One of the important issues dealt with during the recent Citizen Science and SDG conference was the contribution that citizen science can make to the SDGs. To gauge this, there must be a measure of progress towards the SDG goals, which have been defined with carefully chosen indexes. These indexes require data collection, and to be practical sometimes are chosen on the basis of the available data from traditional sources. As an innovation in the area of decentralized data collection, what role can citizen science play in all this?

Big Data, Big Citizens

Principle 10 sets out three fundamental rights: access to information, public participation and justice, as key pillars of environmental governance. It is a cornerstone of citizen science projects that tackle environmental regulatory gaps. In the D-NOSES project, we know that odours are the second most common environmental complaint after noise. Yet the regulation and management of odour issues lags far behind. Several factors contribute to this, including that it has proven difficult to measure the impact of odours on those affected. There is a lack of transparent data on odour issues, particularly because those usually mandated to collect the data tend to be the emitters in the first place. Citizen science (CS) projects can produce data to demonstrate, diagnose and help resolve these problems, but the data needs to be trusted and accepted by all stakeholders for this to work.

Big Data is when vast amounts of data are collected and linked for computer analysis or visualisations that allow policy and decision makers to better understand the causes of issues and effects of decisions. Measuring progress towards the ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs) underlies some of the development of these databases, so they include data on indicators that have been defined as significant to track. This, together with wider operational needs, has also led to the development of city data portals and dashboards that can cover all aspects of city life – health, economics, etc. No doubt a valuable and useful resource to improve SDG performance. However, there is a risk that this will limit the attention of stakeholders to only these data points, and thus limit resources devoted to issues outside of the standard measures. It could be concluded that control over data defined and collected can potentially control the focus of developments. Moreover, as data repositories grow in size and importance, so will their ability to drown out other sources of data.

Right to create Data

Democratisation of data, or a citizens right to create data, is a necessary extension of the Principle 10 philosophy to enable people to take responsibility for their own environment. But it is not enough to create it; data must also be included in the dominant databases and platforms for it to have influence. The potential is certainly there. A systematic mapping of the 244 SDG indicators to citizen science initiatives shows that they are already contributing data to 5 indicators and have the potential to contribute to 76 more. To activate this potential, citizen science will need to produce data that is better integrated into the analysis performed by academics, policy makers and hopefully even industries. Policy dialogues should focus on making room for CS in the data tables of portals. CS practitioners can also help by promoting more common standards and repositories that can facilitate integration.

Significant integration of citizen science requires academic acceptance of citizen produced data, demanding a continued focus on scientific principles, validation of data, as well as transparency in the methods and results. It should be noted it is not necessarily the goal to replace traditional sources, but rather to enhance them. A review of odour measurement methods within D-NOSES yielded a taxonomy of methods used for particular purposes or contexts, helping odour management practitioners make choices that result in better data.

In the age of Big Data, we must have a Big Citizens contribution so that they can take on the Big Responsibility for their own environment.