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Low-cost and Open Tools for Environmental Decision-making

The way we collect environmental data is changing as new tools and approaches promise to broaden how people interact with it. In particular, innovation in low-cost and open science hardware tools is bringing more people to collect more—and different—data, and more importantly, use environmental data for their own purposes and on their own terms. For example, recent advances in the development of low-cost sensors, increased capability to analyze and visualize those data, and better communication infrastructure has led to a “changing paradigm” in air pollution monitoring, according to a recent analysis in Environmental Science and Technology. 


This progress comes at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that the tools created and used by government are insufficient for understanding local and global pollution and a changing climate. For instance, Environmental Law Reporter found that stationary air monitors usually used for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision-making operate at a broad scale and miss impacts at the neighborhood level


Increased Use of Low-cost and Open Tools

As our technological capabilities have increased, so, too, has our awareness of our personal environments. Purple Air monitors in the San Francisco Bay area were on hand to inform residents of heightened air quality issues during recent wildfire seasons, communities like EnviroDIY participate in DIY data logging to monitor nutrients and other parameters in freshwater, and analog tools—like secchi disks and pen and paper odor logs—have long provided ways for  people to use their senses as sensors.  Previous writing on this topic through a series of posts on the Journal of Open Hardware's Medium blog points to the increased ability for people to interact with and understand environmental data as a mechanism to create science-centered dialogue, build trust, and positively change the way we converse around societal issues.

Governments at all levels are beginning to recognize the value of low-cost tools and open science hardware for more holistic and comprehensive environmental monitoring, and in many cases are even promoting their development and use. For example, the EPA is addressing how to evaluate “emerging air sensor performance” and has hosted challenge competitions for low-cost air and water quality sensors. Some states have embraced the use of low-cost tools and citizen science as part of a water monitoring strategy, and partnerships between local, tribal, and national agency programs are piloting the use of low-cost air quality monitors (e.g. EPA collocated low-cost air sensor shelters).  


Challenges in Governmental Uptake

However, despite increased recognition of their potential, data and information from these tools are not often used for agency research or important regulatory, compliance or enforcement decisions. Across different scenarios, it's not clear when low-cost and open science hardware can be used, and how they fit into current standards, regulations, and administrative processes. Moreover, many low-cost tools are proprietary, and the data that they produce is not always open; making the tools unusable beyond developer platforms or for different analysis scenarios. These are missed opportunities for data to help address local and global challenges. 


There is momentum now for increasing the use of low-cost and open science hardware for actionable environmental data. The Biden Administration has articulated the critical role of science for evidence-based policy and low-cost and open science hardware has an increasing role in the federal government’s goals integrating accessible paths for multi-sector involvement in environmental governance, and increased attentiveness to the role of environmental data and information in helping reach these goals. The full potential of these tools will not be achieved without the creation of a multi-sector strategy, to connect the places where attention should be aimed, with the goals that low-cost and open science hardware can help address. 


Identifying Unknowns and Paths Forward

With increased attention to and a reliance on low-cost and open science hardware tools for environmental monitoring, there is a need to interrogate the details of what hinders the further use of these tools and the resulting data. What limits the use of low-cost and open science tools for environmental research and decision-making? What are the opportunities for testing these constraints? Where are the places that open science hardware is best put to use for environmental governance? 


To address these questions and related issues, the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and the Open Environmental Data Project are teaming up to explore the current trends and issues related to low-cost tools, open hardware, and open data in environmental monitoring. This builds from previous discussions that have approached this problem from different perspectives; for example, a workshop co-hosted by the authors of this post in October 2020 identified opportunities for open science hardware to contribute to aligning research agendas with societal needs, and increase civic participation, scientific understanding and shared identity. Initial discussions will identify the issues and propose possible solutions for U.S. public policy, identifying next steps to increase the value and interest of low-cost and open tools for local, state, tribal, and national government; and finally, consider recommendations pointing to where there is potential to increase the value of these tools for actionable and accessible data. 


Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) serves as the bridge between technologists, policymakers, industry, and global stakeholders.  Read more