Open monitoring: Can citizens be trusted?

Many citizens to distrust the authorities when it comes to monitoring pollution from industry.  Here is a reverse question that few ask but many should: why should the authorities place any more trust on the citizens?

Self-monitoring by industry is criticized, but is self-monitoring by citizens any more credible? I have been driving for “citizen monitoring” of pollution, and this question needs to be asked brutally.  Here is what I claim: if we require independence and transparency from the authorities, then we need to require it from ourselves also. I am thinking of some ways to make this possible.

At the grassroots level, I have been following the plans to build a new waste incinerator in Turku, fairly close to where I live. It is a heated local topic, which is no surprise. No sane person specifically WANTS to live next to an incinerator (personally, I am neutral about it, but then it’s not quite in my backyard even though it is close). This NIMBY effect is well documented everywhere.

What seems less well documented is the POSITIVE potential of people who live next door to these things. The people here have had decades of experience with the old incinerator, and they have local knowledge of both the surroundings and the incinerator itself. From persistent monitoring, they know what parts of the incineration process cause the worst emissions. They have followed the color of the snow and the water in closeby streams. They have made measurements of the pH levels in the emissions.  They know what environmental conditions cause the worst smells.

The authorities turn a blind eye to these results. And — I hate to put it this way — perhaps that is the right thing to do. Even if one fully trusts the people, the scattered measurements simply do not fulfill scientific criteria. Since they are not fully documented, it is impossible to audit the results for credibility.

To me, the fundamental problems lie with confirmation bias. Locals are likely to measure only when something has happened, for example there is a particularly bad smell. Few people think of photographing the color of the snow on days when there are no problems. Or to mark down days on which there are no smells. These citizen measurements certainly give an indication of what the situation is on the worst days, but they are not calibrated and do not give much of an indication about average conditions.

This is NOT conscious manipulation! It is a psychological necessity. On those days when things are fine, it is important to forget the problems. Constant worry is more likely to lead people to early graves than any pollution.

To face these problems, I have two suggestions, one trivial and one less trivial.

A. Trivial suggestion

The trivial suggestion is to automate everything as far as possible. However, even with improvements in technology, there are major limits to what can be done. Real air quality measurements, for example, are expensive and difficult to make accurately.

A suitable user interface for odor measurements? Picture: YLE / Karoliina Hult

In cases where an accurate measurement cannot be made, for example with smells, there could be clever ways to measure near-automatically. One solution I am thinking about is to use “like buttons” next to peoples’ front doors (see picture). The face corresponds to subjective air quality.  Pressing the correct button will take half a second. The process would very quickly become automatic. And once the process is automatic (nearly sub-conscious) it will start creating credible time series of odor levels. These can be correlated with micrometeorological weather data measured by a weather station in a neighbor’s yard.

B. Non-trivial suggestion

The second, less trivial suggestion is that the people doing the analysis should be more or less indifferent about the results. In other words, any analysis of the data needs to be done at a completely different location than the measurements, preferably so that there is no personal contact between the observers and the analysts. Emotions should not exist.

There is a clear precedent for this in the human rights arena: Amnesty International members generally do not work on human rights issues in their own countries. This improves the impartiality of the organization (and also the personal safety of the members).

In exactly the same way, citizen monitoring of industry should be scattered geographically, and there should be a firewall between the people who measure and the people who analyze. The firewall cannot be perfect in practice, as each location is different, and the locals are best aware of the things that should be measured. Locals thus need to be involved in setting up the measurement systems, and they of course need to do the actual measurements, but they should be cut off from the analysis.

This suggestion goes against human nature in just about every possible way. Locals should agree to be lackeys of someone else, and measure what is asked without knowing why? They should potentially pay for instruments without knowing what they are used for? And they should trust that someone “out there” knows and will do right? I personally cringe at the idea.

However, it could be doable. In Finland, analysis of the Turku incinerator could be done from Lappeenranta, which has a university that specializes in waste management — perhaps student labor could be used? And conversely, locals from Turku could help set up the measurements in Vaasa, since Turku locals have the most experience on incinerators (the old Turku incinerator was for many years the only one in the country). People here could absolutely have the competence to know what to measure.

I suspect that the psychological obstacles may be the biggest obstacle. Local observers are motivated to monitor local conditions, since it is their environment and their health that is at stake. If someone is already stressed and exhausted about the situation in Turku, why would he care about the situation in Vaasa?

And what about the money, the resources, the leadership, the responsibility? I have no idea. The technology is not the chokepoint (challenging though it is). Human and political issues are.

More on open monitoring: here.