Citizen Science, Last Part

You will have noticed that the picture is upside-down. When I was small, my mom showed me the magic trick of inverting a photograph with glassy water in the foreground. When the world and its mirrored reflection switch places, a new reality ensues. All the elements of the picture remain familiar and sensible. Yet, simultaneously, the totality becomes exotic, novel and strange. Our human ability to flip images and ideas around, to look from the “wrong” angle to find fresh insight, is a great gift. I believe this is why yogi’s stand on their heads.

I have held back for weeks in writing the third and final introductory installment under this heading, held back for fear of seeming naive and childish. I have this rather ideal mental image of citizens doing the daily science needed to save the world. But then I also have ideal mental images of world peace and the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. Frankly, I just don’t know if my ideas about citizen science are at all practical. My critiques of existing environmental science in the preceding posts are at least rooted in realities. Well, at the risk of foolishness, let’s flip the world upside down, and see what happens:

Let’s imagine a person — Jane — who lives somewhere in the vicinity of the picture framed above. Let’s say she grew up nearby, feels connected to this land in a deep way that has become almost spiritual over time. She feels a certain duty to conserve the beauty, the essence and potential of this place for her children, for their generation. However, Jane also sees the forces of change, of development at play in the world. She is not necessarily opposed to change or development, but she wonders how the consequences of change can be understood without some kind of on-going environmental monitoring. Without scientific baseline data, how do we measure our own impact, make wise choices? How do we aim for sustainability if we’re never measured what we hope to sustain? Jane guesses (rightly) that current science technology is quite equal to this monitoring task. She wonders (rightly) why science, so fundamental to modern amenity, so prolific in its production of gadgets, seems seldom to be applied in this simple way. She would apply some of it herself, if only she knew how.

There are people like Citizen Jane to be found all over the world. I am one myself, and I’ve met lots more. We are civic-minded people eager to do right by the biosphere — if only we knew how. That last part is the kicker. Now let’s imagine there was some framework in place to train and organize such people to gather data about the environment that belongs to all of us. Does that seem far-fetched? Maybe it is. But when people see a clear path to doing good work, they will do it eagerly. They join service clubs, build parks and children’s hospitals, fund-raise for medical research, coach kids’ sports, bring meals to the elderly, create fellowships, campaign for justice, populate school boards and parent councils, fight fires, search for missing persons, give their holidays to international aid work, clean the litter from highway ditches . . .

Such unpaid work by average Janes is the glue holding the world together. It profits neighbourhoods and whole societies in ways that transcend capital. It does so from decade to decade, from parent to child. If people will Adopt a Highway, they might just as well like to spend a Saturday taking water or soil samples, doing angler creel surveys.  I think the conservation potential in that is thrilling.

As to the types of data that should be collected, the methodology and standards applied — I have no clear idea. (This is where looking utterly, foolishly naive comes in.) For such things we need trained scientists to guide us. If there are any reading this, please comment on the possibilities — or the impossibilities, if that is how you see it. In future posts under this heading, I will be seeking such scientists out, and reporting on their work. In fact, I just met a most interesting scientist right here in my own city who is trying to develop a somewhat related set of broad data-compiling and data-sharing tools, and I will introduce her soon.

When it comes to the storage and sharing of data, I think we citizens must take the leadership. We must look upon environmental data as a fundamental democratic right. Such baseline data — in whatever forms it might take — must move from dusty shelves of universities, move from the back pages of industry-funded impact assessments, from unread government background papers — and into the public domain. The internet makes possible so much open access, and at so low a price. The wiki- and open-source models of intellectual property transfer and development have already done much to empower, engage and enlighten people on previously obscure topics like globalization, genetic modification, health care, etc. These seem like good models for citizen science.

Finally, it is exciting to consider citizens taking local environmental data gathering into their own hands for one more fundamental reason: because nobody cares about a given place more deeply than the ones born and raised there. Nobody is more likely to pass that care to the next generation.

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