This session focuses on the efforts of citizen science groups and how stakeholders engage with local and regional energy issues. Our panelists’ research addresses the natural gas and petrochemical industries, and their presentations will describe environmental monitoring projects they have been involved with. Presentations and discussion will highlight how citizen science projects 1) leverage digital platforms for data collection and public communication, 2) how citizen scientists work with universities or academic researchers, and 3) how these projects shift public thinking about energy use writ large. Our panelists will also speak to the challenges and limitations of citizen science within the context of “energy culture.”

Map from FracTracker of watersheds monitored by citizen scientists
Map from FracTracker of watersheds monitored by citizen scientists (From Kirk Jalbert’s slides)

Related Resources (video, suggested reading, and other links)

Event Video –

Q&A Highlights –

Are civic science and citizen science mutually exclusive? Wylie: The term citizen science has some significant limitations.  For example, many vulnerable populations in the U.S. are not U.S. citizens, all scientists are citizens of somewhere.  Civic science refers more to the intention and goal of the work, rather than specifically who is doing it. Jalbert: There is a conception of citizen science as free data-collection/processing labor for accredited scientists, but this can be disempowering to those involved and ignores the idea of “civic duty.” Ottinger: There is a spectrum, and it hinges on who is asking the research questions or who is designing the study.  Citizen science has come to refer to situations where the accredited scientists drive the research.  Perhaps community based science for action maybe more apt, or social movement based citizen science.  The presence in the public sphere is not the important part, but the activism orientation is.

Relevant Links –

Drexel Building Digital Infrastructure Workshop page – A curated webpage on a workshop event about the intersection of digital infrastructure and citizen science, with particular focus on what citizen science is.

FracTracker Alliance – A non-profit based in Pittsburgh which “shares maps, data, and analyses to communicate impacts of the global oil and gas industry and informs actions that positively shape our energy future.”

Public Lab – Public lab is a community where you can learn how to investigate environmental concerns. Using inexpensive DIY techniques, we seek to change how people see the world in environmental, social, and political terms.

A screenshot of the Public Lab Tools page.
A screenshot of the Public Lab Tools page.

Further Reading –

Brown, P., Zavestoski, S., McCormick, S., Mayer, B., Morello‐Frosch, R., & Gasior Altman, R. (2004). Embodied health movements: new approaches to social movements in health. Sociology of health & illness, 26(1), 50-80.

Corburn, J. (2005). Street science: Community knowledge and environmental health justice. The MIT Press.

Ottinger, G. (2013). Refining expertise: How responsible engineers subvert environmental justice challenges. NYU Press.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some different conceptions of citizen science and of civic science?  How do they differ, what does each allow people to do that the other does not, and what does that tell us about the power dynamics involved or how these different conceptions can be used strategically?  Moreover, what are the implications of this lack of consensus about what that term picks out?
  2. Kirk Jalbert and Sara Wylie both discussed a number of barriers to interaction between different groups in the context of environmental justice-driven citizen science.  What are some strategies that could be used to surmount those barriers?  How are those barriers related to each other?
  3. A theme throughout the Shifting Energy Culture Series has been the role that (digital) data interpretation/accessibility/visualization tools play in facilitating energy literacy, citizen science, and environmental justice work.  What is this role, and how does it vary in different contexts?  How can the power such tools wield be used strategically?
  4. How might we explain the prominence of tools to visualize  data?  Gwen Ottinger discussed how imaging is a significant qualitative complement to quantitative monitoring, and how these images allow people to make meaning in different ways and tell different stories than quantitative data does.  Discuss and explore the power of images in crafting narratives and strategically achieving energy and environmental health goals in the context of citizen science.
  5. What is the relationship between energy production/transmission technologies, data visualization/interpretation technologies, and issues of environmental health?
  6. Consider Gwen Ottinger’s closing question: How can citizen science shift public thinking about energy use? Recall the discussion about where change must originate and the importance of individual practices and structural factors, from the third Shifting Energy Cultures event,  Get Innovative with Energy.  What sort of insight might that discussion give with respect to this question?

Speaker Biographies

The speakers at this event included:

Gwen Ottinger, “Shifting Energy Cultures through Citizen Science” (2:57). Gwen Ottinger is Assistant Professor in the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and the Department of Politics at Drexel University.  Her research aims to foster environmentally just science and technology–first, by examining how existing technologies and routine scientific practices advance or undermine environmental justice (EJ) and, second, by collaborating with community and activist groups to design technology and create research projects that support EJ goals–and is supported in part by a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.  Ottinger is co-editor of Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement (MIT 2011)  and author of Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges, which was awarded the 2015 Rachel Carson Prize by the Society for Social Studies of Science.

Kirk Jalbert, “Working with Water Quality Data and Participatory GIS to Understand the Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction” (18:04). Kirk Jalbert will receive his Ph.D. in Science and Technologies Studies in July 2015 from the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His dissertation is a study of citizen science water monitoring networks mobilizing against the rise of shale gas extraction in the northeastern United States. This research seeks to understand how civil society research networks vocalize environmental health concerns, and how they pursue empowerment through participatory data collection and geospatial data visualization projects. Prior research includes directing undergraduate engineering teams to design environmental monitoring devices for use in Navajo Nation STEM education programs, as well as ethnographic fieldwork at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, a RPI Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) Fellowship, the Colcom Foundation, the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and other sources. His work appears in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Political Power and Social Theory, and The Information Society. Additional manuscripts are forthcoming in the Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, Science & Technology Studies, and Environment and Planning C. Jalbert received a MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a BS in computer science from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He was an instructor of Communications and Culture, as well as Visual Media, at Clark University for nearly ten years. In August 2015, Jalbert will become the first Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement for the FracTracker Alliance, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that produces maps, data, and digital storytelling projects to communicate the impacts of global oil and gas industries. Kirk Jalbert’s slides.

Nick Shapiro, “Manufacturing, Monitoring and Metabolizing Everyday Toxicity” (41:56). Nick Shapiro is a critic and practitioner of environmental monitoring and a researcher of chemical infrastructures. He is a Matter, Materials and Culture Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and an Open Air Fellow at Public Lab where he is the lead researcher on the “Where We Breathe” indoor air quality monitoring and mitigation project. His work moves between the social science, the natural sciences and the arts.

Sara Wylie, “Civic Science: Building Tools and Platforms For Grassroots Study of the Energy Industry” (). is an Assistant Professor in Northeastern University’s new Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute. Wylie is jointly appointed in Sociology/Anthropology and Health Sciences. She is also a [JBP Environmental Health Fellow http://ehfellows.sph.harvard.edu/] with Harvard School of Public Health. She teaches Science and Technology Studies (STS) in Sociology and Community Based Participatory Research Health Sciences. She received her Ph.D. from MIT’s History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) Program in 2011. Her dissertation [“Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds: An STS Analysis of the American Natural Gas Industry”http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/69453] is an ethnographic study of the role science based NGOs played in the emergence of public concerns about the human and environmental health impacts of chemicals used in natural gas extraction, particularly hydraulic fracturing. Investigating new methods for practicing STS research, her dissertation additionally developed and implemented web-based tools to help communities and experts across the country study and hold extractive industries accountable for their social and environmental impacts. This project (called ExtrAct) was developed in collaboration with artist and technologist Chris Csikszentmihalyi, in MIT’s Center for Civic Media. More generally, Sara seeks to develop new modes of studying and intervening in large-scale social issues such endocrine disrupting chemicals and corporate accountability through a fusion of social scientific, scientific and art/design practices. Pursuing these interests Sara taught in Digital+Media at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for three years before moving to Northeastern. She has worked extensively with Theo Colborn, lead author of “Our Stolen Future.” Sara is also a cofounder of [Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science http://publiclab.org/], a non-profit that develops open source, Do It Yourself tools for community based environmental analysis. Expanding her interest in transforming science practice through STS research, as Public Lab’s Director of Toxics and Health research she organized and initiated open source research projects on low cost thermal imaging, detection of indoor air hazards, community based methods for detection of hydrogen sulfide and home-testing for environmental estrogens. Through her new role helping to build Northeastern’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute she continues to work actively with Public Lab.