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Arizona Citizen Scientists Improve Water Quality Data

To scale up the amount of data it takes in on Arizona's water systems, the state's Department of Environmental Quality's Water Watch program designed an app that puts data collection in the hands of residents.

Bridge over Burro Creek in Wikieup, Arizona
The hardest times to stop, take a step back and reassess are often those when a pause and reset are most needed, a paradox that is especially true for hard-pressed state and local officials. When you’re in the rhythm of day-to-day work, conceiving new approaches to services and delivery seems like a luxury — but is it?

Meghan Smart, senior scientist from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), knows exactly how to creatively stretch capacity. Smart worked her way up in the agency, starting as a sampler and collecting chemistry data on streams and lakes, so she understands how painstaking the work can be. And her current role, protecting water quality, is a broad assignment that extends beyond the capacity of state officials by themselves.

What she needed were more eyes, ears and samplers to ensure that everyone has access to safe water, so Smart began a program that uses volunteers to collect water quality samples, information and photos from streams and lakes throughout the state. The ADEQ AZ Water Watch program not only demonstrates how to protect precious waterways, but also offers a road map for how to get more people invested in the cause while fulfilling the wide range of public services designed to protect health and welfare.

Smart and her colleagues started by identifying gaps the department needed to fill: more data, more people in the field, and a more efficient, mobile and visual way to capture this information. The opportunity for ADEQ is that the volunteers represent a wide range of backgrounds, availability and skills — from college students to retirees to residents simply enjoying the state’s recreational opportunities — who could help preserve its waterways in just a few minutes using a free smartphone app.

Smart directly connects the volunteers with the data gaps she needs to address and the issues she needs to monitor, from E. coli to arsenic to trash. For some individuals she provides technical equipment, but the most common technology is a smartphone app. Since photos and data entered into mobile devices incorporate a spatial identifier, the department requires volunteers to upload their findings into the cloud-based tool called Survey123. With the app, volunteers upload photos and answer simple yes/no questions about a nearby body of water.

The diversity of volunteers and different levels of familiarity with technology can be challenging. Even though some people prefer paper-based documentation, ADEQ requires the use of the Survey123 tool. As Smart said, “Use of paper kills a community science program. I am one person, and they’re sending me thousands of data points. I need a way to both categorize the information as well as pass the pictures on to the right officials.” It was crucial that she paired the creative thinking that led to Water Watch with a tech component; after all, a key feature of this solution is the fact that a “single state official can handle the data” when processed in this way.

Sometimes, government agencies do not engage the public because of the quality of data necessary for an enforcement action. Obviously, an official needs verifiable evidence to act. The Arizona program is multilevel, meaning that Smart and her team evaluate the integrity and quality of the data, using it as a flag to further action. She conducts field and data audits and determines if the quality assurance procedures are in place. In other words, a state official can improve accuracy with more data, while simultaneously using quality control to determine when more and higher quality information is necessary for action.

In some areas a simple photo will do, like if there is trash polluting a stream or disrupting water flow. If the community “can notify us when these streams are flowing or not flowing, that really helps us understand the flow regime to target water quality samples in the future,” Smart said. These types of observations from citizen scientists aid the state in management, not just enforcement. Volunteers’ sampling work has even helped remove bodies of water from the Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired waters list.

As Smart looks to the future, she plans to post aggregated data more frequently and visually, creating story maps that will inform Arizonans and motivate further action as well as helping bring together state, local and nonprofit stakeholders. ADEQ points the way for many agencies charged with monitoring health and safety, from building to restaurant inspectors: Determine the missing data; think about how to expand data collection; invite the community to play a larger role.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.