Why is it relevant?

Suppose that an environmental issue directly concerns you, and you want to do something about it. You suspect other people in your community might also be affected by the same issue. It is important to find out if the issue affects more than one person and to identify its cause. For example, bad smells in a neighbourhood might be due to a lack of adequate rubbish facilities.

How can this be done?

If you are concerned about an environmental issue, e.g. noise, air pollution, illegal dumping, etc., talk to your neighbours to find out if they are also affected by it. This ‘talking’ can be done in many ways. Your shared concern can help mobilise a community to act. Keep in mind that a community does not always mean acting only locally – a community can also be national or even global. Similar environmental issues affect many people around the world. 

Once a group is formed around the shared concern, you can start to discuss what aspects of this issue are particularly relevant to the community. The next step is to think of how it could be addressed by a Citizen Observatory. To do this, the group will have to consider what dimensions are possible to observe and monitor (e.g. amount of dumping or levels of noise). Once the focus is clearer, you can start building a community (more on that here and here) and select a suitable co-design approach (more on that here) to agree on the specific goals and the ways of working and monitoring that your Citizen Observatory will have.

Before you start a Citizen Observatory, the group will need some awareness of the environmental policies, laws or regulations that apply to the shared issue, e.g. in relation to legal limits or existing campaigns to tackle the same problem.

Find out the nature and location of problem hotspots, and map them (to learn about mapping, see “Useful resources” on this page). You can add data to your map that can inform you about which stakeholders should be brought on board, such as proximity to resources and schools.

To define the key types of contributions required for the observatory it might be useful to hold a Commons Mapping exercise (see “Useful resources”). This allows people to identify and log contributions that are needed, and that they are willing to make. These ideas are written down on a large sheet of paper or wall canvas that has demarcated categories, so that they can be openly seen and discussed by all participants. The categories can vary depending on your Citizen Observatory’s focus, but ‘Stakeholders’,  ‘Technology’, ‘Workshops’, ‘Development’ and ‘Resources’ are common examples.

Identifying the issues: The example of air pollution

Is it an issue where you are?

First, make sure that this issue is one that affects your local area. Maybe you experience health issues yourself or have been talking to neighbours who take their children to school along congested streets.

What are the current policies?

The next step is to learn about the safe pollution limits currently set by countries, regions (such as the EU) and organisations like the World Health Organization (WHO).

What’s the question?

Finally, you can ask the question: Does the air pollution in my local area exceed safe limits? Even if limits are observed, is there a critical mass of interest in improving the current air quality level?

Example from the Making Sense project – Using the empathy timeline tool in Kosovo

Making Sense was an international project, designed to show how digital, open-source practices can help local communities make sense of their environments. To do this, Making Sense often used Empathy Timelines, which allow for better understanding of the relevant issue by encouraging us to look at both sides of the problem and how we might understand our role in it.

In Prishtina (Kosovo), Making Sense brought together young students and primary school communities to create Empathy Timelines reflecting the impact of air pollution in the city. With these communities, Making Sense posed the question: How are you affected by the air pollution, and how did you contribute to better air quality in the last 24 hours?

Participants formed small groups and mapped their daily encounters with air pollution. The participants then used a second timeline to detail their contributions to air quality over a typical 24-hour period. Each small group then reflected on their two timelines, noting the positives and negatives on each timeline, before discussing their timelines with the wider group.

This exercise allowed participants to visualise the wide range of day-to-day impacts caused by air pollution, while also identifying shared issues and methods for approaching these issues together.

Useful Resources

TOOL: The Empathy Timeline tool is designed for community members and citizen science practitioners wanting to start a new project. It is designed to be used at the beginning of a citizen science project and involves asking community members to think about the complexities of the shared issue they would like to monitor..

TOOL: Although called an ‘evaluation tool’, this resource facilitates discussions at any stage and can also be used at the beginning of a Citizen Observatory process. It  can help a community to identify the key dimensions of the shared issue that matters most to them and that they would like to find a way of monitoring.

TOOL: Citizen Sensing: A Toolkit contains the Geographic Mapping and Commons Mapping feature to find out the nature and the location as well as the specific needs of the issue.  

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This work by parties of the WeObserve consortium is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.