As a recipient of the Covid 19 Public Engagement grant from NERC I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a team creating a Storymap on the River Chess in the South East of England that flows from the Chiltern Hills through Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire to the River Colne. The purpose of the Storymap is to share information about the river to local stakeholders who would like a one-stop-shop to understand the many pressures on the river system. This particular river is a chalk stream flowing through a landscape with a mix of rural and urbanised land use and it faces many issues arising from water usage by people including low flows and poor water quality.
Scientists at Queen Mary University of London have been helping local citizens to monitor water quality in the river for a couple of years using sensors that take measurements every fifteen minutes to provide an in-depth picture of changes in chemistry that occur due to rainfall.
It has proven to be particularly interesting time to collect this dataset because flows in the river have switched from being very low to very high, due to a period of prolonged drought followed by intense and above-average rainfall. As a result, we have seen problems from urban runoff and changes in water quality caused by untreated sewage entering the river system.
A major challenge has been disseminating our findings to the public, especially during a period of national lockdown. Our Storymap provides a narrative around the data that we have collected to help explain our findings to local stakeholders and the Citizen Scientists who are helping us to collect the data. We hope that the Storymap can act as a resource for future Citizen Scientists to get up-to-speed with the river environment, but also for the general public to find out more about their local river.
From the outset our project has been very collaborative. For example, our Citizen Scientists at the River Chess Association decided, in conjunction with the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project, the breadth of content that they wanted to see in the Storymap. Early collaboration with the design of the resource has been critical and having partners from the local water companies and the Environment Agency on board from the beginning has helped us understand the breadth of different interests and expertise in the river. Early feedback suggests that we have managed to tailor the content of the Storymap accordingly:
‘A fantastic endeavour! Congratulations. I was really down there in the water with the spawning trout’
‘What a great website – we are loving looking at the Chess and learning so much more about it through the website.’
In December 2020 we held our first ‘virtual’ workshop with stakeholders to show them our draft version of the Storymap, and to gather focused feedback. We worked with Professor Muki Haklay’s extreme Citizen Science group (ExCiteS) at University College London so we could best use online tools to gather everyone’s comments and thoughts.
Through this event we learnt how we can better integrate our online data dashboards with a narrative to explain what the data shows. Our water quantity dashboard is proving to be of interest to readers; 10% of visitors navigate directly to this page, so that they can view rainfall and river water levels in the catchment.
During the process we have learnt how important two-way communication is between academics, Citizen Scientists, water companies and regulatory authorities so we can all understand our different perspectives on a river environment. It’s our hope that the Storymap can be used to enrich people’s understanding of the River Chess and to initiate conversation and constructive debate about its future management.
So far, we’ve had some really positive feedback from our stakeholder group and from the public. We’re continuing to evaluate the use of the Storymap using online analytics and with a series of ‘Ask the Scientist’ events.
‘Just an overall comment that these look beautiful, are very clearly explained and is clearly a tremendous amount of work; I’m really impressed.’
Kate Heppell is Professor of Physical Geography in the School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London. She is new to public engagement and Citizen Science having worked for many years as a hydrochemist studying the linkages between hydrology and water chemistry in the landscape. Kate has a particular interest in the future of the UK’s chalk rivers. https://www.qmul.ac.uk/geog/staff/heppellk.html