Climate change is expected to significantly affect water quality, water availability and flooding. Predictions indicate that over the next 70 years there will be a doubling in both the number of people affected by flooding each year (to 0.5-0.8 million) and in the annual damages (increasing to €7.7-15 billion) (Ciscar, 2009). Yet water-related decisions are complex because they affect a variety of interests that are often in conflict, such as the environment, economic development and society.
Traditional approaches to observing the water cycle on Earth such as Earth observations through satellites and in-situ observations through monitoring networks have two major drawbacks. First, the density and resolution of the collected data is still too low to describe the status of the water cycle, even when both spatial and in-situ observations are considered complementary. This is particularly the case during anomalous (critical) events such as floods and continuing droughts. Second, it promotes a passive role for the community with regards to understanding the environment, i.e. citizens are traditionally considered consumers of information services at the very end of the information chain. A key success factor in successfully managing any major incident is to achieve and maintain situation awareness, i.e. “accurate, complete and real-time information about an incident” (Winerman, 2009), to understand “the current local and global situation and how this may evolve over time” (Endsley, 1995).
Traditional approaches to situation awareness and crisis management tend to rely on official communication channels, which are generally slow in providing information, due to the need to only release information that has been verified and approved. However, information spreads very quickly by word of mouth, especially on social networks (e.g. Facebook and Twitter). The sole reliance on formal communication channels, as both the source of information and a way to communicate with the citizens, is becoming increasingly ineffective. Traditional methods promote a passive role for the community, i.e. citizens are traditionally considered the target of enquiry and in general at the very end of the information chain, rather than partners in situation awareness.
In this context, citizens’ observatories are emerging as a means to establish interaction and co-participation between citizens and authorities both during emergencies but also during the day-to-day management of fundamental resources. WeSenseIt is a EU FP7 project (funded from 2012 to 2016) developing citizen observatories of water and flooding and thereby defining a framework in which authorities and citizens cooperate in:
- sharing collective intelligence about events and places,
- supporting a shared situation awareness, not only to improve response and recovery, but also to improve prevention, protection and preparedness for future emergency situations (e.g. floods), and understanding citizens’ needs,
- implementing new approaches to participation in planning, decision making and governance
In a citizens’ observatory, all parties are active participants: creating knowledge about the situation in a participatory manner and contributing to dealing with the situation. In the observatory, citizens will be encouraged to provide information to authorities and to other citizens; this in turn requires that authorities and organisations can comprehend the information which is provided by citizens and provide information in a form which is best suited for citizen consumption. To establish and maintain co-participation, it is fundamental to provide means to:
- engage citizens in directly interacting with authorities and other stakeholders;
- provide services for viewing, requesting and feeding back information.
The WeSenseIt project has been running since October 2012 during which time a significant amount of work has been conducted with respect to the design and installation of sensors, development of the observatory infrastructure and establishing community engagement.