Sense and Influence: Environmental Monitoring Tools and the Power of Citizen Science

Kirk Jalbert, Abby J. Kinchy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Automated monitoring devices are useful technologies for communities seeking to document and solve environmental problems. However, without deeper scrutiny of their design and deployment, there is a risk that they will fail to have the impact that many of their promoters intend. We develop a rubric for analysing how different kinds of monitoring devices help environmental advocates influence public debates. We apply this rubric in a study of environmental organizations in Pennsylvania that are choosing between recruiting volunteer citizen scientists and using automated sensor-based devices to gather water quality data in streams threatened by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Many organizations rely on volunteers using simple monitoring tools because they are affordable and produce easily managed data sets. An argument for this method of monitoring is that volunteering in the field also fosters citizen engagement in environmental debates. By comparison, we find the increased use of automated devices tends to reinforce hierarchies of expertise and constrains the agendas of nonprofessionals who participate in monitoring projects. We argue that these findings suggest that automated technologies, however effective they may be in gathering data on environmental quality, are not well designed to support broad public participation in environmental science and politics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)379-397
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Environmental Policy and Planning
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 26 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Citizen science
  • energy extraction
  • environmental monitoring
  • public empowerment
  • sensing technologies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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