Citizen science monitoring of water a win-win, research shows


New research has revealed that citizen science monitoring of water is a win-win for scientists and volunteers—one gains access to new data, and the other the skills and confidence to become involved in discussions over what is happening to their streams.

NIWA freshwater ecologist Dr Richard Storey is the lead author of a recently published scientific paper in the journal Ecology and Society that examined the usefulness of volunteer stream monitoring—including the quality of the data and participation in freshwater management.

Life-changing experience

The research showed that not only were volunteers providing reliable data, but the experience was having a huge effect on them, with many describing the experience as “life-changing”.

“I’ve gone from somebody who used to mountain bike beside a river and never taken any notice of it, to it becoming all consuming,” one volunteer said.

Dr Storey said public participation in environmental monitoring, a form of citizen science, has increased dramatically around the world in the past 20 years.

“We think that if communities are involved with the monitoring, that will lead to a better understanding of stream values and better equip them to get involved with freshwater planning processes.”

Volunteer data gains credibility

One of the reasons to encourage community monitoring is the need for more data for research and better freshwater management—something volunteers can contribute to by conducting monitoring beyond what regional councils and researchers can achieve on their own.

Dr Storey believed that providing evidence that community-based monitoring data is reliable encourages officials and others to use volunteer data.

There was also an expectation with recent freshwater policy reforms in New Zealand for greater community involvement at all levels.

“What we’re trying to do is show volunteer data can complement NIWA data and council data with the aim of promoting community monitoring around the country and get a lot more data coming in. Streams are a bit like blood vessels—councils monitor the arteries and big veins but the capillaries need monitoring as well.”

Volunteers used simpler equipment than council staff based on the NIWA-developed Stream Health and Monitoring Assessment Kit or SHMAK.

Dr Storey and his team found the reliability of volunteer data was strongest when it came to measuring water temperature, electrical conductivity, visual water clarity and the cover of thick periphyton growths, but less strong, although still useful, for indicators of stream ecological ‘health’ and E. coli indicator bacteria, for example.

Taking E. coli measurements and identifying invertebrates were regarded as more difficult, but Dr Storey said many volunteers relished the challenge and the results were in line with council monitoring.

“People are always fascinated by bugs and they put a huge effort into it.”

Support crucial to water monitoring volunteers

Follow-up interviews with volunteers from nine community groups found many people had a better understanding of scientific processes, and greater awareness of freshwater environmental issues.

Professional support, mainly by regional councils, was crucial to ensure the monitoring was being carried out correctly and to increase the confidence of volunteers who identified “learning” from scientists as one of the main rewards to taking part.

Dr Storey said that while community monitoring had long been used as an educational tool, the research had shown it can also provide extremely useful data.

“This is data that could highlight hotspots of pollution or habitat degradation that could lead to professional investigation or show trends over time.”

The next step is to set up a national online data base which would be a repository for all available information and able to be used by everyone.

Research subject: EstuariesRiversWater Quality