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Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) surveys

Discover how this citizen science resource can be used to support communities in carrying out their own urban environmental surveys on a range of topics, including air quality, biodiversity, and water quality.
Multiple Authors
Children measuring a tree trunk
Source: OPAL (2016)

This tool is part of the SEI Urban Toolbox for Liveable Cities which has been developed by the SEI Initiative on City Health and Wellbeing.The Urban Toolbox is a collection of tools, developed within SEI or in coordination with SEI,aimed at supporting planning and decision-making for improving the health, well-being and resilience of city residents and urban systems more broadly.

About this tool

OPAL surveys were developed as a citizen science tool, using simple methodologies, readily accessible equipment and avoiding scientific jargon to guideparticipants through all the steps necessary to complete environmental investigations. A variety of methods can be used to minimise the potential trade-off between the number of participants and the quality of data. The tools are web-based and downloadable, and can be adapted for different geographic contexts.

*Although OPAL surveys are closed for data entry, you can use the surveys and additional resourcesto investigate environmental health in your local area. Outside of the UK, the species you find will be different, so the surveys and other resources will need modifying.

How does this tool work?

Communities can use the tool to explore local environmental issues. This could be air pollution, industrial contamination, soil quality, biodiversity, green space provision. The topic to be explored can be determined by many approaches, one used by the OPAL team was GIS (Geographical Information Systems) for participation, or participatory mapping. Following this, communities worked with OPAL Community Scientists to develop methodologies, carry out activities and analyses, and take action on findings.

Who might use this tool?

Community members (designed for those aged 13+), city planners, schools, government bodies, researchers

Which stakeholders are involved?

Local communities, urban planners, researchers, and wildlife / content experts

What stage of the process does this tool support?

This tool can be adapted to be used at different stages of environmental assessment:

  • Defining the issue
  • Generating ideas
  • Monitoring
  • Evaluation

Tool overview

Citizen science is defined as ‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with, or under the guidance of, professional scientists and scientific institutions’. Citizen science projects take many forms, but OPAL aimed to create ‘citizen science for everyone’ regardless of age, background, knowledge or ability.

Major features of OPAL surveys, that can be transferred to different urban contexts, are:

  • Surveys that can be completed anywhere
  • Low barrier to entry – no training is needed prior to recording
  • Simple methods adapted for use by those with no previous experience
  • Use of bioindicators – organisms that are sensitive to particular features of the physical or chemical environment

Application: OPAL case study examples

Using OPAL surveys to explore the effects of urbanisation on invertebrate biodiversity in the UK: This study recruited anyone in the UK with access to an area of outdoor space to participate in a Bugs Count survey to better understand the relationship between urbanisation, vegetation and invertebrate diversity. This survey was designed to appeal to children, in order to engage them with the natural world, as well as collect data about urbanisation and biodiversity.

This survey was led by the Natural History Museum, London. The resource was designed and printed by the Field Studies Council who had access to excellent quality images. If you wanted to develop a similar survey for your country, start by reaching out to a national or regional museum for help. You may also have one or more ‘Natural History Society’ organisations who could help. Environmental education organisations might also be interested.

Using OPAL surveys to assess local water quality in the UK:This survey uses invertebrates found in freshwater as an indicator of water quality. Surveys which find only pollution–tolerant species or very little diversity or abundance may indicate a less healthy body of water.

This survey was led by water quality researchers at University College London, with support from the Natural History Museum, London and the Field Studies Council. If you wanted to develop a similar survey for your country, reach out to biologists who know about benthic (bottom dwelling) macro-invertebrates (macro meaning big enough to see without a microscope). You might also like to look at Freshwater Watch to see if there are any existing groups local to you.

Capabilities and resources required

OPAL Surveys can be downloaded from the Imperial College London website

Implementation tips: key enablers and potential barriers

The surveys were easy to use with a range of different audiences, meaning that communities across the UK could use them without any prior training or experience of surveying wildlife.

Delivery of the project was supported by Community Scientists who enthused community groups, schools and individuals about the project and encouraged them to use the surveys and then submit their results to the website.

A barrier to the data collecting aspect of the project was that data entry from the surveys was time consuming and required a computer, so many more people did the surveys than actually submitted the results!

Unfortunately the database to upload results is no longer working, future projects should seek to submit data to ongoing databases so that the data can be used by researchers and the public in future.

Potential integration with other tools

OPAL Surveys can be incorporated into other environmental monitoring activities, they make a good starting point for exploring species and their habitats.

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