Raising tap water awareness through citizen science

Water utilities are faced with the challenge of raising the awareness with which customers deal with water. This tap water awareness requires reaching people both through their minds and their hearts. Citizen science can provide an effective tool in this effort. In 2021 KWR produced a handbook which reports on more than five years’ experience in citizen science research. ‘Citizen science enhances customer involvement and trust,’ says KWR researcher Stijn Brouwer.

In the Citizen Science Handbook for the Water Sector (in Dutch) KWR has listed the lessons learned in citizen science and translated them to practice. ‘Our objective is to help water utilities get started,’ says Stijn Brouwer, social-science researcher at KWR. ‘In the handbook we describe different assessment frameworks to be able to determine, for instance, the kind of objectives citizen science can or cannot be used for. Based on our expertise in socio-scientific investigation, KWR knows how to give shape to this research. Over the last few years we have also learned a great deal about how to build-in control mechanisms, so that the reliability of the collected data can be checked. To interpret the significance of the data, we can draw on the numerous disciplines that KWR has in house. Citizen science often involves highly multi-disciplinary research.’

Tap water awareness

Brouwer does not have to think twice about the added value of citizen science. For him, it constitutes one element in the water utilities’ search for means of raising customer awareness in the way they deal with water. ‘To respond to challenges such as drought, we need to stimulate water behaviour that is sustainable and aware. But how do you that? In our earlier research on tap water awareness, we divided the awareness into three types: head, heart and hands. Customers have a relatively high cognitive tap water awareness, but their behavioural awareness is not particularly high. This means that more knowledge does not necessarily result in more aware behaviour. It makes no sense to say: you have to be more aware when dealing with water. People also have to feel it. And it is precisely with regard to the heart that citizen science has a valuable role to play. People who participate in this kind of project are touched by the hidden world that lies behind the water flowing from their tap.’

Positive impact of citizen science

When it comes to the positive impact of citizen science, Katleen de Leu, Team Manager, Marketing, at the Flemish water utility De Watergroep, can speak from experience. She has seen with her own eyes how customers look at things in a different light thanks to citizen science. In 2021 the ‘citizen science research on water hardness’ project, in which De Watergroep worked closely with KWR, came to a conclusion. ‘In 2020, work activities were carried out at our Waarmaarde production centre with the aim of reducing the hardness of the water,’ recounts De Leu. ‘This involved a considerable investment, and we wanted to know what the added value was for the customer. To help us out, we turned to KWR, with whom we had already frequently worked before. They advised us on how we could set up the citizen science research, what questions we needed to ask the customers, and what tests we could have them carry out. By measuring the hardness of the water at their own taps, before and after the implemented changes, things became very concrete. Our communication with the participants was particularly intensive during the course of the project. We provided them with substantive information about the water hardness and the project, and informed them as best we could about the progress. We were also open and transparent about set-backs, such as those occasioned by the corona crisis. As a result, we noted that the score that the participants gave us on their trust in our water utility rose by a full point: from 7.6 to 8.7. In the Flemish context, that’s an exceptionally high score!’

Last year’s highlight

Brouwer views the completion of the citizen science project that KWR worked on with De Watergroep as one of last year’s highlights. ‘This research marked the first time we made use of a control group. That’s unusual, even in the context of international citizen science research. The control group consisted of customers who actually participated in a survey carried out before and after the water softening, but who were not involved in the citizen science project. We were therefore able to measure differences in the two groups’ reactions to the water softening. Among the participants in the citizen science project, we saw that their satisfaction increased, as did their trust in the water utility. And they stopped using or adjusted their softening appliances. In the control group we also observed a shift in perception and behaviour, but it was a lot less radical than in the case of the participants.’ The researcher attributes this difference to the fact that the citizen science project participants became involved in the process. They themselves carried out the measurements and felt they were being taken seriously. ‘That’s quite a different matter, compared to receiving a folder in your mail box that says: your water now is a little softer.’

Learning to better understand the customer

For De Watergroep rigging up a citizen science project was a first. And it was not a straightforward business, admits De Leu. ‘It was pretty exciting. In Flanders people are happy to participate in bird counts in the garden for instance. But a project of this kind was much more demanding. It required an appropriate degree of involvement from the participants. For our water utility the project represented a new manner of working; one in which we truly invested time. And we saw that citizen science produces results that we can use in screening our customer communication. De Watergroep is working towards thinking from the customer’s perspective, rather than from that of company procedures and processes. That means that you have to start with the question: what does the customer want? Citizen science helps us grasp this better.’

Where is the citizen science heading?

Although no citizen science projects are yet planned for 2022 at KWR, Brouwer notes that initiatives will certainly be ongoing. In the year ahead, KWR will be organising an internal workshop as a follow-up to the ‘drought monitoring by youngsters’ project, which was carried out in 2021 in partnership with Brabant Water. The objective is to develop a citizen science vision. ‘Until now, the citizen science projects have come under the Joint Research Programme with the water utilities, and have been framed within the customer-relations ambitions, as described in our research agenda. What I still miss is an answer to the question of where we, as an institute, are heading with citizen science. What is our societal position in this regard? KWR has a public task, and that includes incorporating the citizens of the Netherlands into our work. If you embrace this notion, it is no longer enough in this day and age to simply transmit. You need to start looking for valuable forms of interaction in which you act in coordination with the citizen.  Set within a broader framework of this type, citizen science has an important task. You can include people in scientific research; help strengthen their trust in it. When citizen science adds value for science, water utility and the citizen, it can be a hugely powerful tool.’