Ottinger Urges Citizen Scientists to Prioritize Interpretation

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani – Citizen scientists are using low-cost sensors to monitor air pollution. But their ability to influence policy depends to a large extent on how—and by whom—their data is interpreted. On April 4, 2018, Gwen Ottinger advocated training citizen scientists how to interpret their findings within existing air-quality frameworks.

Gwen Ottinger, associate professor of politics at Pennsylvania's Drexler University, applies her expertise in environmental studies to pursue environmental justice in disadvantaged communities. Her talk was titled "From Sensing to Sense-Making: Dilemmas of Data in Citizen Science."

"Over the past decade or more,” she began, “we have seen an explosion of low-cost environmental sensing options.” This has allowed the increased participation of citizen scientists, members of the general public who record and analyze data that they collect through the sensors in their communities.

Citizen scientists often collaborate with professional scientists, and their sensing in theory helps support the mission of environmental justice. Ottinger questioned the effectiveness of the current monitoring systems, however. "These monitors are presumed to be linked, in some kind of way, with community empowerment," she explained, "but this claim hasn't been scrutinized. So, it's not clear exactly how they promote empowerment." She contended that, although the availability of monitoring instruments is important, community-based monitoring could better serve environmental justice if the data it produces could be presented in more accessible ways.

Environmental injustice

Environmental justice is generally understood in two aspects: distributive (the sharing of environmental benefits and hazards) and procedural (the participation in decision-making). Both relate to the enforcement of environmental protection law. To this understanding, Ottinger proposes the addition of an epistemic aspect, based on English philosopher Miranda Fricke's ideas on testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice. 

Testimonial injustice refers to the acceptance or discounting of a statement based on a person's identity, such as age, race, or gender. "Credibility is afforded based on a person's identity," Ottinger said. Within the environmental justice movement, a typical scenario involves people at regulatory agencies disregarding older women of color's complaints about pollution levels.

Hermeneutic injustice refers to the capability of a person to make sense of their experience in such a way that it is understood by others within established frameworks. With regards to environmental justice, it concerns the terminologies and interpretive frameworks that allow people to describe their experience of living proximate or amid environmental hazards. Ottinger considers current frameworks to be inadequate. "They don't quite capture things like: 'the Phillips 66 refinery makes me queasy and the Shell refinery gives me a sore throat.'"

Innovative interpretation

Ottinger argued that beyond the invention of new sensing mechanisms, true innovation should also include new ways of interpreting data. "With every innovation in sensing, you have to make interpretative choices," she declared. Nonetheless, she further posited that these choices face three dilemmas: volume, alignment, and computational.

The dilemma of volume concerns the amount information gathered for analysis; specifically, determining the right coverage of data. Too much information involves processing that is costly and does not guarantee finding meaningful material, whereas too little data might be disregarded as inaccurate or inconclusive. "There isn't a right answer," Ottinger said. "You can see why you'd want to do either one. You kind of want to do both."

The alignment dilemma concerns whether interpretations should seek to better match personal experiences or focus on regulatory frameworks. Ottinger explained that political leverage points are greater on particulate monitoring, which is what refineries also monitor based on the regulatory frameworks. Although personal experiences are important, there is not much that can be legally done unless personal stories can match the regulatory language.

Lastly, the computational dilemma concerns whether or not monitoring something even makes sense. Ottinger explained that activists are split between those that continue pursuing monitoring as a way to challenge the refineries' pollution and those that are completely opposed to the refineries existing in their communities at all. The latter's view is that engaging in regulatory framework pollution monitoring is akin to becoming locked in a data treadmill battle against refineries that environmental activists will never truly win.

Promoting political change 

"If you're doing citizen science or citizen sensing, with any interest in empowerment,” Ottinger said, “you have to ask: What generates power? How does that work?" Interpretative strategies should align with political strategies, she added. Simply gathering more data or acquiring more advanced sensing technology may not, in itself, be enough to bring about real change. 

This event was sponsored by the UC Davis Program in Science and Technology Studies, the School of Education, and the Center for Community and Citizen science.

Between September 12 and 14, 2018, the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center (AQRC) will host the first Air Sensors International Conference at the Oakland Convention Center.

 Learn more about Gwen Ottinger.