Leading, Training, and Motivating Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

Ellie Perry has been involved with the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency (UR) Program since June 2014, as the Los Angeles area Program Consultant. She assisted with the Operation Resilient Trees project. Ellie recruited and led citizen scientists into the field as well as trained them to collect data independently, during these past years. As we are wrapping up the Operation Resilient Trees project to get ready for our new program Operation Healthy Air, we decided to catch up with Ellie and let her share some of her experiences in leading citizen science initiatives.

Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q1. What has been the most exciting part of being associated with the UR program?

I think most of the excitement came with trying to build a citizen science program almost entirely from scratch in an area where the organization (leading it) didn’t have much of a local presence to start.  Since there were so many directions the program could go, it was an exciting process to build it from the ground up, try out different engagement models, and figure out what ultimately would stick and resonate with people in the region.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
(Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q2. Which aspect of the program motivated you the most?

I was mostly motivated by the citizen scientists themselves, and how committed they were to contributing and volunteering their time.  During my tenure, hundreds of people dedicated hours and hours to collect data for this project, not to mention the many educators who led entire classrooms semester after semester in collecting data in the field.  To freely volunteer that much time and put in that much effort when the final policy impacts from their work are still years off, takes serious dedication and foresight.  Citizen science isn’t as immediately gratifying as something like volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a beach clean-up, or working at an animal shelter, and a lot of potential volunteers get turned off by the fact that it may take months or years for their efforts to result in something tangible they can immediately see.  The fact that these volunteers decided to serve as citizen scientists fully understanding that is admirable.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie interacting with citizen scientists (Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q3. What were some of the challenges you experienced while working with this program?

One of the current problems in citizen science as a whole is the general suspicion that volunteers will never be able to collect data as efficiently as a scientist.  Even though many of these measurements are relatively easy to take, there was constant scrutiny and pressure on the effectiveness of the training, the quality of the data, the competency of the volunteers, etc. especially since there was no previous benchmark to compare with.

Q4. Can you share one or two of your favorite experiences from the program?

Reverting to the issue of citizen scientist-collected data being scrutinized harder than that collected by scientists, it was incredibly satisfying to hear the results of the recent quality control study the lab/Earthwatch performed on the data.  There’s a recent blog post covering the full results, but they mostly found that the data the citizen scientists were bringing in was well within 95%+ accuracy of the data collected by themselves (which statistically is no difference at all).  It gave a lot of confidence to the researchers and Earthwatch, and it was a real affirmation that the training we were providing to the citizen scientists was effective.  

Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees - citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees – citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q5. What message would you like to give to the larger community interested in getting involved in citizen science projects and initiatives?

I would say it’s important to be patient if you’re going to get involved with citizen science.  As I mentioned previously, it’s a very slow walk from data to results to policy impacts, not a sprint. Bridging the communication gap between science and the public is an incredibly rare skill, and it’s not very common to find leaders who can speak to both sides of the table equally well.  Being patient while the kinks that will ultimately arise as a result get worked out is important if you want to stay involved for the long haul.  

Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

To explore citizen science opportunities with the UR program, connect with us and learn how to get involved.

Savvy and Sensing: Our Next Generation of Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

In the age of Fitbit, iPhone health apps, and social media, the technology-savvy user is keeping track of their own health, counting the extra calories, developing fitness routines, and tweeting success stories on a daily basis. The requirement for personal tracking devices is high, and science is delivering to this demand. A similar trend is surfacing quite prominently in the area of environmental and climate science. In recent times we have seen the development of affordable digital sensing devices for monitoring the environment (e.g. water, soil, and air quality). The users of these devices are not just the health conscious runners or bikers in the neighborhood, but a growing community of concerned citizens who we call “citizen scientists.” Empowering this group of individuals with digital technologies is our step towards a movement called “citizen sensing.”

When Citizens Sense Pollution

Even with an increasing number of successful citizen science programs around the world, there is often some level of concern raised by scientists, politicians, and other key stakeholders about the credibility of data collected through citizen-led monitoring programs. At the same time, there are entities which support citizen science generated data with the consensus that ‘citizen sensing’ can help provide additional environmental data in areas where monitoring infrastructure is currently absent or limited (Gabrys et al., 2016). The overall support garnered in the whole ‘citizen sensing’ approach revolves majorly around the fact that this practice could lead to ‘indicative measurements’ about environmental pollution. If scientists can rely on indicative organisms (e.g. lichens) to study patterns and changes in environmental conditions, then having access to additional ‘indicative measurements’ of pollution through low-cost sensors should also be beneficial.

Just Good Enough (Data) for the Environment

Rising above the criticism faced from certain constituencies about citizen data, here we discuss how these data sets can go forward in generating impactful ‘data stories’ and help in initiating dialogues with environmental regulators, scientists, and policy makers. Data stories can be compelling as they provide more insight into environmental pollution over time and space. The consensus is not to replace ongoing academic laboratory research or agency led monitoring projects, but adding on to these results and reports with indicative trends and “just good enough data” supporting larger environmental goals (Gabrys et al., 2016).


Operation Healthy Air

Acknowledging the crucial role which citizen sensing projects can play in generating evidence-worthy data stories, we are launching the Operation Healthy Air (OHA) project in California this summer. The goal of the program is to understand how local habitats (trees and water bodies) and human-made infrastructure (such as buildings and pavements) affect air quality and temperature. After identifying and building a local citizen network, air sensors will be distributed which have the ability to detect temperature, humidity, and atmospheric ozone levels.


The top five objectives of the OHA project are:

  1. Getting access to air quality data in areas where there is relative absence of monitoring
  2. Gathering data over longer monitoring periods, versus episodic and random time points
  3. Identifying patterns and trends in the data and tying them with the findings from research and government led air sensor data
  4. Using the data to develop some predictive models for our climate study goals
  5. Identifying geographic areas and locations which may need follow-up monitoring

Finally, we hope the OHA project will help in developing data stories with patterns, trends, and ‘just good enough data’ to present them to our regulators and scientific partners.

Overall, the OHA data story will help answer three central questions:

  • If, where, and to what extent are current air-pollution events occurring?
  • Do we need improved air quality regulations from local government and increased accountability from industry?
  • Is there a requirement for more investment in air quality infrastructure?


If you wish to help find answers to these questions and participate as a citizen scientist in one of our pilot sampling campaigns for OHA in Long Beach, Chino, and the Inland Empire this summer, then keep in touch with us through Facebook and subscribe to our monthly newsletter. Next year, we also plan to expand the program to greater Los Angeles and other cities. Stay in touch to be a part of our citizen data stories.