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Ramya Chari, PhD, MPH
Policy researcher
RAND Corporation

Disaster citizen science has spiked in participation in the past several years, yet many still don’t know what it is. It puts together two needs and activities to advance knowledge and better preparedness: citizen science is data collection and addressing problems through participation by residents of an area or community, and disaster citizen science applies the power of community to preparedness.

Dr. Ramya Chari has studied and presented on disaster citizen science as well as helping to author the free e-book, “Citizen Science for Disasters,” from the RAND Corporation. She became interested in disaster citizen science with the Deep Horizon Gulf oil spill—when the community was involved in testing soil and water for pollution, they felt more in control and confident in terms of knowing information, as well as developing interesting and innovative tools and methods.

Here, she presents a look at the concept and how people at senior living communities can get involved and put their knowledge and skills to work to help in disaster preparedness.

Q. Can you give a basic overview of disaster citizen science?

A. Citizen scientists are people without formal training in science using scientific methods or processes to ask and answer of questions that they might have about the world. There’s the type of citizen science that is led and done entirely by community members, but there are also ways for people to volunteer as data collectors or to analyze data for a research project that are run by academic or professional scientists.

It’s a pretty old tradition. Back in the days before science became heavily professional, there really weren’t very many formally trained scientists—these were just people who had curiosity, time, and resources.

Astronomy and ecology and environmental sciences are where a lot of citizen science has been practiced in the recent past. There a strong tradition with birdwatching, for example—hobby birdwatchers collect observations and report them, and research projects rely on those observations.

Or if you like the star game, you can help NASA by looking at telescope images to try to discover new planets or stars.

With the rise of smart phones and other technologies, it opens up new opportunities for people who are interested in citizen science and the range of projects that are out there.

For disaster preparedness, for example, citizen science can be used to perform what we might call asset or vulnerability mapping. People can survey where community assets are, such as healthcare facilities or social service organizations, or identify individuals who are willing to volunteer and help.

They can also collect information on buildings or places that are vulnerable to damage, or floods. They can find information about people who might be vulnerable to power outages, or where people live alone.

This kind of information is really helpful during and after the disaster to help the community get the right help and recover faster.

Q. Are there specialized skills or knowledge needed, in general?

A. Disaster citizen science involves understanding the needs people have in order to recover. You can use methods like interviews or surveys—all accessible to non-professional scientists, and valid ways to gather important information.

A lot of people think science is very tech heavy. But there are tried-and-true methods of just talking to people, doing qualitative research, and seeing what the patterns may be.

Q. What are the benefits of getting involved in disaster citizen science?

A. There’s been a fair amount of research on that—a lot of potential benefits and some studied benefits as well. Potential benefits include a sense of purpose, socialization, and community engagement. There has been demonstrated benefits in forming community connections and increasing scientific literacy.

For disaster preparedness, citizen science can be used to perform what we might call asset or vulnerability mapping…to help the community get the right help and recover faster.

The benefits are also thought to be components of community resilience. That’s why I became interested in citizen science…I think citizen scientists who address a problem may have added benefits related to empowerment and what they call democratization of science. Through gathering their own data, people are able to have a voice in the discussions about the problems in their world that they’re trying to address.

In disasters—and today, with COVID— there’s always a lot of uncertainty and unanswered questions. Unfortunately, decisions have to be made based on the science you have at the time, not with the science you wish you had. And that’s where I think disaster citizen science has this great role to play, giving anybody the tools and the opportunities to be involved in understanding what is happening and shape a better response.

And in a sense, as people get involved in understanding the assets or vulnerabilities in their area, they’re using this method to look out for each other and form connections on a local level. That’s a huge benefit in itself.

Q. How can people who are interested in this get started?

A. There are all sorts of opportunities for people with varying interests. One group is called SciStarter and another is Zooniverse. They have ongoing citizen science projects where people can just sign up. It’s anything from analyzing satellite photos of disaster damage to public health and understanding where to put resources on the ground after a disaster.

For folks who might be interested in taking on a project of their own, there are the toolkits like ours, but there’s also the Citizen Science Association, which is fairly new. If a toolkit isn’t your favorite way to learn, you can find people who are doing this, and there’s a listserv where people pose questions all the time.

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