Citizen science and citizen data for more sustainable and democratic infrastructures

9 June 2021


Reported by Matthias Meller, CSaP Policy Intern

Build back better — both in the US and UK, much hope rests on the merits of creating and expanding infrastructures to power the post-pandemic recovery. Yet, what is the role of citizens in these projects? In the final event of the Citizen Science Policy Fellows seminar series, Professor Jennifer Gabrys from the University of Cambridge put citizen infrastructures centre stage. Building on her research and work with communities monitoring air pollution in their neighbourhoods, she gave rise to a vivid conversation on how citizen-led data production can make infrastructures more democratic, just and sustainable.

We are in a time of “infrastructure mania”, said Professor Gabrys. She is one of the authors of CSaP’s new essay collection, “Future Directions for Citizen Science and Public Policy”. Infrastructure projects are at the heart of policy consideration for post-COVID recovery plans and ‘green’ transformation today. Yet, globally the bulk of the investments still goes to fossil fuel-intensive infrastructures. Tellingly, the images of infrastructure proposal most often show aerial views of roads and bridges, not citizens. However, “infrastructural transformation requires democratic engagement to be sustainable and just”, Professor Gabrys emphasised. Therefore, this is “a key moment” to talk about how citizens create their own infrastructures and which channels there are for their participation in projects in the making.

Through the research project Citizen Sense, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Gabrys has investigated and worked with communities in South East London on how they use low-cost sensor technology to monitor air pollution in their neighbourhood. Thereby, citizens explore and make visible the multiple meanings and implications of infrastructures, for example, rendering roads not just infrastructures of economic activity and mobility but also of significant air pollution. The citizen-led environmental monitoring may help identify localised problems, inform alternative proposals for new infrastructure projects, or serve as a foundation for new community initiatives to build upon. Part of Gabrys’s and her team’s research effort was to consolidate their findings – collaboratively with the communities – into an easy-to-assemble air quality monitoring toolkit, AirKit. It is accompanied by a digital platform for citizen scientists to share, contextualise data, and suggest policy changes in response through data stories (e.g., see here their COVID data stories). However, the aim of this research project was not just to study the successful uptake of accessible sensor technology. It also meant to highlight how citizen-oriented infrastructures can be built from environmental monitoring, enabling communities to propose and enact change based on their own collected data.

How can governments and policymakers then make use of existing citizen infrastructures and even facilitate the development of new citizen infrastructures? Gabrys acknowledged that governments have to be interested in citizen engagement first because working with an engaged community is not free of conflicts. Whether citizen data is produced for protest or to simply shed light on local problems otherwise underappreciated in existing data, disagreement over the validity of the data can easily arise. Thus ensuring the quality and transparency of procedures and the democratic accountability of data production becomes key. Yet, the challenge of how governments can work together with citizen science initiatives is not merely an ‘issue of data’. Citizen data is neither necessarily inferior nor does it replace expert science. Its added benefit is that a citizen-led inquiry gives answers to different questions, such as what kind of transformations of an environment can or should occur for rendering them liveable neighbourhoods. These questions often reflect different priorities than traditional scientific research projects. As one participant emphasised, citizen science thus challenges policy practices and should do the same for scientific norms from the standpoint of democratising knowledge (production). So, to build back better with more sustainable and democratic infrastructures, governments need to look beyond the outcome of citizen infrastructures in the form of data but think about how to engage with citizens’ organising potential and their often privileged knowledge of local issues.

Organised exclusively for CSaP Policy Fellows and Continuing Fellows, this three-part seminar series on citizen science runs alongside an edited collection, produced in collaboration with the Expertise Under Pressure research project: Future directions for citizen science and public policy. This collection of essays, created by leading policy makers, practitioners, scientists and scholars, will showcase good practice and aim to set out the potential for citizens to contribute more effectively to policy making. The collection will be open access, freely available online and launched at the CSaP annual conference in June 2021.

Professor Jennifer Gabrys

Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge

Matthias Meller

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge