In January, women from 30 villages in Jharkhand doubled up as field scientists and began testing water from 700 groundwater sources for contamination as part of an ongoing project by a non-profit.

Using smart phones and small tool kits provided to them by the NGO FXB India Suraksha, the women measure the levels of industrial outflow, fecal matter and the like in the water against a baseline and upload the data online to the cloud, which allows shared access, using an app.

Other organisations are running similar projects with residents of Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi and other parts of the country. People are given basic tools with which they can map levels of nitrogen or bacteria in the water, cordon off a polluted tube well and highlight issues of sanitation and hygiene in specific areas.

“It used to be that when you did field tests, you wrote it down in your notebook and then it just stayed there until you collated a whole bunch,” said Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson, director of Akvo, the NGO that makes the apps used in the Jharkhand project. “That’s no help to anyone. We need to share the data with each other, analyse it, get graphs and decision-making data that becomes information.”

Projects such as these mark a departure from traditional data collection, which was a preserve of experts, and a movement towards a crowd-sourced model that relies on local participation. This gradual shift has been taking place in many parts of the world as environmental concerns grow by the day and the need for citizens’ participation increases.

The project in Jharkhand. [Photo courtesy Akvo]

Democratising data collection

Historically, scientists did not trust non-experts to gather data, said Nick Hepworth, director of Water Witness International, a charity headquarted in Edinburgh that works to improve the management of water sources in developing countries. “Effective water quality monitoring is a complex business and needs careful strategic planning in terms of sample collection method, sample point location, frequency, selection of determinants, analytical method, dilution rates etc. which all require a high level of technical capability from those involved,” Hepworth said.

But this is changing now, said Professor Steven Loiselle, Global Head of International Freshwater Research at Earthwatch, a non-profit working towards empowering people to take action for a more sustainable planet. “For one, scientists and agencies are now obligated to make data and information open,” Loiselle said.“Second: we do great science and it ends up in a journal that only scientists read, so where is the impact? In Europe now, agencies have to make their data public. In India, I believe this trend is also picking up.”

Such projects attempt to bring about a change in the process of data collection, where transparency is not always the norm.

Take the case of Flint, in Michigan, US, where government officials allegedly hid information about the level of lead in the city’s contaminated waters. In such a situation, independent data collection, with wide access, could be helpful, said experts.

In India, if data is not fudged, it is either incomplete, or not captured at all. And though some states, such as Karnataka and Maharashtra, make their water data public, others, including Bihar or neighbouring Tamil Nadu, do not. The government of India runs an Open Government Data platform, but the last time it posted data on water contamination was in 2014.

Proponents of open access to data believe that with consolidated information comes change. “It is a means to hold decision-makers accountable and a valuable way of gathering information, especially in places where little data is available,” said Claire Grandadam of the Water Integrity Network, a non-profit that promotes water integrity. “The lack of data is a major impediment for proper monitoring and proper planning of water sector policy.”

In Bengaluru, Nitesh Kadyan of Graviky Labs, which captures air pollutants and recycles them into ink, has designed an air- and water-quality sensor called Jackboy, which can collect and analyse data on the go. Kadyan’s hopes devices such as these – which are portable, inexpensive and do not need any experitse to operate – can democratise the process of data collection. “People can lobby governance for better air or water and make informed decisions; agencies and NGOs can push for change,” Kadyan said.

Citizen Science Leaders learn water sampling and monitoring in Noida. [Photo courtesy: Earthwatch]

Quality concerns

However, even as these crowd-sourced models gain traction, concerns are also being raised about the quality and relevance of such data.

Hepworth said though it is valuable to engage local residents of an area in water quality issues, some of the initiatives are “not very well thought through.”

He added: “It is not clear how they [these initiatives] are linked, related to or feed into institutional mandates for water quality management and pollution control, and in that respect, their strategic value is likely to be limited,” he said.“They may be more about marketing for the sponsors, and enabling them to make CSR claims than driving improved water quality. It’s difficult to find a formal external evaluation of their value – this is really what is needed.”

Making such data public, though beneficial, can also have social, physical and economic repercussions, said S Vishwanath, water activist and adviser at Biome Environmental Solutions, Bengaluru. For instance, he said, if data on increasing fluoride or arsenic levels in a water body in a particular area is made public, it can have a negative social impact – families from neighbouring villages may not want to marry their children into a village flagged for contaminated water.

“I’ve had villagers tell me that communities and villages are ostracised.” Viswanath said. “Also, if I give you groundwater data at a granular level, and it is good at a certain place, corporates and individuals can buy it, which results in a resource capture. Externalities should be recognised, flagged and sensitively handled.”

What’s the solution?

Not making the data public also has its consequences – for instance, people can unknowingly consume water from contaminated sources because they do not know or have not been told how harmful it is.

At present, government bodies have such information and corporate entities access them through the government or their own surveys, creating an imbalance in information access. But if crowd-sourcing the information by involving citizens is not an ideal solution, then what is?

Hepworth said creating a more involved group of citizens is important, but “it is the duty and responsibility of government agencies to monitor environmental water quality and water supply quality.”

“The real value may be in mobilising citizens to demand better water quality management, monitoring and pollution control from governments rather than trying to fill the gap themselves,” he said.

A middle-ground, where citizens can independently verify some important indicators of water quality, while leaving the detailed process to the experts, could also work.

In Tanzania, the Fair Water Futures Project has had some success in translating citizen-gathered data to accountability. The project is run by the Water Witness International, which comprises scientists and development workers working to find solutions to global water crises.

In the Tanzania project, citizens monitored water quality downstream from a polluting discharge, said Hepworth, but the organisation’s employees did the sampling and data analysis, to ensure the validity of the results.

Hepworth said the data was “used to initiate a formal complaint about the pollution to the National Environment Management Council [of Tanzania], which has recently resulted in a prosecution and fine for the polluting factory.”

Further, data collection in the field has limitations – for sophisticated measurements of pathogens or chemicals, there are no substitutes to lab tests. Akvo, which aided the project in Jharkhand, said their fluoride field test is as reliable as an ion-selector device used in the lab, but making portable test kits is expensive. Also, agencies remain sceptical of the results of such tests. Even in Tanzania, Hepworth said, the authorities “questioned the validity of our result and preferred to use their own labs.”

However, there is broad consensus on the fact that citizen participation helps bring about a better understanding of their ecological footprint and makes them more engaged.

Every time citizen scientists collect or upload data, they are investing in the Earth, said Earthwatch’s Loiselle. “We’ve had some who’ve been able to raise early warnings, which makes them understand they’re contributing to the community,” he said. “With the training, people understand things like ‘What does this increased level in phosphates in the lake mean [it means that untreated sewage has been mixed into the water]?’ and they can share it, write blog posts, tell other people.”

Chhavi Sachdev is a freelance radio and print reporter covering development, culture and the environment. This piece was reported at World Water Week 2016.