Every Citizen, A Scientist: How can citizen science drive youth engagement in development challenges?

Co-Author: Sherine ElWattar, Programme Design and Coordination support, UNDP Egypt Accelerator Lab

April 3, 2024

Imagine the untapped wealth of observations and insights available when individuals from diverse backgrounds—each with their unique vantage points and local knowledge—contribute to a collective data pool. This is what Citizen Science is all about; inviting everyday people to participate in scientific research, making it more feasible and wide-reaching. 

Citizen science is a research method that involves voluntary participation of the public in data collection and analysis, thereby amplifying our ability to gather data and tap into the power of collective intelligence.

This method not only diversifies datasets, but it also fosters a sense of engagement among participating citizens, who might not necessarily have any formal scientific training. Moreover, in areas where funding and scientific infrastructure are limited, citizen science provides a cost-effective alternative to gather crucial data that might have been overlooked by conventional research methods. 

UNDP accelerator lab network has globally experimented with citizen science, leveraging collective intelligence and the observational power of community to better understand complex issues. For example, UNDP Argentina and UNDP India have couple citizen science with digital technologies to measure air quality and map pollutants respectively.

In Egypt, the accelerator lab utilized citizen science to test the feasibility and dynamics of the tool implementation with university students, learn from and about the data collected, and observe the collaterals of using the tool when it comes to self-awareness and youth engagement around water scarcity issues in Egypt.

Citizen science in action

The initiative was implemented in partnership with the American University in Cairo (AUC), in integration with the scientific thinking course under the core curricula. 

The citizen science approach is well aligned with the nature of scientific inquiry and investigation being taught under this curriculum. It also benefits from the course’s focus on fact identification and concept formation guided by respectful professors and instructors. Practically, it engages students by integrating real-life development challenges into academic curricula. 

350 students were able to participate in the citizen science initiative during the fall semester of 2023. The chosen thematic area under investigation was water consumption and conservation behavior. Since efficient use of domestic water becomes increasingly critical in ensuring water security for households and it’s something students engage with on daily basis. 

Students monitored their water use by timing their activities and calculated consumption using fixed water flow. The experiment required no special tools, making it accessible to a broad range of participants. Those steps were done for both normal consumption and later for intentional rationing behavior. Students were able to access and analyze the full dataset compiled from the whole student body. 

In only two weeks, more than 4,000 observations were compiled, and 75 reports were written by students to bring wealth of data and perspectives to the analysis and the challenge underhand. 

Hands-On reflections 

Through collective data analysis, common themes highlighting the strengths and positive impacts of citizen science were observed: Personal accountability. By participating in the data gathering process, students were able to develop a deeper connection to the challenges they are addressing, instilling a sense of responsibility and ownership. They became more aware of their own consumption habits and the impact of their choices, highlighting the potential of citizen science as a tool for both, research and raising awareness.

“Since the data and observations made for this analysis were our own, our findings were explanations to our own behaviors.” – Students Group 1 (Janna, Jana, Sara, Nancy). 

Agency of Change. Citizen science enables individuals to witness challenges firsthand, and hence become personally invested. By identifying trends, citizen scientists are empowered to propose innovative solutions and take actions, becoming agents of change. For example, student observed significant decrease in water consumption during the rationing activities. One group took proactive steps to enact change that was beyond the required scope of the initiative:

“Our research proved the importance of helping people visualize their daily water consumption, we came up with an idea to implement water flow meters in sinks and showers to represents their consumption and create a website that allows people to calculate the amount of water they actually need.” –  Students Group 2 (Mariam, Rama, Farida, Rana).

Diversity and inclusion. Engagement of all members of the society is the ethos of citizen science and is a cornerstone for achieving representation and inclusivity. This also enriches the data and improve flows of ideas, and arguments. 

“We come from Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, each with unique backgrounds and experiences, so we used our diversity to enhance our project” – Students Group 3 (Ali, Yousef, Aimen, Laila). 

This group was inspired by the city of Aden in Yemen, where people living in different locations receive water at different times for different durations and thus consume water at different rates. 

After investigating how location affects water use, they found students from different regions in Egypt consumed water at significantly different rates, even after water conservation measures – a variation with valuable insights for further study. 

Critical thinking. Every type of research, regardless of its nature or scope, presents its own unique set of challenges that researchers must navigate. Citizen science is no different. Students were able to pinpoint several limitations, which is crucial to account for during analysis and to improve future experiments. Some of those limitations were outliers, confounding variables, inconsistencies, missing data points, and most importantly unmonitored psychological factors. Citizen science taught students the importance of critical thinking to ensure validity of conclusions and analysis, which fosters deeper understanding of scientific methods through real life application.

“We questioned the reliability of our findings and sought alternative methodologies and data sources to support our analysis.” –Students Group 4 (Mira, Nour, Soraya). 


Moving to scale: More is less.

There is no doubt in the benefits and value of citizen science in solving complex issues. But perhaps the most debated challenge for this approach is the accuracy and reliability of collected data, which was mentioned by multiple participating groups. 

One way we approached this challenge was by coupling the initiative with formal training and support on data collection and analysis in a course setting, which might not always respond to personal behaviors and external motives. Hence, we aim to rely on scale to help identify inconsistencies; More data aggregated, less hidden errors. Furthermore, having multiple contributors to data analysis can serve as peer review and a validation mechanism. 

As AUC is moving to the second round of the citizen science initiative, we call on partners and universities from across Egypt to join our citizen science initiative empowering students as citizens and as thinkers. 

To partner with us, you can reach out to UNDP’s Head of Experimentation: yomna.mohamed@undp.org

This blog was co-written with participating AUC students under the coordination of Dr. Maya Nicolas.