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In November National Public Radio and the respected Center for Public Integrity teamed up on a series on toxic pollution featuring an interactive map so that people could search for local sources sorted by risk to human health.

Unfortunately  the series was based on data dinosaurs — so the map’s results are two to four years out of date. That’s not the reporters’ fault. It’s the latest government information available. Since 1988 when Congress first required annual reporting of toxic pollution, factory by factory, it has taken 18 months or so for the Environmental Protection Agency to process industry reporting and make public the results. And EPA’s overlay that models risk to human health is based on factories’ toxic releases in 2007 — and it cannot be used to determine real risks anyway, according to EPA’s website.

What families and businesses need and technology could now deliver is real time information – especially when there are spikes in dangerous toxic pollutants. But look for more data dinosaurs soon. The government has cancelled its most important annual compilation of data — The Statistical Abstract — and austerity is producing many other data casualties. But does it really make sense to take big chunks out of the factual foundation for public and private choices that took so long to build?

Mary Graham, co-director — Transparency Policy Project

As part of our research with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative on how groups are using technology to enable more effective forms of transparency and accountability, we have come across the growing field of “citizen science” (also sometimes called “civic science” or “open science”). This do-it-yourself (DIY), grassroots approach to data collection is facilitated by the increasing availability of everyday electronic devices – particularly cell phones – which today can be easily equipped with cheap sensors to capture data on ambient conditions.

Here I highlight two groups that are developing tools and methodologies for communities to use in monitoring their environments: the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) in Somerville, Massachusetts and the Living Environments Lab at Carnegie Mellon.

PLOTS is known for their grassroots mapping initiatives where they produce low-cost, high-resolution aerial imagery by building and deploying digital cameras attached to balloons and kites. In the Gulf Coast, for instance, this simple and inexpensive approach has facilitated community-led monitoring of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is more detailed and frequent than what is captured by satellites. This independent dataset of images intends to track the environmental impact of the oil spill over time as a means to hold BP accountable in its restoration efforts. The grassroots mapping approach to impact transparency could also be applied to monitoring other types of threats like deforestation and land disputes. More recently, PLOTS has been deploying balloons to document and contest the size of public protests in Santiago, Chile (in partnership with the Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente) and at #OccupyWallStreet. All of their work is open source, and on their website you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to build your own tools for civic monitoring.

While PLOTS has mostly focused on documenting the view from above, the Living Environments Lab works on arming citizen scientists with cheap sensors to create a distributed network of ambient data collectors. An early experiment in Accra, Ghana aimed to measure air pollution from automobiles by recruiting taxi drivers to collect this data with their mobile phones. The data revealed not only that air quality varies greatly throughout the city by time of day and location, but also showed that when citizens have access to this type of dynamic information, it can effect behavioral change to minimize exposure to harm. Researchers were surprised to learn that the taxi drivers who participated in the experiment were altering their routes so as to minimize their exposure to areas of the city with high levels of pollution.

The value for transparency and accountability in the approaches discussed above lie in their ability to 1) distribute and democratize data collection in affordable and scalable ways and, 2) to close out the feedback loops of information. A challenge nevertheless exists in determining how representative these sources of data are in capturing problems or risks, and by extension, to what extent this community-generated data is actionable.

Francisca Rojas, Postdoctoral Fellow – Transparency Policy Project (original post)