60-Second Earth

Citizen Environmental Monitoring Could Keep Officials Honest

Smartphones, cheap satellite imaging and crowdfunded enterprises have made citizen oversight possible that was undreamed of by past transparency advocates and environmentalists. David Biello reports


You know who you can't trust to report on government stewardship of the environment? That government.
For years Spain fudged its own fish catch numbers to protect the fishery business. In 2007, New Zealand cut a negative chapter from its State of the Environment report. When challenged, officials decided simply to stop issuing the report. That same year in the U.S. the Bush administration’s EPA concluded that climate change from greenhouse gas emissions was a serious threat. So the White House refused to make the report public.
Fortunately, the citizenry now has tools to fight such official duplicity. Smartphones, cheap satellite imaging and crowdfunded enterprises have made oversight possible that was undreamt of by past transparency advocates, environmentalists and other interested parties. That's the argument made by Yale University researchers in the journal Nature. [Angel Hsu et al, Development: Mobilize citizens to track sustainability]
It's the same team who previously used satellite derived estimates to point out that New Delhi has smog as bad or worse than Beijing.
A wide range of smartphone apps could allow citizens to do everything from monitoring air and water quality to tracking ocean plankton populations from space. Such decentralized data collection could even force governments to stay on the sustainability straight and narrow.
—David Biello
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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