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Creating communities through citizen science

October 13, 2019

Working together to tackle flood risk

By Clare Waller

Flooding has made its soggy mark on yet another British summer holiday season, with Wainfleet and Whaley Bridge competing with flash flooding across the Yorkshire Dales and Kent to keep the topic of flood risk management in the headlines. With the ongoing Extinction Rebellion climate change protests, flood management into an uncertain future is now something everyone has an opinion on.

Citizen science

The momentum of this public interest is a perfect launchpad for building citizen science communities. Citizen science is the collaboration of scientists and volunteers, to collect and analyse data together. Communities across the UK have been voluntarily forming Flood Action Groups for many years, but data collection in flood events has traditionally been difficult and dangerous, requiring expensive equipment and careful calibration. Advances in technology are now giving new opportunities for members of the public to safely collect useful information, contribute to event analysis, and develop applications for their uses.

In the UK, Lead Local Flood Authorities (usually the County Council or Unitary Authority) have a duty under the Floods and Water Management Act (2010) to investigate flood events that are locally significant and publish a formal report. These reports rely on data observations to assess the flood severity, frequency and impacts. These floods rarely occur on formally gauged streams, and limited funding is available for lengthy investigations. Data collected on the ground in real-time, and posted on social media platforms, can be monitored to improve the flood emergency response, and harvested and analysed post-event for model verification, for example:

  • Geotagged photographs of flood extents and drone footage allow monitoring and mapping of flood extents.
  • Good quality video of river flows can also be analysed through image velocimetry to estimate the magnitude of flood flows, an essential piece of information for flood frequency analysis.

Citizen scientists can also readily participate in and benefit from level gauging. Permanent automated gauging stations are prohibitively expensive to install on our numerous small urban streams. However, the CITHYD project in northern Italy developed a mobile phone app to allow volunteers to submit level data they observe at specially installed river level gauge boards, using QR codes. The minimal investment needed to set up such a network gives the potential for much greater coverage of level gauging, and the potential benefits of local trigger levels for flood warnings.

Enthusiasts for data analysis

Community groups founded around shared interests rather than shared geography can also create the opportunity and enthusiasm for citizen science. The UK whitewater kayaking community is a great example of a volunteer community analysing river data and developing applications for their purposes. collates real-time river level gauge readings made openly available by the Environment Agency and SEPA and combines with level calibrations manually contributed by the community, to provide white-water enthusiasts with knowledge of river conditions and paddling difficulty across the UK.

Citizen scientists of the future

Citizen science gives us hope for the future: a network of public volunteers who actively support flood risk management in their communities and contribute to its success through data collection and analysis. But our future also depends on the next generation of engineers, scientists and environmental managers, who can interpret and analyse what has been collected. Citizen science provides unique opportunities for schools and STEM clubs to actively participate in real flood management and research, encouraging more students to take up a career in hydrology.

How we can help

Creating flood risk resilient communities means putting those most affected by flooding at the centre of the design process. And meeting the housing needs of the future means we are tackling increasingly challenging sites, often in higher risk areas.

At Stantec, we work with Internal Drainage Boards, Developers and Local Authorities to manage flood risk into the future. Talk to us about engaging the local community in flood risk management through citizen science. Please contact us to find out more about how we can help you identify the systems and support you need to create a network of supporters to tackle flood risk and climate change together.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

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