A citizens observatory is a concept that evolved at EU policy circles, defining the combination of participatory community monitoring, technology and governance structures that are needed to monitor/observe/manage an environmental issue. About two years ago, the EU FP7 funded 5 citizens observatory projects covering areas from water management to biodiversity monitoring. A meeting at Brussels was an opportunities to review their progress and consider the wider implications of citizen science as it stand now. The meeting was organised and coordinated by the group in the Directorate General Research and Innovation that is responsible for Earth Observations (hence the observatory concept!).  The following are my notes from the meeting.

They are very long and I’m sure that they are incoherent at places! 

From Commons Lab The meeting was opened with Kurt Vandenberghe (Director Environment, DG R&I). He suggested that citizens observatories contribute to transparency in governance – for example, ensuring that monitoring is done in the correct place, and not, as done in some member states, where monitoring stations are in the places that will yield ‘useful’ or ‘acceptable’ results but not representative: “Transparency is a driver in intrinsic ethical behaviour”. There is also value in having citizens’ input complementing satellite data. It can help in engaging the public in co-design of environmental applications and addressing environmental challenges. Examples for such participation is provided in Marine LitterWatch and NoiseWatch from EEA and development of apps and technology can lead to new business opportunities. The concept of earth observations is about creating a movement of earth observers who collect information, but also allow citizens to participate in environmental decision-making. This can lead to societal innovation towards sustainable and smart society. From the point of view of the commission DG R&I, they are planning to invest political and financial capital in developing this vision of observatories. The New calls for citizens observatories demonstrators is focusing on citizens’ participation in monitoring land use and land cover in rural and remote areas. Data collected through observatories should be complementing those that are coming from other sources. The commission aim to continue the investment in future years – citizen science is seen as both business opportunities and societal values. A successful set of project that end by showing that citizen observatories are possible is not enough – they want to see the creation of mass movement. Aim to see maximising capital through the citizens observatories. Optimising framework condition to allow citizens observatories to be taken up by member states and extended, implemented and flourish. Some of the open questions include how to provide access to the data to those that collected it? How can we ensure that we reach out across society to new groups that are not currently involved in monitoring activities? How can we deal with citizens observatories security and privacy issues regarding the information? The day is an opportunity for co-creation and considering new ways to explore how to address the issue of citizens observatories from a cross-disciplinary perspective – “Citizen science as a new way to manage the global commons”.

Next, a quick set of presentations of the FP7 projects:

WeSenseIt (Fabio Ciravegna) is a project that focuses on citizens involvement in water resources – citizens have a new role in the information chain of water related decisions. Participants are expected to become part of the decision-making. In this project, citizens observatory is seen as a science method, an environment to implement collaboration and as infrastructure. They are working in Doncaster (UK), Vicenza (Italy) and Delft (The Netherlands). In WeSenseIt, they recognise that different cultures and different ways to do things are part of such systems. A major questions is – who are the citizens? In the UK : normal people and in Italy: civil protection officials and volunteers, while in the Netherlands water and flood management is highly structured and organised activity. They have used a participatory design approach and working on the issue of governance and understanding how the citizen observatories should be embedded in the existing culture and processes. They are creating a citizens’ portal and another one for decision makers. The role of citizens portal is to assist with data acquisition with areas and equipment citizens can deploy – weather, soil moisture,etc. On the decision makers portals, there is the possibility is to provide surveillance information (with low-cost cameras etc), opportunistic sensing and participatory sensing – e.g. smart umbrella while combining all this information to be used together. WeSenseIt created a hybrid network that is aimed to provide information to decision makers and citizens. After two years, they can demonstrate that their approach can work: In Vicenza they used the framework to develop action to deal with flood preparedness. They also started to work with large events to assist in the organisation and support the control room, so in Torino they are also starting to get involved in helping running an event with up to 2m people.

Omniscientis (Philippe Ledent)  – The Omniscientis project (which ended in September) focused on odour monitoring and using different sensors – human and electronic. Odour can be a strong / severe nuisance, in Wallonia and France, and there is concerns about motorways, factories, livestock and waste facilities. Odour is difficult to measure and quantify and complex to identify. Mainly because it is about human perception, not only the measurement of chemicals in the air. In too many regulations and discussions about odour, citizens were considered as passive or victims. The Omniscientis project provided an opportunity to participants be active in the monitoring. The project took a multi-stakeholders  approach (farmers, factory operators, local residents etc.). They created odour management information system with the concept of a living lab. They created a OdoMIS that combines information from sensors, industry, NGOs, experts, and citizens. They created an app OdoMap that provide opportunities for participants to provide observations, but also see what other people measured and access to further information. They created chemical sensor array (e-nose), and the citizens helped in assessing what is the concentration that they sense. This was linked to a computationally intensive dispersion model. They have done a pilot around a pig farm in Austria to validate the model, and another near pulp and paper mill. Evolution of citizens participation was important for the project, and people collected measurements for almost a year, with over 5000 measurements. The results is they would like to link odour sources, citizens and authorities to work on the area. They have used actor netowrk theory to enrol participants in the process with strong UCD element.

COBWEB (Chris Higgins) has been working a generic crowdsourcing infrastructure, with data that can supports policy formation while addressing data quality issues and using open standards. They aimed to encapsulate metadata and OGC standards to ensure that the ifnroamtion is interoperable. They would like to create a toolkit can be used in different contexts and scenarios. They focus on the biospehere reserve network across Europe. They carried out a lot of co-design activities from the start with stakeholders engagement, they are doing co-design with 7 organisations in Wales – Woodlands trusts, RSPB, Snowdonia national park, and others. This lead to different focus and interest from each organisation – from dolphins to birds. They hope to see greater buy-in because of that.

Citi-Sense (Alena Bartonova) focusing on air quality. The objectives of city sense is to explore if people can participate in environmental governance. They are doing empowerment initiatives – urban quality, schools, and public spaces. In the urban context they measure pollution, meteorological observations, noise, health, biomarkers and UV exposure – they looked at technologies from mobile sensors and also static sensors that can be compared to compliance monitoring. In schools, they engage the school children, with looking at sensors that are installed at school and also looking at indoor air quality data. There are co-design activities with students. In Public spaces they focused on acoustic sensing, and discover that phones are not suitable so went to external sensors (we discovered the problem with phones in EveryAware). They explore in 9 cities and focusing from sensors, data and services platform but also explore how to engage people in a meaningful way. The first two years focused on technical aspects. They are now moving to look at the engagement part much more but they need to consider how to put it out. They are developing apps and also considering how to improve air quality apps. They would like a sustainable infrastructure.

Citclops (Luigi Ceccaroni) originally aimed ‘to create a community participatory governance methods aided by social media streams’, but this is an unclear goal that the project partners found confusing! So they are dealing with the issue of marine environment: asking people to take pictures of marine environment and through the app facilitating  visual monitoring of marine environment (available to download by anyone) – they are helping people to assess visually the quality of water bodies. There is an official way of defining the colour of sea waters which they use in the project and also comparing ground observations with satellite information. The project included the design of DIY devices to allow the measurement of water opacity. Finally, exploring water fluorescence. They design and 3D printed a device that can be used with smartphones to measure  fluorescence as this help to understand concentration of chlorophyll and can be associated with remote sensing information. Citizen science is a way to complement official data – such as the data from the water directive.

After a break and demonstration from some of the projects, the first round-table of the day, which include executives from environment protection agencies across Europe started

From @ScotlandEuropa strategic views on Citizens Observatories

[I’ve lost my notes, so below is a summary of the session edited from Valentine Seymour notes]

The chair (Gilles Ollier) of the session highlighted that the following issues as significant for considering the role of citizen science: Are we doing something useful/usable? Valuable? And sustainable?
James Curran (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) noted that SEPA took citizen science to the core of its business. He highlighted issues of growth, jobs and investments. The need for sustainable growth and that citizen science contributed to these goals very well as the Chinese proverb say “Involve me and I will understand”. SEPA has been promoting mobile applications to detect invasive species and environmental damages. The Riverfly project is an example of engaging people in monitoring to detect water quality and invertebrate sampling and how important it was for the Water Framework Directive (WFD) to include public participation. There is a need to provide accessible information, working with others collaboratively, measuring behavioural changes and the need for public engagement.

Laura Burke (Ireland EPA) main statement was that citizen science do not replace governmental and official scientific monitoring but that citizen science should be seen in complimentary. There are three main issues or areas to consider; terminology (spectrum of the term citizen science), the need for thinking about the long-term sustainable future of citizen science projects, and acknowledge the synergies between projects.

Hugo de Groof (DG Env) noted the importance of access to information and the Open Access Directive that has been passed.  In terms of governance, we need to follow 5 main principles: 1) Accountability, 2) transparency, 3) participation, 4) Effectiveness and efficiency and finally 5) Respect. Raymond Feron from the Dutch ministry for infrastructure and environment emphasised that there is a social change emerging. [End of Valentine’s notes]

The issues of operationalisation received attention – there are different projects, how far are we from large-scale deployment? Colin Chapman (Welsh Government) – maturity across observatory projects vary from case to case and across issues. Technologies are still maturing, there is a need to respond to issues and mobilise resources to address issues that citizens bring up. Systems approach to ecosystem management is also a factor in considering how to integrate observatories. There are too much reliance on macro modelling. A question for policy bodies is “can we incentivise citizens to collect data across policy areas?” for example invasive species, we can use the information in different areas from flood modelling to biodiversity management. David Stanners (EEA) noted that citizens observatories are vulnerable at this point in time and this lack of stability  and there are examples of projects that didn’t last. There are some inter-linkages, but not an ecology of observatories, of interconnectedness and ability to survive. Need better linkage with policy, but not across the board and no direct policy elements. The integration of citizens observatories is a fantastic opportunity at EU level – as issues of the environment suppose to be very visible. Raymond Feron noted that government might have issues in keeping pace with citizens actions. Government organisations need to learn how to integrate citizens observatories, need to learn to reuse parts. Integrate research programme with implementation strategy. James Curran also stated that working with anglers and other stakeholders can increase trust. In terms of quality and relevant, citizen science data is not different to other data. Laura Burke noted that no government have all the answers, and trust issues should be presented as such. Need to move away from concept of one organisation with a solution to any given problem. David Stanners raised the issues of truth seeking. Within the cupernicos programme, there are opportunities to support services with citizen science.

Following the point of views from the panellists, questions about trust, finding ways to include of people without access to technology were raised by the audience. The panellists agreed that from the point of view of policy makes the concept of citizens observatories is obvious but there is a need to make citizens observatories and citizen science activities sustainable and well-integrated in government activities. Interestingly, James Curran noted that the issue of data quality from citizen science is not a major obstacles, inherently because environmental authorities are used to make decisions that are risk based. There was willingness to work with intermediaries to reach out to under-represented groups. David Stanners called for  cross cutting meta-studies to understand citizens observations landscape.

The next series of presentations covered citizen science activities that are not part of the citizens observatories projects.

NoiseWatch/Marine litter watch (David Stanners, EEA) – Noisewatch was developed by the EEA and provie the modelling element, measurement, and citizen rating element. He argued that dB is not good measure, as noise is a perception issue and not about just measurement. NoiseWatch received an award in the Geospatial World Forum. It became global although it wasn’t promoted as such, with uptake in India and China and UNEP are considering to take it over and maintain it. Sustainability of NoiseWatch is a challenge for EEA and it might be more suitable in a global platform such as UNEP Live. NoiseWatch is seen as complementing existing monitoring stations because there as so few of them. When analysing the sources of the measurement, NoiseWatch get a lot of observations from roads, with 21% of industry noise – in total almost 195000 measurements. Another application is Marine LitterWatch which provides a way for people to share information about the state of beaches. The application is more complex as it embedded in protocol of data collection, and David argue that it is ‘more close to citizen science’, EEA got almost 7500 measurements with 144 events to use it, they are developing it further.

LakeWiki (Juhani Kettunen, who was not present) is an initiative that focus on motoring Finnish lakes – was launched by Syke and it is aimed to allow local communities to take care of their lakes, record information and build a long term observations. Simple platform, recording information such as ice break up but it is aimed to allow locals write about the lake, maintain observations sites, upload pictures, announce local events and write in discussion forums, 1400 sites [this project is also noted in COST Energic network]

Raymond Feron presented a programme in Netherlands called  digital Delta Initiative: partnership between research, public and government. IBM, TU Delft and government are involved. Trying to make water data available to everyone. focus of the system allow re-use of information, the government try to do things more efficiently, shorten time to market, improve quality of decisions, while also improving citizen participation. Ideas of increasing export to new places. Involving the public with dyke monitoring because they can do things locally easily.

I gave a talk about Mapping for Change air quality studies, and I hope to discuss them in a different post:

Claudia Goebel followed with a report on ECSA (see my report for ECSA meeting)

Antonoi Parodi from CIMA foundation discussed the DRIHM project. This is mostly a project focused on meteorological information. Issue of meteorology has a very long history of observations, going from 300 BC. There is plenty of reliance of observed patterns of events. Informal folklore was used by early meteorology citizen science. The middle ages, there are examples of getting information to deal with flash flood. Within the project they created a volunteer thinking platform to support classifications of thunderstorms. The Cb-TRAM monitoring observations of thunderstorms. Interestingly, a follow on question explored the link between extreme events (floods last year) and the role of the research project to provide relevant information.

The Socientize project was presented by Francisco Sanz, covering areas of digital science.

There was also a presentation from the SciCafe 2.0 project, including mentioning the European Observatory for Crowd-Sourcing . Another tool from the project is Citizens’ Say tool  

The final panel explored issues on the challenges of citizen science (I was part of this panel). The people on the panel were Jaume Piera (CITCLOPS),;Arne Berre (CITI-SENSE); Bart De Lathouwer (COBWEB); Philippe Valoggia (OMNISCIENTIS); Uta Wehn (WeSenseIt); Susanne Lützenkirchen, City of Oslo and myself.

Susanne noted that the city of Oslo developed some apps, such as safe for schools – people can experience their routes to schools and they are interested in more citizen science and citizen observatories.

Strategy for sustainability of engagement over time – Uta noted that the co-design process is very important and governance analysis to understand the processes and the local needs (in WeSenseIt). The observatories need to consider who are the partners – authorities are critical to see the value of observatories and provide feedback. Jaime suggested – identifying points in the project that give participants feeling that they are part of the process, allowing people to participate in different ways. Making people aware that they are part of the activities and they are valued. Showing the need for long-term observations. Susanne pointed that in Oslo there isn’t any simple answer – the issue of who are the citizens and in others it is a specific groups or more complex design sometime need to think who chose participants and how representative they are.

In WeSenseIT, they have privacy and consent setting – adhering to rules of social media, and it is an issue of data that came from other sources and how it is going to be reused. In general, Uta noted that WeSenseIt would like to try and make the data open as possible.

Data preservation is an issue – how data was handled, if we assume that there are probably 500 projects or more in Europe which is Max Craglia (JRC, who chaired the session) estimation. The issues of citizen observatories, we need to consider the individual data and there is sometime concern about releasing unvalidated data. Bart pointed that Cobweb is taking care of privacy and security of data and they are storing information about observers and there are privacy rules. Privacy legislation are local and need to follow the information. citizens see the benefit in what they collected and the sustainability of commitment. It is important to work with existing social structures and that provide opportunity for empowerment. Views about ownership of data were raised.

In terms of integration and synergy or interoperability of the citizen centred projects – interoperability is critical topic, the data need to be standardised and deal with the metadata (the most boring topic in the world). It should be collected at the right level. There is good foundation in GEOS and OGC, so we can consider how to do it.

What is the role of scientists? the role of scientists – there are partners who focus on dealing with the data and augment it with additional information and there is a role of managing the data. The link to policy also require an understanding of uncertainty. The discourse of science-policy is about what is considered as evidence. There is embracing of citizen science in environment agencies (which was demonstrated in the first panel), but there is a need for honest discussion about what happen to the data, and what degree citizens can participate in decision-making. Relevancy, legitimacy are critical to the understanding.

There was also call for accepting the uncertainty in the data – which is integral part of citizen science data. David Stanners emphasised the need for legitimacy of the information that is coming from citizens observatories as part of the trust that people put in contributing to them.

The final comments came from Andrea Tilche (Head of Unit Climate Actions and Earth Observation, DG R&I). The commission recognise that citizen observatories are not a replacement for institutional monitoring scheme (although he mentioned maybe in the future). The potential of engaging users is tremendous, and the conference demonstrated the energy and scale of activities that can be included in this area . The ownership of information need to be taken into account. We need to link and close the gaps with scientists and policy makers. We need to create market around the observatories – can’t only do it through project that disappear. There is a need for market of citizen observatories and business models. In the new call, they want to see the project generate and credible business processes. Citizens observatories will need demonstrate raising funding from other sources.

On 29th April, I gave a talk in the Wilson Center in Washington DC on ‘Environmental Information – the Roles of Experts and the Public. The event was organised by Lea Shanley, who is heading the ‘Commons Lab‘ initiative of the center, and Dr Jay Benforado, from the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) provided a response to the talk.

The talk is based on a forthcoming chapter in a book that will be the final output of the EveryAware project, and I can share a copy of it if you email me.

I described the content of the talk as:  ‘Access to environmental information and use of it for environmental decision-making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since NEPA in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts, to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2012); and finally, information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public.

Underlying these are changes in access to information, rise in levels of education and rapid change due to digital technologies. The three eras and their implication to environmental decision-making will be explored, with special attention to the role of geographical information systems and to citizen science.’

The talk (and the chapter) are building on the themes that I discussed in a presentation during the Eye on Earth user conference in Dublin in 2013, and earlier talks in Oxford Transport Studies UnitUCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and at University College Dublin School of Geography, Planning & Environmental Policy in 2010 (see also my reflection from the Eye on Earth summit in Abu Dhabi in 2011). In the talk I covered some of the legal frameworks about production and use of environmental information, including laws and international agreements, as well as using specific demonstrations of the information systems themselves, as to demonstrate the practice. I also tried to suggest the trends that are behind the changes in the eras, and levels of education is quite central.

On reflection, the 4 years that passed since I started thinking about the ‘eras of environmental information‘ allowed me to think how to communicate them, and I hope for the better. It also made the writing up of the chapter easier, as the responses and comments that I received in previous talks provided the needed feedback and peer review to structure the text.

Although I was setting specific dates as markers for the eras, the reality is that the boundaries are more flexible and the transition was over time – it is especially difficult for the latest transition of public participation in environmental information production.

The talk was followed by a discussion that lasted almost 45 minutes, and during the discussion, the common issue of data quality of citizen science data or the interesting point about the issue of dissemination as Rob Baker noted: ‘Is the role of experts as facilitators extend to dissemination of information or just collection? Who closes the loop? ‘  (https://twitter.com/rrbaker/statuses/461157624592203776) or Susan Wolfinbarger question about citizen science: ‘How do you know when the quality of a #citsci project is bad?’  (https://twitter.com/SWolfinbarger/statuses/461166886043262976)

The presentation and discussion were captured on YouTube, below

and the slides are available on SlideShare

Kate Chapman posted an interesting reflection to the talk over at H.O.T website.

The news that Roger Tomlinson, famously ‘the father of GIS‘, passed away few days ago are sad – although I met him only few times, it was an honour to meet one of the pioneers of my field.

A special delight during my PhD research was to discover, at the UCL library the proceedings of the first ever symposium on GIS. Dr Tomlinson studied towards a PhD at UCL, and probably that is how the copy found its way to the library. It was fairly symbolic for me that the symposium was titled ‘environmental information systems’. See my earlier comment about the terminology: Geographic information or Environmental Information.

For a long time I wanted to share the copy, and today is a suitable day to share it. So here is the copy – thanks to the help of Michalis Vitos who converted it to PDF.

EIS-Tomlinson

 

The Eye on Earth first user conference, which was in Dublin at the beginning of March, was as interesting as the first summit in Abu Dhabi, in December 2011. Significantly, in the conference the role of citizen science in environmental monitoring and the creation of useful environmental information was highlighted from the opening address by Prof Jacquie McGlade, the head of the European Environment Agency to the final statement of the meeting which stated that the Eye on Earth Network see “citizen science as an important source of knowledge within the diversity of knowledge communities“.

I’ve been following the Eye on Earth network with a lot of interest: with the combination of environmental information for public access, use of GIS and the integration of citizen science, it is dealing with many of my research interests over the past 15 years. I was not surprised to find the conference and the discussions during it very stimulating.

As the conference progressed and more and more examples were given on how effortlessly information can be accessed through “the cloud” I became aware that there was a hidden partner to the whole process and that it’s role is generally being ignored: computing doesn’t happen in the Ether, and does have environmental consequences – as the New York Times investigation explored. It was valuable to hear about Microsoft environmental activities at the end of the conference, but that was done in not a completely connected way. So the issue with environmental information is that there is a need to use the systems that are being used to collect, manage and share environmental information into exemplars of  ‘deep green computing’. A lot of the data is paid for by public sector bodies, and contracts can include demands on increasing environmental performances as an integral part of dealing with this information. Otherwise, the information itself can be part of the problem instead of part of the solution!

It is possible, even at a small scale. In Mapping for Change, we needed to change hosting provider and it was clear to us that we need to do things right, so we set out to look for a provider that is reliable but also respecting the values of the business itself (both social and environmental). This has reduced the number of possible providers, but we are now switching over to ecohosting who demonstrate that it is possible to provide web hosting with suitable environmental standards.

As noted  in the previous post, which focused on the linkage between GIS and Environmental Information Systems,  the Eye on Earth Summit took place in Abu Dhabi on the 12 to 15 December 2011, and focused on ‘the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making’.  Throughout the summit, two aspects of public access to environmental information were discussed extensively. On the one hand, Principle 10 of the Rio declaration from 1992 which call for public access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice was frequently mentioned including the need to continue and extend its implementation across the world. On the other, the growing importance of citizen science and crowdsourced  environmental information was highlighted as a way to engage the wider public in environmental issues and contribute to the monitoring and understanding of the environment. They were not presented or discussed as mutually exclusive approaches to public involvement in environmental decision making, and yet, they do not fit together without a snag – so it is worth minding the gap.

As I have noted in several talks over the past 3 years (e.g. at the Oxford Transport Research Unit from which the slides above were taken), it is now possible to define 3 eras of public access to environmental information. During the first era, between the first UN environmental conference, held in Stockholm in 1972, were the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) was established, and the Earth conference in Rio in 1992, environmental information was collected by experts, to be analysed by experts, and to be accessed by experts. The public was expected to accept the authoritative conclusions of the experts. The second period, between 1990s and until the mid 2000s and the emergence of Web 2.0, the focus turned to the provision of access to the information that was collected and processed by experts. This is top-down delivery of information that is at the centre of Principle 10:

‘Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided’

Notice the two emphasised sections which focus on passive provision of information to the public – there is no expectation that the public will be involved in creating it.

With the growth of the interactive web (or Web 2.0), and the increase awareness to citizen or community science , new modes of data collection started to emerge, in which the information is being produced by the public. Air pollution monitoring, noise samples or traffic surveys – all been carried out independently by communities using available cheap sensors or in collaboration with scientists and experts. This is a third era of access to environmental information: produced by experts and the public, to be used by both.

Thus, we can identify 3 eras of access to environmental information: authoritative (1970s-1990s), top-down (1990s-2005) and collaborative (2005 onward).

The collaborative era presents new challenges. As in previous periods, the information needs to be at the required standards, reliable and valid. This can be challenging for citizen science information. It also need to be analysed, and many communities don’t have access to the required expertise (see my presentation from the Open Knowledge Foundation Conference in 2008 that deals with this issue). Merging information from citizen science studies with official information is challenging. These and other issues must be explored, and – as shown above – the language of Principle 10 might need revision to account for this new era of environmental information.

The Eye on Earth Summit took place in Abu Dhabi on the 12 to 15 December 2011, and focused on ‘the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making’. The summit was an opportunity to evaluate the development of Principle 10 from Rio declaration in 1992 as well as Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 both of which focus on environmental information and decision making.  The summit’s many speakers gave inspirational talks – with an impressive list including Jane Goodall highlighting the importance of information for education; Mathis Wackernagel updating on the developments in Ecological Footprint; Rob Swan on the importance of Antarctica;  Sylvia Earle on how we should protect the oceans; Mark Plotkin, Rebecca Moore and Chief Almir Surui on indigenous mapping in the Amazon and man others. The white papers that accompany the summit can be found in the Working Groups section of the website, and are very helpful updates on the development of environmental information issues over the past 20 years and emerging issues.

Interestingly, Working Group 2 on Content and User Needs is mentioning the conceptual framework of Environmental Information Systems (EIS) which I started developing in 1999 and after discussing it in the GIS and Environmental Modelling conference in 2000, I have published it as the paper ‘Public access to environmental information: past, present and future’ in the journal Computers, Environment and Urban Systems in 2003.

Discussing environmental information for a week made me to revisit the framework and review the changes that occurred over the past decade.

First, I’ll present the conceptual framework, which is based on 6 assertions. The framework was developed on the basis of a lengthy review in early 1999 of the available information on environmental information systems (the review was published as CASA working paper 7). While synthesising all the information that I have found, some underlying assumptions started to emerge, and by articulating them and putting them together and showing how they were linked, I could make more sense of the information that I found. This helped in answering questions such as ‘Why do environmental information systems receive so much attention from policy makers?’ and ‘Why are GIS appearing in so many environmental information systems ?’. I have used the word ‘assertions’ as the underlying principles seem to be universally accepted and taken for granted. This is especially true for the 3 core assumptions (assertions 1-3 below).

The framework offers the following assertions:

  1. Sound knowledge, reliable information and accurate data are vital for good environmental decision making.
  2. Within the framework of sustainable development, all stakeholders should take part in the decision making processes. A direct result of this is a call for improved public participation in environmental decision making.
  3. Environmental information is exceptionally well suited to GIS (and vice versa). GIS development is closely related to developments in environmental research, and GIS output is considered to be highly advantageous in understanding and interpreting environmental data.
  4. (Notice that this is emerging from combining 1 and 2) To achieve public participation in environmental decision making, the public must gain access to environmental information, data and knowledge.
  5. (Based on 1 and 3) GIS use and output is essential for good environmental decision making.
  6. (Based on all the others) Public Environmental Information Systems should be based on GIS technologies. Such systems are vital for public participation in environmental decision making.

Intriguingly, the Eye on Earth White Paper notes ‘This is a very “Geospatial” centric view; however it does summarise the broader principles of Environmental Information and its use’. Yet, my intention was not to develop a ‘Geospatial’ centric view – I was synthesising what I have found, and the keywords that I have used in the search did not include GIS. Therefore, the framework should be seen as an attempt to explain the reason that GIS is so prominent.

With this framework in mind, I have noticed a change over the past decade. Throughout the summit, GIS and ‘Geospatial’ systems were central – and they were mentioned and demonstrated many times. I was somewhat surprised how prominent they were in Sha Zukang speech (He is the Undersecretary General, United Nations, and Secretary General Rio +20 Summit). They are much more central than they were when I carried out the survey, and I left the summit feeling that for many speakers, presenters and delegates, it is now expected that GIS will be at the centre of any EIS. The wide acceptance does mean that initiatives such as the ‘Eye on Earth Network’ that is based on geographic information sharing is now possible. In the past, because of the very differing data structures and conceptual frameworks, it was more difficult to suggest such integration. The use of GIS as a lingua franca for people who are dealing with environmental information is surely helpful in creating an integrative picture of the situation at a specific place, across multiple domains of knowledge.

However, I see a cause for concern for the equivalence of GIS with EIS. As the literature in GIScience discussed over the years, GIS is good at providing snapshots, but less effective in modelling processes, or interpolating in both time and space, and most importantly, is having a specific way of creating and processing information. For example, while GIS can be coupled with system dynamic modelling (which was used extensively in environmental studies – most notably in ‘Limits to Growth’) it is also possible to run such models and simulations in packages that don’t use geographic information – For example, in the STELLA package for system dynamics or in bespoke models that were created with dedicated data models and algorithms. Importantly, the issue is not about the technical issues of coupling different software packages such as STELLA or agent-based modelling with GIS. Some EIS and environmental challenge might benefit from different people thinking in different ways about various problems and solutions, and not always forced to consider how a GIS play a part in them.

In 2009, Ud Doron, who studied on our MSc in Environmental Systems Engineering developed a research project together with Tse-Hui Teh, who is doing her PhD on urban water issues. The project was co-supervised by Sarah Bell.

The focus of the project was on a series of participatory workshops to understand the relationships between urban residents and water technology. The workshops explored the perceptions and actions of environmentally aware citizens. Ud also explored the use of environmental information by the participants of the workshops.  The output of this work is now written and published in the Water and Environment Journal.

The paper is titled Public engagement with water conservation in London

The abstract is:

Understanding water demand and consumers’ capacity for change is essential in underpinning water demand management and water efficiency programmes. This paper presents the outcomes of a qualitative study, which used discussion groups relating to water infrastructure with environmentally aware citizens in five London boroughs in the Lower Lea River Basin. The results showed a subtle interaction between users, water and technology. Users are generally unaware of their own water consumption. Individual perceptions of changes in water behaviour are constrained by habit and lack of knowledge about what changes can be made and how. Knowledge of environmental information was described as the inspiration behind making any changes. The paper concludes that access to information about water resources, infrastructure and conservation measures should be enhanced because although information sources are abundant, participants claimed they were inaccessible without considerable effort. Finally, an emphasis should also be put on helping the public form a more substantial part in environmental decisions.

and the paper is accessible in the early view section of the  Water and Environment Journal http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-6593.2011.00256.x/full

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