Utilizing Volunteer-Generated Data

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a workshop hosted by the EPA called Technology to Empower Citizen Scientists. About 60 people from NGOs and state and federal agencies got together to discuss how we can work better together and how new technologies can help, especially in the area of bioassessment.

First, let me describe what bioassessment is. Our current water quality monitoring program looks at several very specific chemical concentrations in the stream. Among other things, we look at dissolved oxygen, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, and dissolved metals.  Our rivers and streams are not to exceed very specific limits of these chemicals, and we directed our program’s efforts to identifying if San Diego County’s rivers and streams are exceeding pollutant regulatory thresholds. Measuring these chemicals can give us a rough picture of stream health, but it isn’t complete without bioassessment.

Bioassessment measures the health of the stream by measuring algae and aquatic insect communities.  This gives us a more holistic view of the health of our waters. First, if the river is full of pollutant tolerant insects, but no pollutant sensitive species, pollution is most likely affecting stream health. Second, if algae are growing out of control, nutrients are affecting stream health. Chemical monitoring measures pollutants, then bioassessment measures the effects that those pollutants have on the aquatic ecosystem. We need more of these bioassessments in order to get a better picture of the health of our waterways. San Diego Coastkeeper will be starting our own volunteer-powered program next Spring ’14.

What struck me at this meeting, which was attended by folks from all over the country, was how comparatively open California is in utilizing volunteer-generated data.  We in California have a statewide database that anyone can upload into. We can also include our quality assurance data to show that the data generated is of good, useful quality. The Regional Water Quality Control Board as well as various municipalities around the county actively solicits us to send data to them so they can include it in their analysis and reports.  The new draft of San Diego’s stormwater permit has a section encouraging stormwater departments to partner with programs like ours to conduct special studies on water pollution. In short, our data is recognized for what it is: high quality and useful.

Unfortunately, most other states have put up roadblocks to utilizing volunteer generated data. For example, Ohio has this ridiculous law they call the “Ohio Credible Data Law.” Instead of letting the data speak for itself, volunteer data must pass various certification tests before it is considered. This is an expensive roadblock to utilizing good data.  A certificate may “certify” one’s data but it does not guarantee that the data is good. This is why it is imperative to look beyond a certification and directly at the quality assurance data to make a sound judgment about how useful one’s data is.

Anyway, sorry for the mini rant. Most of the nation is not yet at a point where we can talk about cool, new technologies, volunteer-generated data is still sometimes relegated to the margins of the regulatory community. We in San Diego have it a bit easier- our data is actually used. So the morals of this blog are:

  1. Good job, California- by being open with volunteer data, we really set the bar for the rest of the country.
  2. Other states need to get their act together and stop putting up ridiculous roadblocks to volunteer-generated data.
  3. Keep your eye out for our new bioassessment program coming next Spring ’14. We’ll be stomping around creeks and collecting bugs. It should be super fun.