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EPA co-sponsors successful workshop to empower citizen scientists to protect stream biodiversity

Posted: May 7, 2013

EPA scientists collaborated with Cincinnati Green Umbrella, Northern Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky Vision 2015, and the Confluence Water Technology Cluster to sponsor a workshop focused on technology development goals to advance citizen-based monitoring for the protection of stream biodiversity.

The workshop, partially funded by EPA Cincinnati Water Technology Cluster Team, was held March 25-27, at Northern Kentucky University. Over 60 people attended, including environmentally-focused entrepreneurs and businesses; nongovernmental and volunteer-based watershed monitoring and protection groups; aquatic ecologists; and local, state and federal water quality program representatives.

EPA ecological exposure scientist Dr. Mark Bagley helped coordinate the workshop along with EPA scientists Drs. Jim Lazorchak and Erik Pilgrim.

“In one sense, this is just the start of a long conversation about how to increase the importance of citizen monitoring for protection of stream biodiversity,” Bagley said.

The first day of the workshop included a number of hands-on activities allowing participants to view and interact with current biomonitoring technologies, including smartphone-based technologies that store and process data. Other activities demonstrated how aquatic biodiversity is currently assessed and included hands-on demonstrations of fish, invertebrate, and algae diversity assessments. The workshop’s final two days focused on brainstorming to formulate a technology development path most beneficial to all parties.

“The best way to know if the health of an aquatic ecosystem is being impacted by human activities is to monitor biodiversity directly,” Bagley explained. “Aquatic resource managers and regulators at local through national scales rely on aquatic biodiversity surveys to judge the success of their environmental policies. Increasingly, however, these agencies have neither the manpower nor the finances to perform these assessments. Citizen scientists have a great passion for monitoring aquatic biodiversity and have local access to streams so they could fill this manpower need but they often do not have the scientific training to perform rigorous biodiversity assessments that strong environmental programs require.”

The March workshop focused on bridging this gap by bringing together various organizations and businesses to develop a joint vision for empowering citizen scientists with technological innovations to help perform biodiversity assessments.

Advancing citizen-based monitoring to protect stream biodiversity

“I think we found there are two main issues that need to be addressed to increase the relevance of citizen-collected data for government programs,” Bagley said. “We need to improve the partnership between government and non-governmental organizations that run citizen monitoring programs. In some cases this works very well but in almost all cases it can be improved.”

“Innovative technologies are a second area that can help increase the use of citizen data”, Bagley said. “Technology can be used to provide training guides and assure data quality — which can increase trust and transparency between government and nongovernmental organizations. Technology can also contribute directly to better data by providing tools to help volunteers identify biodiversity, incorporate that information into public databases, and analyze information.”

Participants at the workshop agreed that a key to success is a common data warehouse that is accessible to citizen scientists and trusted by government programs and other end users. During the workshop participants identified EPA’s STORET data warehouse as an effective mechanism to serve this purpose. STORET (short for STOrage and RETrieval) Data Warehouse is a repository for water quality, biological, and physical data. The acceptance of this system by both state and non-governmental organizations positions EPA to have an important role in further empowering citizen science programs.

Workshop achievements and next steps

“The workshop provided non-governmental organizations, government programs, and technology developers with a much clearer understanding of the opportunities and constraints for increasing the use of citizen data,” Bagley said. “Also, a number of mechanisms and technological innovations were identified that will increase the relevance and reach of citizen data.”

Plans are underway for developing a paper that describes the vision and strategy for the future of citizen-based monitoring for the protection of stream biodiversity. Workshop participants will likely regroup in 2014 to evaluate accomplishments and decide what should be done next. Workshop conversation has additionally continued through emails and conference calls.

“It has been very encouraging to see this level of commitment to finding an environmental solution from such a diverse group,” Bagley said.

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