On Air: The EPA’s Brand New Citizen Science Tool

By June 27th, 2013 at 8:16 am | Comment

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is on a new mission: to encourage citizen scientists to learn more about the air, water, and resources around them.
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Earlier this year, the EPA’s Region 2 office announced its newest tool, MyEnvironment. This project provides immediate access to a cross-section of environmental data for any geographical location in the U.S. Users of the official site can choose the location and environmental issue to examine.

Some examples of locations and issues that users can examine are

  • Air, water, land
  • Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) — information on toxic chemical releases and other waste management activities in the U.S.
  • Population health status
  • Energy-generating facilities

The tool emphasizes sharing data (via social media, e-mail, or other venues) within your community. Their MyCommunityfeature allows users to give a “shout out” to community-based efforts by uploading information about events. This feature also connects people by enabling users to look up events happening around them in case they want to join in.

“Citizen science [has become] a regional priority with the focus on protecting children’s health, and advancing environmental justice,” says Patricia Sheridan, a scientist at the EPA. “By supporting citizen scientists, the EPA is expanding its own scientific base and building collaborations with communities that are working to reduce pollution.”

MyEnvironment has a strong emphasis on making environmental data accessible; the site is printable and exportable in various formats—information ripe for sharing publicly. The EPA Region 2 website identifies that one of the biggest issues citizen scientists face is getting their data taken seriously by regulators and industry. This is an interesting opportunity to examine varying perspectives about the way that citizen science data is used once submitted. Patricia expounds on the complementary relationship between citizen science and formal research:

“Individuals and community groups have long collected data to better understand their local environmental and address issues of concern to them. However, citizen science collected data does not replace the need for government scientists. […] With increasingly limited government resources, citizen science can certain complement the work of EPA and state regulatory agencies.”

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The EPA Region 2 spearheaded their initiative in citizen science by holding various workshops starting in 2012. These citizen science workshops brought together over 250 federal, state, local governments, academic, citizen and community based groups to advance the use of citizen science monitoring in community environmental and public health protection. Session topics included how to start a citizen program; funding sources; community and government /academic partnerships; success stories for both air and water; and data interpretation and use; the future of monitoring technologies and a demonstration of current and emerging tools.

The EPA Region 2’s citizen science program is unique in that it’s one of the few federally supported citizen science initiatives in existence today. Will more Federal government agencies look to serious crowdsourcing strategies for future research? Does this indicate that citizen science is more than just a trend for government agencies? What intended or unintended role might these efforts play in policy making? These are questions to consider as the field of citizen science grows and as larger entities become more attuned to what public participation in science can contribute.

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