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19 November 2021
UWC citizen scientist water project is a winner at the Berlin Science Week Summit

Prof Jacqueline Goldin is an extra-ordinary associate professor of Anthropology and Water Sciences in the Centre of UNESCO Chair in Groundwater and Earth Sciences.

“We, as South African academics, need to communicate our science on these global platforms, because the work we're doing in South Africa is amazing and we really need to share it with the world. I am so pleased with the result and the opportunity to showcase science on an international platform such as this one – it was an immensely inspiring experience,” she said.

The winning project is entitled ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Their Feet’ and is recognised as one of the top three out of 189 science projects from 80 countries. It involves ordinary citizens - referred to as ‘diamonds’ who have treasures on the soles of their feet; in this case - valuable data pertaining to underground water. 

The citizen scientists, consisting of farmers and farm labourers, are working alongside scientists using their smartphones to share the data they acquire about the quantity of underground water in remote inaccessible parts of Limpopo. This data is uploaded onto the web and is visible and available.

Prof Goldin is especially pleased with the citizen scientists – who were all quite isolated – who are now part of a community of practice and have a sense of belonging to the wider Hout Catchment.

“Thanks to the great team efforts we have the recognition of how important it is to empower communities to be able to access data from very remote wells that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. And ordinary citizens are now curious and eager to learn more about water’s occurrence in their natural environment,” noted Prof Goldin.

“Berlin Science Week forms part of The Falling Walls Summit, which is held on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and it celebrates science breakthroughs – answering the question of how a particular breakthrough has been able to break down walls between science and society. It is a reminder of what happened in Nazi Germany when science and ‘facts’ were so distorted. It is truly a unique global stage for leaders from the world of science, business, politics, arts and society.

“Projects, such as ours, are bringing science out of the laboratory - walls that often stop us from doing what we want to do, can be broken down.

In our case, it was remote, inaccessible areas which had put up these walls – and as we are working in a multi-disciplinary team – it also smashes down walls that might have existed between science and the humanities.

“The Falling Walls Summit is all about collaboration – and taking science communication seriously. It also shatters the myth of the ‘hero’ scientist. The Berlin Science Week made it so clear that scientific breakthroughs, such as ours, are deeply collaborative team efforts.”

Some of the fascinating topics from participating countries included a presentation by Ozlem Tureci from BioNnTech on the mRNA vaccines to combat Covid, restoring vision for retinal degeneration, wireless medical robots inside our body and the next generation of batteries which will be able to charge our cell phones or laptops in three minutes.  

Also, topics on how to combat deafness in Ghana and how to encourage traditional healers to work with doctors and combat myths and problems around mental health in Kenya - using storytelling to communicate science to society. 

“I feel proud that we have managed to see how the project is transforming ordinary citizens in these remote areas from a passive state to engaging and becoming scientists themselves – and we have verified and validated the data which is accurate and can be used by government, planners and researchers,” said Prof Goldin 

“It was really amazing to see other people doing such incredible work and I'm so excited to be part of this global community.”

She expressed her gratitude to the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through the University of Copenhagen who funded the first part of the project, and now to the Water Research Commission – who are real science engagers -  for making this work possible.