IfSC PhD Candidate researches water drainage infrastructure systems in Houston, TX

Date: 5/14/2018

Author: Isaac Oti, PhD Candidate Department of Civil Engineering

Viability of Citizen Science for Enhancing the Quality of Infrastructure Monitoring Data

To collect data that might have been impracticable or costly to collect in scientific activities, professional researchers or practitioners sometimes engage volunteer members of the public who may not have acquired formal training as scientists. This process, known as citizen science is beginning to find a more diverse application beyond its original domain in natural and environmental studies. In infrastructure management, citizen science offers a nonconventional, but potentially effective method for collecting condition data of infrastructure assets in local communities. With appropriate technique and training, residents of local communities can serve as citizen scientists, providing infrastructure condition data needed for decision making and discovery. However, it has also been reported that citizen science data are more likely to have greater variability than data collected by professionals, hence, the need for testing the reliability and validity of citizen science data.

On the other hand, the availability and quality of infrastructure monitoring data manifests in the maturity of infrastructure data management practices. While these data seem to be available and accessible at the state level, the quality of these data at the local level is insufficient, especially when quality is evaluated in terms of its multiple dimensions, including completeness, timeliness, and currency. This study therefore, assesses infrastructure data management practices and provides solutions to enhance the availability and quality of these data, especially for local communities.

Viability of citizen science for collecting drainage infrastructure monitoring data is relatively unexplored. The research focuses on developing and testing citizen science protocol for drainage infrastructure monitoring in local communities and validating collected data. Field trials were guided by an iterative design approach to balancing simplicity and data usefulness. The iterative design approach addressed issues of selection and refinement of performance standards, design and revision of data collection protocol, and training and engagement of citizen scientists. In field trials, three graduate civil engineering students collected data independently as trained inspectors while ten high school students from Jones Futures Academy, Houston collected data in teams as citizen scientists. The third set of data was assembled using a mobile light detection and ranging (LiDAR) unit. Reliability of citizen science data was assessed relative to reliability of trained inspectors’ data using two interrater reliability coefficients; Gwet’s AC1 and Krippendorff’s alpha. These coefficients are used to measure the extent of agreement among raters. Validity of condition ratings computed from citizen science data was judged relative to condition ratings obtained from trained inspectors and LiDAR unit survey.

Isaac Oti with Jones Futures Academy students in the Houston neighborhood of Southpark

Results of reliability assessment showed that the overall reliability of citizen scientists’ data is approximately 74 percent that of the trained inspectors’ data. Validity assessment showed that condition ratings evaluated from the three groups of data are comparable, hence the potential in citizen science for improving the quality of infrastructure data at the local level. Based on experiences garnered from the project, recommendations for collecting high-quality drainage infrastructure monitoring data in local communities using volunteer citizen scientists were proffered. The recommendations given can also serve as a reference to designing protocols for collecting condition data of other infrastructure assets in local communities.
About the author:
Isaac Oti is a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University. Isaac is a student member of the Institute for Sustainable Communities and his advisor, Dr. Nasir Gharaibeh, is the Discovery Lead for Community Infrastructure. His research is novel due to its ability in helping communities in actualizing their own capacity.