Collecting and Using Scientific Data

What is Community Science?

Community science, also called “citizen science,” refers to public participation in the scientific process, especially to achieve community (rather than institutional) goals.

For communities facing environmental issues, collecting scientific data can be a powerful tool to investigate problems and document environmental and health impacts on communities.

Community science activities include asking questions, recording observations, collecting data, interpreting data, and distributing information for educational purposes or to address community concerns.[1] Community scientists can contribute to existing projects or design their own projects based on the needs of their communities. Whether participating in existing projects or starting new ones, community scientists can fill information gaps and use evidence to meaningfully address environmental injustice.

Community scientists can use information they’ve collected in various ways, such as persuading an agency to further investigate a problem or supporting a lawsuit against a polluting facility. Though community science information can be used to support a lawsuit, there are many opportunities to use community-gathered information and environmental laws that do not require going to court.

This chapter provides general guidelines for creating and implementing an effective community science project, helpful considerations to keep in mind, and additional resources to support and inform your efforts.


Contribute to Existing Projects

Sometimes community science activities by members of the public are facilitated by professional scientists, organizations, or government agencies. For example, through the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s ongoing Neighborhood Water Watch program, communities can collect water samples from designated areas all over north Georgia and bring them to the Riverkeeper for analysis. If any threats to public health or the environment are identified, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper also works with neighborhoods and local governments to address the threats.[2] Taking advantage of these existing programs can help community scientists effectively achieve community goals with limited resources. For a list of possible resources and ongoing projects, see Appendix E: Community Science Resources.


Design Your Own Project

Often, existing projects will have a specific focus that might not directly line up with the needs of your community. In that case, you can design and initiate a project to achieve your specific goals. This chapter will discuss some important considerations when starting your own project as well as resources that provide additional guidance.

Community Science in Action:

Clean Air Carolina AirKeepers Program

Designing and Implementing Community
Science Projects


1. Problem Identification and Project Focus

You are probably reading this guide because you have already identified an environmental problem or area of concern in your neighborhood. Maybe you want to protect an existing community asset (like a waterway or community garden) that might be threatened. Or maybe a new industrial facility is being sited nearby, and you want to know what legal tools you can use to protect your community. This section will help you take the problem you have identified and frame in terms of a specific project focus. For instance, if you want to protect an existing community asset, your project focus might be monitoring that resource to ensure it remains healthy. Below are some examples of project focuses that may help you target your efforts so you can get the most effective results with limited resources. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and community science projects can take many forms to address many different issues.[7]


Examples of Project Focuses


As you narrow down your project focus, you should also determine which specific pollutants you will be gathering information about.

One way to identify relevant pollutants is to research available information, such as government websites, internet sources, or news articles. Many pollutants are associated with certain types of sources. If your project is focused on a nearby or proposed industrial facility or other pollution source, you can determine which pollutants are associated with that activity. For a list of common pollutants and sources, see Tables 1.1 and 1.2 in Where You Live Affects Your Health.


2. Setting a Goal: How Will This Information Be Used?

This section will provide some examples of ways to use community science data. It is important to note that legal strategies are not limited to filing a lawsuit.

Many environmental protection laws and environmental agency regulations include specific procedures to encourage and even require community participation. The information you gather can be used to stimulate agency action, inform new regulations, or spur agency enforcement against a polluter—without you ever being involved in a lawsuit. Additionally, community science can be a powerful tool to raise public awareness about environmental issues and to influence local officials.

This section will also help you decide what procedures you may need to use when collecting information. You may need to adhere to different quality standards depending on how the information will be used and who will be using the information. For example, if you plan to use information for educational purposes for the public or to push for certain policy decisions by elected officials, there are no formal quality standards for the information. On the other hand, if you want to use your data in a court case or provide it to a government agency to rely upon in administrative actions, it must satisfy certain legally imposed quality standards.[10]

Understanding these quality constraints at the beginning of a project can help community scientists design more effective projects that have a clear end-goal.[11] And of course, regardless of formal standards, the quality of community science data will affect its persuasiveness and credibility to decisionmakers.[12]

Because there may be quality standards for certain uses of information, community scientists should consider partnering with academic researchers, non-profits, or other experts to select tools and design projects.[13] For possible resources to help connect you with experts, see Appendix E.

In addition, community scientists should attempt to reach out to agencies at the outset of their projects. Though it may be challenging or frustrating to connect with agency staff, establishing contact early will only increase the chance that the data you collect will be utilized by the agency later on.[14] See Environmental Agencies in Georgia: Who’s Who? for more information about state agencies and Appendix B for agency contact information.

Possible Goals for Community Science Projects

Education and Advocacy
Submitting Public Comments
Petitions for Rulemaking
Solicit Agency Enforcement Action
Stimulate Independent Agency Action
File a Lawsuit


3. Survey Existing Information

As mentioned in the overview of community science, one way to participate in community science is by contributing to an existing project. Even if there is not an ongoing project that directly matches your project focus, there is still a wealth of existing publicly available information that may help you narrow your research. By exploring available resources, you may also be able to connect with other individuals or organizations, whether in your neighborhood or more broadly, who are interested in solving similar problems.

Reaching out to government agencies at this stage may help you identify existing sources of information relevant to your project. Additionally, non-profits, universities, and other experts may be able to provide helpful information. For resources on existing community science projects and programs that help connect communities with expert facilitators, see Appendix E: Community Science Resources.

For information concerning specific pollutants or environmental problems in your area, you can find information through the media, academic research, and state and federal agency websites.

If you have identified a specific pollutant in your community, you can check agency websites to learn about its health effects and how to limit potential health risks.

If you have identified a specific pollutant source, you may also want to investigate that facility. Information regarding a facility’s permitting, compliance history, and enforcement actions is available through the EPA or the EPD websites.

If you are having trouble locating information about a specific facility, you can submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request or Georgia Open Records Act request, described in Accessing Public Records and Meetings. Templates for these requests can be found in Appendix C-1 and Appendix C-2.

For a list of common pollutants, see Tables 1.1 and 1.2 in Where You Live Affects Your Health, and for a collection of resources to learn more about existing pollutants, see Appendix 3 and Appendix 4 of Harvard’s Citizen Science Manual.[25]


4. Consider Potential Liability

When designing and implementing your project, there are important potential liabilities to be aware of and avoid:


Drone Use



Ag-Gag Laws


Scientific Collecting Permits


5. Gathering New Information

Hopefully, all the information you needed to meet your project goal is already available through other sources. But more likely, your community science project will require you to gather your own information that is not already available from some other source.

As discussed above, the use of community science information may be limited based on quality standards. Even where no formal standards exist, higher-quality information will have the most credibility and be the most effective for achieving your project goals.

However, any information you generate may still help to stimulate independent agency action or raise public awareness about an issue. Even if you cannot comply with the most strict and rigorous sampling and quality control procedures, your work as a community scientist can still have an impact on decision-making.


Quality Assurance Project Plans

An important way to keep track of your data collection methods and improve the credibility of your data is to develop a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP).[39]

A QAPP is a written document prepared at the start of your project that outlines the methods you will use to collect and analyze data. Not only does a QAPP improve your data’s credibility, but it also provides a valuable resource to volunteers participating in data collection and to others who may want to use or add to your work in the future.

Data collected in accordance with written and standardized procedures, such as those in a QAPP, is also more likely to be accepted as evidence that can be used in a lawsuit.

There are five main indicators that are used to assess data quality.

Before preparing your QAPP or collecting samples, you should understand these concepts and how they relate to the quality of your data.


You should make your QAPP as detailed as possible.
Regardless of how in-depth your QAPP is, there are a few key practices that you should follow and record in your project plan.
    • Always record your procedures, the date and time of the activity, and the name of the person conducting them.
    • Even if the data you collect is qualitative rather than quantitative, you should record all observations in as much detail as possible.
    • You should also keep a written record of who has possession of samples if they need to be stored or transported to different locations.

Community science projects vary widely in both project focus and specific scientific procedures used. For that reason, this guide does not provide a comprehensive methodology for different community science projects. Instead, it highlights some general questions you should ask as you plan your project and provides additional resources that cover technical suggestions in more detail. Look at the following list of potential questions to help you design your project, and then investigate the resources listed after it to narrow down the specifics of how you will collect, analyze, and use information. Once you have gathered this information, prepare a project plan that outlines your project goals and procedures.

Step One: Collecting Samples
    • What are you sampling? (air, water, soil, etc.)

    • What are you looking for in the samples? (You might be looking for a specific pollutant such as lead, or any pollutants being discharged by a nearby facility.)

    • How will you collect samples? Will you use any special equipment? Make sure that you always use clean and sterilized equipment and containers for your sample collection.

    • How will you document your sample collection procedures? You should always record the location and time samples were taken and the name of the person who took the sample, as well as any other important characteristics. Make sure to label all your samples.

    • If you are analyzing samples at a secondary location, how will you store and transport samples from the field to that location? You should make a plan for how you will store and transport samples to prevent contamination and be sure to keep track of who is in possession of the samples at each stage throughout the process. Maintaining records for chain-of-custody information is also important for authentication if your data is used in a lawsuit later on.

    • What procedures do EPA or EPD recommend for this type of sampling? If you are using an agency-approved method, specify what method it is. Or if you are using a different protocol, specify how it is different from an official agency protocol.


Step Two: Analysis
    • How will you analyze samples?

    • Where will you analyze samples? Whether your analysis occurs in the field or in a laboratory, you should record each step in the process. Even if you are analyzing samples in the field or without specialized equipment, you still need to record the methods you use.

    • What equipment will you use to analyze samples? (There may be a local organization, school or university that provides resources for community scientists.) Check EPA and EPD online resources for approved instruments and procedures. If you are using special equipment to test for certain pollutants, you should be aware of any limitations that tool might have. For instance, many instruments will only detect pollutants within a certain range. Knowing that detection range will help you evaluate the reliability of your analysis.[45]

    • How will you document your results and procedures?

    • What methods do EPA or EPD recommend for this type of analysis? If your procedure differs from an agency approved method, record how it is different.


Step Three: Interpretation
    • What methods will you use to interpret the results of your analysis?

    • Will you interpret the data yourself, or will you seek assistance from experts?

    • What kind of expert would be best able to interpret your data? Though you may be able to interpret some data yourself, having an expert interpretation will improve the quality and credibility of the data. Possible resources for expert assistance might include local universities, non-profit organizations, or companies.

    • How will you document your procedures and conclusions?

    • What methods do EPA or EPD recommend for interpreting this type of data?


Additional Resources:
Collecting, Analyzing, and Using Scientific Data


6. Meeting Your Goal

After you have identified a project focus, surveyed existing information, and collected and analyzed new data, the final step is using your newly generated data to meet your project goal.

What you do with your community science data depends on the goal you identified at the beginning of your project, but generally you will want to compile your data and provide it to someone else — whether it be an agency, an elected official, an attorney, the media, or other residents in your community. You may also want to provide your data to a polluter to put them on notice of the violations you have documented.

Depending on who your intended audience is, you may want to format or structure your information in a certain way to make it most effective.

For instance, if you are targeting a non-technical audience, try to use plain language or visual aids, such as graphs, to communicate quantitative results. If you are planning to submit your information to an agency or use it in a court proceeding, there may be formatting requirements for how information is presented.

Though you may have had a very specific goal in mind at the outset of your project, consider other possible uses for your information. Additionally, you may want to consider making your data and procedures publicly available as a resource for others who might build on your work or start their own community science projects.


Success Story:
What Does Success Mean?

[1] For more information about citizen science definitions and citizen science generally, see Citizen Science: Definition, Citizen Science Center,

[2] Water Quality Monitoring, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper,

[3] Clearing the Air in the Historic West End, Clean Air Carolina 2 (2018), available at

[4] Id. at 11.

[5] Id. at 1.

[6] Clearing the Air in the Historic West End: Citizen Science and Environmental Justice in Charlotte, North Carolina,

[7] For additional examples, see The Citizen Science Manual, Harv. L. Sch. Emmett Env’t L. and Pol’y Clinic, 9-15 (2017),; George Wyeth et al., The Impact of Citizen Environmental Science in the United States, 49 Envtl. L. Rep. 10237-63 (2019),

[8] The Citizen Science Manual, Harv. L. Sch. Emmett Env’t L. and Pol’y Clinic, at 9.

[9] Id. at 10.

[10] The Citizen Science Manual, Harv. L. Sch. Emmett Env’t L. and Pol’y Clinic, at 17.

[11] See James Mcelfish, John Pandergrass & Talia Fox, Clearing The Path: Citizen Science and Public Decision Making in the United States (2016),

[12] Due to pre-existing bias and an institutional failure to effectively integrate community science into policymaking decisions, many policymakers generally view community science with skepticism. Annie E. Brett, Putting the Public on Trial: Can Citizen Science Data Be used in Litigation and Regulation?, 28 Vill. Env’t L.J. 163, 175 (2017). This creates an uphill battle for community scientists to persuade policymakers.

[13] George Wyeth et al., The Impact of Citizen Environmental Science in the United States, 49 Env’t L. Rep. 10244-47 (2019).

[14] Id.

[15] O.C.G.A. § 36-66-4.

[16] Ga. Comp. R. & Regs. 110-12-1-.02.

[17] O.C.G.A. § 12-8-26.

[18] 5. U.S.C § 706.

[19] 5 U.S.C. § 553(e), O.C.G.A. § 50-13-9.

[20] Fed. R. Evid. 702; see also Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

[21] George Wyeth et al., The Impact of Citizen Environmental Science in the United States, 49 Env’t L. Rep. 10245 (2019).

[22] Id.

[23] The Citizen Science Manual, Supplement 2, Harv. L. Sch. Emmett Env’t L. and Pol’y Clinic, (2017),

[24] Id.

[25] The Citizen Science Manual, Resources Appendices 3-4, Harv. L. Sch. Emmett Env’t L. and Pol’y Clinic, (2017),

[26] Getting Started, Federal Aviation Administration, (last visited April 20, 2020). To fly a drone as a commercial drone pilot, you must comply with FAA’s Part 107 Small UAS Rule. The Federal Aviation Administration requires you to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, which includes registration, a knowledge test, and a fee. Certified Remote Pilots including Commercial Operators, FAA,

[27] How to Register Your Drone, FAA, Additional recreational rules can be found on the FAA’s website at

[28] Park Rules & Regulations, Ga. Dep’t Nat. Res.,

[29] Georgia Drone Regulations, UAV Coach, Other examples include the City of Conyers, which prohibits the use of drones in the city horse park or within the boundaries of the Cherokee Golf Course. Id. Cherokee County limits drone use to areas specifically designated for drones. Id.

[30] Generally, observations in a public place, including outside someone’s home, are not intrusions upon the person’s privacy. Summers v. Bailey, 55 F.3d 1564, 1566 (11th Cir. 1995); see also U.S. v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 42 (1976) (no expectation of privacy when an individual is “exposed to public view, speech, hearing, and touch as if she had been standing completely outside her house”).

[31] Id.

[32] O.C.G.A. § 16-11-62(2).

[33] O.C.G.A. § 16-5-90(a)(1).

[34] State v. Rooks, 266 Ga. 528, 529 (1996).

[35] O.C.G.A. §§ 4-11-31(3) and 4-11-31(5).

[36] O.C.G.A. § 4-11-32(c)(1).

[37] See Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972).

[38] O.C.G.A. § 27-2-12(a).

[39] Sometimes called a Quality Assurance Protection Plan.

[40] The Volunteer Monitor’s Guide to Quality Assurance Project Plans , EPA 16 (1996),

[41] Id. at 18

[42] Id. at 19.

[43] Id.

[44] Id. at 20.

[45] Id.

Success Story: What Does Success Mean?

[1] See 33 U.S.C. §1251(a); Clean Water Act (CWA) and Federal Facilities, EPA,

[2] South River Watershed Alliance, History,

[3] South River Watershed Alliance, History,

[4] Asia Ashley, SRWA: ‘Most DeKalb County sewer spill areas not covered under consent decree’, The Champion (May 8, 2020),

[5] See id.

[6] Id.

[7] DeKalb County, Georgia Clean Water Act Settlement Modified to Further Address Sanitary Sewer Overflows, EPA News Releases from Region 04, (October 22, 2020),

[8] See 33 U.S.C. §1251(a); Clean Water Act (CWA) and Federal Facilities, EPA,

[9] DeKalb County, Georgia Clean Water Act Settlement Modified to Further Address Sanitary Sewer Overflows, EPA News Releases from Region 04, (October 22, 2020),

[10] South River Watershed Alliance, Inc. et al. v. DeKalb County, Georgia, 484 F.Supp.3d 1353 (August 31, 2020).

[11] Karr v. Hefner, 475 F.3d 1192 (10th Cir. 2007).