The rise of the ‘smart citizen’ in Netherland’s pilot citizen science project
Citizen science projects do more than contribute to knowledge, reveal Brouwer et al in ‘Public Participation in Science: The Future and Value of Citizen Science in the Drinking Water Research’. Evaluating the Netherlands’ pilot citizen science project in the drinking water sector, the study reveals that participation fostered water awareness and transparency in citizens’ relationship with the drinking water provider. Despite learning about the presence of bacterial life in their drinking water, citizen participants leaned towards a relationship of confidence rather than fear, the study observes.
Facilitated by the water provider Waternet, and the KWR Watercycle Research Institute, the project assigned 50 citizens with the task of collecting water samples from sources in their homes. The samples were then tested at KWR’s laboratory.
Citizen researchers simultaneously tested water at home, monitoring microbial growth for a few days and conveying their results to KWR. Waternet professionals, researchers, and citizen researchers collaborated on results and outcomes both during and after the exercise. In addition to addressing questions on water quality, the project used online surveys and focus groups with participants and citizen science experts to evaluate the potential of citizen science for the water sector and value created for the citizen participants.
The outcomes were threefold. For Waternet, the project offered an opportunity to work alongside and engage in a relatively controlled setting with their customers. For professional researchers, citizen participation enabled better sampling and opportunities to evaluate the promise of citizen science in the drinking water sector. For citizen researchers, the project supported their active contribution to scientific research, and connected them to their service provider, scientists in the water domain, and co-volunteers from the community.
The interviewed citizen science experts suggest that the growing interest in the water sector springs from the following developments:
- The proliferation of new technology and access to information on water governance
- The rise of the ‘smart citizen’, and growing expectations around citizen participation and social awareness
- The erosion of ‘expert’ authority on knowledge in the public realm
The study suggests that citizen science could potentially speak to the gap in public water awareness observed by a recent water governance assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Stijn Brouwer is a senior researcher at KWR Watercycle Research Institute. Paul van der Wielen is an expert researcher at KWR. Merijn Schriks is a researcher and toxicologist at KWR. Maarten Claassen is a strategist at Waternet. Jos Frijns is Resilience Management & Governance team leader at KWR.