Citizen science is when people get involved in collecting data about the natural world, whether by themselves, with a group or charity such as the Big Butterfly Count, or with researchers at a university. Projects cover all kinds of topics, from water quality to stars, and there are many reasons why people might want to get involved.
EXPO-ENGAGE started life with a team of researchers at the Universities of Exeter, Cardiff, Bath and Edinburgh. We were particularly interested in what might motivate people to measure air quality in their local area. Air pollution is a major issue: it is harmful to health and sources of air pollution such as traffic are also causing climate change. Unlike climate change, air quality can change quickly over time as well as varying widely even between spaces that are close together.
In February and March 2022, we worked with eighteen people in the Bristol and Falmouth areas to measure the air quality around their homes. These areas were chosen because they are different: one is a large city and the other a small coastal town. We sent half of the group Plume air quality monitors – these little devices attach to your bag or belt so are easy to carry throughout the day. They also connect to a mobile phone app which shows the levels of air pollution recorded by the monitor on a map. The other half of the group checked an app which showed modelled estimates of air quality on a map.
Our citizen scientists carried the monitors around for a month, taking part in two workshops over that time to talk with us, and each other, about their experiences of using the monitor or website. We were pleased that the monitor was (mostly) easy-to-use. For example, one person said: “nothing I’ve found difficult. It’s pretty self-explanatory”.
The group found that taking part changed their perceptions of local air quality, with people often finding that quality was worse than they expected. This led to questions about the sources of this pollution:
“I haven’t done this, but I think it’s encouraged me to try and understand more about air quality because I’ve been in places and looked at it and it’s surprised me the reading it’s giving, so it’s shown me a poor air quality somewhere where I think I would have assumed it would be a good air quality, for example.”
It also caused people to think about whether and how these readings could be changed:
”What is going to solve the issue is, in that sense, either having different sources of power or a different approach to transport.”
It wasn’t all bad news, people did find areas of good air quality in their local area:
“I’ve been walking around a village outside of Falmouth and it’s been a really good air quality measure and that aligns with your expectations because there’s hardly any traffic, it’s quite open”.
The project raised lots of questions for the researchers on the team as well as the people who took part! The citizen scientists talked about the importance of creating change, but for that to happen, everyone needs to be able to measure air quality. We know that some areas and communities are less likely to take part in citizen science. This led us to write an application for funding so that we could work with communities in Caerphilly and Camborne and Redruth to find ways for people to measure their local air quality.