A Case Study of Citizen Science – El Sol de México

About 30 percent of the planet’s water is underground, out of sight and hard to reach. Little is known about this “invisible” groundwater, especially in some remote areas, such as the part of Limpopo Province in South Africa, where a research project called “Diamonds on the Soles of the Feet” is being carried out.

Scientists and residents are working together in two villages in Limpopo, Ga-Komape and Ga-Manamela, to learn more about groundwater resources in those areas.

Which is that 74 percent of the people living in such rural areas depend on groundwater for their crops and household water supplies. People use this water, but there is very little knowledge about how much it is, how to recharge it, whether it is clean, etc.

For the past three years, village residents have been trained to collect groundwater data. They use a simple dipstick, record precipitation levels from rain gauges, and take pictures of water flow in rivers. This data is captured on smartphones and transmitted to a website where it is available to government, researchers and planners who can use it to better understand what is happening underground; After all, you cannot manage what you can measure.

This is known as citizen science. “Ordinary” citizens are no longer passive and detached, but actively participate with scientists. The project is transforming volunteers in these remote rural areas from being passive and uninvolved in science to becoming scientists themselves.

The data collected is verified, validated and made visible. It’s getting science out of the lab into the field, making science so accessible to society that it’s part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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In addition to data, they also care about transformation and empowering people. The aim of this work is to achieve a more just society by democratizing knowledge and improving water literacy. The project’s name, “Diamonds on the Soles of the Feet”, owes to the fact that farmers have a real treasure to share with researchers, and it has real value.

Residents are now curious about the water. They have a sense of belonging to a geographic area outside their homes, as they are now part of a larger project extending from one side of the Hout River Basin to the other, in a work that has won international recognition.

At the Falling Walls Summit, part of Berlin Science Week 2021 in early November, Diamonds on the soles of their feet It was selected as one of 20 winners from 189 projects in 80 countries around the world.

Falling Walls Summit asks scientists to show the walls that have fallen between science and society. And in the case of this project, there were multiple walls.

The project started with funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), through the University of Copenhagen three years ago. They chose Limpopo because it is a typical rural area where people depend heavily on groundwater and also because it is one of the poorest provinces in South Africa.

When they started, there was not a lot of data about water in remote rural wells, because it is very difficult to access it. Limpopo is a growing province. There are great distances between villages and the roads are generally poor.

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There was also a cunning historical division between commercial farmers and small farmers. The former know a lot about the water in their wells, but the data they have collected over the past decades has not been shared. Now, the farmers see that there is a project that cares about water for the future and they have shown their interest and willingness to be a part of it and share their data.

Then there was the wall that scientists often erect: between the humanities and sciences like hydrology, engineering and geology, part of the work required to collect data is purely scientific work, of course, but part of it is about empowering societies.

Now many specialists are clear that the protection and nurturing of natural resources cannot occur unless the communities closest to this resource participate. This means applying deeply participatory ethnographic methods to gain insights and knowledge of the people who live near the wells.

As a result of data collection, people in villages are curious about water. They want to know more and are really proud of their ability to read data, in other words, for being water experts. The project has also resonated with the tribal authorities who effectively govern these areas. This bodes well, as with the authorities’ acceptance, the project is likely to be sustainable.

Best of all, this interest and participation can also be transferred to other areas such as health, youth development and water quality measurement. Overall, it’s about developing a community of practice – people who can work with scientists, and take science out of the lab into the field.

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