Quality and Reliability of Data
There are many factors that affect the quality and reliability of citizen monitoring data. One factor is the training and experience of the person gathering the data. Training can be classified as "formal" training at an accredited institution, technical training for specific field work, and hands-on training in the field. Optimally, a combination of all of the above is preferred. In most situations, volunteers have attended at least one workshop or training that is specifically targeted for "their" program. Field experience is of the most value in these situations. We must rely on the fact that there is at least one experienced volunteer providing guidance and instruction to the less experienced while in the field gathering information. A volunteer must know their limitations and the data should be similarly classified. The more times a task is correctly performed, the more proficient a person becomes.
The more data that is available for a given site that supports a trend or conclusion, the greater the confidence in its reliability. Consistent, long-term sets of data increase the value of the results. Individual results can be compared against historical data, and any outliers can be investigated. Consistent data also provides a more complete story. If data is collected on a regular basis, it provides a flow of information about what is actually occurring in a watershed or drainage. If sufficient data is collected, sporadic water quality impacts may be detected and continual degradation can be better quantified. Also, if years of data are available, any inconsistencies one person or instrument may have contributed can be identified and discarded.
There are many types of equipment, depending on the study or test being performed. Generally, the more expensive the equipment, the finer the resolution, and the more reliable it is. Expensive lab equipment or field meters require a trained individual for operation. This caliber of instrumentation is not always necessary. There are many instruments and field kits that have been tested and found to provide accurate results. Again, it depends upon the question being asked and the level of accuracy required.
Those using citizen-generated information must evaluate the quality and appropriateness of data they are using. A properly designed citizen program will recognize the differences in experience, the sophistication of equipment and the importance of a comprehensive sampling protocol to ensure consistent and accurate results. If the procedures are followed consistently, the methods are understood and the skills are reinforced, the data will be more reliable and considered more credible to the data user.
In summary, the best volunteer data is that which has been collected for many years by highly trained individuals using the most concise, calibrated equipment. The goal of the Network is to ensure that future programs achieve these objectives. The Network supports volunteers through pertinent training, hands on experience, sufficient quality assurance, and scientific review and advice. Those using the data generated from these efforts must act with professionalism to ensure it is used appropriately and in the context in which it was intended.
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