Building Infrastructures for Civil Society Science

Building Infrastructures for Civil Society Science” is an offshoot study stemming from three years of combined fieldwork conducted for the Watershed Knowledge Mapping Project and for my ongoing dissertation research, Promising Data for Public Empowerment. The purpose of this research is to assist the water monitoring community in developing infrastructure-building programs that establish a clear pathway for synergistic collaborations. These will focus on: 1) building additional capacity and communication among monitoring groups, 2) engaging in regulation and policy-making, and 3) engaging in community planning and conservation efforts.

A Case Study of the Marcellus Shale Water Monitoring Community

well_padWatershed monitoring conducted by the civil society sector – comprised of a mixture of local residents, environmental advocacy organizations, watershed associations, and university outreach programs – has a long history in the Unites States. In states affected by Marcellus Shale natural gas development in recent years, such as Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia, a particularly robust group of civil society monitoring efforts have emerged. These efforts are collecting baseline data on watershed health to raise awareness of possible impacts from gas extraction processes. In some instances, established conservations groups are leveraging these resources to also tend to preexisting problems in their watersheds, such as acid mine drainage, agricultural runoff, and industrial development.

There are now dozens of civil society monitoring efforts spread across these three states, making up a highly dynamic field with a mixture of objectives. These range from educating the public, keeping an eye on polluters, and providing data that is useful for scientific research or regulators. Their programs have also developed along different trajectories with variations in collection methods, measured indicators, geographic coverage, and data management practices. For example, some have trained volunteers to use easily learned methods for testing temperature, pH, conductivity, or dissolved oxygen. Others focus on seasonal biological surveys of aquatic life, or documenting sedimentation from land disturbances. New technologies, such as networks of automated loggers, are being installed to gather continuous data in streams of concern. In addition to the actual task of monitoring, a fleet of nonprofits and universities support this work through training programs, offering scientific guidance and laboratory access, and by creating databases specific to handling data for monitoring groups.

The diversity of this community is important for answering a broad range of questions related to watershed health and natural resource management. However, many are not aware of the great strides this community has made, its potential for contributing to regulatory and scientific discussions, and the assets it has assembled for future watershed management in the region. The field has also matured to a state where leaders in the water monitoring community are well positioned to coordinate monitoring programs, collectively manage data, and to leverage successes to increase collective capacity for engaging regulators, industry, and the public.

The groundwork for synergistic activities was laid out in two workshops conducted in 2013, in which civil society monitoring groups came together for strategic planning. Participants offered to share locations where groups are monitoring, as well as information on the character of that data. Another product of the meetings was an agreement to collaborate on a new mapping project to illustrate the watersheds in which groups are working. This platform will also create a venue for publishing content such as case studies of monitoring techniques, interviews with volunteers, announcements on upcoming training sessions, and guest blogging from partners in the initiative. This project is being developed in collaboration with the FrackTracker Alliance. Three more workshops are proposed for 2014.

Building Infrastructures

installing_loggerIn the process of building capacity for water monitoring, I argue that this network is also constructing a grassroots infrastructure for civil society science. STS scholars (Hughes 1987; Star 1999; Dourish & Bell 2007) often stress the long-term, the large-scale, and the concealed emergences of infrastructures for producing science. Salient qualities emphasized in this work argue that infrastructures are ubiquitous, bound to a dominant voice, and progressively stabilize into rigid systems. Sociologists (Minkoff 1997) focus attention to how social movements can form grassroots infrastructures for political networking and the accumulation of social capital. Anthropological engagements with the technosocial diversity of infrastructures have in many ways just begun (Larkin 2013).

Through participatory action research with the water monitoring community, this research also explores the concept of “grassroots infrastructures” to argue that the tangible outputs of capacity building exhibit infrastructural qualities thus far not well understood. Grassroots infrastructures elude stabilization; they remain perpetually meso-logical, temporally finite, and politically contested. They are also complex technosocial assemblages consisting of a wide array of self-selected monitoring devices, rapidly converging protocols and quality control standards, sophisticated databases and GIS platforms for storing and analyzing data, vetted training programs, volunteer recruitment campaigns, collaborative planning meetings, and community outreach.

What makes grassroots infrastructures resilient despite their instabilities? How do environmental movements such as the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community challenge assumptions about how social and technical resources come together to do science for public good? Resources assembled by civil society networks are subject to expansions and contraction, dispersal, adoption, and rebranding. These qualities are characteristic of the ad-hoc nature by which environmental movements come together to do civil society science. And yet, throughout these transitions, the core assets of grassroots infrastructures remain viable in respect to the geographies, demographics, and problems they attend to.


  • Hughes, T. (1987). The evolution of large technological systems. In The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 51–82).
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  • Dourish, P., & Bell, G. (2007). The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 34(3), 414–430.
  • Minkoff, D. C. (1997). Producing Social Capital National Social Movements and Civil Society. American Behavioral Scientist, 40(5), 606-619.
  • Larkin, B. (2013). The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42, 327-343.