Enhancing community preparedness: an inventory and analysis of disaster citizen science activities

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Chari et al. BMC Public Health (2019) 19:1356


Background: Disaster citizen science, or the use of scientific principles and methods by “non-professional” scientists or volunteers, may be a promising way to enhance public health emergency preparedness (PHEP) and build community resilience. However, little research has focused on understanding this emerging field and its implications for PHEP. To address research gaps, this paper: (1) assesses the state of disaster citizen science by developing an inventory of disaster citizen science projects; (2) identifies different models of disaster citizen science; and (3) assesses their relevance for PHEP.

Methods: We searched the English-language peer-reviewed and grey literature for disaster citizen science projects with no time period specified. Following searches, a team of three reviewers applied inclusion/exclusion criteria that defined eligible disasters and citizen science activities. Reviewers extracted the following elements from each project: project name and description; lead and partner entities; geographic setting; start and end dates; type of disaster; disaster phase; citizen science model; and technologies used.

Results: A final set of 209 projects, covering the time period 1953–2017, were included in the inventory. Projects were classified across five citizen science models: distributed or volunteer sensing (n = 19; 9%); contributory (n = 98; 47%); distributed intelligence (n = 52; 25%); collaborative research (n = 32; 15%); and collegial research (n = 8; 4%). Overall, projects were conducted across all disaster phases and most frequently for earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. Although activities occurred globally, 40% of projects were set in the U.S. Academic, government, technology, and advocacy organizations were the most prevalent lead entities. Although a range of technologies were used, 77% of projects (n = 161) required an internet-connected device. These characteristics varied across citizen science models revealing important implications for applications of disaster citizen science, enhancement of disaster response capabilities, and sustainability of activities over time.

Conclusions: By increasing engagement in research, disaster citizen science may empower communities to take collective action, improve system response capabilities, and generate relevant data to mitigate adverse health impacts. The project inventory established a baseline for future research to capitalize on opportunities, address limitations, and help disaster citizen science achieve its potential.

Keywords: Citizen science;public health emergency preparedness, Disaster, Inventory, Disaster resilience, Emergency response, Disaster recovery