Citizen Science Lets Audiences Take Part in Reporting
Technological advances and new digital mapping tools now enable ordinary citizens to actively participate in collecting and interpreting data, a development that presents new opportunities for journalists and media organizations.
That was the message of an April 12, 2014 panel that Science and the Media organized at the D.C. Science Writers’ Association 2014 Professional Development Day.
The session, entitled “Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing: Innovative Tools that Can Assist Reporting and Engage New Audiences” featured Rebecca French,an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Willie Shubert, Senior Project Coordinator at Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN), and geologist John Amos, President of SkyTruth.org, a non-profit that uses remote sensing and digital mapping to document land use and environmental issues.
French described the federal government’s interest in increasing citizen engagement in science and the technological breakthroughs making that possible. One example she cited was air quality monitors, which used to be as large as trucks and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today the public can use inexpensive palm-sized devices to measure air pollution. In a famous case in Tonawanda, New York, residents tested local air quality using five-gallon buckets and other simple tools. Assisted by a local community group, they found dangerously high levels of benzene near the Tonawanda Coke Corporation. The EPA and Justice Department filed charges, and the coke plant eventually paid more than $24 million in fines for Clean Air Act violations.
Engage Your Audience
Shubert stated that new citizen science tools help the media in an era of rapid change by allowing readers and viewers to participate in storytelling and data collection. “When you build a community around your platform [that is] engaged, that’s what keeps you alive when the media changes.” In addition to his work at EJN, Shubert has taught local D.C. groups to create their own aerial images using balloon mapping, building low flying “satellites” using weather balloons and point-and-shoot cameras.
Amos described how SkyTruth.org enlisted hundreds of volunteers to interpret aerial images of fracking and drilling sitesin Pennsylvania. He has tried to make the current wealth of open source satellite imagery more accessible to the public. Such imagery enabled SkyTruth.org to break the story in 2010 that the Deep Water Horizon oil rig was leaking oil 20 to 25 times faster than what was being reported by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Asha Sharma is the social media manager at Science and the Media and a research assistant at the Wilson Center.