Citizen Science for Sustainability at the Yenching Social Innovation Forum

Author: Mike Joyce


YSIF Kicks Off


On the crisp winter morning of December 9th 2017, under an ever more common and blue Beijing sky, delegates from all corners of the world descended on Peking University for the second annual Yenching Social Innovation Forum (YSIF). The theme of discussion for YSIF 2017 was “Dynamic Solutions for a Sustainable Future.”


The Forum kicked off with opening remarks from David Moser, Professor of Peking University’s Yenching Academy. Professor Moser emphasized how, while China has become a stable and positive influence on sustainable development both domestically and on the international stage, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have shown that we may no longer be able to rely on the traditional political institutions that were driving the global transition toward sustainability, increasing the need for innovation to replace them.


Professor Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy, University of California and former U.S. Science Envoy, then delivered an opening keynote to set the scene for the forum. He described how hopes for a transition to a sustainable future for mankind and our planet had been boosted by U.S.-China cooperation at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, only to suffer a major setback when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris agreement after the election of their current president; this turn of events prompted Prof. Kammen to publicly resign as U.S. Science Envoy.


However, despite the Trump administration’s anti-environmental stance, the sustainable transition has been gathering momentum worldwide. For example, China—a country striving to hit its environmental targets ahead of time—has declared an ambitious plan to phase out ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles by 2025. There has also been major progress in energy provision and efficiency. California, for instance, is on course to have 50% of its state-wide energy come from clean sources by 2030. While this momentum is positive, Dr. Kammen stressed that it is vital that governments cooperate and companies compete, in order to both drive innovation to reduce CO2 emissions quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe.


Delegates, speakers, and student organizers at the 2017 Yenching Social Innovation Forum at Peking University.


With this backdrop, the rest of the forum commenced around four areas of discussion: Green Finance and Technology, Climate Governance and Policy, Sustainable Business and Corporate Environmental Responsibility, and Citizen Science for Sustainability. This article highlights and summarizes this important fourth strand of discussion.


Panel Session: Exploring Citizen Science


“Citizen science is making the voices of the unheard heard.”

“Citizen science is an empowerment process.”

“Citizen science is a method for policy-making.”


These are some of the conceptual definitions of citizen science that were put forward by three speakers during the Citizen Science for Sustainability panel session. The panel was introduced and moderated by Dr. Zhang Shiqu, Professor at Peking University College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. The three speakers were Ms. Kendall Bitonte, External Relations Coordinator of the Global Environmental Institute (GEI); Mr. Andrew Tsui, Co-Founder of Rooftop Republic; and Ms. Ren Xiaoyuan, Founder and Director of MyH20.



From left to right: Mr. Andrew Tsui, Ms. Ren Xiaoyuan, Ms. Kendall Bitonte, and Dr. Zhang Shiqu


Ms. Ren provided a more detailed definition of citizen science: “the regular collection of measurements, usually of natural resources and biodiversity, undertaken by local people who live in the area being monitored, who rely on local natural resources and consequently have great local knowledge of those resources.” The justification for turning to citizen science is that outside “specialists” usually (a) lack local knowledge, (b) are expensive to employ, and (c) often cannot speak the local language of the place being studied.


The work of MyH20 illustrates how citizen science can function at the grassroots level. Through the MyH20 mobile app, citizen scientists can submit data they have collected on water quality, which can then be used by the Chinese government to guide action or policy-making to improve water quality in local areas. An advantage of the data being collected by citizens is that they often see details that government scientists would miss—for example, bikes or other rubbish that have been thrown into rivers along routes with regular foot traffic.


Under MyH20’s innovative model, local governments in China also provide a subsidy to cover any expenses incurred by citizen data collector. In return, officials see rivers cleaned up. MyH20 is active in 23 provinces in China and boasts more than 500 volunteers working in 87 different teams. The organization operates in both urban and rural areas, with an advantage of countryside work being the alleviation of problems that rural communities are usually incapable of solving themselves, due to less connection to policy makers or environmental movements happening in Chinese cities. Rural citizens may not know how to access information that would help them either monitor whether the water in their wells is safe to drink or purify unsafe well water in the first place. MyH20 helps by training these citizens in water quality monitoring and using the app to upload their findings, thereby connecting them to the government and wider society.


Taking the stage after Ms. Ren was Mr. Tsui, co-founder of Rooftop Republic in Hong Kong. Mr. Tsui emphasized that when he tells people what he does at Rooftop Republic, everybody forms their own impression of his work. Some picture him toiling away in rice paddies; others imagine him running a high-tech food production lab. In reality, Rooftop Republic utilizes empty rooftops in Hong Kong—spaces which would otherwise be wasted in one of the most built-up cities in the world, where locals often cannot see the full sky—to construct urban farms that alleviate pressure on rural areas to produce food. Furthermore, these farms allow communities in Hong Kong to generate an extra source of revenue and reconnect with nature right in the city centre.


Rooftop republic is run as a social enterprise, and the citizen science aspect of the business consists of getting local individuals, primary schools, secondary schools, and universities involved in finding farmable spaces, along with planning to get the farms up and running smoothly. In this context, urban farming becomes an empowerment process that connects communities and provides opportunities for those who may be struggling, including retired people or the hearing-impaired, to undergo training and boost their income. Mr. Tsui’s face lit up as he described children who have never seen where their food comes from enthusiastically pulling carrots out of the soil, and learning that carrots actually have leaves before they end up on their dinner plates.


Last but not least, Ms. Bitonte, External Relations Coordinator for GEI, took the microphone and engaged the audience in a simple exercise: listeners closed their eyes, imagined a natural environment they have been to and a problem it is facing, and then thought of what data would need to be collected before that problem could be solved. After the audience had a moment to think, Ms. Bitonte proclaimed that they had all just successfully completed an act of citizen science.


However, the communities Ms. Bitonte and the GEI are working with in Qinghai province do not have to visualize a place under threat—they are already living in one. Qinghai is the source of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong rivers, which flow into the rest of China and Southeast Asia. Therefore, monitoring, maintaining, and hopefully improving water quality in this region is vital to the health of ecosystems and communities throughout these countries. GEI provides water quality monitoring toolkits to local people in Qinghai; locals are trained how to use the kits and send their data to GEI for analysis. Locals also receive training about understanding environmental change and solutions implementation. In return for their aid, GEI boosts local economies by helping residents to set up cooperatives that produce traditional, sustainable handicrafts, or other small industries based on ecosystem services. This work tends to attract the attention of more communities who seek to get involved, growing the entire project and helping to ensure good water quality at the source of three major Asian rivers.


Speakers give their presentations. From left to right: Mr. Tsui, Ms. Ren, and Ms. Bitonte.


A round of questions from Dr. Zhang and the delegates came after speaker concluded their presentations. Questions fell under several themes but largely centred around challenges in conducting successful citizen science. One issue raised was how to ensure the data being produced by unprofessional scientists is scientifically rigorous. In response, Ms. Bitonte suggested that the apps used to submit data can be structured as to only allow data in a certain format to be uploaded. Meanwhile, Ms. Ren stressed the importance of ensuring that the citizen scientists involved are accessible, trainable, and motivated; this could be achieved through an application process. She also explained how technological features could increase the accuracy of uploaded data. such as geo-tagging pictures for accurate location data and using apps to record water’s color (rather than the subjective human eye),.


Another challenge raised is identifying environmental problems that need addressing or communities that need help in the first place. While there is no simple solution to this issue, Mr. Tsui did emphasise the benefits of consulting communities to see what they feel needs to change, rather than promoting top-down solutions. Using Hong Kong as an example, he stated that the way to identify and change the city’s obsolete policies is to engage those regular city-dwellers who are feeling the effects of these policies, ask them what they need, and then put together a project that would work toward getting those policies changed.


Audience questions concluded with some other positive trends in citizen science. Ms. Bitonte pointed out that the handicraft cooperatives being setting up in Qinghai are mostly run by women, a trend contributing to shifts from patriarchal traditions. Furthermore, Ms. Ren highlighted the potential career development opportunities for people involved in citizen science as they learn new skills and take on new responsibilities that could help them get into universities or find jobs later in life. Finally, Mr. Tsui and Ms. Ren both suggested that citizen science is an ultimately empowerment process, one which motivates regular people to get involved in environmental management by (a) giving them control of their own projects, and (b) granting an opportunity to get involved in enforcing corporate environmental responsibility.


Workshop: Citizen Science in Practice


While Day 1 of the Yenching Social Innovation Forum was dedicated to panel discussions, Day 2 kicked off with workshops along the same themes. The Citizen Science for Sustainability workshop was led by Dr. Peng Kui, Program Manager of GEI’s Ecosystem Conversation and Community Development Program. The workshop was attended by around 20 professionals and students in the fields of environment and sustainability from all over the world. There was a positive atmosphere as attendees learned from Dr. Peng’s experience and actively engaged in the workshop.



Dr. Peng Kui, Citizen Science for Sustainability Workshop Leader


Dr. Peng began by explaining how citizen science is still in its infancy in China, giving a few examples of projects such as IPE’s app for checking and uploading pollution data, Green Hunan’s water quality project, and the Botany Institute’s website for reporting information on bird and plant species. He stressed that “we need to push” citizen science forward in China. However, like Ms. Bitonte, Dr. Peng has also been working on GEI’s projects in Qinghai and used this region as his case study for the workshop.


Dr. Peng explained how GEI consults and engages local people to produce and use community-based plans for implementing the organization’s projects in Qinghai. These projects not only involve monitoring water quality in freezing conditions and using an app called Caiyun to upload data and build a water quality database, but also involve the reporting of illicit activities, such as the construction of illegal roads into environmentally sensitive areas. Again, the government provides subsidies to cover the citizen scientists’ costs, such as fuel for motorbikes, and training is provided to ensure that the data collected is accurate. Again, in return for their services as data collectors, GEI provides support with the development of handicraft cooperatives.


Following this presentation, the room was divided into two groups and delegates were given two discussion topics. The first asked whether the term “citizen science” is even appropriate, or whether it should be called “public science.” In Chinese, these terms are 公众科学 (gongzhongkexue) and 公民科学 (gongminkexue), respectively. Each carries a culturally loaded meaning. The second topic asked delegates to share which new citizen science programs they would wish to implement in China, and how they would go about making these programs successful.


After brief group discussion, the international audience concluded that the terms “citizen science and “public science” may be culturally loaded in the Chinese language, but in the international English language the difference is not so striking. At the same time, all acknowledged that it is important to be sensitive to such issues when defining citizen science in a given culture.


The workshop concluded with delegates exchanging the citizen science projects they believe should be implemented in China. Diverse, novel citizen science projects could focus on reducing air pollution, possibly through monitoring coal use in rural households; water pollution; urban planning; waste generation; and sustainable consumption, with the possibility of monitoring the new phenomenon of so-called “bike graveyards” full of mistreated and discarded shared bikes in Chinese cities. Of course, project leaders should always begin by consulting the communities affected to pinpoint the issues most in need of addressing and devise the best, most participatory course of action.


 Citizen Science for Sustainability Workshop. Left: Dr. Peng Kui giving his presentation. Right: delegates debating the appropriateness of the term “citizen science.”


Citizen Science in Perspective


The Yenching Social Innovation Forum saw the coming together of bright young minds from around the world and carried a positive, hopeful atmosphere throughout. There was an air of mutual respect and learning that embodied the true spirit of the international cooperation. As Dr. Kammen stressed in his opening keynote, such cooperation is required to drive innovation in sustainability and solve global environmental problems. Hopefully, the YSIF 2017 delegates will now be able to take their newfound understanding of citizen science back home to their respective countries and begin implementing solutions in their own communities. Doing so can help keep citizens safe from pollution and create clean, healthy and socially inclusive environments.

Photo - Mike Joyce_副本.jpg

About the author: Mike Joyce lives in China and is studying an online MSc in Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment, which is administered by the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. He wrote this article on behalf of the Beijing Energy Network. Email: