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Workshop creates ideas for technology to advance citizen science

Maggie Pund

During the first breakout group of the workshop, leaders from the government and NGO's openly discuss barriers and brainstorm solutions for how the government can use citizen scientist data at the local through national level. The breakout groups allowed leaders from organizations, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various state environmental protection agencies, to collaborate one-on-one in a close setting.

Maggie Pund, Staff writer

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Selected citizen scientist groups, technology businesses and government agencies from across the country are gathered at Northern Kentucky University to develop a joint vision for new technologies to help empower citizen scientists now and in the future.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati Green Umbrella, Confluence, Northern Kentucky University and Northern Kentucky Vision 2015 joined forces to co-sponsor the invitation-only Technology to Empower Citizen Scientists workshop on March 25-27.

Around 60 chosen environmentally focused technology developers, citizen scientists groups and government water quality program representatives assembled for two days in NKU’s Student Union to establish a shared vision for new technologies that will improve the validity of citizen-collected data and construct a plan to achieve their goals in the immediate future and down the road. This national conference is the start of a new class of citizen scientists armed with superior tools and training.

“Technology is the way to bridge that gap [between citizen science groups and government agencies], whether it’s an iPad or iPhone app that gives you some of that [scientific] rigor,” Richard Durtsche, associate biology professor at NKU and an organizer of the workshop, said. “It opens up a whole new venue for citizen scientist groups to contribute data that could be used beyond the local or regional level.”

Local and national aquatic regulators use aquatic biodiversity surveys to evaluate the success of their environmental policies, according to the EPA. Citizen scientists aid the growing number of agencies without the money or the manpower to perform rigorous assessments. Although many citizen scientists have access to local streams and are willing to help monitor, they often lack the training to perform stringent biodiversity assessments.

At the workshop, various water quality organizations and environmentally-focused businesses broke into groups with different themes, such as prioritizing research and development for future technologies, developing a data integration strategy and building and sustaining a market. Some issues the groups tackled are the barriers that limit participation in volunteers and the barriers that need to be overcome before technology-assisted citizen data will be used extensively by the government.

“The government is always trying to catch up with technology, so to me the workshop is a testament of the EPA being open to the possibility of technology disrupting the status quo,” said Chris Kaeff, Sanitation District No. 1 regulatory reporting and wet weather coordinator and Green Umbrella water action team co-chair. “We have to not just envision the technology that is going to get that citizen scientist data to the point where we want to see it, but [we have to figure out] what are the political obstacles and what are the financial obstacles. We have to take this long vision of what are the types of things we need to overcome to enable and empower citizen scientists.”

Coming together in a region “pregnant with a lot of expertise, technology and innovation when it comes to water,” the right people are at the right place to discover new ways to team up and overcome obstacles faced around the country.

They will work to reach a collaborative vision to be turned into a report for how the data is used, what the limitations are on the data and what can be done right now with technology to enhance the data collected by citizen scientists from all around the country. Technologies, such as apps and electronic field books, are within reach right now for use by citizen scientists for more accurate and extensive data collection.

A representative for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Volunteer Monitoring Program and Watershed Watch Network attending the program, Danielle Donkersloot, is interested in using a mobile application created by a team from NKU and the Foundation for Ohio River Education. The WaterQuality app helps citizen scientists measure and easily log water quality data at local waterways. The New Jersey group is interested in expanding the app to cut out the middleman and find a way to upload the data directly to a national database for easier widespread access.

Due to various laws, programs and criteria, the use of citizen scientist data varies largely across the country. For example, Ohio’s data credibility laws require trained taxonomists at the highest level of certification to collect data to be used in regulatory reports. Other states integrate citizen scientist data into reports and more rigorous scientific use after a thorough quality assurance and quality control process to make sure the data is valid.

“Citizen science dates back thousands and thousands of years, but it has never been taken as seriously as it needs to be,” Anne Lyon, Greenacres Water Quality Project director, said. “As we are looking at stretched dollars, it’s time for us to say, “Why can’t we develop a series of methods that volunteers can do that give us useful information to help find if problems are fixable?’”

Technology innovation clusters and co-sponsors of the workshop, such as Confluence, are looking for new technology to promote out of the region that will be an economic driver in Cincinnati, according to Kaeff. The participants hope that the outcome of the workshop is to have a market strategy that a technology business can pursue to create a product that can be scaled up and used by citizen groups all over.

The workshop is a chance for technology companies and start-ups to find a way to capitalize on the ideas presented and bring their business into the limelight. The new technologies will need to be affordable and high powered enough to advance the citizen science movement, according to Kaeff.

“There are small low hanging fruit, small obstacles we can overcome in this workshop,” Kaeff said. “The harder part will be seeing what’s further down the road and what are the possibilities down the road that we can get into and really kind of revolutionize the whole thing.”

As a follow-up to the workshop, a field camp for techniques to train and continue to construct better citizen scientists will be held this summer.

“It benefits society by having citizens know what’s going on in their environment and taking action in their environment,” said NKU student Gregory Barth.

For more information about the workshop, visit http://www.scgcorp.com/CitizenScientists/index.htm. To purchase the WaterQuality app, visit https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/water-quality/id569193509?mt=8.

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Workshop creates ideas for technology to advance citizen science