Can citizen science make us healthier?
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This guest post by Dr. Lea den Broeder summarizes a recent article published in CSA’s journal, Citizen Science: Theory & Practice. A direct link to the full article can be found at the end of this post.
The health of people living in so-called ‘priority neighbourhoods’ in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) lags behind the health of people living in wealthier neighbourhoods. This so-called health gap becomes apparent in, for example, obesity and diabetes rates, lifestyle and dietary patterns, mental health and life expectancy.
Statistics about health concerns such as these can help policy makers to set goals. But they may also stigmatise a neighbourhood. Local policy makers in one of these priority neighbourhoods, Slotermeer, made a radical choice: they decided to put the priorities and concerns of the local population in the lead for health policy. To learn about these priorities, they initiated a project in which 35 residents became health researchers, supported by their own community centre.
Dick Glastra van Loon, director of community organisation Eigenwijks, recalls: “A health professional told me that residents here would never be interested to participate in health programs. This remark triggered me, and I saw it as a challenge to prove the opposite. But that meant: to start working in an entirely different way. Stop broadcasting health messages and switch on the ‘receive’ mode. Leave your professional agenda at home, be curious and provide opportunities for learning. The impact surprised everyone”.
The citizen scientists were trained at the community centre and gathered useful information by interviewing hundreds of fellow-residents about their views on a healthy neighbourhood. More importantly, their activities also created local health action. The citizen scientists developed new community networks, based on a joint interest in health and a deeper understanding of how local circumstances like housing, greenery and neighbour relations shape a community’s health. They also changed their personal lifestyle. As one of them explained: “This project changed me: I started to exercise and my children have all joined sports clubs. I cook a healthy dinner every day. A great many things changed in my life”.
This did not happen by itself; it was the result of a project design where the interests of the citizen scientists and their community went hand in hand with the objective to gather data. The citizen scientists had a say in the project and, for example, decided how and where they would carry out interviews, and with whom. They helped analyse the data and some took an active role, presenting their conclusions to the policy makers.
Does this approach make a community healthier? Will fewer people be obese or lonely? Will they live longer? These are questions that cannot be answered straightaway– improving community health is a long and ongoing process. But what we do know is that in Slotermeer citizen science made a meaningful contribution to both the well-being of the citizen scientists and their community as well as resident engagement in local health policy.
Read the paper about the citizen scientists in Slotermeer, published in Citizen Science: Theory & Practice: https://theoryandpractice.citizenscienceassociation.org/articles/10.5334/cstp.89/