Network Updates / Global / 2022-10-21

Citizen science:
broadening participation in air quality monitoring

Citizen science air quality monitoring can give more detailed data for policy decisions.

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Citizen science is scientific research conducted with participation from the public. Citizen science projects can be used to monitor air and noise pollution, and water quality. Data collected can improve the transparency of air quality monitoring and support civic engagement. Citizen science provides transparency for community members to track air quality directly and can be a tool for supporting clean air policy.


Citizen Science

There are many ways that community members can participate in citizen science. Citizen science as a field is growing rapidly in many subject areas. Examples of citizen participation in science span ornithology, astronomy, and protein folding. There are large databases that compile citizen science projects to make it easier for participants to find projects interesting to them.

Programs can be initiated through many pathways, sometimes even by governments. Or, programs are sometimes spearheaded by cultural institutions, such as museums. These participatory research examples allow the museums to bring the lived experiences of the community into the institutions.

Academic distinctions vary in how much of the ideas in the projects come from the communities themselves versus how much of the research is directed by institutional priorities. Collaborations with communities can both shape the direction of what we know and help to gather more detailed information than is possible within academic constraints.

In addition to biodiversity monitoring, citizen science projects provide transparency for environmental health monitoring, such as air quality. The environmental monitoring projects are beginning to allow citizens themselves to directly measure air quality. That data can be used as a tool to advocate for clean air standards.


Clean Air Improves Community Health

The WHO air quality guidelines set standards for air that is healthy to breathe. They are guideposts for governing bodies to regulate air quality. Poor air quality is a leading cause of serious heath impacts globally. Policy changes that support clean air policy such as active and public transportation initiatives, reductions in industrial pollutants, and increases in green spaces can make cities more pleasant and healthier to live in.


Research with participation

Research programs that include citizen science are effective tools for improving air quality. The CitieS-Health program combines citizen-led environmental monitoring and their linked health issues in five European cities. A citizen science project in Barcelona, Spain demonstrates how air quality impacts brain function and mental health. While citizen science tools are expanding, there are still many challenges and opportunities to co-create citizen science projects in environmental epidemiology.


Citizen Science and Air Quality

Within the range of citizen science programs, there are lots that support participation in air quality monitoring. Air quality monitoring empowers citizens to contribute to air quality data. For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency is using an Air Sensor Toolbox to explore a wide range of air quality measurement applications. These hyper-local measurements supplement the agency’s formal air quality measurements.

New lower-cost sensors are coming out each year, making these tools more accessible than ever. Citizen-generated air quality data is used as evidence for shaping policy. These tools can be used both for air quality monitoring generally and during extreme air quality incidents like wildfires. In India, a citizen science-led project fed data into a GeoAI platform for large-scale classification of brick kilns across Bihar.

These monitoring programs help to raise public awareness of air quality problems, which can lead to stronger public measures to address air quality issues. Despite these tools and increasing accessibility, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve air quality. Citizen science projects can contribute to improved policy measures and increase accountability for air quality issues. Citizen science programs in air quality also provided more diverse pathways for participation, opening up new roles for community engagement.