Power and perils of partnership: a lifecycles approach to understanding barriers to data use in Montana volunteer water monitoring programs
Bean, Liam Francis
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As socionatural systems become more unpredictable due to increased anthropogenic interference, the need for responsive data-driven governance is apparent. However, there is a repeated assertion that public trust in science and the scientific process is eroding. Public participation in scientific research, or citizen science, is often seen as a pathway to rebuilding public trust in data collection and analysis while also being an effective cost-cutting measure as research funding becomes more and more difficult to secure. I developed case studies of five different volunteer water monitoring programs from across the state of Montana. Each case was primarily constructed from semi-structured interviews with various volunteers, program managers, and decision-makers. These cases explore how trust in volunteer water quality data was generated across stakeholder groups and if, and how, volunteer collected data are used in local governance processes. To explore the relationship between different volunteers, program managers, tributaries, monitoring equipment, and decision-makers, an approach inspired by actor network theory was adopted during the analysis. The five cases all had key parallels in their histories and while each case was distinct, all five seemed to pass through similar phases I describe as a generalized lifecycle. The four key phases of this lifecycle were: 1) an inciting incident, 2) enrollment of allies, 3) re-enrollment of allies, and 4) program evaluation. The second and third phases were key to understanding how data produced by volunteers would eventually be used. When programs enrolled alongside state actors like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, volunteers and local community members saw decision-making processes as more legitimate, and volunteer water monitoring programs had a direct route to having their data used. However, the process of being enrolled alongside a different monitoring program or state agency created a problem with the salience of volunteer collected data, often making it less reflexive to community needs and less used in local governance processes. In addition, regular re-enrollment with new agencies, partners, and monitoring efforts allowed many programs to secure funding and paths to data use but hampered their ability to produce datasets for long-term trend analysis.