Brace Yourself For the Comeback of Citizen Scientists

Richard Battarbee spent his entire life studying freshwater ecology as an academic at University College London—but it was only when he retired to Yorkshire that he found himself on the frontline of a battle to save a river. Fishermen in the town of Ilkley near where he lived started catching condoms, wet wipes and sanitary towels on their lines. Residents were noticing that fish and other animals were dying en masse. The water was discolored every time it rained heavily. Something was wrong in the river Wharfe.

Battarbee, along with other local members of the Wharfedale Naturalists Society, suspected that the real cause of the pollution was a sewage outflow further down the river run by Yorkshire Water, the region’s privatized water company.

But when the government and Yorkshire Water all refused to help, the residents of Ilkley turned to citizen science, research conducted by the general public that is not only helping to change the way citizens protect their environment, but making many question the entirety of our scientific institutions.

That can range from designing and leading studies into certain issues to just helping to collate data on something.

In Ilkley, residents’ concerns were rebuffed by the council and Yorkshire Water, the local water company responsible for sewage outflow into the river. The UK’s Environment Agency (EA), whose budget has been slashed from £120m to £48m since 2010, said it wasn’t able to investigate or even monitor the river’s contamination.

Unable to get help, locals now working under the name the Ilkley Clean River Group, took it on themselves to scientifically prove the extent of the problem.

Battarbee suspected the real threat wasn’t the rubbish and excrement you could see, but the invisible pathogens that now filled the river—a popular wild swimming spot for thousands of people each year. “There was absolutely no data on the concentration of pathogens in the river associated with effluent going into it,” he explains. “I couldn’t find any protocols out there, so I just did what any scientist would do really and looked at the literature and worked out a methodology.”

But running a scientific study with a group of volunteer citizens is harder than it seems. Unable to rely on university grants like most scientists, the Ilkley Clean River Group had to raise the money to pay for professional water sampling themselves. Then there was gathering the samples themselves—leading a group of untrained locals to collect up to 100 samples from different parts of the river. Once they had the samples, each had to be properly stored below eight degrees Celsius and sent to a lab in Coventry in 24 hours, in order to get any reliable results.

In the end, Battarbee’s research found sky-high levels of pathogens in the river, caused by the dumping of sewage. According to their data, the water near the sewage outflows in Ilkley contained between 32 and 43 times the amounts of E. coli bacteria acceptable for a recreational bathing site.

That data was used to spearhead an application for ‘bathing water status’—a loophole in British regulations meaning that while normal rivers don’t have absolute protection by the EA, areas designated as bathing sites were constantly monitored for raw sewage and pathogens—which succeeded in December 2020. The stretch of the Wharfe by Ilkley became the first inland river in England to have such protection.

Since then, the group has also launched the iWharfe project, where locals living along the entire 125km of the Wharfe can test the river’s cleanliness and monitor the ongoing impact of sewage dumping. “We were able to do something you can only really do with citizen science, called ‘synoptic sampling’—where you get a lot of people to all go out and get samples at the same time,” explains Battarbee. That allows to easily pinpoint where the pollution is stronger and where it originates. That research found raw effluent was affecting the entire river, with certain parts containing up to 55 times the recommended levels of E.Coli for bathing water

Ilkley is far from the exception. In 2020, England witnessed 403,171 raw sewage dumps into its rivers and seas, according to a report by The Guardian—over three million hours of spillages, precipitated by water companies’ outdated infrastructure and lack of investment. And now groups of activists from London and Wiltshire to the Lake District and Scotland, to name just a few, are all following the same footsteps as Ilkley, taking on the responsibility of testing the waters of their local rivers.

But citizen science to tackle this problem has been growing in popularity worldwide too. A mixture of cheaper technology making monitors more affordable for normal people, a fall in trust for governments and a rising number of environmental crises triggered by climate change, mean that more and more people are turning to citizen science as a way to monitor the invisible damage being done to the natural world around them.

A non-profit organization is trying to transform those spontaneous initiatives into an international movement. Safecast was founded after the Japanese government failed to properly represent the scale of the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, according to co-founder Pieter Franken. At the time, newscasters would hold up official graphics suggesting there were “normal” radiation levels across the country, all based on one or two measurements. “Scientists work in their lab. And they’re very precise and focused on that. But if a disaster happens, the context changes,” says Franken. “And the context that happened in the case of Fukushima was that we didn’t need super-precise measurements on a specific location, we needed to measure hundreds of thousands of streets.”

Attaching mobile geiger counters fitted with GPS trackers to cars and distributing sensors to anonymous volunteers, the group was able to gather what might be a record amount of radiation measurements. “A lot of scientific papers are written on 20, or 40, or 100 data points. We have collected 175m measurements,” he explains. “We have people that have cycled their whole country measuring the radiation.” Franken tells me the group has worked with some 5,000-10,000 volunteers to track radiation levels—and, more recently, air pollution levels—across Japan and the world. All of Safecast data is completely open and accessible to anyone who wants it, and is constantly being updated as new volunteers add new readings.

Citizen science is uniquely styled to help combat the kind of environmental challenges posed by worsening pollution and climate change. For one, there’s the amount of data that can be collected by hundreds or thousands of people, giving scientists far more data points than they could ever normally get. For issues that affect huge swathes of areas like pollution or radiation, which can only be properly measured at scale, that kind of mass data collection can be vital.

Then there’s the stability it offers—publicly available data gathered by citizens removes the chance of any middleman who may be unable, because of underfunding or political crisis, to gather enough data. In Ukraine, for example, the war has meant remote monitoring of the country’s nuclear power plants has been near to impossible. “What’s happening in Ukraine is also a great window on what happens the moment a crisis happens: The first thing that happens is you don’t have data,” says Franken. “The moment you centralize data, it can be hijacked or lost. So our mission remains to make sure we have a decentralized data capability.”

Citizen science is not without its critics: some express concerns that untrained citizens could collect shoddy or even biased data that won’t have scientific rigor or reliability. Franken argues that the sheer amount of people collecting data for Safecast means that many areas are measured more than once by different people, meaning any discrepancies can be caught, for example.

But more than the data itself, part of the appeal can be to change the way the population at large interacts with science more generally. According to Steffen Fritz, director of the Strategic Initiatives program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analytics (IIASA), citizen science can be a way to increase trust in data and science in an era of increasing uncertainty, misinformation and political polarization. “We all understand that science needs to be much more democratized. Scientists need to use different languages and less jargon. They need to be understood by the general public,” he explains. “Citizen science doesn’t just let people collect data, it empowers them and gives them a voice.”

Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 will require innovative solutions at a global scale. In this series, in partnership with the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative, WIRED highlights individuals and communities working to solve some of our most pressing environmental challenges. It’s produced in partnership with Rolex but all content is editorially independent. Find out more.