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Citizen Science in the Age of the Cloud

A new documentary series celebrates regular folks interacting with data, but leaves some big questions answered.

A women collects air quality data in a trash-strewn parking lot full of cars and in West Oakland, California.
Cassandra Martin collects air quality data in West Oakland, California. (The Crowd & the Cloud)

Cassandra Martin has asthma. Her three kids do, too. Martin lives in West Oakland, California, which is belted by two interstates and bordered by a port. Trucks rumble past, hauling shipping containers and emitting particulates. Clogged highways and heavy industry conspire to take a toll on residents’ health. In one West Oakland elementary school, nearly a quarter of kids have been diagnosed with asthma. Across West Oakland, asthma-related emergency room visits are nearly double the county average.

Something had to change, Martin thought. She enlisted in the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a brigade of concerned citizens who wanted a buffer zone between trucks and schools and homes. To make their case, they armed themselves with data—and they collected it themselves.

Starting in 2001, they shrugged on screeching yellow vests and sat on lawn chairs set up on the side of the road. On clipboards, they tallied up the trucks that trundled past. Data in hand, they approached the city council to propose an ordinance reshaping the routes, relegating the vehicles to the freeways circling residential neighborhoods and schools, instead of the arterial streets linking them. The ordinance passed in a unanimous vote. “We’re not going to experts and asking them to please apply their expertise to us,” says Brian Beveridge, the organization’s co-founder, whose home is buffered from an eight-lane freeway by a small hill. “We’re going to experts and saying, we’re experts, too—we’re experts in our own communities.”

The West Oakland project, and dozens of other scrappy, data-backed solutions, form the spine of The Crowd & The Cloud, a four-part documentary look at citizen science in the digital age that begins airing on PBS April 6. (Find the schedule here.)

The series is, in some ways, a monument to connectivity. The opening credits draw on shorthand for a high-tech future: a disembodied brain, maze-like tissues firing, zillions of pixels, the skeleton of lit-up cell phones. In one scene, ghostly numbers slough off of pedestrians on a street like flakes of dandruff, code for the cloud. Any concerns about privacy and surveillance are shelved; here, data is presumed to be collected thoughtfully and deployed toward the public good. The host, the former NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati, intones sincerely: “We’re surely smarter together.”

The theme of agency runs through the series—citizen science is cast as a kind of empowering tactical urbanism with an ecological rinse. There’s also a sense of collective duty, or the sense that an all-hands-on-deck approach is the only way to combat problems that scale up quickly. In Barcelona, for instance, the app Mosquito Alert asks citizens to crouch over sewer grates or cloudy puddles, snapping pictures of mosquito breeding grounds that are paired with GPS coordinates to stanch the spread of Zika.

The installments—which delve into ecology, the humble origins of big data, and health hazards—also frame crowd-sourced science as a way that citizens can better understand the textures of their communities, toggling between a close-up view and a bigger-picture perspective. Beveridge imagines it as “filling in the blanks and adding color to the picture of your world,” a philosophy that’s echoed in the profile of an environmental remediation project that brings students from Brooklyn and Queens to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Hurricane Sandy sent a 14-foot surge from the Atlantic Ocean rushing into the Refuge and drowning plants; water also submerged the hallways of local schools, lapping up against chair legs, flooding hallways. Local ecologists thought that the students, who had seen the effects rip through their homes and classrooms, would also be interested in seeing the consequences the waves wrought on parks—their shared backyard. The camera follows them as they count bees swarming flowers and harvest seeds to plant elsewhere, buoying the boroughs’ reserves of pollinator-friendly plants.

Students counting pollinators and harvesting seeds at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. (The Crowd & The Cloud)

Stewardship looms large, too. In one dispatch from San Francisco, students troop through BART stations to measure concentrations of particulate matter flying off tracks, brakes, and wheels. One cadre presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union, and described wanting to push for stricter limits in years to come. Another transmission, from Philadelphia, profiles residents who banded together to screen their water for lead. The implication is that citizen science nudged them toward seeing themselves as actors in their own lives and neighborhoods, instead of passive figures to whom inscrutable things happen.

The limitations of citizen science flit on the periphery of the series. “We sometimes frighten the statisticians,” Beveridge admits. “They would prefer to have a little bit of perfectly pristine, absolutely 100 percent [accurate] data from this million-dollar machine.” The human eye and a stubby pen and pencil are susceptible to distraction and guesstimation, but, as one of Jamaica Wildlife Refuge’s coordinators explains, they’re also useful tools for looking at the way a broad or abstract issue manifests locally. A top-level study may find patterns that don’t hold constant elsewhere; solutions may not be replicable in different places.

“Our world is awash in data,” Abdalati says at the beginning of one episode. It’s true, and the show doesn’t broach the question of whether there’s such a thing as too much information. What happens when data collection outpaces the metabolizing of it? Is there such a thing as too many pencils ticking boxes?

And another question hulks even larger: How useful is all of this information if it can’t—or won’t—be acted upon? The show doesn’t wrestle with the uneasy question of how citizen scientists, like the larger scientific community, can co-exist with an administration that doesn’t share the same priorities. Scientists have already sparred with Trump’s cabinet on climate change and pushed back against the administration’s edicts to scrub agency websites of data that doesn’t jibe with party orthodoxy. “What seems certain is that we have an anti-science administration and an anti-factual and anti-research administration that does not understand what it needs to do,” Bethany Wiggin, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has helped lead some of the rush to archive archive federal climate data, told National Geographic.

In the present age—cloud and all—citizen science isn’t just about feeding data streams back to professionals, like innumerable tributaries. Sometimes it’s about preventing existing research from being swept away.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.