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Citizen scientist undertaking data collection with community member

Q&A: exploring citizen science’s role in water sanitation and equity

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Q&A: exploring citizen science’s role in water sanitation and equity

In this Q&A, we explore how co-created citizen science is bringing Mexico City’s homeless communities into the heart of research on water, sanitation and hygiene. Learn about this innovative approach through the experiences and insights of the project team.

Carla Liera / Published on 14 November 2023

In urban settings, public water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services are essential, yet often they are unsafe, poorly maintained or inaccessible. This disproportionately affects marginalized groups, especially the homeless, who depend on these facilities. Homeless populations are typically excluded from decision-making processes, and their needs are overlooked. Co-created citizen science offers a way to include these communities in scientific and decision-making processes, amplifying their voices and contributing to more inclusive solutions.

In partnership with El Caracol, a Mexican civil society organization, we launched a seed fund project focused on co-created citizen science with a homeless community in Mexico City. Our objective was to comprehensively understand their WASH needs. The project utilized different co-creation activities to understand the community’s context and develop instruments for gathering information. These instruments were then employed to assess existing facilities and establish safety standards. Data collection and analysis were collaboratively conducted by citizen scientists and our research group.

Can you explain co-created citizen science and its benefits?

Citizen science involves public participation in scientific research. Typically, this only includes data collecting and submission. Co-created citizen science goes further, involving communities in defining research focus, designing methods, analyzing data and sharing results. This approach ensures the research addresses community needs and adapts to their context. Well-designed co-created citizen science grants communities equal authority in the process and enables them to take informed action based on the knowledge gained.

Rachel Pateman


SEI York

Citizen scientist undertaking data collection with community members

Citizen scientist undertaking data collection with community members.

Photo: El Caracol A.C.

Citizen scientist during workshop on the human right to water and sanitation

Citizen scientist during workshop on the human right to water and sanitation.

Photo: Nhilce Esquivel / SEI.

Why use co-created citizen science for understanding the water and sanitation needs of homeless populations?

As researchers in human rights-related areas, it is vital to engage closely with the communities we aim to work with. Co-created citizen science helped us to deeply understand the challenges and lives of the homeless, especially regarding water and sanitation. We learned about their reliance on water for livelihood, that finding drinking water is easier than securing water for personal hygiene, and fair access to a toilet matters more than its condition, among other insights.

In our project, citizen scientists developed their own surveys and conducted interviews within their community. This approach ensured relevance and comfort for the participants. I believe that effective research must be adaptable to the diverse contexts and needs of populations, adapting research goals, results and methods to maximize real-world impact. In my view, citizen science stands as an ideal approach to accomplish this goal.

Nhilce N. Esquivel
Nhilce N. Esquivel

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

What was your favourite part of the citizen science process?

First and foremost, joining the team and having the opportunity to participate in the research was an enlightening experience. I valued the safe, collaborative environment and gained new perspectives on my community. It brings me great joy that the homeless population is being taken into consideration. I believe that this type of activity can really help the societal integration of homeless populations. I also appreciated gaining insights into issues related to access to water and sanitation services.

Gabriela Santiago Jiménez

Citizen Scientist

A citizen scientist verifying a water source identified by community members.

A citizen scientist verifying a water source identified by community members.

Photo: El Caracol A.C.

How does citizen science benefit your work with El Caracol?

Citizen science creates a unique connection with people, bringing to light issues from their perspective. It enables us to reach otherwise inaccessible groups, presenting insights about the homeless population that go beyond mere statistics. This method fosters safe spaces for learning, growth and questioning, enabling people to recognize their knowledge as valuable. It also provides an opportunity for citizen scientists to participate in El Caracol’s broader community and network building activities.

Paulina Vargas Rouan

Social Street Educator at El Caracol

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