11 Oct 2019 Story Ecosystems

The untapped potential of citizen science to track progress on the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo by Ivie Metzen/United States National Park Service

“We are currently almost five years into the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, yet we do not have sufficient data for tracking the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Jillian Campbell, the Statistician leading UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) work on monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals, and co-author of a new study on how citizen science can help us fully achieve the goals.

“In fact, we have insufficient data for tracking global progress for 68 per cent of the environment-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators. We will never be able to monitor the environmental dimension of the Goals using traditional data sources alone.

“Data generated by citizens (citizen science) has tremendous potential for helping us monitor the goals. Engaging citizens in the data collection process improves community awareness and action,” she adds.

Citizen science has come of age in the last couple of decades since the widespread use of Internet-connected devices such as smartphones and laptops which allow large numbers of people to report on sightings, for example, of a particular bird, plant or weather phenomenon in diverse locations across the globe.

Internet-connected individuals all over the world can help track changes in biodiversity and ecosystems Photo by: Park Ranger
Internet-connected individuals all over the world can help track changes in biodiversity and ecosystems. Photo by Park Ranger

UNEP has been working with citizen science experts from around the world to develop mechanisms for better utilizing citizen science data for official monitoring of the goals. They’ve been trying to answer questions like: What steps would be required? How can transparency and data quality be ensured to promote trust in this data? What are example cases where citizen science could be used to fill data gaps?

A recent paper in Nature, Aligning Citizen Science and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, provides a roadmap for integrated citizen science data in the goals. The paper was drafted by coalition of citizen scientists, academics working on citizen science and UNEP as a first step towards using citizen science for monitoring the goals in a practical way.

According to Matt Billot, a senior coordination officer with UNEP and another co-author, “this paper, a collaboration between UNEP and the citizen science community, provides a step in the right direction. However, we will need to continue working to strengthen the interface between governments and citizen science organizations. In Europe, we are currently working on an initiative to use data science to help close the gap between citizen science and policy-relevant information.”

The Science-Policy-Business Forum on the Environment established a working group on data, analytics and Artificial Intelligence in March 2018. Through this group, UNEP has been working with a wide range of partners to evaluate how we could better use data for monitoring the environment, including the goals. A working group has brought together members of the global citizen science community to explore opportunities to better use new data, including citizen science data to build a Digital Ecosystem for the Environment.


Other organizations involved include: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis; School of Resource and Environmental Management; University College London; Queensland University of Technology; Australian Citizen Science Association; University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences; Competence Center Citizen Science, University of Zurich; Citizen Science Global Partnership; European Citizen Science Association; Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies; Joint Research Center of the European Union; IHE Delft; World Meteorological Organization; Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; Statistisches Bundesamt; Woodrow Wilson Center; CitizenScience.Asia; Yale; University of Dundee; Center for Centre for Research on Ecology and Forestry Applications; Citizen Science Africa Association; and Stockholm Environment Institute.



For more information, please contact Jillian Campbell: [email protected] and Matt Billot: [email protected]