Identifying your Project's Focus and Designing its Approach

Why You Should Read this Chapter: Starting your project in the right way will help assure your overall satisfaction with your project.  This chapter provides guidance for those taking these beginning steps.  By the end of it, you will know how to identify your project’s focus and how to use that focus to design your project’s approach, which includes (i) the identification of a site (i.e., location) of interest to you (e.g., a river, forest, industrial activity) and (ii) the determination of which pollutant or combination of pollutants will be examined during your project.  In addition, this chapter provides resources for those seeking to join an ongoing citizen science project.


Your project’s approach need not be static; it is possible that it will require modification as your project progresses.  For example, suppose that the focus of your project is diagnosing the sudden and unexplainable health problems recently afflicting members of your community.  Your original project’s approach may have involved determining the levels of pollutant X in the community’s water supply, but the results of your examination could indicate that the pollutant is absent or within safe levels.  In response, you should revisit and modify the design of your project’s approach (e.g., modify it so that you will determine the levels of pollutant Y in the water supply, the levels of pollutant X in the air, or otherwise).

Identify Focus

Before beginning a new citizen science project, you should identify the project’s focus, which is the environmental question, theme, and/or problem at issue.  Some who are reading this manual may already have a project’s focus in mind; others may not.  Recognizing the vast breadth of environmental problems that may be of interest to citizen scientists, we do not attempt to list them all here.  Instead, we mention a few types of projects and examples of each.

Monitoring the condition of an environmental interest 

Your project’s focus might relate to protecting an environmental resource or habitat that is currently unthreatened or thought to be unthreatened.  By monitoring this resource, your efforts may facilitate the rapid detection of changes in pollution levels.  Examples include:

  • Monitoring water pollution levels in a river or in a national forest.
  • Monitoring air quality in your community following the construction of a new local pollutant source (g., an industrial facility, agricultural facility, land fill, sewage treatment plant, coal mine, etc.) or an announcement that an existing pollutant source in your community will be expanding or increasing its activity levels.
  • Monitoring water quality in your community because you suspect an increase in pollution resulting from accumulated wear and tear of a known pollutant source near your home.

Verifying reported emissions of pollution from a known pollutant source 

Your project’s focus might relate to verifying that a known pollutant source is accurately reporting its environmental footprint.  For example:

  • Verifying that a known pollutant source is accurately reporting how much or what it pollutes.
  • Verifying that a known pollutant source is complying with its current permit obligations.

Redressing a known environmental pollution problem   

Your project’s focus might relate to correcting a known pollution problem.  Examples include:

  • Identifying the source of an environmental pollutant.
  • Redressing poor air or water quality.
  • Decreasing the environmental impact of an oil spill in a national or state forest or in a body of water.

Diagnosing a problem that you suspect is caused by pollution 

Your project’s focus might relate to solving a problem that has arisen in your community when the cause of the problem is uncertain.  You might desire to determine whether the problem’s cause relates to a pollutant present in your community.  For example:

  • Diagnosing unexplainable health problems that individuals, animals, or plants in your community are suffering.

Find Existing Projects

The project focus that you are interested in may already be the focus of an ongoing citizen science project.  If so, you might consider supporting that project instead of initiating one of your own.  Indeed, supporting an existing project can alleviate the burden that some individual citizen scientists may feel in planning and mobilizing their own projects.  If your interests align with those of an ongoing project, supporting that project can be ideal for you. There are a variety of resources to help citizens identify ongoing citizen science efforts: 

Media Outlets: Local news agencies often cover major ongoing citizen science projects.  Moreover, many community-driven citizen science projects increase public awareness through social media.  For example, details concerning the citizen science project in Tonawanda, New York were reported in local news.  In addition, the project’s task force, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, used a Facebook page to advertise public meetings and other ways of getting involved in the project.

Organizational Websites: Various citizen science organizations host websites that consolidate ongoing citizen science projects.  Examples include the Citizen Science Alliance (, the government-sponsored, iNaturalist (, SciStarter (, and Zooniverse (

Agency Websites: State and federal environmental agencies also maintain citizen science databases on their websites.  The EPA, for example, hosts a robust page dedicated to promoting citizen science involvement at  In addition, many state and local park and wildlife departments host links to ongoing citizen science projects. Appendices: The resources page of this site provides references to various projects that are open to public involvement.

Design Project Approach

Many important environmental problems are not addressed by existing citizen science projects.  Projects sponsored by government agencies may be limited and constrained by budget cuts, changes in priorities, and changes in political administrations.  Ultimately, you may seek to initiate your own project.

The first step in initiating your own citizen science project is designing your project’s approach.  A "project approach" has two components: i) the identification of a site of interest to you and ii) the determination of which pollutant or combination of pollutants you will examine.  Importantly, the design of your project’s approach should be driven by the project focus that you identified previously (see the first section of this chapter).   For example, suppose that your project focus is:

  • Verifying that a known pollutant source is accurately reporting how much or what it emits to the environment. This project’s site of interest might be the known pollutant source.   
  • Improving the quality of air or water in your community. Here, the project’s site of focus might be your community itself or a known pollutant source located near your community. 
  • Monitoring a natural habitat that you consider valuable (e.g., a river, forest, ocean). In this instance, the site of interest might be the natural habitat or a known pollutant source located near that habitat. 

After you have identified your project’s site of interest, you should determine which pollutant or combination of pollutants will be examined during your project.  This aspect of your project’s approach is critical because if you spend all of your time examining the wrong pollutant, your project’s goal will not be met.  For some projects, determining which pollutant or combination of pollutants to examine will be a straightforward process.  In others, this process may be the most difficult aspect of your project’s design. Use what you know about your project’s site of interest to guide you in determining which pollutant or combination of pollutants you will examine during your project (see Chapter 3).  For example:

  • Source Indicators: pollutant sources are often associated with strong source indicators – meaning that some pollutants are commonly produced by a certain kind of pollutant source. Suppose for instance that your project’s goal is to measure the impact of a newly constructed facility that produces plastics.  These facilities are known to emit volatile organic compounds ("VOCs").  Therefore, your project may seek to examine VOC emissions.  If you are interested in monitoring water quality in a stream, you could research sources of water pollution flanking the stream to determine which pollutants they discharge and, therefore, which you should examine. 
  • Use Your Senses: Your eyes, ears, and nose can help you figure out which pollutants you should examine (e.g., a distinct smell in the air, the sight of an oil slick on the surface of water, a distinct taste in your drinking water). Likewise, the health symptoms associated with exposure to a pollutant may prove insightful.  For example, the pollutant benzene, which is associated with petroleum products, has a sweet smell and exposure to abnormal levels of benzene in ambient air is associated with a heightened risk of asthma.  If you notice a correlation between these two things in your community – a gasoline-like smell and an increase in asthma diagnoses – you might then consider initiating a citizen science project focused on local sources of benzene pollution.
  • Media Outlets: Local news reports may also provide valuable information. For example, if a local news agency reports that residents of your community have been suffering from exposure to lead, the approach of your project may be determining the lead content of your drinking water.
  • Smartphone Apps: Some regions may have smartphone applications set up to report pollutants or evidence thereof. For instance, Pittsburghers can use Smell PGH to report air quality on their smartphone; the app can then alert the Allegheny County Health Department to the data.[1] Apps such as this may provide useful information as you begin to decide which pollutants require attention in your area.
  • Government Records and Databases: Government records and databases, especially those created and maintained by the federal and state agencies responsible for regulating the pollutant source in question, may provide valuable information for determining which pollutants are present in your community and a cause for concern.  For example, EPA provides access to a number of environmental databases through its Envirofacts website.  The agency also makes available online information about specific pollutant sources through its Enforcement and Compliance History Online ("ECHO") and Toxic Release Inventory ("TRI") Program website.

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[1] Ashley Murray, Carnegie Mellon Scientists Use App to Track Foul Odors in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 3, 2017




Please note that this discussion is not moderated by the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.