Originally published on Tilburg University Environmental Law Blog
Citizen Sensing: towards a right to contribute to environmental information
Dr. Anna Berti Suman
On May 7, 2020, we engaged in a webinar “Citizen Sensing: towards a right to contribute to environmental information”, with more than 80 participants from all over the world. Citizen sensing, which I framed as grassroots-driven monitoring initiatives based on human senses often enhanced by sensor technologies, is increasingly entering environmental (risk) governance. Whereas the majority of studies on broader citizen science focus on the learning or participatory aspects, in the webinar we targeted the legal sides of environmental citizen sensing. The webinar – originally intended to be a workshop at the Tilburg Public Library LocHal supported by the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research – soon became ‘virtual’ due to the Covid-19 crisis, as also went ‘digital’ my PhD defense the day after.
The webinar focused on two interrelated aspects emerged from the key findings of the PhD project “Sensing the risk. In search of the factors influencing the policy uptake of citizen sensing”:
- Whether a legal instrument for regulating citizen sensing is needed, specifically providing for different forms of integration of the practice into institutional settings;
- Whether such a legal instrument should include the recognition of a “right to contribute to environmental information” and a consequent obligation for competent authorities to listen to the sensing citizens and consider their evidence to take action.
I suggested that such a legal intervention could ensure that, if certain conditions are met, authorities are stimulated to (or even obliged to) use citizen-sensed data and insights for their decisions. Moreover, the recognition of a right to contribute to environmental information’ could both ‘legitimize’ citizen sensing and facilitate its policy uptake and also shield participants from adverse (legal) consequences associated with the exercise of the practice, such as strategic lawsuit against public participations.
The webinar addressed these two intertwined questions from a number of different academic and practice-based perspectives. Yet, numerous questions rest open, such as whether this right to contribute could be considered a new human right and, thus, what would be its relationship to the existing procedural human right to access environmental information under the Aarhus Convention, or how this new right could be implemented and enforced. In terms of regulating citizen sensing, avenues are still open as for what would be the preferable form, considering also the administrative level (e.g. local or national) and cross-country aspects (e.g. an EU-wide provision or per country). Future explorations should also address the question on whether this legal instrument would create just the ‘possibility’ for authorities to use citizen sensing or rather be ‘obliged’ to recur to such data, when certain conditions are met (e.g. information is inadequate from the official side). The discussion seems particularly needed both for academia and for practice as (legal) researchers are almost absent from this inquiry (with some pioneers excluded, and my forthcoming SensJus project) and that sensing citizens rarely ‘call in’ the law and rights in the discussion as they do not know how to ‘use’ them, or simply do not trust their enforcement.