Six Months after Earth Day: Collaborations Around Six Citizen Science Grand Challenge Questions through Earth Challenge 2020

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By Alex LongSarah J Newman & Anne Bowser 

This blog first appeared on the Wilson Center blog on December 10, 2020. We’ve reposted it here with permission.

April 22, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. While original plans of a large-scale celebration and campaign around citizen science required rethinking and adjustment, the movement that is Earth Day continued with strength, determination, and–in 2020–science.

Earth Challenge 2020: A Citizen Science Initiative

Earth Challenge 2020 (Earth Challenge), a citizen science project led by EARTHDAY.ORG™ (EDO), The Wilson Center, and the US Department of State, was created in support of the 50th anniversary and the decades following. With support from many partners, this global project engages volunteers in the collection of environmental data for use in scientific research. The initiative involves looking across six “research questions” to enable new data collection through a mobile application (app) linking science to action and to bring together existing citizen science data.

On October 21, 2020, almost six months after Earth Day, the Wilson Center hosted a webinar to assess what has been accomplished so far. From its inception in 2017, the project was always a bit difficult and somewhat experimental, involving EARTHDAY.ORG and the US Department of State, two newcomers to citizen science, and reaching out to a range of stakeholders who had never considered citizen science as a viable research tool or policy opportunity. The webinar showcased our achievements and partnerships across three research questions–air quality, plastic pollution, and food security–as well as the work we still need to do. Ultimately, this six-month recap highlighted how the project can act as an advocate, and in many cases an introduction, to the citizen science movement. It also showcased the contributions made by a handful of the partners involved. 

Earth Challenge Phone
Image Credit: Earth Challenge 2020

Perspectives from three leading partners: The Wilson Center, EARTHDAY.ORG, and U.S. Department of State

Citizen science projects, particularly those designed to influence policy, may target change at local, state, national, multi-national, and/or global scales. One challenge and opportunity is to work across these scales. On one hand, decades of citizen science research demonstrates that opportunities for participation in citizen science must be personally meaningful to the interests or needs of individuals and/or local communities. On the other hand, opportunities for mass participation should also be broadly relevant and accessible such as those offered through globally active organizations like EARTHDAY.ORG, the Wilson Center, and the US Department of State. 

For Earth Challenge, this tension was navigated in part through a framework for launching a global consultation to select six research questions based on “the most critical questions in human and environmental health.” Many of the issues identified–including air quality, plastic pollution, and climate change–are both acutely relevant on small scales and key drivers of global science and policy discussions. The mobile app helps ensure relevance on local to global scales by addressing these topical issues, and helps ensure accessibility through translations into six UN languages. Complementary work on data interoperability and integration, including through collaborative work on standards development and pilot exercises, recognizes the value inherent in local data and the (often underexplored) opportunities for data reuse. 

EARTHDAY.ORG has been motivated since its start in 1970 by the science behind the advocacy they conduct. With that in mind, citizen science as a mechanism for action, learning, and data collection seemed like a perfect fit for the organization. Within Earth Challenge, EDO has a tight and unwavering focus on educating the public and inspiring action through its impressive network and outreach capabilities. EDO has used the mobile app and supporting website to deliver lesson plans, toolkits, and take action items to build on the momentum of citizen participation in science to directly drive change.  

EDO has brokered partnerships with various nonprofits and educational institutions to proliferate these educational materials. Through those partnerships and others, EDO is working to build Earth Challenge into programs for Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and school groups to create more localized and coordinated engagement opportunities. Educational materials proved particularly helpful when Earth Challenge was featured in the citizen science curriculum for Earth School, a collaboration between TEDx and the UN Environment Programme that gave virtual learners educational materials for the days between Earth Day and World Environment Day.

The US Department of State’s Greening Diplomacy Initiative is a core partner for Earth Challenge. The State Department sees Earth Challenge as a way to engage citizens and their workforce around sustainability and also gather data in areas that lack it. This supports their objective of Eco-Diplomacy, showcasing US environmental innovation and to promote a more environmentally conscious global public.

Earth Challenge also gives the State Department the ability to conduct community engagement through their embassies and consulates to local groups that may have never heard of citizen science or the Earth Challenge mobile app. As Earth Challenge progresses, the State Department is ensuring the data is open to the public to act as a resource for anyone to use.

Diverse collaboration through strategic partnerships

While spearheaded by three organizations, Earth Challenge was always a collaborative effort. Each phase of development created opportunities for partnership achievements and growth. With the assistance of ESRI, Earth Challenge leveraged the power of ArcGIS Hub technology early on to build a space to share the project with a global community. Powerful mapping tools allowed the team to quickly showcase early data integration efforts and create an engaging Storymap about the project. Support from Kinetica, a GPU-enabled data warehouse and analysis platform, helps manage a sophisticated back-end structure with capabilities to leverage citizen science data in machine learning initiatives. Three additional partnerships highlight other collaboration models adopted by Earth Challenge.

Model One: Citizen Science Data Integration with IIASA

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is a leader in research on citizen science and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition to investigating general opportunities for citizen science to contribute to the SDGs and alignment with specific indicators, IIASA has worked with the UN Environment Programme and Earth Challenge to investigate opportunities for aligning citizen science data to reporting for SDG 14.1.1.b. This SDG assesses the health of our oceans through citizen science data reported following beach cleanup campaigns. Earth Challenge took the first step, working with data from three existing citizen science projects and making it interoperable:the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Information and Data for Education and Solutions (TIDES), the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Program (MDMAP), and the European Environmental Agency’s Marine Litter Watch Program (MLW).

Meanwhile, IIASA was building partnerships with organizations in Ghana, Africa, to help understand the magnitude and scale of the problem of beach litter across the country. Existing datasets are not sufficient to address the goal of the SDGs and were plagued with problems:too out of date, too sparse, or too expensive to collect. Timely, accurate, and comprehensive data are needed for SDG reporting, and citizen science can help. IIASA helped partner with Earth Challenge to advise on a stronger baseline dataset for plastic marine debris through data integrations. Next steps include working together with the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) and the Smart Nature Freak Youth Volunteers Foundation in Ghana, an organization that already uses ICC protocols, to collect data with the direct goal of supporting SDG reporting. IIASA is in the process of developing a case study documenting this experience that will be shared with additional statistical offices charged with SDG monitoring around the world.

Model Two: Embedding the Picture Pile Application in the Earth Challenge 2020 App

Researchers from another area of IIASA, the Earth Observations Group, are interested in understanding global food supply–identifying gaps in our understanding of where crops are being grown, how much is being grown, and how to stabilize supply chains. They previously developed a mobile app for crowdsourcing image data called Picture Pile to address a number of questions, including deforestation, palm oil, night lights, and poverty. Working with Earth Challenge 2020 app developers, the IIASA team developed Picture Pile for addressing food supply, focusing on identifying several major global crops–maize, sorghum, sunflower, wheat, and grapes–from images in Google Maps and other open source mapping programs. This partnership created an opportunity for Earth Challenge to explore how to integrate an external citizen science campaign into the Earth Challenge mobile app in a seamless way that would provide value to the partner and the participant. With this integration, participants download the Earth Challenge app and are prompted to download the Picture Pile app when they choose the Food Supply widget. Once both apps are downloaded, participants can access the Picture Pile app through the Earth Challenge app. Through this partnership, over 20,000 images have been classified to date.

A visualization of air quality observations, on a map.
Image Credit: Earth Challenge 2020

Model Three: Partnership with Earthwatch and EY 

Earthwatch, a non-profit organization focused on addressing global change through citizen science and community engagement, was an early partner of Earth Challenge. Earthwatch works with citizen science volunteers from all sectors of society and researchers around the world to safeguard critical habitats, conserve biodiversity, and promote the sustainable use of natural resources. Working with Earth Challenge was a natural fit. 

Researchers from Earthwatch participated in several Earth Challenge research teams, providing early guidance about the directions of the research topics. Their participation blossomed into a more active partnership when one of their partners, EY (formerly known as Ernst and Young, a financial accounting services firm) was searching for a corporate social responsibility program their employees could participate in remotely during COVID-19. The Earth Challenge research question about air quality rose to the top. 

Early efforts from the Earth Challenge team included air quality data integration from three major sources: Purple Air sensors, Sensor Community sensors, and reference grade sensors available through AirNow. It was clear from this data integration effort that major gaps still remain in identifying and understanding air quality in many places around the world. Working hand in hand, EY, Earthwatch, and Earth Challenge developed a map overlaying data from reference monitors, Purple Air sensors, and important environmental justice data layers based on income and percent non-whites to identify areas in North America where data gaps about air quality remain. With a group code customized for EY, employees participated in citizen science through the Earth Challenge air quality widget, and gained access to a customized dashboard to view air quality data collected by their co-workers around the continent. A week-long campaign launched in November 2020 saw over 700 people contribute.

These partnerships are just the beginning. Each phase of the project presents opportunities for new partners and models for effective collaboration in citizen science. There are still two Earth Challenge 2020 questions to address in the areas of climate change and water quality, and we’re excited to see what develops next.

Scaling Up to Address Sustainable Development Goals

Much of our discussion on impacts and next steps focused on scale. In fall 2020, forest fires plagued the west coast of the US. Local communities felt immediate impact, but smoke also traveled across the continental US, illustrating how the environment in California can impact air quality as far away as the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. One mother spoke compellingly on the value of citizen science for understanding air quality as a global and local issue:

“Some days I took pictures where the sky is just orange. You can smell smoke; ash is raining down on us. But when I uploaded my observations, [information from the nearest reference grade monitor] I said, the air quality is actually pretty good. Because the closest sensor was so far away, it wasn’t registering that level of air quality. So that finer grain data seems even more important than I realized.” 

She also observed that low-cost Purple Air sensors are being used by local schools to help decide whether, and under what conditions, students could attend in person. One next step for Earth Challenge 2020 might involve equipping local communities to use science more effectively. This includes informing research and benefiting their daily lives. On the research side, efforts like the MICS project seek to understand the beneficial impacts of participation in citizen science on individuals and their communities. On a more personal and immediate level, voices across the webinar expressed support for opportunities that enable citizen science volunteers to augment quantitative reports with qualitative information; for example explaining why a particular environmental phenomenon was occurring. 

But the discussion also observed challenges associated with leveraging locally relevant citizen science to inform efforts at larger scales. For example, while citizen science projects have tremendous potential to officially monitor the SDGs, “they all use different methodologies… and this makes it quite difficult to just bring them together and make them interoperable so the data they produce are internationally comparable.” 

Beyond the SDGs, this issue impacts a wide range of citizen science initiatives that seek to scale, including when successful models are replicated or when local data are re-used in national and regional assessments. In line with Earth Challenge 2020’s approach, one productive avenue could be to continue work on data and metadata standards that can support data interoperability after research takes place, rather than requiring projects, people, and communities to change their monitoring up front. 

Kids doing the Earth Challenge
Image Credit: Casey Breitenbeck

The Work Continues

Lastly, the discussion recognized that Earth Challenge 2020 is very much a work in progress. GeoMarvel, the company responsible for the development of the Earth Challenge mobile app, spoke compellingly about the difficulties of designing and developing technology for a global campaign that touches a wide range of users with different skills and attributes. Moving forward, they asked for more patience, as well as continued user testing and feedback, which helps to “bring the app to life.” 

This message of patience and continued collaboration can easily extend to the broader initiative. Six months after Earth Day, Earth Challenge 2020 has accomplished a lot, primarily thanks to our partners. Six months from now, we will have investigated the final two research areas. Our ultimate impact will be determined by our continued engagement with partners and ability to feed into a larger, growing ecosystem of stakeholders seeking to leverage and elevate citizen science to drive the change we need.  

About the Authors

Alex Long, Program Associate, The Wilson Center

Sarah J Newman Research Associate, CitSci.org, Natural Resource Ecology Lab, Colorado State University

Anne Bowser, Deputy Director of STIP, Director of Innovation and Innovation Specialist, The Wilson Center

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