Lake Erie communities standardize volunteer-collected data

Aug. 25, 2022
The new standards from the Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network, named the Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework, provide a framework for volunteer programs to enhance the validity of their data.

The Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network (LEVSN) — a collaboration of 16 local water quality monitoring programs convened by the Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) — has published a set of standards for volunteer-collected data. The standards aim to empower communities to tell a new regional story about the health of watersheds and support smart environmental education, research, and management.

Residents of Lake Erie communities feel a sense of connection to their water resources. For years, local organizers have harnessed this energy to power “Citizen” or “Volunteer” science groups that monitor water quality across their watersheds. However, challenges around the credibility and consistency of the collected data have often meant that experts and communities struggle to fully leverage the power of volunteer science to fill critical information gaps and support the management of natural resources.

To address these challenges, the new standards — called the Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework (LEBAF) — were co-developed with researchers and decision makers at CWA’s 2022 Lake Erie Citizen Science Summit with a goal of unlocking the potential of local groups to address the most pressing water governance, research, and advocacy challenges currently facing Lake Erie communities.

“The Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network has accelerated the existing organizational and grassroots volunteer monitoring ecosystem with the latest technology and a standardized framework for collecting and communicating credible environmental information,” said Dr. Christopher Winslow, Director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. “This effort has shifted the movement from isolated engagement and education efforts to an organized network of advocates armed with robust, real-time water quality data to effect decisions regarding regional infrastructure investments, priorities, and policies.”

The standards provide a framework for new and old volunteer programs to elevate the credibility of their work and chart a path for expanding and improving over time. At the end of each field season, LEVSN will analyze and communicate data-based findings to participants and the public, driving progress toward the goal of clean and accessible water for all Lake Erie communities. In partnership with The Commons, CWA has also supported the development of an Open API that will increase the visibility of volunteer-collected data through state and federal databases, enabling easy connection to decision making, analysis, and modeling tools.

For Cleveland Water Alliance, this standardization builds upon a broader effort to secure the region’s position as a global hub of water technology innovation. Over the past two years, LEVSN has piloted technologies that empower communities to monitor nutrient pollution and harmful algal bloom toxins. Now, its members are testing LimnoTech’s Affordable Sensor Kit, an in-situ sensor node with the capacity to gather basic physical and chemical data at significantly reduced cost.

“Our vision for this project is to serve as a platform for vetting and implementing innovative technologies and standards that will enable high-quality data collection and regional integration of volunteer science efforts with professional academic and agency science,” said Max Herzog, Program Manager at CWA. “We look forward to bringing on new partners and hope this program will provide a model for other coastal communities to build their own monitoring networks, strengthening water infrastructure management efforts across the Great Lakes region and beyond.”