6 ways citizens across the U.S. are using science to build a better world

By collecting climate change data, monitoring air quality, and reverse-engineering insulin, locals are creating a more just and equitable society.

Image credit: Annie Hall

1.“Here, everyone can be a scientist.”

At Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, California, pipettes, microscopes, and petri dishes cover lab tables, while the lab’s latest, crowdfunded acquisition sits nearby: an ultra-cold freezer for storing enzymes and DNA. The lab provides a place for open science, where anyone can do research and research results are free, says Maureen Muldavin, a board member of the nonprofit public biology lab. Established in 2013, the lab hosts projects that range from making “bioart” inspired by colorful bacteria to reverse-engineering insulin. “We’re trying to do the research to make it easier for someone to produce a generic version [of insulin], so it’s not available through just a few pharmaceutical companies,” says Muldavin.

The equipment is professional, but the lab’s participants don’t have to be. Participants include people without science backgrounds as well as those with Ph.D.s. Crowdsourcing buys the equipment, and peer-to-peer education teaches people the skills to use it. Some are looking to learn skills for a new career, others to conduct research outside their home institution. Many are just curious about science. “Usually, it’s scientists who decide what to research,” says Muldavin. “Here, everyone can be a scientist.”

2. In hog farm country, communities became co-researchers

Wastewater from a hog farm in Duplin County, North Carolina, is pink from bacteria. Image credit: Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.

Colleagues remember Steve Wing as a different kind of scientist – one who believed advocacy and participation should be at the heart of scientific research.

“Community participation was central to the approach [Wing] believed in,” says Phil Brown, a member of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council. “[He believed] community residents were usually the most reliable discoverers of problems.” Wing was an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until he died in November 2016. As a public health researcher, he advocated the use of community-based participatory research (CBPR) and sought to involve communities threatened by environmental hazards in every step of the research process. Brown says that Wing’s dedication to CBPR serves as an example to other researchers who see their advocacy and research as intertwined.

For 20 years, Wing worked with the people living near large farming operations in North Carolina’s hog country. With more than 2,100 hog farms, North Carolina is one of the largest pork-producing states in the country. Farms are concentrated in the eastern portion of the state, where most divert pig waste to open-air lagoons. When hurricanes hit, the lagoons overflow, spilling untreated hog waste into rivers, lakes, and backyards. When they’re working as intended, the lagoons contain the waste in deep pits that turn pinkish-purple from bacteria, emit toxic gases, and seep into groundwater.

Hog manure is poisonous stuff, but prior to Wing’s studies in the area, not much research had been done on the impacts of pig waste on human health. “People living around animal operations were seeing changes in their well water and smelling odors,” says Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN). Locals felt their concerns were ignored by area officials with ties to industry, says Muhammad. So they approached Wing to design a study on the health impacts of the farms.

To help build trust, community members were treated as co-researchers. That research partnership produced studies that found pollution from large hog operations was associated with increased blood pressure, respiratory symptoms, and stress. Another study found Black, American Indian, and Hispanic North Carolinians were more likely than White residents to live within 3 miles of an industrial hog farm.

Collaboration didn’t end once the study results were published. Wing brought the data back to the community. “People became more aware [of the health risks],” says Muhammad. “This was information that could help them.”

In a 2015 interview for North Carolina Health News, Wing explained why he believed collaborative research is important: “The research questions we choose and the studies we conduct respond to the needs of government or industry – basically, the organizations that have money to spend on research,” he said. “I became interested in the idea that there are problems that wouldn’t be identified by the authorities, that we could learn about if we just listen to the people who are exposed.”

3. Balloon mapping to see what’s really going on

Petroleum coke piles are visible from the air in southeast Chicago. Image credit: Terry Evans

Growing up near the industrial Calumet River in South Chicago, Olga Bautista says black dust peppered window sills and left residue on the riverbank. Later, she learned the dust was petroleum coke, a pollutant being stored at nearby industrial sites. She didn’t know how much of the stuff was being stored, though, or where; at that time, overhead maps of the area didn’t exist. So Bautista and her neighbors made their own maps. Using a simple DIY methodology from the nonprofit Public Lab, they took photos using a digital camera attached to a high-flying weather balloon. With help from a local Public Lab organizer, they then stitched photos together using the open source software MapKnitter. Bautista says they used the resulting maps to educate neighbors and elected officials: “Seeing the maps was transformative. It emboldened us to fight harder.”

Public Lab co-founder Jeffrey Warren says the organization provides an online platform where people pool, document, and share data-collecting methodologies like balloon mapping. “Folks who really need to produce evidence of environmental problems don’t own satellites or airplanes or have easy access to them,” he says. With data, communities can advocate for better environments: Maps, for example, provide information about the location and size of pollutants, or about a community’s access to food, green space, or health care.

To date, more than 10,000 people from around the world have used Public Lab to collect and analyze data about their environments, according to Warren.

4. Citizens track the effects of climate change

A citizen scientist in Tucson, Arizona, collects data on local plant life to contribute to Nature’s Notebook. Image credit: Sara N. Schaffer via USA-NPN

Seasonal changes direct the timing of when buds grow in the spring or fruit ripens in the fall. As the climate changes – and the seasons arrive earlier or later, and are shorter or longer than expected – it affects the plants and animals that rely on seasonal cues. “If it’s warmer than average, you’re likely to see many plants putting their leaves on earlier,” says Theresa Crimmins, the assistant director of the National Phenology Network (NPN). “That makes them more susceptible to early-season frost.” Those changes impact us, too: In 2012, unusual spring conditions devastated nearly 90 percent of Michigan’s apple harvest.

Using Nature’s Notebook, thousands of citizen scientists across the country are collecting data on the plants and animals around them. Since the NPN began the online program in 2009, more than 9 million records have been submitted. Crimmins says the data collected by these backyard observers are used by scientists trying to understand climate change impacts. “There’s only really one way to collect the data we need on a national scale – crowdsource it,” she says. So far, about 30 scientific studies have used Nature’s Notebook data.

One of these citizen scientists is Marjorie Johnson. From her Massachusetts garden, Johnson has a lot of hands-on experience observing how the changing seasons affect the plants she grows. As a Nature’s Notebook volunteer, she began by observing just a few plants in her yard, noting when they sprouted, flowered, or died back. Now she observes animals too, using binoculars to identify foraging birds from her window. “I observe to help document the effects of climate change,” Johnson says. “By observing the same trees year after year, the long-term trends become apparent.” And, she adds, she’s learned to pay more attention to the plants and animals around her.

5. Louisiana Bucket Brigade keeps the data real

Community members young and old in St. Rose, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans, set up buckets for data collection in front of an oil refinery. YES! Image credit: Marc Pagani

Dorothy Jenkins lives 50 feet away from an oil refinery in New Sarpy, Louisiana. When the black plumes emitting from the refinery smelled particularly bad, Jenkins called the plant manager to complain. He’d tell her not to worry, she says, that the air was fine.

The conversation changed for Jenkins after she took air monitoring into her own hands, according to Anne Rolfes, the founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Rolfes remembers a meeting she attended with Jenkins and the plant manager: “She said, Why did you violate the state benzene standard by three times? She had real data for the conversation, and the plant manager was flummoxed.” Jenkins’ data came from a simple and affordable tool – an “air bucket” – used to monitor air quality. Rolfes formed LABB in 2000 after learning about the bucket from the California-based organization Communities for a Better Environment, which conducted trainings on the tool in Louisiana. Today, LABB works with communities near refineries and chemical plants across Louisiana to build an air-monitoring network, training individuals to use the bucket tool to take samples, sometimes quite literally in their backyards.

The effort has had real results. According to Rolfes, several hundred households near the Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana, were relocated away from contamination zones; and in at least three cities where LABB works, the EPA has installed air-monitoring systems.

“People are experts about where they live,” says Rolfes. “Yet when residents who live next to pollution complain, they are made to believe they’re wrong. People’s ability to take their own samples is vital because it validates their observations.”

6. Measuring pounds of produce from concrete farms

Urban rooftop farmers work on the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project in New York City. Image credit: Rob Stephenson, courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

The increasing demand for housing in New York City is putting urban farms and gardens at risk. “Policy makers and funders [want] more evidence of the benefits coming out of gardens to substantiate investing in gardens over other land uses,” says Philip Silva, an environmental planner who helped create the Farming Concrete Data Collection Toolkit.

The toolkit is the product of a New York City initiative from the Design Trust for Public Space and Farming Concrete to help donors and officials appreciate the value of community gardens. Gardeners decide what they want to track and how; they might measure pounds of produce or track the mood of visitors entering and exiting the garden. Since its launch in 2015, the toolkit has been used in 357 gardens in 63 cities around the world.

Sheryll Durrant, garden manager at Kelly Street Garden in the Bronx and former staff member at Sustainable Flatbush in Brooklyn, says tracking helps gardeners craft a data-based narrative of their garden’s impact for funders. It also helps them better understand their garden’s impact. She recalls that, at the Sustainable Flatbush garden, “we originally thought our main impact was growing food, but [with the toolkit] we figured out our impact was diverting food scraps from the waste stream into compost.” Today, Sustainable Flatbush has a robust “zero waste” compost campaign. “[Data collection] gave us a sense of where we should be devoting our energies or improving.”


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Shannan Lenke Stoll wrote this article for Why Science Can’t Be Silent, the Spring 2017 issue of YES! Magazine. Shannan is a freelance editor and writer living in Oregon. She holds a master’s degree in Environmental Studies and her work focuses on environmental justice and science. In the past, she has worked as a natural resource planner and researched at the intersection of environmental justice, science, and policy.