Working towards best practice for community environmental monitoring

Mapua wetland, a drained paddock restored by the local community Nelson, New Zealand

Around 30 participants representing community groups, agency scientists and environmental managers joined in on a speed workshop (50 mins!) to help develop best practice for community monitoring. The event took place during the National Wetland Trust’s dynamic Restoration Symposium (Nelson, Feb 10-12).

Summarising issues and challenges

The workshop began with a whole group discussion on key issues associated monitoring overall and within the community volunteer sector. Participants by sector included NGOs (3); agency scientist/manager (11); community environmental group (7); university/polytech (2), and business/industry (4), and the range of issues reflects that while monitoring is a science-based activity, effective citizen science/community-based monitoring programmes are situated within a socio-cultural and economic context.

The scientific challenges included the need for defining monitoring purpose (e.g., education, research and/or decision-making); reporting on the data thus creating certainty around data use; data consistency and credibility – ‘that scientists take the data seriously’; quality assurance; tool suitability and accessibility.

Wider contextual issues centred on community capability; communication, a lack of funds to enhance community and iwi capacity; differences in tangata whenua values (what to monitor and why); long-term volunteer engagement – managing volunteer expectations of what changes may be witnessed, and ‘scientific snobbery’ i.e. an unwillingness to acknowledge the potential value of community input. Lastly, succession planning and the need for ongoing training to support new community monitoring practitioners (i.e. citizen scientists) was raised.

Determining needs for strengthening and growing community environmental monitoring

For the next part of the workshop, breakout groups of 3-5 participants were asked to select 3 of the most important issues and determine key needs. Considerations relating to the design and delivery of monitoring programmes can be applied to any science-based monitoring programme, and not surprisingly, were discussed widely, however a wider set of considerations (such as building groups’ capacity, succession planning and communication), highlighted the multi-faceted nature of monitoring when community volunteers are involved.

Monitoring programme design and delivery

Numerous breakout groups underscored the need for defining the monitoring objectives, such as how these relate to research needs, groups’ restoration objectives and funders’/corporate reporting requirements. For groups this may be to ‘assess the value the community effort’ and for ‘setting a long term ‘dream’ of how are we tracking’.

Scientist-led research/conservation projects may seek volunteers to collect data on their behalf, highlighting a need to target appropriate groups.

Defining objectives also includes defining the nature of outputs of management actions (e.g., number of rodents trapped) and biodiversity outcomes (e.g., increased bird numbers) sought. Although appropriate protocols and tools are needed for measuring key aspects of restoration success (for vegetation growth e.g., photopoints, height and cover, and weed monitoring), opportunities may also exist for community volunteers to use simpler, inexpensive and less time consuming methods. This may mean measuring fewer variables, and using different equipment e.g., use chew cards instead of tunnels. Technology (e.g., motion sensor cameras; digital sound recorders), can facilitate data capture but will require the infrastructure to do so, i.e. people with the skills to analyse the resulting data.

With volunteers’ data quality paramount, quality assurance (QA) included following standard protocols, and developing templates for data collection tested by both community members and scientists. The provision of an audit trail e.g., documenting all methods used, facilitates programme succession and forms part of basic QA procedures.

Growing group capacity and succession planning            

Training that is accessible, and that uses a set format/templates to enhance community group capacity and ensure consistency is integral to effective monitoring programme delivery. Training requires investing resources and increased collaboration between monitoring programme participants (e.g., community volunteers, environmental managers and scientists).

Succession planning for monitoring ‘finding new people to train and learn’, is needed from the outset to ensure monitoring programme sustainability. This is critical given the need for long-term commitment by community volunteers as well as the need for ongoing support from experts and organisations. The need for paid management was raised as a means for facilitating succession planning, with questions raised around volunteer vs. paid workers – how to spend resources correctly?

Communication

The importance of strong, clear communication from the outset was iterated by numerous breakout groups, firstly to determine corporate/agency expectations, and community group capability. Good technical input that simplifies the language used is needed to establish a mutually agreed upon scientific framework for the monitoring.

The ability to engage the wider public was seen as important for raising awareness e.g., through ecological storytelling, and to increase support for the monitoring and projects overall.

Access to information

Several break out groups suggested having a centralised resource where tools for monitoring (e.g. recommended protocols), as well as data could be stored. Opportunities already exist regionally (e.g., the Waikato Biodiversity Forum) and nationally through the NatureWatchNZ and Nature Space databases. A centralised database may help avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Next steps…

The citizen science/community-based environmental monitoring-themed workshops in Christchurch and Nelson have highlighted issues that appear to be universal (e.g., concerns around the quality and therefore functionality of community-generated data), as well as those that are less well researched such as succession planning and differing cultural values informing monitoring programme design. It is tempting to dream up research projects to fill a wide range of knowledge gaps (one of many topics I’d love to investigate, is groups’ monitoring programme quality assurance mechanisms…), however the need to start acting on these needs.

As the NZ Landcare Trust’s project ‘Citizen Science meets environmental restoration: Measuring success through monitoring’ evolves over the next two years, Alastair Cole (the project coordinator) and I expect to see pathways to progress citizen science made more concrete. Watch this space!

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