Can the Power of Citizen Science Help Save the Environment?

How innovative technology is making it easier than ever before for ordinary citizens to become climate scientists.

For all human innovation has given us, the unfortunate truth is it’s also caused harm to the only planet we’ve got. And while there’s a slew of amazing technology that’s helping prevent and reverse the damage, most of it’s in the hands of scientists and engineers. But what if technology could bridge that gap and directly allow people to monitor changes to their own environment?

Deren Güler’s FLOAT project did just that. In 2008, while she was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon, Güler and cocreator Xiaowei Wang used Kickstarter to fund FLOAT, which fitted kites with simple sensors to test Beijing’s air quality. The kites’ sensors were connected to LED lights that changed color depending on the air quality, turning from green to hot pink depending on the level of pollutants they detect. Tapping into the 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition of kite flying, the kites created hundreds of tiny air quality testing stations at a time when no official reports were accessible to the city of 17 million.

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]“Making electronics and computation accessible to a diverse, wide audience of people is something that is really important to me. This is somewhere where people need to have the power of measuring air quality in their own hands.”

-Deren Güler[/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

“Kite flying is a very playful way to start to talk about issues of air quality,” said Wang in a ChinaFile video about the project. “It’s really poetic, too. It’s this vehicle that’s of the air, literally.”

More than just raising awareness about air pollution, the kites and FLOAT workshops gave agency to people by turning them into active data collectors.

“Making electronics and computation accessible to a diverse, wide audience of people is something that is really important to me. Because this is somewhere where people need to have the power of measuring air quality in their own hands,” Güler said.

Güler’s other work also involves creating accessible tools for makers and tinkerers from all walks of life. She’s the creator of Invent-abling, gender-neutral electronics kits that have made their way into places like Assemble and Makeshop.

On the other side of the globe, a 2007 HASTAC grant-winning project from University of California Berkeley professor and game designer Greg Niemeyer called Black Cloud also turned measuring air quality into an emotional experience.

PuffTrons—boxes Niemeyer and his team created to measure carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, light, noise and temperature—were installed in Los Angeles at sites around Manual Arts High School. However, the students weren’t told where the sensors were and had to use clues from the data to locate them next to busy streets, dry cleaners, and even next to their own school—which turned out to be the most polluted spot of all.[/two_third_last]

The students used what they found to recommend changes. For example, carbon dioxide levels in their classrooms were at high enough levels to make them sleepy and cause headaches, so they installed plants and kept doors and windows open.

Although Black Cloud was an in-school game, the data armed students with concrete information about the air they were breathing.

“This is the kind of authentic knowledge that can make real change,” said Andy Garcia, the English teacher whose students teamed up with Niemeyer to play the game. “From this project we could easily write a policy recommendation letter to the city council based on the health environment around them.”

Like any good game, the goal wasn’t to lecture kids but rather get them to explore and figure pollution out themselves.

“We didn’t tell people who got sensors much about CO2, but they noticed patterns and became curious. It was their own curiosity and ultimately their own questions that drove them to find meaning in the technology,” Niemeyer said of the project in a CITRIS interview.

Getting people involved in protecting the environment isn’t just limited to air pollution. British scientists are also turning to publicly collected data for an entirely different environmental problem—a sudden invasion of Spanish slugs. The rapidly growing Spanish slug population isn’t native to the ecosystem and has potential to wreack havoc on British crops this winter. So scientists launched SlugWatch, an online portal and Twitter account where people can pitch into the nationwide effort of researching and combating slugs by reporting sightings, uploading photos, and learning how to trap them.

Everywhere you look, tools that were once only in scientist’s labs are turning up in our own hands. The potential of technology to connect people with conservation efforts is endless, important, and sure to grow.

Published October 30, 2013