Engaging citizens for innovative flood risk management solutions

Written by Emma Meurs & Uta Wehn, on 29 September 2015

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) provide new opportunities to involve citizens in collecting data about water. The EU FP7 project ‘WeSenseIt’ focuses on flood risk management and ways to engage citizens to use these new ICT’s to improve flood risk management. Work Package Leader (Governance and Social Innovation) and Senior Lecturer in Capacity Development and Innovation Dr. Uta Wehn shares her experience on multi-stakeholder engagement via citizen observatories.

Combining technical and social knowledge

“Environmental management can be improved using ICT’s, in particular by enabling citizen science - the collection of data by citizens and not just by scientists and professionals. WeSenseIt consists of an interesting composition of partners. Academic and research organizations are participating as well as a considerable number of SME’s which contribute to the development of software, social media analysis and physical sensors. We also have a number of local authorities as partners or associated partners in the project” explains Uta Wehn.

“IHE Delft has an interesting dual role in the project. We contribute at the technical level through the development of models for making sense of citizen-provided data. We are also involved as social scientists related to stakeholder engagement. How can we get citizens to participate in the WeSenseIt observatories? We analyse the impacts and implications of technologies: in which way are the roles of citizens changing with regard to flood risk management as a result of implementing these observatories, what are the perceptions of the citizens and the authorities and how can we measure that change? IHE Delft has a unique contribution to the project by covering social as well as technical aspects” says Uta Wehn.

The project aims to establish interaction and co-participation between citizens and authorities both during emergencies but also during the day-to-day management of fundamental resources; the so-called citizen observatories.

Citizens as central actors

“The basic idea behind the citizen observatories is a more advanced form of citizen science. You don’t just ask people to feed data in, you also invite them to interact with each other and with authorities by means of two-way communication and feedback mechanisms. This means that citizens can become central actors in a new way of doing water management. That means that we really need to understand what keeps them motivated to participate in citizen observatories and to what extent they want to take on new roles.”

WeSenseIt has been validating the envisaged citizen observatories and demonstrated the applicability of its outcome through three case studies in distinctly different European areas: the UK, the Netherlands and Italy.

“The three case studies fall under the same institutional framework of the EU (Water Framework Directive and the Flood Directive). However, even before we started WeSenseIt, the authorities had very different ways of implementing these frameworks. Stakeholder participation happens in very different ways; the starting points in the three cases were therefore very different”.

Currently, the technology is up-and-running, apps are being rolled out within citizen communities and sensors are being placed, e.g. under bridges to measure the water level.

Institutionalizing citizen observatories

“We have also achieved some important institutional change, the biggest one being the Italian case study. The authorities were initially quite reserved about the idea to engage citizens for observation purposes. The exercises and demonstrations we have done there have accelerated the awareness up to policy level. Citizen observatories are now directed to be used for implementing flood risk management at basin level; it has been institutionalized. The knowledge and awareness of the possibilities that citizen observatories can offer has been embedded in the policy for other local authorities in the region.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we really would like to scale up the involvement of citizens, especially in the Netherlands. Engaging citizens is quite difficult here. People think: I am paying my taxes to the water authority, they are keeping me safe, so what is my role in flood risk management?

“It was a wise decision for WeSenseIt to combine the social and technical expertise rather than going for a technology push approach. The possibilities offered by technology don’t speak for themselves. Data capture via mobile apps and social media analytics do not mean that authorities are automatically ready to absorb these new data streams and new ways of interacting with their citizens via the observatories, nor does it mean that the citizens are standing there in masses waiting to participate in water management”.

Innovation works by co-creation

“We therefore took a participatory design approach, which means that through every stage of development we worked with the communities to identify their requirements, evaluate user interfaces and apps, select locations for the physical sensors, location of QR codes to read water levels, etc. You really need to co-create the system you are trying to set up. And you have to work with a whole range of users. We have learned this over the last decade, innovation works by co-creating it. Various actors come together instead of putting a technology on the market and waiting whether it will be picked up. The process is demand-driven, even at the inception stage of an idea. You want people to use the apps not only once, but repeatedly and ideally regularly. This is quite a challenge, so you really need to understand what drives these users.”

Valid flood forecasting

The sensors will be further developed and tested in order to transfer data to the network. IHE Delft will stay involved in terms of modelling and will further advance its expertise in how to make sense of citizen data. The models need to be combined with existing data streams. A whole new data stream is coming in; how can this be integrated to generate valid models? The Hydroinformatics Chair Group at IHE Delft is currently working on this.

“I’m pleased about the role of social scientists in this project, demonstrating our value with regard to co-creating innovation in the form of the WeSenseIt citizen observatories. If communities want to be empowered now, they actually can be.”

Pursuing citizen science

“We are working on follow-up projects for Horizon2020 where IHE Delft wants to pursue citizen science and citizen observatories. One of my MSc students, Mohammad Gharesifard, graduated with distinction on the topic of data sharing and directly streamlined into a PhD under WeSenseIt, focusing on the willingness of citizens to share their personal weather station data. ICTs can change water management if we smartly combine the potential of people and technology" concludes Uta Wehn.

More information on WeSenseIT.eu

WeSenseIT has been featured on page 34 in a publication of the European Commission Horizon2020 programme 'Investing in European success'. Download here.