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The early spread of COVID-19 across China had a remarkable impact on air quality, which temporarily improved. But before the crisis pushed us into our homes, people couldn’t breathe the air in Beijing. Nor could they in Fairbanks, Missoula, or Spokane. 

On a typical day, nearly half of all Americans inhale dangerous levels of particulate matter from wildfires, coal-fired power plants, and diesel engines. These pollutants enter the bloodstream to cause cancers, heart attacks, and strokes. Researchers suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution may be partially responsible for the discrepancy in COVID-19 fatality rates between Lombardy and other parts of Italy. 

But exactly how COVID-19 is aggravated by environmental factors is largely unknown.  Further, there is no global baseline data to tell us how bad indoor and outdoor air pollution typically is, and where the most susceptible patients may be. Data gaps handicap our capacity to understand and mitigate the immediate impacts of COVID-19 as well as longer-term, pervasive threats such as climate change.

And yet humans are smarter and better connected than ever before. Smartphones and cloud data connect two-thirds of the global population through shared activities like citizen science, a process where members of the public contribute to scientific research to meet real-world goals. Citizen-science projects such as COVID Near You, developed by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s hospital as an extension to Flu Near You, are already stepping up to help monitor the spread of COVID-19. Projects like this, which can help monitor an unfolding crisis, are one piece of a much larger puzzle.  

It is time to embrace such participatory approaches to filling data gaps in human and environmental health. This month marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Launched in 1970 by Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, and the non-profit leader Denis Hayes, Earth Day became a national day to focus public consciousness on the environment. In recognition of the 50th anniversary, Earth Day Network, the U.S. Department of State, and the Wilson Center are launching Earth Challenge 2020 as the world’s largest coordinated citizen-science campaign to date. 

Earth Challenge is meant to be a global call to action: We hope more than 1 million people will collect and share more than 1 billion data points over the course of the initiative, which began on April 22. Volunteers will have a mobile app at their fingertips – available through Apple and Android platforms – to collect data in two critical areas: air quality and plastics pollution.

Taking a photo from your window to collect air-quality data, or photographing plastic in your immediate neighborhood, can all occur during social distancing. These may seem like simple acts, but they empower everyday people through the opportunity to contribute to authentic scientific research. In the short term, citizen-science data can help us better understand things like the impact of air quality on COVID-19. And when we are ready to look beyond the immediate crisis, there will be more information on a range of environmental threats. Pervasive data and an activated public will help us move from immediate response to planning and resilience. 

Imagine what may be possible once this data is analyzed and made openly available by trusted sources. Beyond the app, we plan to integrate this data in a new citizen-science cloud and create a process for quality assessment and review. By offering an app for people to share pictures, as well as access to open data and visualization tools, we hope to engage people more deeply in science. We hope that this will help foster trust in the process of scientific research that will transfer across, and beyond, different environmental research domains. 

Monitoring the environment is no longer an abstract political challenge; it’s about human life or death. Citizens around the world want to do something to help.  Through citizen science, we aim to make this possible by creating an immediate opportunity with a focus on long-term value.


Dr. Anne Bowser is the Director of Innovation and Meg King is the Director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at The Wilson Center in Washington, DC. The views expressed are the authors' own.