#04 2023

Empowering disenfranchised communities through citizen science

By Nokwanda Gule, Gugulethu Tshabalala and Nkosi Sithole, Grasslands Node, NRF-SAEON

It is said that knowledge is power. This is certainly true for citizen science, which has been empowering communities to tackle their environmental issues. Citizen science allows for the transfer of knowledge and skills to build personal agency and increase advocacy, especially in communities who otherwise would have had limited capacity to address the socio-economic challenges they experience.

Defined as the active and voluntary participation of the public in scientific research, citizen science allows for copious amounts of data to be collected, serving to expand scientific knowledge and resolve scientific inquiry. Citizen science is practiced in several disciplines, for example in the health and environmental sciences (iNaturalist and Bio Blitz). It has proven to be useful for researchers as the data can be used by scientists to report and inform research objectives, hence there is a need to advance and improve citizen science monitoring in our country.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) is committed to transforming the demographic within the science workforce as well as the way we engage with society through science. The NRF Impact Framework promotes engaged research as a method for enhancing knowledge impact in society. Citizen science is one way in which this can be achieved, assisting to democratize the science process.

Staff members of the SAEON Grasslands Node have been exploring ways to achieve impact through citizen science projects. This requires experienced facilitators and trainers as well as tested methodologies suited to the context of the node’s long-term research platforms.

We were therefore excited when GroundTruth selected the area in northern KwaZulu-Natal where the node’s Maputaland long-term observation site is located, as a test area for their project Remote citizen science learning support system and adapted toolbox for online community training. The project is funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC).

Given the node staff’s positive relationship with the community thanks to ongoing sterling community liaison by SAEON technician Siphiwe Mfeka, GroundTruth approached the node to help facilitate permission, and support the implementation of their work in the area. Permission was duly granted. This is just one example of how the presence of SAEON in the Maputaland Coastal Plain has inspired and enabled collaborators such as GroundTruth to work in the area.

Node intern Nokwanda Gule has been participating in the citizen science training as part of the node’s contribution to this important work, learning from the experience so that she can transfer the knowledge she gained to the Grasslands Node team.

The facilitation team ensuring that the Zikhali participants get to grips with the miniSASS tool

Feedback loop 

Researchers have demonstrated that there is a feedback loop between the motivation, participation and learning of participants in citizen science. Findings from citizen science projects such as the well-known Mpophomeni EnviroChamps and current GroundTruth–WRC project have proven that citizens are more likely to be motivated to contribute or volunteer when the problem to be solved is close to their personal lives, that is, affects them directly, such as water quality in their area.

The Maputaland Coastal Plain has been experiencing several water-related issues and hence it is a perfect platform to conduct such training as the participants have first-hand experience in as far as water quality is concerned. GroundTruth, in collaboration with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), developed ten citizen science tools for monitoring water quality and quantity in the area. These were developed for those community members who showed an interest in active participation in the monitoring and management of their rivers, springs, estuaries and wetlands. SAEON has been using a number of these tools to engage, educate and empower the communities.

Tools developed so far include the miniSASS tool, riparian health audit tool, water clarity tube, velocity plank, wetland assessment tool (mini-WETHealth), estuary tool, weather-monitoring tools, spring tool, school lesson plans and an enviro picture building game.

To achieve their project objectives, the GroundTruth team conducted in-person and remote training using an online learning platform – the PLUTO Learning Management System. A pilot was conducted with 30 participants – 18 from the Mabasa tribal authority and 12 from the Mbila tribal authority. The participants were trained to use six citizen science tools – the velocity plank, the miniSASS tool, the clarity tube, the miniWET-Health tool and two additional tools – the E. coli test and the Dragon Biodiversity Index (DBI).

Course participants learning how to use the different citizen science tools

Throughout the course participants were observed and asked to reflect on their learning experience. The findings of this qualitative process demonstrated that the participants developed a range of technical and soft skills related to citizen science, knowledge which raised their environmental awareness and a sense of advocacy for their environment.

Practical application 

A component of the participants’ course work was to conduct a ‘change project’ in which they investigated a local environmental concern through the application of their newly acquired research skills and presented their feedback on it.

The participants shared that they have now also been teaching their communities about water quality and river health, based on what they had learned in the course. This was impressive feedback because it implied that the course had created a ripple effect in the learning process from the participants to the broader community.

The participants even mentioned that they felt more confident in trying out other free online courses because the remote citizen science course had equipped them with the necessary skills.

Feedback from the GroundTruth facilitation team 

“An interesting comment made by several participants was how the training provided participants with the platform to develop research and soft skills such as presentation, communication, teamwork, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. One of the Mabasa participants noted that before being part of the training, they were very shy to engage or speak in public, but through the training he has been able to build his confidence pertaining to presenting in public and his communication skills immensely.”  

“When we were planning this project, it really felt like we were trying to do the impossible – online training with people who had no access to the ‘online’, however we have been constantly reminded that when people have a passion for learning and a need to improve their situation, that almost anything can be overcome. The participants have shown us just what it takes to learn under these circumstances, and we have learnt so much from them, in return.”

 This feedback is important as it highlights how the citizen science training has changed the perspective of our participants. Through exposure to this course, the few community individuals who participated have been empowered with essential knowledge and skills. While only touching a few community individuals at this stage, it is evident that the citizen science training has the potential to be massively impactful as participants noted how they had started sharing what they had learnt with others in the community. This is particularly encouraging with regards to the potential for capacitating  isolated communities.

Zikhali tribal participants at the end of the course proudly displaying their certificates of participation

The SAEON Grasslands Node staff members are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to and learn from this amazing project. We look forward to continued collaboration with GroundTruth, working together for enhanced knowledge and societal impact through engaged science.