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Citizen Science in the wild – The case of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade

30 Nov-2014 | Author: citizenscience in analysis | article | standards

In a guest blog post on CitizenSci, Gwen Ottinger writes about a fresh study on air quality monitoring. The study reveals that “[a]ir concentrations of potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures are frequently present near oil and gas production sites”, which in turn affects the health of local residents negatively. The data used in the study was collected by volunteer citizen scientists, using cheap buckets where:

[s]amples were ultimately collected near production pads, compressor stations, condensate tank farms, gas processing stations, and wastewater and produced water impoundments in five states (Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming). (Macey et al. (2014, p.6)

The method of using buckets was advanced by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade already in 1995, inspired by the famous litigation against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company by Erin Brockovich.

This case is particularly interesting because the citizen scientists were active in shaping the research problem, and even in choosing the locations for collecting samples. Ottinger writes:

The recently released study pioneers a new approach to choosing sites for air quality monitoring: it mobilizes citizens to identify the areas where sampling was most likely to show the continuous impact of fracking emissions. Citizens chose places in their communities where they noticed a high degree of industrial activity, visible emissions, or health symptoms that could be caused by breathing toxic chemicals. They took samples themselves, following rigorous protocols developed by non-profit groups working in conjunction with regulatory agencies and academic researchers.

Moreover, in another article in Science, Technology and Human Values, Ottinger analyses the “Buckets of Resistance” of the Lousiana Bucket Brigade. She argues that the effectiveness of citizen scientists depended to a large extent on standards and standardized practices. To measure air quality successfully, the citizen scientists had to follow certain standardized procedures and tests that were used already by established scientists. This way, the measurements could “count” as proper scientific observations. However, other actors also used the same standards as an entry point for criticism of the citizen scientists’ measurements.

In the case of ‘bucket brigades’ and similar cases, it seems like the citizen scientists have a great deal of influence in configuring the research process as a whole. The problematization occurs on a local level, where citizens identify and react to a problem in their communities. But also the decisions on what to measure (and what not to measure) seem to be in the hands of volunteers. However, as Ottingen shows, the standards and established procedures, are harder to reshape. The citizens, in order to make ‘science proper’, need to relate and connect to an already existing paradigm of scientific knowledge and practice.

Do you know of any other interesting projects that share similar features as above? Please leave a comment!

References

Ottinger, G. (2010) “Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science”, Science, Technology and Human Values, March 2010 vol. 35 no. 2 244-270.

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