Want to discover the world around you? Then maybe it’s time you picked up a sensor.
This is an astonishing, precarious time to be alive. There are little things, close at hand, we can all do to make things better.
The planet is under severe environmental strain, from climate change to biodiversity loss. Yet at the same time, we have abilities to discover and learn about the world around us that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago.
People, like you and me, can join together with others like us to monitor the environment, to make positive changes locally, and contribute to solving problems globally. There are more and more people getting involved in citizen science, and sharing free and open data. People are coming together to organise at a local level, and to act together to solve issues we ourselves identify and define — we call this citizen sensing.
This is what we are going to explore in the upcoming online course, Citizen Science: Sensing the World.
Observing, understanding and predicting change on the Earth is the focus of ‘big science’ programmes. These include the latest European Space Agency satellite programme, Sentinel-1.
This is also increasingly the focus of community groups, individuals and NGOs, who are taking up newly accessible sensing devices, connected to the Internet, to create and share knowledge on the environment.
These tools are ever closer to hand. Small, hand held, low cost sensors are becoming more available, a growing number of people carry smartphones and tablets. There is also today a movement of people building open tools and platforms, often centred around FabLabs and Makerspaces.
This is inspired by the powerful idea that by making designs, technologies and data ‘free and open’, other people will be able to take our creations, build on them and improve them — and allow us to do the same in turn — so we all benefit.
There are other networks of people, who also care about the land, and who take a bottom up approach to sharing knowledge, and making changes to turn negative impacts into positive change in the environment. Growers and small scale farmers using permaculture and agroecology are examples, where peer to peer, grower to grower knowledge sharing has been central to their approach.
Working together, people who care about the land can make important contributions to science, by “ground truthing” observations by satellites in orbit high above the Earth.
The vision behind citizens’ observatories is immense. It is nothing short of changing humanity’s relationship to the planet we call home. We can all be part of a collective endeavour to understand and care for the planet. We can all be more aware, more knowing, more engaged, closer together as a community, understanding the global picture, and showing better husbandry for our local spaces and environment.
Ultimately this is all about adopting a more responsible relationship to nature. To do this we can nurture enquiring minds, discover a world of incredible knowledge, build our own tools, strengthen communities, and see the benefits of open and shared data and knowledge.
Until a few years ago, Some of the capabilities of satellites up above us, and networked sensors in the ground, were in the realm of science fiction. Suddenly we have the ability to observe what is happening around us at the microscale. We can browse, explore and zoom into the world around us as if it were a search engine or wikipedia for the natural world.
Citizen sensing is a journey not a destination, and still in its early days. There are real challenges in ensuring the quality and validity of the data, so it is trusted by the science community, and so there are tangible impacts people can see on the ground.
There is a lot of work to do to convince everyone it is worthwhile. That goes for the experts who might use this information to make decisions on policy or investment. And for the individuals who collect and also can benefit from the data.
The good news is we are seeing the positive impact on the ground. One example is another project by some of the people in GROW. In Making Sense, citizen scientists gathered data across three cities for 26 months. In Prishtina, Kosovo there is chronic air pollution, but no official monitoring by the government of air quality. Young people came together to monitor air quality and evidenced air pollution at twenty times the recommended WHO level. The direct outcome was a ban on cars in the city centre, and a change to the Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo, which now includes a right to clean air for citizens.
Making Sense has shared its methods and tools in a toolkit for citizen sensing you can download for free.
GROW itself has a big ambition. To improve the accuracy of climate forecasting on drought and floods, to widen use of regenerative food production and soil management techniques, and to help build a movement of people around the world collaborating on shared knowledge and positive action.
We will get there by many small steps. It takes people like you to pick up a sensor and join a citizen science community.
So join us! Learn all about sensing and Earth observation on the Citizen Science: Sensing the World online course from 26 March. Click below.