Monitoring the SDGs requires citizens

Monitoring the SDGs requires citizens

October 31, 2019

Monitoring the SDGs requires citizens

An article published in Nature Sustainability argues that obtaining reliable data on the progress of the SDGs requires the contribution of citizen science, turning citizens into amateur scientists.

Individual citizens should play an active part in monitoring progress towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is the key message of an article published in the science journal Nature Sustainability that looks at the contribution of non-scientists to environmental science.

Citizen science is the watchword

The science community is often seen as a world apart, unconnected to society and the exclusive domain of academics and research scientists. Reality is (fortunately) different, and scientists from a wide range of disciplines are increasingly using the help offered by citizens and volunteers. This phenomenon is known as citizen science, where “science is made by citizens”

Citizen science refers to all those activities in which members of the public are engaged in the research, but it is not easy to define exactly what these activities are: some argue that the public should be exclusively engaged in data collection (such as measuring pollutants in a given section of the city, for instance, or spontaneous reporting of dietary patterns for research purposes), while others see citizen science merely as a more democratic form of science, where participation occurs at any stage of the production of scientific knowledge, therefore including the formulation of hypotheses and interpretation of the results. 

Based on this philosophy, and according to the study published in Nature Sustainability, traditional data sources are no longer sufficient, but citizen science is a good example of a new data source that can contribute to the data collected by experts. Geo-tagged photographs, for example, (or information recorded through mobile devices more generally), as well as promotional and awareness raising campaigns, could potentially fill several gaps. Despite the obvious value of citizen science, one of its major limitations is the quality of the data produced. But just as there are methods for evaluating and improving the quality of official data, in citizen science, too, various methods and techniques can be applied to clean up any errors in the data supplied by non-experts.

Tier III indicators represent the greatest potential for citizen science

Citizen science indicators  for monitoring progress towards the SDGs can be divided into three tiers, based on the adopted methodology. There are several examples of how citizen science achieves good results when using tier 1 and tier 2 methodologies, that is, based on clear indicators internationally established as standards, which can be regularly produced (tier 1) or which, despite being clear and internationally established as standards, are not regularly produced (tier 2). One such example is biodiversity and area conservation, where citizen science is making a strong contribution to the creation of protected areas. In Peru, for example, there are citizen science programs for water monitoring, supported by the National Water Authority of Peru, which report national data related to SDG 6 ("Clean water and sanitation"). 

In the Andean region, various stakeholders, academic institutions and NGOs have set up the Regional Initiative for Hydrological Monitoring of Andean Ecosystems (iMHEA) project, to improve the management of local water resources. The iMHEA network has developed a water monitoring protocol that provides training and proper data analysis and management through partnerships with local universities. 

Tier 3 indicators (for which a standard data collection methodology is as yet unavailable) represent the greatest potential for the future contribution of citizen science projects. There are currently 34 tier 3 indicators across the 17 SDGs, including for monitoring food waste (SDG 12), climate change (SDG 13) and marine pollution (SDG 14). An example of this kind of citizen science project is Brazil's Modulo Agroclimático Inteligente e Sustentável (MAIS) program. In this project, small-scale farmers can monitor soil moisture, thereby making their own contribution to monitoring climate change in their local area.

New targets

As well as supporting the existing system of SDGs, citizen science provides the opportunity to contribute to the generation of new goals. The monitoring of air quality is one such example, where there are two SDG indicators (3.9.1 "Mortality rate attributed to household and ambient air pollution" and 11.6.2 "Annual mean levels of population-weighted fine particulate matter in cities") that neither provide the usable information required by cities and communities to be able to manage their local conditions, nor contribute to an understanding of the health impacts of environmental pollution. One citizen project has attempted to fill this gap: in Belgium, as part of the CurieuzeNeuzen (Curious Noses) project, 2,000 citizens measured the levels of nitrogen dioxide to assess air quality in their neighborhood. The project has been so successful that it has recently been upscaled to involve over 20,000 citizens.

A possible roadmap

After proving the value of citizen science in monitoring the SDGs, the experts have also designed a roadmap for creating workflows within the United Nations and all its member countries that will allow citizen science to become an accepted methodology and a reliable source of data for SDG monitoring. The idea is simple: it involves thinking at three different levels – global, national, and local. At the global level, the final goal is to integrate citizen science into the formal SDG reporting process, while at the national level the priority is to build an environment of trust for official national agencies – which are often suspicious of data they have no direct control over – to use citizen science data. 

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