Why ‘Citizen Science’ Faces an Uphill Climb in China
Over the past ten years, smartphones have become a ubiquitous part of life in China — with consumers using the devices for everything from mobile payments to gaming and social media.
But some environmental NGOs see a way to get more out of the smartphone revolution: engaging citizens in environmental monitoring and conservation work. The Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, for example, partnered with mobile payment giant Alipay to create “Ant Forest,” a program that rewards Alipay users for green activities — including walking or taking public transportation — with virtual money that they can use to fund SEE’s afforestation programs in Inner Mongolia. Elsewhere, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) has developed an app that allows citizens to identify and upload images of “black and smelly rivers” around the country.
Efforts to involve the public in conservation work such as these are having a transformative impact on the world of environmental protection — and in the case of Shan Shui’s China Nature Watch (CNW) program, have even helped influence the passage of wildlife protection laws. As part of the so-called citizen science movement, these initiatives seek to involve the public in environmental monitoring and bridge the gap between scientists and everyday people. Yet obstacles remain. As IPE senior researcher Shen Sunan pointed out, “For NGOs working to implement citizen science projects, the biggest challenges include getting people to participate and finding suitable partners in the scientific community.”
There are a number of benefits to involving the public in the scientific process, including a wider net for data collection and stronger environmental awareness. But first, NGOs must convince local residents to participate.
One way CNW has done this is by targeting local individuals and social organizations — such as bird-watching groups — that have a specific interest in nature. CNW engages target groups on WeChat — a social media network with over 500 million users in China alone. This massive user base makes WeChat one of the most popular ways to reach out to potential partners and participants. CNW has also developed its own mobile app to allow users to record wildlife sightings, in the hopes of tapping into the large amounts of time people spend on their smartphones.
However, even with social media, the scope of NGOs remains limited. Founder of Colorfulland — an environmental NGO that monitors local rivers — Xue Wang noted, “even if we were to have 100 people participate in our weekly monitoring events, we would still only reach around 50,000 people over 10 years. China has a population of 1.4 billion people. Fifty thousand may seem like a lot, but it really isn’t.”
The challenge is even greater in rural areas. According to Peng Kui, program manager at the Global Environmental Institute (GEI), there is “a gap in scientific literacy” in the countryside, where residents remain more concerned about meeting their basic needs than addressing complex environmental issues. Unless rural communities are directly impacted by a given environmental problem — and they can clearly see how solving the issue would improve their economic situations — residents will remain disinclined to work with NGOs on citizen science projects.
NGOs are therefore trying to link environmental protection to economic growth. From creating ecotourism initiatives that emphasize data collection and environmental protection through local herders, to pushing animal poachers to take up honey harvesting, these projects seek to engage local residents in conservation work while also providing them with economic support.
But in order to really scale up these programs, NGOs must convince local communities of the value of citizen science and learn how to reach out and engage more people.
One way this can be done is by partnering with businesses or governments. The Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology’s partnership with Alipay is an example of the former, while the black and smelly river program is the latter, since it was initially a Ministry of Environmental Protection program that IPE later took over.
The other main difficulty NGOs face involves finding reliable scientific organizations to work with. “Finding a suitable scientific research group to partner with has proven really challenging. We just don’t know all of the options that are out there,” explained Shen Sunan. There is little motivation for scientists to participate in citizen science projects unless there is something to gain. Like locals, they see their time and energy as limited, and only worth expending if there are potential benefits involved.
As a result, many current partnerships are based on longstanding personal relationships or other factors that may not be widely replicable. CNW was able to partner with the Center for Nature and Society at Peking University in part because the director of Shan Shui is also a professor at the university. IPE’s partnership with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment was started when the ministry reached out to IPE specifically and asked it to take over their black and smelly river program. Rock Environment and Energy Institute (REEI)’s partnership with professors at Peking and Tsinghua University was described by REEI deputy director Lin Jiaqiao as “rare, and likely possible only because the professors they are working with spent significant time abroad, where public involvement in data collection is more common.”
In the future, NGOs should not have to rely on personal connections, luck, or cold calls to find potential partners. Instead, the government, scientific institutions, and universities need to take an active role in promoting cooperation. After all, the data that citizens collect has real value to scientists and local governments alike — especially as these groups work with local residents to protect the environment.
Partnering with scientific organizations is also vital to making sure that the data collected in these projects is valid and reliable. The most common methods for ensuring data validity include collecting photographs and providing forms that allow individuals to make in-depth reports that can then supply more detailed information for the final source of validation — expert review.
IPE's Blue Map data collection system, for example, uses GPS location data to provide users a list of nearby rivers when they file a report, thereby reducing the risk of misidentification. This seemingly simple innovation took a lot of effort behind the scenes, however, as it involved partnering with data scientists to write program code. Similarly, REEI worked with scientists at Tsinghua and Peking University to analyze indoor subway air pollution data to ensure that their report was sufficiently evidence-based. Scientists provide important technical expertise to NGOs, be it in creating phone apps, understanding data collection methodologies and tools, or analyzing results.
Citizen science has the potential to revolutionize environmental conservation work in China — and thanks to technological advancements, the country’s focus on balancing the environment and economic growth, and increasing local participation rates, this future seems within reach. Yet, in order to ensure sustainability, the NGOs working to popularize citizen science still must find ways to better mobilize the public and establish lasting partnerships with experienced scientists. In this, they will need more support from businesses, universities, and government bodies.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O'Donnell.
This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct fieldwork in eight provinces all over the country.
(Header image: A view of the grassland in Maqu County, Gansu province, July 4, 2018. Lyssa Freese for Sixth Tone)