Big River Watch; accessible citizen science to monitor river health

Logo: The Rivers Trust

By Emma Brisdion, Marketing & Campaigns Lead

A person with their back to the camera pointing  a phone at the river
(The Rivers Trust)

Citizen science is one of the key tools in the kitbag of the conservation organisation. An umbrella term that encapsulates many different types of environmental monitoring activities, citizen science can be a call to arms gathering a veritable army of engaged members of the general public willing to give up their time to, say, test water quality or record species sightings. Time and effort is generously donated in pursuit of gathering more and more data, allowing conservation organisations to better understand the ecosystem that they’re working to protect or restore. Without citizen scientists, the data sets from which to draw conclusions, observe trends or plan interventions would be far thinner on the ground.

And of course, there are the benefits to the participants, too; strengthened connections with nature and their local blue and green spaces, engagement with a community in the case of volunteer groups, and a feeling of being part of improving these spaces.

focused image on a phone in someones hand over a river with buildings on the far bank
(The Rivers Trust)

At The Rivers Trust, we are river and catchment conservation experts, and we put science and evidence at the heart of what we do. Citizen scientists and volunteers across our 65 member trusts play a huge role in our work to better understand and to actively improve rivers in the UK and Ireland.

Over the weekend of the 22-24th of September, we’re launching a new citizen science campaign, called the Big River Watch.

The Big River Watch is an invitation for communities to love their local river and to be part of the movement demanding better for our rivers. It consists of a free app containing a simple survey, and anybody in the UK and Ireland who can access a river can take part – all participants need to do is spend around 15 minutes watching their local watercourse and answering the questions. Particularly in light of the increased negative news surrounding pollution in our rivers – from sewage to plastics and nutrients – we’re seeing a strong outcry from the public, demanding better for our rivers, but also for ways for communities to get involved.

a person on the river bank with phone in hand watching a person in the river pulling on a rope
(The Rivers Trust)

The app and survey’s simple and accessible design makes it easy for members of the public to take part independently, and also for it to be included as part of events such as nature walks, outdoor classrooms or volunteering days. No equipment (apart from a smartphone), previous experience or prior knowledge is required to take part. Our intention is for Big River Watch to serve as some communities’ first experience of citizen science – or indeed, the start of their personal journey connecting with and advocating for their local river. It is available in English and Welsh.

We want to get a picture of how the public experience rivers – the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as to help communities understand what a healthy or unhealthy river looks like. The Big River Watch survey includes questions about the river’s colour, flow, and smell. We also ask what plant and animal life can be seen, whether people think the river looks natural, and how it makes them feel.

The launch coincides with World Rivers Day on 24th September, but in future the Big River Watch Weekend events will run biannually during the spring and autumn. The app and the survey will remain open year-round, so even between our Big River Watch Weekends, river health data can still be gathered and allow us to build an increasingly valuable, large-scale data set of observations in the short, medium and long term.

Four images of the app on a phone
(The Rivers Trust)

Our plan is not for the Big River Watch to replace or supplement monitoring by official agencies, but to complement it. The Big River Watch monitoring data will be freely accessible, and we won’t be presenting it in layers of complex spreadsheets that only trained experts can understand. As much of the data will be collected by the public, our priority is for the results also to be in the hands of communities. They will have an evidence base to demand change for rivers where it is needed and, we hope, to advocate for solutions where they have been effective. It will be a powerful tool for influencing policy, but that influence will be driven by local communities.

So, between the 22-24th of September, we encourage you to get involved with #BigRiverWatch on a professional or personal level. Whether that’s by taking a riverside stroll with your family at the weekend or designating a Friday wellbeing hour to spend some time by the river with your colleagues – or, ideally, both!

Find out more about Big River Watch at: The Big River Watch | The Rivers Trust

Logo: BRW

Download the apps:

Logo: The Big River Watch

Google Play here 

Apple App Store here 

Find out more about The Rivers Trust: Together, for Rivers | The Rivers Trust

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Posted On: 12/09/2023

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