Citizen Science and Disaster Risk Reduction: What’s up with that?

Reflections

Our collaborative blogspace reporting our project findings, our reflections on other projects around the world, plus interesting nuggets on citizen science for DRR more generally.

Citizen Science and Disaster Risk Reduction: What’s up with that?

24 March 2018

Citizen Science and Disaster Risk Reduction: What’s up with that? At its simplest, citizen science is ‘the involvement of volunteers in science’. At the moment, it encompasses a wide family of techniques from crowdsourcing photographs to the deployment of sensors. Citizen science has great potential in disaster risk reduction: largely through involving volunteers in the […]

Citizen Science and Disaster Risk Reduction: What’s up with that?

At its simplest, citizen science is ‘the involvement of volunteers in science’. At the moment, it encompasses a wide family of techniques from crowdsourcing photographs to the deployment of sensors. Citizen science has great potential in disaster risk reduction: largely through involving volunteers in the direct observation and analysis of hazardous phenomena. In fact, there are already several examples of its use. These typically relate to observations of individual hazardous phenomena and their impacts. Many of these would otherwise have been under-recorded.

A long  history of observing hazards

In volcanology perhaps the earliest and most famous ‘volunteered observations’ are those of Pliny the Younger who recorded his observations of the 47  A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; but the mass participation of volunteers in science began in the Victorian era. In the digital era has come into its own, enabling volunteer communities to collaborate in both research formulation and design, as well as execution and analysis. People also share and compare  relevant information without necessarily thinking of themselves as a citizen scientists.

Mort de Pline (Death of Pliny), by Jean-Edouard D’Argent

In fact, citizen science could now be applied to the reduction of disaster risk (DRR) in several ways.
(1) improving monitoring, forecasting and warning for diverse hazards;.
(2) encouraging dialogue and communication and;
(3) encouraging the uptake of resilience measures (preparedness, actions and prevention of loss).

Citizen Science: process and product

These potential applications concede that is not just the products of citizen science (the data) that are important. Its also the process of being involved in design, sharing and application of the results. That is where it starts to get a bit tricky! Traditionally  citizen science and community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM) are distinguished by their primary goals.  Citizen science has the primary goal of the collection and gathering of data. For CBDRM it  is about the empowerment and particpation of communities directly at risk. The goal is often to help them to make their own decisions in the face of repeated hazards. This is particularly important in developing countries where resources can be more stretched. 
However, when citizen science projects become as much about the process, then this distinction blurs

But, does that really matter? If a project is initiated by a group of scientists to gather data they need but along the way helps community members understand and cope better with the inherent uncertainties associated with hazardous process can it still be considered as empowering or participatory? Does helping communities gather and interpret data relating to hazardous processes cede too much power, such that they could make potentially risky decisions with that information? Are there particular approaches that do well at creating equal access to scientific knowledge across all social groupings? Is that what we always want?

Our challenges

Analysing existing projects presents some interesting challenges to answering these questions. For example, not all approaches to data gathering are appropriate across different cultural and social settings. There are few examples of how to sustain interest in times of  hazard action and times of comparative quiet. But, does that matter? These challenges obviously make the analysis more interesting to researchers,  but its the potentially important benefits of well-applied citizen science projects that demands we engage with these issues.

Banksy

We will consider the barriers to making citizen science useful, usable and used by citizens at risk and then act on how to dismantle those barriers. This project is taking a critical look at what has been done so far, examining alignment with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the pathway for new and better collaborations. This involves looking at some novel and new modes for gathering knowledge around hazardous processes – watch this space!

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