Citizen science empowers the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Jonathan Logan
S&E Editor


In 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly approved the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Included within the Agenda are “17 Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs); among them are No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Climate Action and Life Below Water. The 193 member states of the UN General Assembly hope to achieve these goals by 2030 and usher in the “Decade of Action” beginning this year. The SDGs certainly boast a glimpse of grandeur: “our shared vision to end poverty, rescue the planet and build a peaceful world.” However, the literature, both scholarly and journalistic, is rife with criticisms of the UN and its 2030 SDGs, which have seen little in the way of advancement since they were adopted in 2015. Thus, the SDGs have become distant, and an entire book could be devoted to examining the shortfalls of sustainable development, the UN and the SDGs.

In October 2019, an article published in Nature: Sustainability sought to reconnect the UN SDGs, before the beginning of the “Decade of Action,” with the global community through citizen science. Citizen science refers to the participation of civil society in scientific endeavors through observations or data analysis. The article, “Citizen Science and the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” identified the emergence of “non-traditional data streams” as part of this citizen science revolution. For centuries, scientific communities have relied on civil society to expand their capacity, and, in the process, boost scientific literacy through these non-traditional data streams.

There are entire global projects built on the idea of citizen science. The crowdsourced research website, Zooniverse, is perhaps the most complete archive of global citizen science projects as anyone with an internet connection can contribute to. Zooniverse allows scientists and researchers to gain valuable insight on large datasets they simply do not have time to tackle by crowdsourcing data analysis or the observational part of an experiment. This is not to say that the UN could upload their global problems to Zooniverse and watch the solution materialize.

The UN operates on a normative basis, meaning initiatives like the SDGs can only be achieved through mutually agreed upon standards of data collection, or “reporting mechanisms” (Zooniverse is not an official reporting mechanism). The life of the SDGs thus far has been dependent on traditional reporting mechanisms such as “national statistical offices, government ministries or non-governmental organizations.” The institutionalized nature of these reporting mechanisms makes data collection expensive, cumbersome and sometimes incomplete.

Take a national survey, for example: one can cost as much as $2 million and happen on an annual basis or over even longer time spans, and they are dependent on the willingness of people to fill out a form. These shortfalls in traditional reporting mechanisms lead to statistical gaps in SDG data. The global citizenry is not burdened by bureaucratic budget-making nor do they wait a year to report a problem or share a significant finding. In other words, citizen science minimizes statistical gaps. This is the potential many scholars hope to see the UN harness.

One of the most successful apps in the Google Play Store is an ocean plastic, or flotsam, tracking platform created by the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative in partnership with National Geographic. The app, Marine Debris Tracker, allows users to report when and where they see litter. The idea is that if enough people track litter or ocean debris, a sort of global litter flow could be mapped out, allowing activists or scientists to target the issue more locally and respond in shorter amounts of time.

Coupling the force of an engaged, scientific citizenry with the big data revolution and the sudden ability to monitor the Life Below Water SDG, which aims to reduce the prevalence of flotsam and jetsam in order to improve the livelihoods of all people, becomes a quantifiable achievement. Platforms such as Marine Debris Tracker seek to give tangibility to the solutions our world desires. Citizen science-based, crowdsourced apps like these are non-traditional reporting mechanisms that make the SDGs seem less like floating, distant goals. Citizen science connects the issue to the people; it empowers them.

One of the important questions for the UN brought up by the use of citizen science is whether it could replace institutional data collection and reporting. In the short-term, it is unlikely. The Nature: Sustainability article noted that many citizen science projects in operation today do not have direct implications for the SDGs. Nevertheless, platforms such as Marine Debris Tracker certainly possess untold potential for acting as a connector between the SDGs and citizen science.

The link between the SDGs and citizen science is not a definitive, closed study. Instead, take this article as a call to action. The SDGs are infinitely complex due to the number of factors that could be used to indicate the progress made on any single SDG. Citizen science has even begun to generate potential new SDGs. Among these are air quality projects based in Antwerp, Belgium that have nearly 20,000 civilian participants. The project, called “Curious Noses,” has driven scientific and public policy debate in Europe while also addressing the issue of pollution. The question posed in the Nature article asks whether these projects could be used to “fill the gaps” in a hypothetical SDG centered around improving air quality all over the planet. Or perhaps they could lay the foundation for an entirely new goal in sustainable development.

Before delving into the world of criticism directed towards international initiatives and organizations, remember that there are avenues through which your everyday experiences will improve the effectiveness of well-intentioned goals. The purpose of citizen science is not to remind the non-PhD wielding person that science is best left to academics, but that scientific endeavors bring everyone along for the ride. 

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