The success of water conservation restrictions depends in part on governments' capacity to monitor water use. Inviting the general public to report instances of water waste is one means of expanding government capacity to monitor and enforce water use. Why are people in some communities more frequently engaged in such “participatory surveillance” than in other communities? Does participatory surveillance help achieve conservation goals? We explore the social correlates and conservation outcomes of participatory surveillance regimes with an analysis of water conservation in the U.S. state of California. During California's historic 2014–2017 drought, the state established hotlines and websites for the public to report water waste anonymously. Californians responded by reporting more than 485,000 water waste complaints over the course of the emergency. Analysis shows that besides the water supply characteristics and drought severity, several social and institutional factors correlate strongly with complaint volume. Our results indicate that social contexts can influence participation in participatory surveillance, and that participatory surveillance can be a potent means of enhancing water restrictions during a drought emergency.

Our findings underscore the fundamentally social nature of participatory surveillance as a means of implementing water restrictions. Authorities seeking to follow California's model should bear in mind that demographic, socioeconomic, institutional, and political contexts are likely to condition the effects of participatory surveillance approaches, and plan accordingly.


Zhang, Youlang, Manuel P. Teodoro & David Switzer. 2021. “Public water waste reporting: contextual correlates and conservation outcomes,” Water Resources Research 57(4): e2020WR027805.

Citations are the lifeblood of my profession.
Please use my work - and reference it when you do.