UCL Division of Biosciences


Revolutionising river management through citizen science

10 March 2022

As UCL East’s People and Nature Lab launches its new MSc Citizen Science, Dr Isabel (‘Izzy’) Bishop explains how citizen scientists are at the forefront of a movement to tackle river pollution.

Citizen scientist collecting data on river water quality

The state of England’s rivers has been front page news on a regular basis over the last 12 months or so. For academics and conservation practitioners who have been working on freshwater ecosystems for many years, this ‘news’ isn’t new. It comes as no surprise to us that only 14% of our rivers are of ‘good ecological status’. So why the sudden media attention?

I believe that the answer lies in the growth of citizen science (i.e. the involvement of non-professional scientists in the research process). Citizen science isn’t new – the first recorded use of citizen science in freshwater conservation dates back to the volunteer ‘river keepers’ of the Middle Ages – but modern technology, changing environmental policies, and even the Covid-19 pandemic have increased public involvement in river monitoring over the last decade. Ultimately, this has led to a bottom-up social movement that is clamouring for a change in the way we manage our water environment.

Mobile apps, cloud computing, and the ability to access the internet from almost anywhere have caused a citizen science boom. In England, this has led to the development of a large number of initiatives which encourage volunteers to go out and measure the health of their river and upload their data to an online database. It is now possible for members of the public to monitor water quality (e.g. FreshWater Watch), geomorphology (e.g. MoRPH), biodiversity (e.g. iNaturalist), pollution sources (e.g. Outfall Safari), and much, much more. At the same time, the open science movement and Big Data tech mean that the interested public can access more information about the state of their local river than ever before. A fantastic example where this has been used to raise public awareness about river degradation is The Rivers Trust’s interactive ‘State Of Our Rivers’ web tool, which allows anyone with an internet connection to zoom in to a map and find out the ecological status of their local river.

Until recently The Environment Agency (EA), who are responsible for protecting and improving the health of rivers in England, relied entirely on their own environmental monitoring to inform their work. (A notable exception to this is the UK’s longest-running river-based citizen science initiative – the Angler’s Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) wherein scientists alert the EA when they record changes in the populations of macroinvertebrate indicators species that indicate the possibility of a pollution event). Drastic cuts to EA budgets combined with the proliferation of data available from other sources has created a shift in the willingness of the EA to respond to citizen science. This comes with data science challenges, particularly when it comes to integrating and interpreting data gathered from multiple sources. Nevertheless, the ability of citizen-generated data to influence decision-making is shifting palpably.

Kayaker raising awareness of river pollution

It was against this backdrop, in March 2020, that the Covid-19 pandemic forced the British public into a situation where exercise one of the only reasons they could leave their house. With swimming pools closed, many turned to their local rivers for recreational opportunities. A 2021 analysis by Outdoor Swimmer estimates that participation in outdoor swimming is up to three times greater than it was in 2019. Recreational water users on the coast have long been able to access information about water quality in designated bathing waters, which are monitored by the EA. There are over 400 designated bathing waters around the country. Until 2021, none of them were in rivers. River swimmers started seeking out information elsewhere. Many found what they were looking for in another Rivers Trust web app that published the frequency and locations of sewage spills. Others started their own citizen science initiatives to collect the data for themselves.

This sudden mass public interest in, and awareness of, water quality in rivers coincided with an important moment in UK politics. The Environment Act, which sets out post-Brexit plans and policies for improving the environment, was being debated in Parliament. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Rt. Hon. Philip Dunne MP tabled a related proposition to specifically address the problem of sewage pollution in rivers. This signalled an opportunity for public campaigns that targeted legislative change. A social movement was born. In Yorkshire, citizen scientists used their data to successfully campaign for the first riverine bathing water designation in the country. Investigative documentaries including BBC Panorama’s ‘The River Pollution Scandal’, ITV’s ‘What’s In our Water’, and George Monbiot’s ‘Rivercide’ covered citizen science investigations. Protestors banded together across the country. A man sat on a toilet outside Downing Street.

Nobody is yet sure how this story ends. Amendments to the Environment Bill have been made, but campaigners believe that more can still be done. One thing that is certain is that citizen science and modern data science have surfaced as important drivers for environmental decision-making.

UCL is at the forefront of these relatively new disciplines as they emerge. The launch of our new postgraduate programmes MSc Citizen Science and MSc Ecology and Data Science in September 2022 will train students to apply these techniques. I, for one, can’t wait to see our students and graduates working together with communities, tackling the big environmental challenges that define the contemporary world.

Further information

UCL MSc Citizen Science
UCL MSc Ecology and Data Science
Rivers Trust ‘State of Our Rivers’ web app
Rivers Trust ‘Rivers Fit to Play In’ web app
BBC Panorama ‘The River Pollution Scandal’


Izzy Bishop
Website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/biosciences/people/dr-isabel-bishop
Email: i.bishop.11@ucl.ac.uk
Twitter: @FreshwaterIzzy