Citizen-generated data at the Eye on Earth Summit

By Zara Rahman

Last week, I joined the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi to discuss the challenge of getting, accessing and using information and data to support sustainable development. The event was much more focused on the policy side of access to data and information than much of the DataShift work that I’ve been involved with so far, so it was fascinating to see this crowd’s priorities, and what they were talking about.

Given the focus of the conference on environmental outcomes and sustainable development, citizen-generated data was discussed within the realm of citizen science – and, to my slight surprise, it was extremely prominent throughout the three days.

Different forms of knowledge

The newly launched UNEP Live platform, making data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and related initiatives available and accessible to all, garnered a lot of attention during the conference. When talking about it, UNEP’s Jacqueline McGlade put a lot of emphasis on the fact that that the platform was a way of recognising different forms of knowledge that sit outside primarily western frameworks of understanding – for example, indigenous knowledges.

As well as aggregating various data sources from around the internet together with UNEP’s own data, the portal includes a page listing various citizen science initiatives. It seems like a fantastic start in providing a ‘one stop shop’ for the initiatives, but – as I’ve seen in many similar initiatives – without having a clear way for people to contribute directly to the site and keep the list alive, ensuring quality and timeliness of the information can become difficult in the long term. UNEP Live is still in development, though, so perhaps these functionalities are on the way. I’d also note that the licensing rights on the portal itself (© UNEP) – also provide another barrier to actually using much of the data that appears on the site. Hopefully this will also change in the future.

The importance of recognising and including multiple viewpoints on how the world works and how the environment is changing was mentioned a number of times, and there seemed to be somewhat of an understanding that statisticians alone will not be able to gather and measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. As Professor David Rhind of the UK Statistics Authority mentioned on the first day, “there is a danger that statisticians take a certain view of the world and ignore citizen data”. Making sure this doesn’t happen was high on the agenda for many people I spoke to.

Collaborations between institutions and citizen-generated data

One of the DataShift research outputs we’re working on looks into the potential collaboration of governments and institutions on citizen-generated data – how could they incorporate it into their work, what would be the benefits and the potential obstacles to doing this, and why would they want to? With this in mind, I was thrilled to discover that in a number of cases, citizen science data has already been contributing to government datasets – in the UK, the Meteorological Office has been running their Weather Observations Website, where people can enter observations about a number of different weather factors (eg. temperature, snowfall, rainfall) along with photos, and other quantitative data about specific locations within the UK. The community of amateur weather observers seems to be extremely active, and contributes to and moderates parts of the site themselves, as volunteers.

This type of collaboration is something that I haven’t seen in other areas of citizen-generated data, and is a fantastic example of a collaboration that is useful to both parties involved. Various other initiatives are also looking into the power of the crowd to strengthen both their datasets and their policy making. Also in the UK, earlier this year the Cabinet Office released the ‘Open policy making toolkit: crowdsourcing,’ which outlines in detail how crowdsourcing could be used to strengthen policy-making, and engage the public in the process. In the US, citizen science and crowdsourcing are also on the agenda of the federal government. Professor Muki Haklay’s work in this space is particularly interesting, too, with the Extreme Citizen Science group at University College London (UCL). For more on Professor Haklay’s work, take a look at this paper looking at crowdsourced geographic information use in government, and a wealth of other information on his personal blog, here.

Collaboration between government authorities and citizens is also happening with qualitative data – for example, the 2013 Costa Rica Declaration, which is still the only crowdsourced UN declaration. Similarly, customs systems and police hotlines have been adding citizen reports into their work for decades.

Plugging the gaps

Areas with significant data gaps were also mentioned – such as the fact that there is no single dataset on the temperature of the ocean globally. Without this information, conservation of the marine ecosystem is less well-informed than it could be. A new initiative named Project Hermes is aiming to fix this, by getting divers to record the temperatures of the waters that they dive in.

Kathrine Brekke of ICLEI talked about an initiative in Brazil that asks citizens to report data on what trees they have in their neighbourhood, and to give their opinion on what kinds of trees they would like to have in an ongoing city-led reforestation programme. In this way, it uses citizen participation to both provide data on unknown quantities (the types of already planted trees) – and increases engagement on a policy that affects the citizens themselves (trees to be planted).


It was clear to see the recognition of the role of individuals in moving toward sustainable development across the three days, whether through citizen science initiatives, crowdsourced policy making, or recognising that knowledge exists in many different formats across the world. I was really impressed by both existing and planned future efforts, and believe that other areas of citizen-generated data can learn a lot from this community’s work.