12 July 2021, Geneva, Switzerland - Achieving SDGs is the responsibility of not only governments but of everyone else – every citizen. There are several ways to do so. Support with data collection and monitoring of progress on SDG implementation is one of them. National Statistical Offices (NSO) have been experimenting with different new sources of data to bridge the data gaps to be able to track progress on the SDGs. This side event, on 12 July 2021, on the sidelines of the 2021 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) aimed to demonstrate how exactly citizens can make their contributions through innovative solutions and how such citizen science or citizen-generated data can be of use to the National Statistical Offices (NSOs). The event was organized by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) together with members of the Crowd4SDG Consortium, University of Geneva, Politecnico di Milano, CERN, Spanish National Research Council, and Université de Paris.

In the opening remarks, Mr. Nikhil Seth, Executive Director of UNITAR, has stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back progress on SDGs but has spurred a number of social innovations and initiatives leading to an unprecedented mobilization of citizens such as volunteers worldwide in a number of areas. To leverage citizens' contributions in support of tracking progress on the SDGs, UNITAR together with the consortium partners launched in 2020 a Crowd4SDG initiative funded by the European Commission under the Horizon2020 programme. This initiative builds on a long-standing collaboration in the area of crowdsourcing between the University of Geneva, UNITAR, and CERN where the power of volunteers has helped to provide robust evidence and do the ground proofing in the context of humanitarian emergencies. This experience and the growing interest of national data producers in using new data sources have provided an inspiration for this new project Crowd4SDG with the aim to explore citizens’ contributions to monitoring progress on SDGs and provide more timely and granular data to inform better policies.

Professor Francois Grey from the University of Geneva, the Vrowd4SDG coordinator presented the methodology used for the project to run the annual citizen scientists’ teams competition and coach the teams to design innovative solutions. The methodology referred to as the GEAR cycle methodology starts with the Gather phase (call for teams to participate), and goes through additional phases: Evaluate, Accelerate, and Refine. With the first cycle dealing with urban resilience and the ongoing pandemic, there have been several successful examples of citizen innovations and data in support of the SDGs (SDG 13 and 11). The theme of the second year is tackling climate change and ensuring gender equality (SDG 13 and 5), with a call for proposals to be launched in August 2021. The SDG data challenges for this round have been developed with inputs from National Statistical Offices and International Organizations.

The overall aim of the Crowd4SDG project is to explore and assess whether, to what degree and according to which scientific standards citizen science can contribute to the twin tasks of a) tracking progress towards the SDGs gathering data using citizen science techniques; and b) generating grassroots innovations that enable such progress, projects lead by younger people to have a concrete impact on the environment at all levels. The project targets society in general, in particular youth, echoing the importance of youth on the climate debate, especially in Europe.

Ms. Lorena Godrillo Dagallier, a winner of the Women4Climate Tech Challenge, shared the Open-Seneca example featuring an air quality monitoring network driven by citizen science. The pilot study was implemented in Lisbon and Stockholm, and benefitted from multiple collaborations with different councils, other institutions, Fablab, communities, and sustainability and cycling organizations. Boasting 50 sensors per city, the initiative used an open call for all people enthusiastic to contribute to making a better city, environment and addressing traffic issues.

The next speakers, Mr. Mark Carman, Associate Professor from Politecnico di Milano and Mr. Jesus Cerquides, Scientific Research at IIAC-CSIC, delved into the technical sides of the project implementation showcasing specific examples of citizen science research and tools developed for citizen scientists. Mr. Carman elaborated on the citizen science data to address COVID-19 response and the nexus between climate change and gender, particularly extracting useful information from social media data that could be used for evidence-based decisions by policymakers. This work used the Citizen Scientist Social Sensing Pipeline, aka VisualCit. With a case study on COVID-19, a behavioral analysis on the usage of face masks and compliance with social distancing measures has benefitted from citizens’ contributions to classification in combination with machine learning. More recently, the team has recently investigated the relationship between climate change and gender using Twitter data with a focus on flooding to see if flood images can be used to determine the relative effects of climate change on different genders? The preliminary results with data more from the developing countries show that floods have more negative impacts on women than men. Mr. Cerquides further showcased how social media can bring value in collecting data in the events of floods with a recent example in India. Another tool, the Project Builder tool, helps combine social media data and validation by real persons, citizen scientists undertaking complex tasks that cannot be handled by automated tools. This is combined with the use of artificial intelligence to bridge the shortage of human capacity to annotate images. The third tool, DECIDIM4CS, provides for a structured deliberation between citizen scientists for better citizen science project governance. All these tools are part of the Citizen Science Solution Kit, a set of tools for developing and running Citizen Science (CS) projects, maintained by the Crowd4SDG partners.

Lastly, Ms. Elena Proden, Senior Specialist, UNITAR, presented findings and recommendations for NSOs and International Organizations from a study conducted by UNITAR as part of the Crowd4SDG project on how to leverage citizen science data for monitoring the SDGs. The working definition of citizen science data covers “data produced with contributions of citizens who choose to voluntarily contribute their time, knowledge, skills and/or their data to help produce needed evidence, strengthen accountability or develop locally-rooted solutions.” – shared Ms. Proden.

The study benefitted from guidance by the Advisory Group, composed of GPSDD, UNCBD, UN Women, IIASA, UNSD, UNCTAD, and CSCZ, and resulted in the preparation of a report - to be followed by the publication of a policy brief – featuring the analysis, case studies and recommended approach to engage with citizen science data and ensuring quality assurance. The study has drawn on a survey carried out using two tracks: one for data producers and data users to get an understanding of the awareness about and experiences with the use of citizen science data. Around 20% of respondents to the survey – coming from NSOs from different world regions indicated they had direct experience with non-traditional data sources and more than half of them worked with citizen science or citizen-generated data. The survey has revealed a number of common obstacles, incl. those related to the quality of citizen science data, and good practices allowing to address them. Another source of data for the report was a series of interviews with several NSOs who ran citizen science data pilots or developed guidelines for assessing quality of non-official data. The goals for which NSOs see the greatest potential were Goal 5, 6, 13, 1, 15, 11, 3, 16.

The session ended with a presentation of data challenges for the new GEAR cycle on promoting climate resilience and gender equality. For those interested to partake in the competition, please go to the GEAR 2 call here.

You can watch the full recording of the side event in the link provided. The Crowd4SDG is working currently on a policy brief based on the report about the recommendations on leveraging citizen science data for monitoring the SDGs.

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