SensJus meets D-NOSES: Odour citizen science shaping EU policies and regulations


Interview by Anna Berti Suman and Mohammad Gharesifard, with Rosa Arias

"It is not easy, we are trying to change the world in a way, it is very important to team up and then you can make out of it really a full time and fulfilling job! If we are not having policy impact, we will be alone in our labs." - Rosa Arias, Coordinator of D-NOSES and CEO of Science for Change

Image 1: D-NOSES contribution to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration during the final event, 2021. 

About the project D-NOSES

During the Engaging Citizen Science Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, in April 2022, the SensJus project could discover more of a distinctive case demonstrating the impact of citizen science in steering environmental regulation. The case is the D-NOSES citizen science initiative, i.e., Distributed Network for Odour Sensing Empowerment and Sustainability. As the project aims to target odour pollution through citizen science at local, national and global levels, it demonstrates how forms of civic monitoring can play a key role in the multi-level governance of a specific risk, in this case odour pollution. In summer 2022, we invited Rosa Arias, coordinator of D-NOSES and CEO of Science for Change, to share with us her experience on a remarkable achievement of the initiative, in an interview conducted by Anna Berti Suman from SensJus and by Mohammad Gharesifard, from CitiMeasure.

Hello Rosa, can you briefly introduce yourself and your role in D-NOSES?

I am a chemical engineer based in Barcelona, and had the idea for D-NOSES back in 2013. Then, I was looking for funding, and I received first funding from the European Commission JRC, namely the MyGEOSS 2017 scheme, to develop the first version of the OdourCollect App for citizen odour monitoring, and after I could get bigger ones. I am the coordinator of D-NOSES.

Can you explain to us in a few words what is the main mission of D-NOSES and how it tries to achieve it?

At D-NOSES, we have a twofold aim:

- To monitor odour pollution from the perspective of the receptor, and to empower people by allowing them to measure what they perceive, so industries can act upon. For this objective, we decided to develop, test and validate a citizen science methodology to measure ambient odours.

- To introduce odour pollution in the policy agenda which until then was largely not considered, compared to noise pollution which is way easier to monitor. This is a very difficult subject to regulate since it requires sensorial measurements and setting odour limits may be tricky, that's why regulations vary in every country, when they exist. There is a need to understand the context and specifically the national regulatory framework to be able to work on this at the local level, especially because there is a lack of a common European framework to guide the different Member States.

To achieve those objectives, in particular the first one, we started by validating the methodology and thus managed to get sound data. The noses of citizens are the best sensors to measure odours. Olfactory acuity (the ability to smell a certain odour), with 96% of the population having a "normal" sense of smell, allows communities to record the type of smell perceived, the intensity and the hedonic tone at any time and point of the map, combine many individual observations, and build understanding of the issue. The more citizens are involved in sharing their findings and data, the more robust the results are

D-NOSES achieved: 1) increasing availability of open and affordable technologies that allow the collection, geotagging and analysis of new large datasets, which take into account the receptor's perception, as in the case of the App OdourCollect; 2) citizens' willingness to collaborate in tackling complex tasks by contributing and sharing knowledge and expertise; 3) digitally enabled cooperation among new and existing collaborators thanks to cloud computing; and 4) increased awareness and co-responsibility about environmental issues and wellbeing, and many more.

The winning factor of our developed methodology is that it is transferable to other environmental topics and projects. Through the quadruple helix model, we could engage industries in the 10 D-NOSES Pilots (public and private industries e.g. the waste treatment sector), throughout Europe, Chile and Uganda. We also conduct advocacy work towards industry. Our (10) pilots were selected based onthe possibility to engage the private sector. Some pilots were even led by industries like in Chile and Germany (waste water treatment plants). In Barcelona, we started with the water authority first. Before selecting a pilot, we would conduct ethnography to understand how a said odour would affect the local people. This would be also key to identify which stakeholder to approach first. D-NOSES has also been part of the NEWSERA project as a pilot reinforcing and readapting its communication strategies towards stakeholders focusing on multilevel governance actors (local, national and European), both from the project and policy maker perspective. It has helped us to better understand our target stakeholders, their timings and political agenda and boost the impact of our activities.

Exploring the policy impact of D-NOSES

You had a close interaction and collaboration with the European Bureau for Conservation and Development (EBCD) that organized an event in the European Parliament (EP) where D-NOSES could be showcased. Can you tell us how this cooperation went, in terms of opportunities and barriers?

We were planning advocacy at various levels including the European level, i.e., especially the European Parliament, which was also in the D-NOSES project grant agreement. We tried a lot with several MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) in different countries. Basically, we tried with the MEPs of the countries where we had pilots, and in the end we identified one supportive MEP from Greece that allowed us to organize a dedicated event in the European Parliament where D-NOSES could be showcased. This was very lengthy and everything was very uncertain. When we had a final yes from the European Parliament, the EBCD helped us in defining the invitations and the agenda. MIO-ECSDE, a non-profit federation of 127 Mediterranean non-governmental organizations, one of the D-NOSES partners, supported with conducting part of the advocacy work needed, including at a national level, and with drafting an advocacy plan. Such advocacy actions were indeed planned from the beginning of the project and were key for success. In fact, one year before the end of the project a mapping exercise was done to see how we can hold an event at the European Parliament.

After your event on Odour Pollution in October 2021 at the EP, the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) adopted unanimously at its Plenary Session on 27 January 2022 the Opinion "EU Action Plan: 'Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil". Thanks to your advocacy, a paragraph (*) has been included on the issue of odour pollution which in particular recognize the importance of citizen science and public participation for tackling odour pollution and related challenges. Can you explain us the key factors that led to this outcome (i.e., key milestones, stumble blocks, key actors), in particular in terms of multi-level governance and based on your advocacy plan?

(*) The paragraph "points out that additional efforts are needed to reduce the levels of odour pollution and sees the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) as the main tool to combat odour pollution since it covers all forms of emissions. The CoR underlines the importance of citizen science and public participation for tackling odour pollution challenges. A multi-level approach including different inputs of various stakeholders can empower citizens to participate in decisions made about their environment and can support policy-makers and odour emitting activities to make informed decisions and better manage the issue of odour pollution."

It was not an easy process! For example, it was unclear for us how the session will go and what would be the outcomes...These milestones and key factors were fundamental to the outcome:

- Organizing the event and being present at the European Parliament, of course!

- Chasing people before the event at the European Parliament, accepting several closed doors...

- How we organized the agenda, i.e. in a roundtable setting with all the parties including the industries (Quadruple Helix Model);

- The fact that we had prepared a document dedicated to the session (i.e. the Green Paper on odour pollution and a Strategic Roadmap at national level). This helped the MP in opening the session;

- We are very aware of the regulatory systems/gaps - this convinces authorities, it enables us to speak their same language!

- We also built a reputation that matters to enter into the policy cycle.

- Lastly, it is key to have very motivated people that believe in this.

Do you think partnering with cities that were your pilots would have been beneficial for opening doors and improving policy advocacy?

Cities can play an important role at the local level, even promoting local regulations. It could be the same at the national level e.g., if they start spreading the word to all the municipalities, but at the European level not so much.

The EP event is also mentioned on the Opinion Factsheet of the Action Plan among the key consultations that allowed for the creation of the Committee of the Region's opinion on the "EU Action Plan: 'Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil". How do you think this event/consultation actually influenced the final Action Plan, and can we measure/assess D-NOSES influence on the outcome? Did you have expectations that were not met or was the result beyond your expectations?

It was really thanks to the fact that the Committee of the Region was there that enabled the paragraph that we suggested to be included. Without the presence of D-NOSES, that policy amendment would not have been adopted. This was way beyond our expectations. The challenge now is to understand what can be done with the paragraph. We are now working in the establishment of standards for monitoring odour pollution through citizen science, with the Spanish Organization for Standardization (UNE) and groups of experts, which will facilitate the official uptake of the methodology.

Can you share with us the 'don't' based on your mistakes, that other projects willing to have similar policy impacts should bear in mind based on your experience?

Don't be impatient if you wish to have policy impact. Problems need time and also policy adaptations do. Manage expectations of stakeholders involved, e.g., be transparent with citizens that the odour problem will not be solved after the project. Rather we are taking steps towards regulating the issue.

The way forward

Where does D-NOSES see itself in the coming 5-years horizon span, after this success?

We will be definitely be focusing on odour citizen science standards!

When did the project start? Looking back at the start of the project, to what extent do you think the project outcomes (incl. contribution to the Opinion "EU Action Plan: 'Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil") were planned or expected?

It started in 2018 and from the start we were focused on having social, policy and industry impact. We included in our project political scientists, so we could also have proper knowledge of the policy field.

Looking forward, what policy change(s) at any level (e.g., organisational, political, etc.) would improve the ability of a project like D-NOSES to achieve other positive impacts? Prompt: Examples of 'policy changes' include changes to legislation, alterations in physical space, new local communities or groups being set up to manage a shared resource or issue, etc.

Our aim is to have odour pollution considered in the policy and urban planning from the beginning, before it is too late and the population is impacted. We are aiming to control odour by engaging directly the affected communities, even not always recurring to regulation. In a nutshell, we would like to continue implementing our multi-level governance model, aiming for a common EU regulatory framework that could guide the Member States, but also working specifically at the national level to be able to protect the citizens at the local level, since odour pollution is a localised issue:

  • A policy framework at the EU level on odour pollution and the recognition of ambient odours as pollutants
  • Odour more integrated in urban planning to avoid future odour impacts
  • Legislations and mechanisms (based on civil society engagement) at the local level that include and recognize odour pollution to protect the popullation.
  • The Spanish standard to monitor odour pollution through citizen science published by the end of 2022 facilitating the mainstreaming of the methodology and its official uptake by authorities and industries and introduced in future regulations.

At the end, understanding the local context, including the social, cultural and economic realities and the existing (or not) regulatory frameworks, is key to deploy our citizen science methodology and design specific engagement strategies for the policy makers and the authorities, the odour emitting activities and the affected communities, so as to guarantee success and environmental, social and policy impacts. That's why a multi-level governance model is crucial in this complex scenario.

The interview captures how D-NOSES managed to steer policy-makers to recognize the contribution that citizen science and more in general public participation could offer to tackle odour pollution. The project started locally, but had a clear strategy and put efforts in influencing higher levels of policy and regulation, including national, EU-level and even global (e.g. Latin America). This was done through the deployment of the initiative's resources, the curation of strategic contacts and an in-depth analysis of the policy and regulatory context for odour pollution. The steps followed by D-NOSES to influence the governmental agenda for odour can be of help and inspiration for other citizen science initiatives wishing to follow this example. The case also offers to policy-makers, researchers and citizen science communities an excellent example of successful impact on multi-level governance that coupled different tailored approaches and levels of administration in a way that mutually reinforce each other, towards a clear goal.

For questions on the experience of D-NOSES, feel free to contact:  

Image 2: Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt during the Engaging Citizen Science Conference 2022 at the Aarhus University.

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