Environmental data collection by citizens is a right

Anna Berti Suman

Corporate greed for profit can have major ecological and social consequences. What can lay citizens do to prove that there is a link between industrial emissions and the quality of their living environment?

Researcher Anna Berti Suman (Tilburg University) investigates the legitimacy of using data collected by citizens to demonstrate harms and liabilities in case of an environmental litigation. According to her, citizens have the right to contribute information about the quality of their living environment.  

Her research question arose from a successful  US case, Texas, in which a judge in 2019 held a petrochemical company liable for violating the Clean Water Act because of the discharge of plastic into local waters. The case was brought by a citizens' group that relied in part on citizen-collected evidence. Volunteers performed observations and collected plastic in the water over many years, which qualify as "Citizen Sensing". The contamination could not be proven by existing data available to the competent authorities, as the company had never submitted records of pollution. And this happens more often, take recent examples like Tata Steel and Shell.

Anna has been conducting research in Europe since 2019 into the potential of Citizen Sensing as a source of evidence for environmental litigation. Moreover, Citizen Sensing can also play a role in avoiding litigation, as a tool to mediate the environmental conflict and encourage the responsible company to adopt an environmentally friendly behaviour.

Anna is an enthusiastic young researcher who has a talent for reaching academic communities as well as policy makers and concerned citizens. On 8 July, for example, she organised an interactive workshop in Tilburg Public Library LocHal, where she used a mix of art, science and theatre to share her research results with peer researchers, policy-makers, citizen science communities, activists and representatives of social movements.

Research on the true potential of Citizen Sensing for environmental litigation and mediation is still in its early stages. The few pioneers in the debate are in the US and are not flanked by parallel research from a European perspective. Anna is therefore continuing her research in Italy, within the Citizen Science Data Team of the European Commission Joint Research Centre.  For example, she is exploring applications of Citizen Sensing to air and noise pollution around Malpensa airport,  to flooding risk in the Brenta region and to environmental damage from the oil industry in the South of Italy.

Anna Berti Suman received funding for her research from the NWO Rubicon programme.  
She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society , and seconded to the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) - Digital Economy Unit.

Her website about the research project is worth a visit.