Citizen sensing can be a valuable contribution to environmental risk governance

30.04.2020

Full article is accessible here.

'Citizen sensing', grassroots-driven monitoring initiatives based on sensor technology, is a phenomenon that authorities increasingly encounter when dealing with an environmental risk. Although this form of citizen science is often driven by a conflict between citizens and authorities, both parties can actually benefit. That is one of the main findings of Anna Berti Suman's PhD research, which she will defend in a livestream on May 8, 2020, at Tilburg University.

If citizens distrust official information or just want to fill data gaps, they increasingly resort to gathering data themselves with sensors and data infrastructures in order to visualize, monitor, and report environmental risks to public health. What is more, risk governors around the world are even turning to citizen sensing initiatives as a potential source of precious data, especially in disaster and crisis scenarios. The current Covid-19 crisis is a case in point (see https://www.citizenscience.org/covid-19/).

Although often initiated because of a conflict between citizens and the authorities, citizen sensing has the potential to actually contribute to risk governance by government authorities. Law & Technology scholar Anna Berti Suman has explored this potential through a number of case studies, including Dutch citizens measuring air pollution in Eindhoven and Japanese citizens measuring nuclear radiation after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Findings

One of Berti Suman's main findings is that the presence of a severe risk to the environment, data quality and sound technology are essential for policy uptake. Moreover, contrary to expectation, distrust of authority turns out to have a positive influence on policy uptake. However, there is a need for a legal instrument regulating citizen sensing and including a legitimate basis, eventually to be grounded in a 'right to contribute to environmental information'.

Recommendations

Berti Suman concludes with a number of recommendations both for the 'sensing citizens' and for policy makers.

  • Citizen sensing initiatives should aim at addressing governmental failures and data gaps, use scientifically strong technologies and methods, and show that they provide a complementary risk monitoring system;
  • Citizen sensing projects need to seek and mobilize broad social support;
  • Citizen sensing initiatives should identify and link up with government policy actors and look for institutional champions;
  • These communities should strive for integration with policy while maintaining a critical distance from the authority;
  • Policy makers should consider integrating a citizen sensing initiative in institutional governance structures, provided that there is willingness on the part of citizens to collaborate;
  • Policy makers that adopt citizen sensing projects should refrain from appropriating or controlling the initiative, even from creating the impression that they would want to do so;
  • Policy makers should support the introduction of a single, standardized but adjustable template for data quality and documentation of citizen sensing initiatives.

Against a trend of rampant scepticism towards political engagement and loss of trust in science, citizen sensing can be an avenue to meaningfully engagein identifying and targeting environmental and other governance problems and responding to complex scientific and policy questions, according to Berti Suman.

Pre-defense webinar "Citizen Sensing: Towards a right to contribute to environmental information"

In a special webinar on May 7, 17:00-18:15 hrs., several experts will discuss the legal grounds and legal implications of citizen sensing. You can join the webinar on Zoom through this web page.

PhD defense livestream

Anna Berti Suman will defend her PhD thesis online on May 8, 2020, at 10:00 hrs. You can join the livestream here. Title of the PhD thesis: Sensing the risk. In search of the factors influencing the policy uptake of citizen sensing. Supervisors: Professor R.E. Leenes and Professor J.M. Verschuuren.

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