Collection of scientific data by the public: screening for pollution to reduce monitoring costs for regulatory authorities

By Filothei Panagiotakopoulou: September 2009

Supervisors: Dr Nick Voulvoulis and Dr Martin Head

Introduction

The overall aim of this study is to assess the potential for collection of scientific data by the public for subsequent analysis, as a means of environmental monitoring, with a view to reducing monitoring costs for regulatory authorities.

Objectives

  • Investigate the concept of environmental indicators as tools for environmental management
     
  • Identify current developments in the use of indicators in environmental management and especially in environmental monitoring and environmental decision-making
     
  • Identify the challenges and opportunities associated with the public participating in environmental monitoring and evaluate the concept of public participation
     
  • Present previous projects which involve the collection of scientific data by the general public in order to assist and improve the analysis of the approach
     
  • Critically evaluate whether the approach is beneficial to environmental monitoring

Discussion

When dealing with increasing environmental concerns associated with water, air and soil pollution, as well as climate change induced by human activities, accurate assessment of the state of the environment is a prerequisite for undertaking any course of action towards improvement. It is the very essence of informed decision-making on which modern governance and policy-making relies. In order to build comprehensive and up-to-date databases intense monitoring is essential; however, mainly due to resource limitations, this rarely occurs.

Environmental indicators that describe the state of the natural environment are of principal importance in environmental monitoring activities. Environmental indicators can either be used for assessment of the condition of the environment or to monitor trends in condition over time. Therefore, apart from their ability to provide long-term data about the state of the environment, they can be used in providing an early warning signal of environmental changes, as well as diagnose the cause of an environmental problem.

Even though the concept of public participation has been described as challenging, it has become an increasingly important part of environmental management. The United Nations Environment Programme points out that public participation is an essential component of sustainability (Sharpe and Conrad, 2006).

The public is becoming more involved in various elements of environmental management; be it through public representatives involved in the decision-making process itself, such as on an advisory committee, or by collecting or providing data which can be used to inform decision-makers.

The approach of involving the public in scientific projects entails numerous benefits for different stakeholders- the scientific community, the volunteers who participate in the projects, the education system and the regulatory authorities.

Challenges and opportunities associated with the approach can also be evaluated by analysing environmental programmes and initiatives that involve the public in the collection of data. An overview of these projects can provide insight into the practical aspects of the approach and can demonstrate whether the concept is plausible and effective. The approach of using environmental indicators and public input to evaluate areas of concern and areas that require further investigation by regulators, harbours many opportunities. However, as with all techniques of this nature, it does have limitations.

Issues associated with volunteers collecting scientific data are interdisciplinary. The activity promotes environmental education and awareness. Additionally, it is considered ‘politically correct’ in the sense that it enhances citizens to actively participate in governance and thus in their democracy. It also correlates to the economic aspects of environmental monitoring, by decreasing the budgetary costs of the programme; volunteers offer free labour.

Scientifically, the collection of data by the public allows the widening of the geographic area and time period monitored. This provides the basis for the potential formation of large datasets of increased importance for the scientific community. The consequent benefits for the policy-making process will be significant with the regulators being offered a large extension of their monitoring networks. Datasets of that magnitude can be used to detect any slight change of ecological function and thus operate as early-warning systems for further investigation. However, the approach is complicated by issues associated with method calibration, data credibility, resolution and completeness, resulting in scepticism in potential use of the data.

Even though the objectives of the project are mainly educational, the possibilities arising from the amount of data that will be collected are vast. With the development of a robust quality control method, the OPAL project could provide an assessment of the local environment that could be used in identifying regions of concern for further investigation.

Conclusion

The method, despite many complications, is undoubtedly a useful and cost-effective way of collecting data; primarily for obtaining high mass information, even if the accuracy of the information is often compromised when compared to professionally sourced data.

It's possible that through further research and with greater effort spent in the formulation/framing of data parameters, that the results could be made more accurate. For example, the risk of error or inaccuracy could be minimised by providing more simplified tasks or questions.

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