Citizen Sensing: towards a right to contribute to environmental information

Door: Anna Berti Suman | Categorie: Environmental justice, Human rights, Public participation

Dr. Anna Berti Suman

On May 7, 2020, we engaged in a webinar “Citizen Sensing: towards a right to contribute to environmental information”, with more than 80 participants from all over the world. Citizen sensing, which I framed as grassroots-driven monitoring initiatives based on human senses often enhanced by sensor technologies, is increasingly entering environmental (risk) governance. Whereas the majority of studies on broader citizen science focus on the learning or participatory aspects, in the webinar we targeted the legal sides of environmental citizen sensing. The webinar – originally intended to be a workshop at the Tilburg Public Library LocHal supported by the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research – soon became ‘virtual’ due to the Covid-19 crisis, as also went ‘digital’ my PhD defense the day after.

The webinar focused on two interrelated aspects emerged from the key findings of the PhD project “Sensing the risk. In search of the factors influencing the policy uptake of citizen sensing”:

  • Whether a legal instrument for regulating citizen sensing is needed, specifically providing for different forms of integration of the practice into institutional settings;
  • Whether such a legal instrument should include the recognition of a “right to contribute to environmental information” and a consequent obligation for competent authorities to listen to the sensing citizens and consider their evidence to take action.

I suggested that such a legal intervention could ensure that, if certain conditions are met, authorities are stimulated to (or even obliged to) use citizen-sensed data and insights for their decisions. Moreover, the recognition of a right to contribute to environmental information’ could both ‘legitimize’ citizen sensing and facilitate its policy uptake and also shield participants from adverse (legal) consequences associated with the exercise of the practice, such as strategic lawsuit against public participations.

The webinar addressed these two intertwined questions from a number of different academic and practice-based perspectives. Yet, numerous questions rest open, such as whether this right to contribute could be considered a new human right and, thus, what would be its relationship to the existing procedural human right to access environmental information under the Aarhus Convention, or how this new right could be implemented and enforced. In terms of regulating citizen sensing, avenues are still open as for what would be the preferable form, considering also the administrative level (e.g. local or national) and cross-country aspects (e.g. an EU-wide provision or per country). Future explorations should also address the question on whether this legal instrument would create just the ‘possibility’ for authorities to use citizen sensing or rather be ‘obliged’ to recur to such data, when certain conditions are met (e.g. information is inadequate from the official side). The discussion seems particularly needed both for academia and for practice as (legal) researchers are almost absent from this inquiry (with some pioneers excluded, and my forthcoming SensJus project) and that sensing citizens rarely ‘call in’ the law and rights in the discussion as they do not know how to ‘use’ them, or simply do not trust their enforcement.

In the webinar, we explored these questions from various perspectives, inviting to the (virtual) table citizens, experts and practitioners from different disciplines and standpoints. Communication scholar Yasuhito Abe, from Komazawa University, offered an historical journey into (nuclear) citizen sensing. Abe made a key argument noting: “from my fieldwork and historical studies, I am not saying that law instrument is the only resource that citizens use to make an effective argument concerning environmental policy, including decontamination in Japan, but I believe a legal instrument should be one of the key resources for citizen scientists to make a claim” [emphasis added]. Interestingly, Abe also noted that – in his fieldwork – only few citizens that he interviewed referred to the law, and nobody had a legal background among the citizen scientists he met. Even in his historical research on civic nuclear monitoring after Chernobyl, he did not find substantial evidence that citizens were concerned about a legal instrument. The law may thus be “invisible to some citizen scientists”, wisely noted Abe. To the question on whether a right to contribute to environmental information would be needed, Abe’s findings suggest that there are people who take action when necessary, regardless of the existence of a legal instrument, as they urgently need to know the levels of radiation for their health and safety after a disaster. Bringing in the issue of culture and temporality, Abe stressed that the necessity of a legal instrument and the shape thereof may change depending on the cultural and temporal context, so a ‘one fits all approach’ would not work, nor a ‘one-way communication’ between institutions and the citizens. Lastly, Abe warned us that we need to take into account how the institutionalization of citizen science and sensing under the name of law has potential chilling effects, for example missing the fact that the perception and application of the law differs very much according to culture, and – I add – that law risks to hamper innovation.

The conversation continued with the experience of three citizen sensing communities, each of them offered a brief statement on the questions from an applied perspective. The first speaker was Jean-Paul Close, co-founder of the AiREAS civic initiative aimed to monitor air quality in the city of Eindhoven. Close brought to the fore their ‘ideological approach’ to civic monitoring which entails going beyond a basic sensing infrastructure that is government’s responsibility, to reach an integrated infrastructures where health and wellbeing are the core, and even a multidisciplinary co-creation of human core values. Close stressed that – before being a sensing citizen – he is “primarily a human being, and a single father”. From that point of view, he addressed the local government saying that he wished to live in a healthy city. “The city wanted that too” argued Close. The citizens were “standing up” and taking their own responsibility, but they also needed the government to reach this objective and vice versa. “So they brought all people together, but that made the collaboration illegal, because government could not be intermingling in certain private companies activities, so they had to change laws for this” [emphasis added], tells Close. This suggests that the legal framework, as it is, may need to be adjusted to ensure that collaboration between the citizens, governmental and private actors is viable. Close also explored the opportunity to recognize the action of sensing a right. He noted: “You are smelling, tasting, seeing etc. on a daily basis, and if you want to extend that sensing by use of technology, you have to make it your basic right to do so. Therefore laws must be adapted.”

The second experience for practice was from computer designer and innovator René van der Weerd, who shared the story of the Meet Je Stad initiative originated in Amersfoort and entailing citizens’ measurement of temperature and humidity (also described in a piece by De Moor). From Amersfoort, the initiative soon landed in Tilburg where people started meeting at the city’s public library LocHal to make their own measuring instrument. This, according to van der Weerd, stimulated their curiosity towards the understanding of the implications from the collected data, and made them feel responsible towards assessing the issue. René stressed how there is no governmental interpretation of the raw data, which suggests the importance of keeping a certain independence while striving for integration. Despite the municipality provided some funding to deploy the sensing, the network is organized in a way that preserves integrity and autonomy from political oversight.

The third insight from practice was from Giorgio Santoriello, president of the COVA Contro Association and founder of the Analyze Basilicata citizen sensing initiative, which fights oil industry-related environmental crimes in the South of Italy. Giorgio stressed the need to ensure a legal protection in contexts, such as the Basilicata region, where conducting civic monitoring can be dangerous for the sensing citizens. Especially where the private sector is powerful as the government and it almost ‘substitutes’ appointed institutions, it is important that civic actors intervene to make fellow citizens and governments aware of the real impact of the oil industry. Giorgio also timely noted that designing laws to support the sensing citizens is only a part of the intervention, as it is essential that these legal provisions are actually enforced.

The perspective of the environmental activist was represented by Davide Scotti, high school teacher and ‘rebel’ with the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion Milan. Davide told us how Extinction Rebellion (XR), as a movement that wishes to change the system, is based non-violent civil disobedience (of which citizen sensing could be regarded as a manifestation). XR, declaring the climate emergency, wants to make people aware of the problem and push them to join forces, in order to force the government in a non-violent way to take action to halt the climate crisis. Whereas it may sounds paradoxical to ask the government for recognition of a right if XR is a movement that contests the system for not protecting the common good, Davide still sees the need for governmental intervention but in a drastic new way. As a matter of fact, XR asks the government to establish citizens’ assemblies where the citizens – selected in a demographically representative ways – can directly participate in the decision-making on the ecological crisis. This approach could stimulate the ‘legitimization’ of power and of the resulting decisions. Furthermore, participating in civic assemblies could enhance people’s awareness of the climate emergency. “If everyone would be aware of how deep we are into the crisis, everyone would be measuring”, argued Davide. The experience of Davide and of XR where numerous youngsters gather to voice their claims is also quite remarkable considering that, from my empirical analysis, I often noted that young adults are a minority in citizen sensing programs.

Two environmental law views joined the discussion. The first view was offered from practicing lawyer Veronica Dini, also founder of Systasis, study center for the governance of environmental conflicts also through mediation, who recently engaged in the topic of civic assemblies and of civic monitoring programs. When environmental issues are at stake, she noted, environmental information is often the source of controversies. Often, there is either insufficient information made available or readable to the people that are affected due to resistance and cultural aspects of the competent authorities. Sometime the information is lacking altogether. This may originate environmental conflicts. To address conflicts originated from information gaps, it is crucial that information is collected and shared in a correct way, grasping all its complexity, and that people can participate in this feeding in their ‘collective intelligence’. Conscious public participation can really improve shared decisions and deflate the environmental conflict, argued Dini. But we need to ensure that the active citizens receive feedback from the administration and feel that their contribution really influences the formation and the outcome of decisions. Providing a key point for the development of a new right, Dini noted that access to information is key to a real democracy and to rebuild a climate of trust between citizens and institutions. The (not only informed but) monitoring citizen, in fact, can play a fundamental role in enriching the debate with an aware, mature and participatory citizenship. We need, however, to avoid the risk described by philosopher Baudrillard that “the inflation of information produces deflation of meaning” (or, in other words, too much information and not enough meaning).

Also environmental law scholar Francesco Sindico, founder and developer of the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, shared his experience starting from environmental monitoring and participation in Island states. For Sindico, the starting point is to wonder a number of questions such as “who needs to have the information?”; “who is the “island community?”; “to whom must the information be sent?”. Also the when, why (i.e. what to lobby for) and where to use the information are relevant as laws and rights always work in contexts. A regulation of the practice in China, Africa or in rural settings may substantially differ from Europe. If we discuss of a ‘new’ right, we need to define how do we enforce it, especially when larger fringes of society are not really interested in or do not care for the information. Lastly, also the aspect of “who is a scientist” and the mistrust in general science plays a role here. In terms of actual legal instrument to regulate citizen sensing, the guidelines that will be soon released based on a study of citizen science for environmental policy may be a benchmark and starting point in this direction as they could steer authorities, although they are non-binding. There seems to exist a trade-off in terms of how far we want to/can go with regulating citizen sensing. Non-legal avenues may be more suitable too, for example leaving completely the shaping of the practice to society. In any case, citizen sensing can never be made ‘mandatory’ because nobody can be obliged to do it. Participation should be open to everybody, but if people do not want to participate they should feel free to do so or not.

Legal and bioethicist researcher Carlo Botrugno shared his perspective from bioethics, developed at Florence University and as founder of the Research Unit on Everyday Bioethics and Ethics of Science (RUEBES). Botrugno guided us in the understanding of what citizen sensing can learn from a bioethical lens, starting from bridging the gap between biology and human values. Environmental bioethics in particular seems particularly fitting the debate for its link with public and environmental health, and also its connection with social justice. Especially an ‘everyday’ bioethics may be relevant here as it connects with daily monitoring practices that enter the lives of the sensing citizens. The transition from science to post-normal science grasped by such a lens seemed also important as it again stresses the complexity of the decision-making and the need for larger evidence bases. As science loses its credibility and validity in many people’s eyes, more citizens claims a right to become source of scientific data. In the end, all actors in society, including scientists, are “mutual and multidirectional” and they embed values in their assessments.

As last inputs, we could listen to the perspective of two sociology scholars. First, Michiel Van Oudheusden, Marie Skłodowska-Curie individual research fellow at the University of Cambridge on the relation between grassroots citizen science groups and formal institution. Van Oudheusden could bring in his (preliminary) experience on grassroots citizen science in non-EU contexts and “other democratic” countries, such as Japan and Uganda, or in China, where “people are not officially allowed to gather such data”. To the key question “is a regulating law needed for grassroots citizen sensing?”, Van Oudheusden’s answer in short, it all depends! Cultural differences (beyond time-related features mentioned by Yasuhito) have an important influence on answer. In Flanders, the Belgian civic sensing initiative CurieuzeNeuzen is a good example of an “activist movement tackling air pollution” which soon “became massive, [and] is now almost an export product in Europe.” The initiative managed to put pressure on the government (and – I add – also to the judiciary through the support of Greenpeace Belgium), but also on peer citizens as people moved to the coast because they realized that the air quality is better there. For such an initiative, in a country such as Belgium where “regulation is very much part of our culture/heritage”, “there should be some institutionalisation, perhaps not mandatory or official, but some institute that facilitates exchange in two directions, as a dialogue” [emphasis added].

The second perspective from the sociological lens was from Joke Kenens, PhD student at the KU Leuven, Centre of Sociological Research, and the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre. Kenens, throughout her PhD research, inquired the potential of grassroots-driven citizen radiation measuring organizations after Fukushima, taking into account historical and societal aspects of Japanese citizen science. Kenens stressed – again – the importance of contextual factors specific for a certain society. Indeed, in Japan, she witnessed “a general gap between citizens and governments”, where local authorities almost never refer to citizen-sensed data. Institutions do not believe in the standards used by the sensing citizens and also they are concerned that their activities are partisan (although often they are supported by scientists and even lawyers), but these data are not “wrong or right, they are just from another perspective!” At time, noted Kenens, citizen scientists’ data even end up in courts but often the ‘times’ of a court ruling are just too long for the civic desires of justice, and maybe alternative dispute resolution and environmental mediation may be more effective in offering relief to affected people.

   Images and poster’s credit: Alice Toietta

At the end of the webinar, Alice Toietta*, designer and illustrator and ‘rebel’ from XR Milan, created drawings for each perspective (now visible in the text), providing a visualization of each view point and displaying her artwork to the audience. The result was a telling poster compiling together all the different insights. She shared her experience illustrating the webinar: “We all have different ways of remembering and understanding: through observing, hearing, writing, or repeating, we learn. Drawing is my way of making sense of complex notions: by using metaphors, I strive to simplify concepts, and make them visible. […] There are so many points of view through which one can explore the topic of citizen sensing. During the webinar, […] speakers, coming from different areas of expertise, gave us participants a peek in each of their worlds, opening our minds to many questions and sparking our curiosity even further.” This approach of visualizing complex (legal) concepts through drawing will continue within the framework of the SensJus project.

[*you can reach Alice Toietta at greenpumpkingarden@gmail.com]

We also encouraged the audience to draw what they grasped from the discussion. A participant, for example, sent us the illustration below.

Image credit: Alice Bosma

After, we moved to a brief question and answer session, where some of the numerous questions raised could be addressed. Among the questions raised, I can mention a question about good examples on inclusion of citizen sensing. Van Oudheusden noted that it is important before considering good examples it is important to be careful to the question if striving for full inclusion is always desirable. Van Oudheusden mentioned the case of flu measurements in Belgium in the 2000’s and recently with Covid-19 where citizens described symptoms were integrated in official decision-making in a very top-down manner. The CurieuzeNeuzen initiative may be a good example of successful contribution to policy-making, however context and time are key to understand and build viable integration processes. In exploring such questions, it is relevant to understand varying “ecologies of co-creation”, and – as geographic information system scholar Muki Haklay suggests – every person may wish to be engaged in a different matter.

Another participant wondered how citizen sensing initiatives can ensure that the government takes a strong role in tackling environmental concerns without abandoning its responsibilities and transferring the responsibility to the local communities? Close from AiREAS stressed that their initiative’s approach in not about abandoning responsibilities but rather transforming them to a new format, that is, the co-creation stage underpinning the project. The issue of representativeness of the sensed data came to the fore. The civic group that gives input may be only a caring minority “which manages to wield strong influence in comparison to a silent majority”. Participation might in this sense be only apparently democratic but can revert to its opposite “if there is a cadre of ‘professional participators’ who […] dominate the discussion and gain influence.” Addressing the issue of (mis)representation of marginalised groups lacking the time or resources to conduct citizen sensing effectively (‘active’ participation, compared to ‘passive participation’ according to Close) seems a fundamental aspect when discussing a regulation of citizen sensing and a right to contribute to environmental information. As Abe stressed, in exploring the (in)equality of citizen sensing, also the issue of leadership in such initiatives should be addressed.

Also the aspect of data quality and precision in citizen sensing measurement emerged. A participant noted “I hear a number of speakers highlighting uncertainties. For instance […] René [from MeetJeStad] said ‘well the stations are not very precise, but they give an idea’. However, lawyers need more precision. A limit value is either exceeded or it is not, law is in that sense black and white. And if citizen sensing is transferred from the political to the legal arena, this tension comes up. Is it then a good idea to introduce legal rights and obligations on citizen sensing, if it cannot live up to the standards of precision?” [emphasis added]. Close addressed that question too and noted that, with their initiative, they are “not trying to legally fight the government” but “to use citizen engagement to share responsibility and […] participate, for instance by using their legal rights in [supporting] what citizens are doing”, also in terms of aligning to data quality standards. Other questions tackled the uptake of citizen sensing data by public institutions in specific areas of public policy, and the relevant data quality requirements; citizen sensing against scientific negationism; even a ‘right to sensing’ where the sensing is considered an instrument, not an objective, to reach the goal of better health and safety.

I wish to thank the engaged speakers, the fantastic illustrator, Alice Toietta, and the vibrant audience. A deep thanks also to Vicky Breemen and Mieke Sterken for the valuable notes.



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