Environmental projects involving citizen participation have the potential to provide a wide range of benefits that goes beyond the simple objectives of the project such as new environmental data collected; the potential in increasing public engagement; or in helping to detect rare environmental events, among others.
Environmental projects involving citizen participation have been popular in some areas such as biodiversity in non-marine environments, alien invasive species (Jordan et al., 2011), weather and climate (Sparrow et al., 2021); deposition of volcanic ashes (Stevenson et al., 2013); among others. Environmental projects with citizen participation on air quality monitoring increased in recent years across multiple cities worldwide (Mahajan et al., 2020; Oltra et al., 2017; Wesseling et al., 2019), in which the UIA DIAMS is indeed included. Most of these projects benefited from the availability of portable sensors, at a reduced cost compared to those used in scientific research projects, with the added benefit of their simplicity in their manipulation, without requiring a full scientific and technological expertise to operate.
Some of the most important opportunities and benefits of projects involving new environmental data as according to Blaney et al. (2016) include:
the increase of the spatial-temporal coverage of observations in areas without previous information
the increase of the cost effectiveness (or lower cost) compared to monitoring by professionals
the design of public engagement program around science and the environment in a practical and effective way.
However, citizen science projects are not free from problems and concerns, among which:
data collected using sensors might be of lower quality than that required by scientific research projects
lack of control in the monitoring, potentially leading to spatial bias, inadequate recording, and loss of authority in the results
lack of experience in citizen science projects by the scientific or technical leading group
need to council research scientist and social scientists for an effective public engagement project.
Another aspect to consider in citizen science projects is the inclusiveness. Bonney et al. (2016) points that citizen science projects should try to reach a wider range of audiences and participants in order to truly contribute to the democratization of science. This includes gender, ethnicity, socio-economic and socio-cultural status, location, education level, alongside how these axes intersect to define hierarchies and power relations. Pateman et al. (2020) conducted a cross section survey of the UK population about the participation in environmental citizen science projects and concluded that men were more likely to participate than women; people identifying as from white ethnic groups, with particularly low participation by women from minority ethnic groups. Also, participation was highest amongst those in education (studying at school, college, or university) and lowest amongst the unemployed. The authors of this wide survey recommended that project leaders carefully consider the aims of projects and thus the diversity of participants they wish to attract.
Previous studies of air quality perception indicated there is not an association between the perceived air quality and the actual ambient concentrations (Brody et al., 2004; Oltra & Sala, 2018). General citizen’s knowledge about air quality is weak and the official online databases created by country’s Environmental Agency, which report the official air pollution levels, are not usually the main source of information for citizens (Canha et al., 2022). Usually, air pollution is perceived by sensory experience, awareness, knowledge, emotions (this latter usually linked to nuisance), communication and risk perception (Brody et al., 2004; Canha et al., 2022; Oltra & Sala, 2018). Generally, there is misconception about the sources which contribute the most to ambient concentrations (Maione et al., 2021). Education, age, place of residence or gender influence only to a small extent the perception of air pollution causes. This suggest that the lack of information and knowledge about the causes of air pollution is widespread across different socio-economic groups and countries (Maione et al., 2021). Some authors indicated that understanding people’s knowledge and response in front of poor air quality is key to design the best mitigation procedures to protect public health. Understanding the perception of citizens about air pollution is essential to induce a behavioural change in the society (Oltra & Sala, 2018). Some authors pointed that by increasing the knowledge about air quality, by making the problem into a tangible and personalized problem is the basis of the acceptance of future mitigation policies to improve air quality (Pantavou et al., 2017). Boosting education, training, public awareness and participation are some of the relevant actions for maximizing the opportunities to improve environmental pollution (UN, 2015).
Increasing the awareness of environmental issues through projects involving data collected by citizens has a clear benefit for local authorities. First, an educated public in environmental issues may be more likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviours and change their habits and activities that will limit the impact of their activities on the territory. Second, the acceptance and the adaption of new legislation and rules from local and regional authorities might be easier by citizens who have been informed about environmental threads. But benefits are not just one-sided. From the individual perspective, participating in environmental projects thought a community or interest group offers a number of benefits such as opportunities to socialize and enjoyment of a new activity. This latter was highlighted to be one of the main benefits from participants in environmental volunteer projects in England (Ockenden & Hutin, 2008). Also, the involvement in environmental projects might enforce the feeling of doing something worthwhile (i.e. ‘giving something back’) to society and nature; and increase the connection with nature and their local environment (Belluci et al., 2014). There are also a number of wider societal benefits, such as community-building and increased general environmental awareness amongst the population (Jordan et al. 2012).