NEWS / Blog / Citizens making sense of green data


04 OCT 2019


Dr Erinma Ochu MBE explores how everyday climate realities are communicated and received


itizen science, and in particular environmental citizen science is where the public, from different walks of life, contribute to environmental research through collecting or interpreting data online or in the field using a smartphone or web-based application. These public experiments, can create new insights from historical data, such as estimating the risk of extreme weather by crowd analysis of past weather records, or building a nationwide picture of marine species inhabiting our coastal regions.

This approach is established as a research practice, particularly for environmental science. I’d like to start a conversation as to what counts as green data and how the making of data by citizens is a crucial step in enhancing relationships to place (Heywood, 2019), including improving conservation decisions and community resilience (Newman et al, 2017). This is not forgetting that scientists are citizens and that when scientists act as citizens, we bring new perspectives to research that might otherwise have been tightly ‘planned’ or ‘scheduled’.

To illustrate this latter point, on a global scale, take the infamous image of the earth from space that years later signalled the birth of the environmental movement. The photo was taken aboard the 1968 US Apollo 8 mission, a mission in which the spacecraft ‘escaped’ Earth’s gravity, and was crucial in the race to landing a human on the moon. What took my interest, is this conversation between the astronauts on board, in the lead up to taking the picture, known as Earth Rising.

Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.
Borman: (Joking) Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim?
Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!

My interest in these stories stems from having trained as a neuroscientist who got involved in artistic endeavours, as a (bad) poet and filmmaker. These hobbies, via a like minded supervisor, led to working in science TV and later to curating science inspired art programmes at film festivals and exhibits. Stories and images, seemed like another way of creating knowledge about the world we live in.

Now, co-designing citizen science experiments I use storytelling to articulate why the experiment matters and for whom. I’ve witnessed and benefited from the joy, enthusiasm and learning that comes with a process opened up to the social perspective (Freitag and Pfeffer, 2013). Meeting new people, learning and exchanging skills, going for walks. Indeed, these everyday benefits are as crucial as the scientist or policymaker’s need for quality data (Geoghegan et al, 2016).

Likewise, opening up the sense making process to be led by the crowd including those most affected or who have already sensed that something is wrong, whether in the water or air quality, whilst authorities can be forced to make improvements, crucially these actions come from a place of a community caring.

On interconnected fronts, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) this year acknowledged the crucial role of community groups and indigenous people in stewarding the environment. Their knowledge is passed on through generations and these people are often better placed than scientists to provide local context and data where they live, that not only improves environmental models but also slow environmental degradation.

Secondly, in an era of digitalisation, as we come to consider the role of machine learning and artificial intelligence in crunching large environmental datasets, what social and environmental value and citizen perspectives might we risk eradicating when citizens are cut out of the loop? How, instead can humans and machines collaborate in making sense of and enabling more people to care about environmental data?

Professor Ed Hawkins, for example, aimed to start conversations about climate change, not just between politicians and scientists but ‘between neighbours over the garden fence’ Dr Erinma Ochu MBE

Combining these ideas, supported by NERC, led by Professor Hilary Geoghegan in partnership with NGOs, such as EarthWatch and CitizensUK, scientists and citizens will begin a new journey, orchestrated through community organising and creative practices, such as storytelling, to innovate how we make sense of data together to bring benefits to those people and places currently marginalised, yet at risk from climate change.

In an era of ‘fake news’, the same criticisms leveled at citizen science around data reliability and reproducibility, might be levelled at creative experiments in climate communication. Climate scientists, both collectively, individually and working collaboratively with artists and designers, are pioneering the use of shareable climate stories, data visualisations and performances in addition to documentary film, virtual reality, theatre, poetry and games.

Professor Ed Hawkins, for example, aimed to start conversations about climate change, not just between politicians and scientists but ‘between neighbours over the garden fence’. His now iconic Climate stripes, ‘illustrate the global average temperature for every year since 1850 in the form of a coloured stripe’ is openly shareable, can be commented on, and has become part of popular culture. Climate movement, Extinction Rebellion’s approach, attempts to bridge the gap between the reality of the science and the reality of its environmental and social impacts, to create a sense of emergency, through public actions that disrupt everyday life, urge political leaders to act, and risk citizens getting arrested. And, not for the first time.

What are the alternatives? With our new project, we aim to offer new and existing green data sets, to explore and innovate how marginalised everyday climate realities are communicated and listened to.

Bringing together my interests as neuroscientist and filmmaker, this extends Stuart Hall’s perspective on why the context in which messages are created and how they are perceived matters. I am curious about whether these new media forms can create place based literacies that focus attention on where mitigation against climate change is most needed.

Dr Erinma Ochu MBE, Lecturer in Science Communication & Future Media from University of Salford will lead a session on ‘Citizens making sense of green data’.

Find out more about what will be covered at the 2019 Green Data conference.

Dr Erinma Ochu MBE

Dr Erinma Ochu MBE

Lecturer in Science Communication & Future Media