen science projects in the Arctic both address this theme, and serve as powerful examples of the near-term initiatives the OSTP intends to highlight.

One doesn’t have to look hard to discover the abundance of citizen science projects already underway in the Arctic.  Because it is often difficult or expensive to reach, researchers rely heavily on the input of citizen scientists.  This dependency has contributed to the proliferation and long history of Arctic citizen science.  One such initiative, the Kachemak Bay CoastWalk, dates all the way back to 1984.  For more than 30 years, CoastWalk participants have helped remove debris from Alaskan beaches and record observations of flora and fauna.  In fact, a CoastWalk team member was the first to spot oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill on the beaches of Homer, Alaska.  And when it comes to keeping track of invasive species, one project has proven that no age is too young.  “Early Primary Invasion Scientists,” an article published in Science and Children, highlights the contributions of a first grade class, who helped document how climate change is affecting invasive species in the far North.

Poseidon Expeditions, a Russian polar tourism outfit, recruits clients to make sea ice observations (photo credit: Lauren Farmer)

While the Inuit may have more than 50 words for snow, Arctic residents haven’t forgotten about ice either.  The SEARCH Sea Ice Outlook provides the scientific community, stakeholders, and the public with information on Arctic sea ice, and receives its funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationIce Watch, coordinated by the International Arctic Research Center out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, serves as an open source forum for data on Arctic sea ice.  By using their ASSIST software, anyone can collect, archive, and access Arctic sea ice data from around the globe.

Projects like these have cemented the role that citizen science plays in Arctic research, a field integral to monitoring climate change.  With temperatures rising twice as fast as the global average, permafrost is thawing, and glaciers are melting, at an alarming rate.  In conjunction with the Paris Agreement, the international collaboration displayed during the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit is invaluable to combating climate change globally, an issue with sobering local ramifications, especially for those in the Arctic.

Webinar on Citizenscience.gov

Interested in learning more about the Citizenscience.gov  platform?  Join the Wilson Center Commons Lab and the General Services Administration (GSA) for a webinar tomorrow afternoon from 11am – 12pm.  Hosted via DigitalGov University, topics of the webinar will include an introduction to the platform, a tour of the Federal Catalogue, and a few citizen science examples from federal practitioners.



Whether you’re a seasoned citizen science practitioner, aiming to promote a current project within the federal community, or simply interested in what Citizenscience.gov, and the field as a whole, have to offer – all are welcome to attend.  By capturing the input and enthusiasm of the general public, citizen science and crowdsourcing projects are tackling the problems of today and tomorrow.  Citizenscience.gov serves as the hub for federal endeavors of this nature, providing the populace and federal practitioners with three pillars of support: a Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, a Federal Catalog, and a Community Page.

Presenting at the webinar are Elizabeth Tyson, a CoDirector of the Commons Lab, and Kendrick Daniel, a representative from the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, and the Program Lead for Citizenscience.gov.

Click here to register.

Brexit and the Future of Citizen Science in the U.K.

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Britain’s departure from the European Union, and the resulting diplomatic maelstrom, has left more than a few things up in the air.  In the U.K., turbulent financial markets took their toll on the pound, while the country scrambles to hire foreign experts to renegotiate trade deals.  Meanwhile, Brussels has heard concerns voiced by other skeptical members of the E.U., who fear that Britain’s departure might become the thread that unravels the European sweater.  The tumult of the past three weeks will take a full two years to unravel, as per the probationary period allotted by Article 50 of the E.U. treaty, so any predictions at this stage are essentially speculation.  While economists and diplomats discuss the future of trade and the fate of the E.U., we at the Commons Lab would like to know how Brexit will shape the landscape of European, and specifically British, citizen science.

The U.K. is at the forefront of the citizen science movement, with projects ranging from The Shore Thing, which helps to document the effects of climate change on rocky shore species, to Cloudy with a Chance of Pain, a smartphone-based study of chronic pain.  But, since citizen science is a participatory venture, and many projects transcend national boundaries, it remains to be seen how future endeavors will respond to changes in the international funding and grant structure.

The U.K. has won more H2020 projects than any EU nation (image credit: LSE)

Perhaps the greatest change, from a funding perspective, will be the U.K.’s reaction to the loss of Horizon 2020 grants.  H2020, the E.U.’s Research and Innovation program, provides an array of projects with nearly €80 billion (more than $88 billion USD) over a seven year period, ending in the year 2020.  Currently, more than 33 British projects are set to receive H2020 funding, more than any other country in the program.  Many of these projects, like DITOs and PROSO, are devoted to engaging the public in research and innovation-based endeavors, and receive most or all, as is the case with PROSO, of their financial backing from the E.U.  One citizen science project for instance, has seven partners within the U.K., including the Universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh.  The Citizen Observatory Web, or COBWEB for short, recruits everyday people (their words, not mine) to collect valuable information within UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.  COBWEB receives funding from H2020’s predecessor, the E.U.’s Seventh Programme (FP7).  How projects like COBWEB would proceed, potentially in lieu of readily available E.U. funding, has yet to be determined.  For the U.K. to continue participating in H2020, it would need to obtain associated country status, a label that would likely require a few concessions.  Of those concessions, freedom of movement could be a possibility, and a divisive one at that; limiting immigration was a driving force behind the leave campaign, and Switzerland’s decision to inhibit movement resulted in the drastic diminution of H2020 funding.  Given its dependence on international collaboration, it is likely that the U.K. will do what it can to secure associated country status, and the funding it entails.

OPAL is among the U.K.’s most successful domestic citizen science networks


Many of the projects receiving E.U. grant money however, are European-wide initiatives, which is not to say that Britain has no funding schemes of its own.  Open Air Laboratories, or OPAL, is radiant proof of this fact; it’s enlisted nearly one million participants in environmental and natural projects, and led to the publication of more than 20 scientific papers, all through the domestic Big Lottery Fund.  And in fact, an additional three projects registered on SciStarter are based in the U.K.:  Treezilla, an ambitious campaign to map every tree in Britain; a British Trust for Ornithology nest watching project; and, Flusurvey, an epidemiological study mapping influenza patterns.  Domestic projects, by their very nature, are regional in scale.  This is both a limiting and empowering element of national projects.  On the one hand, something like mapping species migration across Europe might be off the table from an international funding perspective.  But by focusing on projects near and dear to local communities, participation should thrive, while the costs associated with long-distance travel and organizational management are avoided.  By staying close to home, many of these projects also qualify for funding from local museums and universities.  Some projects have even profited from providing access to their data; the British Trust for Ornithology, for instance, has secured roughly £100k in royalties.  With Britain’s departure from the E.U., the continuation, and perhaps proliferation, of domestic citizen science projects is likely.

A more cosmopolitan alternative exists as well.  The global Citizen Science Association (CSA) already has several members from within the U.K., engendering relationships across the Atlantic.  Perhaps citizen science projects in the U.K. will look west for new collaborations.  Treezilla received its inspiration from a similar project in the U.S., OpenTreeMap, which has since become a global community.  Should such collaboration and data sharing proliferate, by turning its back on Europe, Britain may have opened itself up to the world.

Open Geospatial Consortium Formally Approves Citizen Science Domain Working Group

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The international project on citizen science data and metadata interoperability, supported by the Commons Lab and organizations like the U.S. Citizen Science Association, has a new partner.  At the closing plenary of the Open Geospatial Consortium’s (OGC) recent technical committee meeting on June 23rd, the OGC formally approved the creation of a Citizen Science Domain Working Group (DWG).

The OGC’s mission is “to advance the development and use of international standards and supporting services that support geospatial interoperability.”  Simply put, whenever someone asks “where?” the OGC is there, helping more than 500 universities, government agencies, and private entities make the most of location-based information.  The organization helps researchers, public-sector, and private-sector employees alike by acting as an open-access forum for technology developers and users, each of whom benefit from implementing OGC-compliant policies and procedures.


With over 20 years of experience, it should come as no surprise that OGC members have engaged in a host of exciting initiatives.  From monitoring Climate Change to laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s Smart Cities, the group meets each challenge head-on.  Work through OGC is undertaken collaboratively through interoperability testbeds, where standards ae developed and best practices identified by experimenting with concrete use cases, and by individual members.  For example, a consortium of OGC researchers collaborated on a recent citizen science project, entitled the Citizen Observatory Web, or COBWEB for short.  Acting as a liaison between a variety of European Biosphere Reserves, the initiative aims to address data quality issues by integrating citizen and professional spatial data.  Ideally, by complying with OGC standards, the species distribution input from a citizen scientist in Greece’s Mt. Olympus Biosphere Reserve would be accessible by, and intelligible to, a Zoologist in Wales’ Dyfi Biosphere Reserve.  The toolkit and set of models the OGC is creating will help make potential citizen science projects a reality, in European Biosphere Reserves and beyond.

Given its immaculate track record and incredible potential, the OGC has plenty to offer the citizen science community.  With the launch of the COBWEB initiative, a precedent was set for supporting and advancing citizen science through OGC channels.  Now, with the establishment of the formidable team of researchers and professionals comprising the Citizen Science DWG, anyone trying to engage in citizen science data collection and sharing will have a new organization to turn to for guidance.  Geospatial data saturates the citizen science field, and while collecting it can be a challenge, making sure the results gleaned are accessible can prove to be a logistical nightmare.  That’s why this new DWG plans to underscore the importance of interoperability, eliminating the nuances that isolate projects by establishing best practices and promoting open standards.  Citizen science projects rely on their communities, and now project leaders have a new resource of their own.

For more information about the OGC Citizen Science Domain Working Group (DWG), please contact Anne Bowser, anne.bowser@wilsoncenter.org

Obama’s Legacy in Science, Technology, and Innovation

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

On Monday of this week, the White House Office of the Press Secretary released an Impact Report titled “100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.”  Upon entering office, Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and with less than 6 months left in his second term, the time has come to assess his commitment to that goal.  This list, catalogued by the affected field, serves as tangible evidence of his reinvestment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The role of science, technology, and innovation in society cannot be overstated; with a breadth of applications – from promoting economic expansion to combatting climate change – maintaining public interest in these three domains is essential.  A cornucopia of applications is on display in the report, with noted advancements and initiatives towards everything from breaking down gender stereotypes in toys and the media (#23) to safely integrating commercial drones into the national airspace (#35).

Barack Obama
Obama introduces the BRAIN Initiative (#45) to discover new methods of treating neurological disorders (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Roughly the first quarter of the list is devoted to detailing the broad brush strokes of the Administration, its goals for promoting STEM within the government, the education system, and the public.  And of particular note for us at the Commons Lab are the entries under the subheading “Promoting Innovation Nationwide”.  It’s there that items 14 and 15 laud the establishment of the prizes and challenges platforms Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov.  The former relies on, and monetarily rewards, the input of citizens in an effort to solve issues facing an array of government agencies.  The latter comprises a catalogue, toolkit, and community page for anyone interested in joining the citizen science movement.  By highlighting these platforms, especially CitizenScience.gov, which debuted in April of this year, the Administration is further fomenting its legacy of Open Innovation.

The legacy is also apparent in a host of other initiatives.  Obama and his team, namely staff within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and scholars on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), have worked tirelessly to foster participatory endeavors.  They’ve removed certain barriers-to-entry facing the prospective innovator: they’ve made the Research & Experimentation tax credit permanent (#10), increased research and development funding (#7), and opened up nearly 200,000 Federal datasets to the public (#12).  These strides, combined with those taken to cultivate future generations of STEM-savvy citizens (#16-25), have provided an optimistic trajectory for the years to come.  And by recognizing and appreciating the inextricable link between innovation and entrepreneurship, this Administration has aimed to pave the way for steady economic growth; it was in this vein that a network of nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes were established in 2012 (#30).  It’s also important to note efforts to catalyze advancements in fields as diverse as healthcare (#43-46) and space exploration (#84-87).  Of course, only the passage of time will allow for anyone to definitively measure the impact of the Obama White House on science, technology, and innovation, and their impacts on our nation in turn, but, according to the Office of the Press Secretary, we have at least 100 things to be thankful for.

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.

4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science

Video: Google Hangout recording at the USA Science & Engineering Festival of citizen scientist experts from across the country discussing how mobile technology can assist the growth of citizen science

At the 4th USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education exposition in the United States, more than 1,000 STEM organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Department of State, presented interactive activities to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in the STEM field. Over the course of two days, tens of thousands of visitors of all ages came to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center located in Washington, D.C. to engage with STEM activities.

While the organizations covered a broad range of science and engineering areas, a common focal point was citizen science. Specifically, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Park Service, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Homeland Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and SciStarter aimed to further the general public’s participation in and understanding of citizen science, its success and significance today, and its potential applications for the future.

NOAA, for example, discussed the critical role citizen science plays with emerging technology and the numerous NOAA projects that could not have succeeded without the support of citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Continue reading “4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science”

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”