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Public Lab Wiki documentation

sandbox community science

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This content is stewarded by @Liz Barry

Why do we use the term "community science"?

We use the term community science in the recognition that environmental change in the 21st Century United States requires both community organizing and scientific knowledge production.

When would you start a community science project?

You start a community science project when you have a concern with at least one aspect which can be understood by science (such as the leaking of an industrial chemical, or differences in air quality) but which is also a problem larger than science in the sense that the issues emanate from historical and ongoing injustices that compound along economic and racial lines. While every once in a while pollution turns out to be a simple issue with a straightforward answer leading to a course of action that is speedily taken by the powers that be, the vast majority of persistent pollution is generated by intractable, systemic, multi-owner problems that have fallen (or been pushed) through the gaps in environmental governance and require social and political action to address.

What happens in a community science project?

In a community science project, people with environmental health concerns write up what is known, what they suspect, and what they wish to know (see https://publiclab.org/issue-brief), then break out a series of more specific questions for deeper exploration (see https://publiclab.org/notes/renee/10-01-2021/creating-research-questions-for-your-community-science-project). We think of this as the start of problem identification and refinement, one of many possible phases in a community science project.

Phases in a community science project may include problem identification, problem refinement, research of many types including mapping, monitoring, sampling, hypothesis-driven scientific research, etc, plus organizing, mobilizing, political advocacy, design, and remediation. There are many reasons why these phases might change order, skip, or repeat. Please keep in mind that campaigns for change take years and stress requires solidarity. Consider that even the Western scientific tradition acknowledges:

The ideas that we have in research are only in part a logical product growing out of a careful weighing of evidence. We do not generally think problems through in a straight line. Often we have the experience of being immersed in a mass of confusing data. We study the data carefully, bringing all our powers of logical analysis to bear upon them. We come up with an idea or two. But still the data do not fall in any coherent pattern. Then we go on living with the data—and with the people—until perhaps some chance occurrence casts a totally different light upon the data, and we begin to see a pattern that we have not seen before. This pattern is not purely an artistic creation. Once we think we see it, we must reexamine our notes and perhaps set out to gather new data in order to determine whether the pattern adequately represents the life we are observing or is simply a product of our imagination. - William Foote Whyte (1955)

During a community science project, people learn about, compare, and challenge each other’s various ways of knowing and the resulting knowledge to see what is deserving of a closer, more scientific look and/or a deeper historical truth telling in order to gain the grounding needed to achieve locally held goals.


Outcomes of community science may include:

  • Changes to the peer researchers themselves, because shared inquiry develops the social cohesion needed to see a social change process through
  • A broadened base of who is concerned leading to increased political will and power
  • Data useable by journalists, regulators, and courts
  • The creation of new regulations, the enforcement of existing regulations, clean-ups, convictions, compensation, and other types of redress and remediation

Where did this term come from?

The term "community science" was first used in the 1980's and 1990's by environmental justice organizations Communities for a Better Environment and Global Community Monitor who were using low-cost monitoring equipment to document industrial emissions. Public Lab organized an event in 2014 with Global Community Monitor and Jackie James of Citizen Science Community Resources called "Community-based Science for Action." Public Lab traces the current growth in the "community science movement" including the explosion of usage in the term community science by institutions around the world to our joining forces with the existing environmental justice monitoring movement. To read this story in a longer format, see Dosemagen's piece "Exploring the Roots: the evolution of civic and community science," excerpted here:

Community science in its original intent linked grassroots organizing, socially situated data collection, and accessible technology. This was the model of Communities for a Better Environment, Global Community Monitor (now-defunct), and the many Bucket Brigades that arose from it. The actions of community science can date as far back as the 1980s and early 1990s with models deeply rooted in environmental justice organizing, but the term itself we started using around 2013. In November 2014, aligned with Public Lab’s annual community science convening (the “Barnraising”) and the American Public Health Association annual conference in New Orleans, Global Community Monitor, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Public Lab co-hosted the first “Community-based Science for Action Convening.” At this event, we featured community science as a track, highlighted how low-cost tools were used in the work of health and justice organizing, and brought together people from around the country that were strategically thinking about applying science to questions of industrial oversight.

Components of Public Lab's model

Why we need community science

To reduce harm caused by regulatory gaps: Hotspots can be invisible within areas of "attainment," to such a degree in certain cases that standards for evidence in regulatory science become a barrier to equal access of a clean environment

To reduce harm caused by enforcement gaps: Powerful corporate "neighbors" can evade accountability

To reduce harm caused by gaps in government data: There is missing data at relevant scales about what matters

To reduce harm caused by the structurally unjust burden of proof: This injustice is heaped onto those experiencing environmental injustice

To support empirical observation:Transforming anecdote to data, enabling people to speak languages of power

To support environmental journalism: Coverage of complex issues with multiple stakeholders and types of knowledge

To support data-based decision-making at all levels:The smallest units of government aren't equipped to collect or incorporate epistemologically diverse types of data. Actually this is true for all levels of government, "They can dish it but can't take it"

To support community organizing: Because campaigns take years, and stress needs solidarity. For exchanging stories of the pursuit and achievement of justice.

Earlier definitions

Our first attempt in print at defining Public Lab's model of community science was written up in 2015 by @/shannon and @/gretchengehrke: "…collaboratively-led scientific investigation and exploration to address community defined questions, allowing for engagement in the entirety of the scientific process. Unique in comparison to citizen science, community science may or may not include partnerships with professional scientists, emphasizes the community’s ownership of research and access to resulting data, and orients towards community goals and working together in scalable networks to encourage collaborative learning and civic engagement."

In a Public Lab and TEx worksession in summer 2019, a short list of shared concerns emerged:

  • Form equitable partnerships
  • Work in a transparent and accessible manner
  • Focus on impact towards locally set goals