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Anna Berti Suman, The European Commission & Amelia Burnette, University of Strathclyde Resisting the decline of the individual by crowdsourcing environmental information

Citizen-gathered evidence by individuals or crowds – organized in a community, for example – can have a potential to demonstrate environmental and social wrongdoings in court, as demonstrated by the ongoing Sensing for Justice project.  This phenomenon can be framed as an opposite trend to that of the individual’s decline due to the loss of agency on (tech) platforms. In fact, we witness instances of the (auto)empowerment by individuals and communities exposed to socio-environmental stressors, who turn to a distinctive form of ‘crowdsourcing’, i.e. civic environmental monitoring.

Within the framework of the Sensing for Justice project, which researches the use of citizen-gathered evidence to demonstrate environmental wrongdoings in court, we witness an opposite trend to that of the individual’s decline due to the loss of agency on (tech) platforms. In fact, we are investigating instances of the (auto)empowerment by individuals and communities exposed to socio-environmental stressors, who turn to a distinctive form of ‘crowdsourcing’, i.e. civic environmental monitoring. We see how these actors re-appropriate platforms and use them to share – often inaccessible – environmental information that they produce themselves, monitoring environmental parameters with their own senses or with basic equipment. Environmental monitoring from the grassroots is a form of crowdsourcing scientific information (often over environmental causality and noxious impacts on human health). This monitoring can be a trigger or an alert for those authorities competent for law enforcement and for ensuring environmental justice. At times, the data produced by the monitoring citizens become evidence accepted in court, as the groundbreaking Formosa case recently demonstrated. The contribution will start from a case, that is, the North Carolina coal ash legal saga, which saw civic conservation groups collecting samples from local waters to look for indications of coal ash pollution, threatening and then pursuing a lawsuit against the alleged responsible, the energy company Duke Energy. These efforts ended up in a massive cleanup of coal ash at all 14 Duke Energy sites in North Carolina, and in a push to U.S. regulators to reduce or eliminate water pollution from coal ash in water. This judicial and regulatory uptake of civic monitoring will be discussed in our contribution as a demonstration of the auto-empowering potential of civic monitoring and of crowdsourcing environmental information.

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