INSIGHTS

A Word on Water: Citizen Science Supports Data Insight

7 min read ·

Mar 18

No single stretch of river in England or Northern Ireland is in good overall health.
photo of Tania Flasck

Tania Flasck

Director of Market Development, Utilities

No single stretch of river in England or Northern Ireland is in good overall health. It’s a stark statement by the Rivers Trust following the publication of The State of our Rivers Report, and one that should worry all of us. Headlines such as these published in the Guardian are grabbing attention, which from my perspective having been in the environmental sector all of my career is good to see. I relish the opportunity to talk about water and the environment. Finally the interest is there.

But river health is a complex problem. It is good to see the Guardian highlighting the many contributing factors rather than placing blame entirely on the water sector. As this report shows, whilst the water sector contributes a significant proportion of the impact, agricultural pollution has an even larger impact, along with a large amount from urban runoff.

This report highlights the need for real-time data to help show the status of our river ecosystems. Only when armed with data from many and varied sources can we focus on interventions that will have the greatest impact. The efforts of citizen scientists who dedicate their own time and passion in the field must also be considered.

I volunteer with the River Thame Conservation Trust, a local charity organisation working to restore the River Thame catchment in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and a member of the Rivers Trust. Working with a network of volunteers, farmers and landowners, the aim is to improve the freshwaters and biodiversity of the River Thame.

When individuals are integrated in data gathering exercises, local communities become an active part of the decisions made about their local environment – including river health.

My role, along with many others, is to visit designated sampling point sites in the catchment area at the beginning of each month to undertake field water-quality testing and observations. Data gathered is uploaded via an app and added to other open data sources to paint a picture of river health. Accurate data gathering is key to understanding the challenges with river health, which inevitably leads to more questions about knowledge gaps. This cycle then continues until the true causes of pollution can be understood.

Working collaboratively with the bodies responsible for that pollution is critical to making positive change happen.

The Rivers Trust report relied on many passionate members of the public spending time to contribute data by being citizen scientists. This level of volunteer planning and coordination is critical to generating high quality and cost effective evidence. It also enables gaps in data to be filled. When individuals are integrated in data-gathering exercises, local communities become an active part of the decisions made about their local environment – including river health. In these situations, we all stand to benefit.

Finding your local trust if you are in the UK is a great starting point to support river health, but globally there are many varied and differing citizen-science projects. The Globe ProgramZooniverse and NASA are just some examples. I encourage you to look behind the headlines and get involved to be part of the solution. We spend considerable time every day at Sand Technologies using AI, ML and data science to analyse information and improve river health, but the more and more-varied data we all have, the better outcomes we can achieve together.

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