Community involvement in citizen science projects implies and highlights the importance of building bonds of trust between the different people involved in an initiative. Image: UNDP Co_LAB Argentina.

 

A year ago, a colleague from NESTA —an internationally leading organization promoting innovation for the common good— contacted us to learn more about our pilot project on air quality measurement, which has been implemented with cyclists carrying low-cost sensors while they go on their regular tours. This initiative was promoted by Co_Lab and the Environment Cluster of UNDP Argentina, in partnership with the National Ministry of the Environment, the City of Buenos Aires and Open-Seneca, an initiative of the University of Cambridge. It has been replicated in different parts of Argentina.

Precisely because it had attracted attention, the UNDP Accelerator Labs global network and NESTA selected it for a publication describing collective intelligence case studies. What does collective intelligence mean? That large, cross-cultural, diverse groups working together — without hierarchical structures — can generate a broader range of ideas, information, solutions, and knowledge, often with the aid of technology.

Back then, in addition to this pilot project, we were exploring the ecosystem of citizen science in Argentina and identifying some emerging trends. We also started mapping a series of national environmental initiatives. Some of these included projects to measure water quality or hunt mosquitoes with apps; to have city neighbours weigh their own household waste; to contribute to environmental justice in the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin; to address local problems through drones; to build an exchange network to improve open seeds, among others. At the same time, the National Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation joined us to co-create the next steps of the mapping exercise.

In that conversation with NESTA, there was a proposal to participate in an international seminar on citizen science to share our findings and show what is being done in Argentina. The Co_Lab presented a poster "Citizen Science for Development: Bridging academy with grassroots innovations" at the international event organized by the Citizen Science Association.

In that occasion we also participated in a workshop where we discussed community engagement in citizen science projects. We all agreed on the importance of building bonds of trust between the different people involved in any initiative. It is logical that communities could have doubts if they are asked to participate in research projects. Why do they come to this place? What are the interests behind the project? What are they going to do with the data?

Building trust represents a process that takes time and demands proximity. A good way to approach it is from co-creation, in other words, involving citizens in all stages of the scientific process, starting with the definition of the problem and the research question.

On the other hand, when citizens are called upon solely for the purpose of collecting data —a specific research stage— it is necessary to consider at least two issues. The first one is that it can be problematic to think of neighbours from low-income territories as volunteers. It is necessary to think of some type of compensation for the time they dedicate to these projects. The second is a premise that also applies to life in general: people in their local context can have valuable knowledge and their experiences must be considered. They are not merely sources or datasets.

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