This time, I decided to base my talk on the citizen sensing panel discussion at Tilburg Night University I was asked to participate in last month as a “community informatics expert”. In my Prato talk, I expanded my thoughts, thinking through in more detail what are the relationships between citizen sensing, citizen science, and community informatics, from the angle of power & empowerment.
Title: Citizen sensing meeting community informatics: from power to empowerment?
Abstract: Citizen sensing offers much promise in engaging citizens for the common good, such as working on addressing climate change at the grassroots level. By citizens participating, taking ownership and becoming involved in local citizen sensing communities, they can strengthen their common ground. However, to truly get empowered and reach collective impact, it is not enough for citizens to measure together. They face many entrenched power interests, from dismissal of the validity of their “amateur” results to regulatory powers being reluctant to act upon the common(s) findings. While citizen sensing communities are excellent examples of getting strong and lasting community engagement around distributed data and technologies, more is needed to break the impact deadlock. We think that insights and practices of field of community informatics might be useful here. We make the case for the need for citizen sensing & community informatics to join forces by telling a personal story of a citizen/practitioner/researcher getting drawn into this fascinating commons building world.
Feel free to download the slides of my presentation. A paper is to follow in the conference proceedings which should be published in the next few months.
Every year, Tilburg University organizes a “Night University“, a night full of lectures, panels, and events during which the rest of Tilburg can come and get some sense of what exactly is happening within, between and beyond the ivory towers.
How can “citizen sensing” stimulate climate-friendly behavior? Together with dr. Leonie Reins & Anna Berti Suman (Tilburg Law School), CommunitySense and “Meet Je Stad”, there will be an interactive talk on the use of citizen-run environmental monitoring technologies such as smart meters to be placed on roof tops. These technologies can raise awareness of climate change and nudge climate-friendly behavior. We will display some of the maps and tools such as climate sensors produced by the participants of the “Meet Je Stad” collective, an initiative that has been active in measuring changes in weather conditions.
Although I am no expert in citizen sensing, I do see great potential in how this technology might be used to empower communities, and vice versa. It was fun to think things through in preparation for the Night University panel. To not let these thoughts go to waste, I here present an edited version of the notes I made in trying to answer the questions the panelists were asked.
What do you do in regard to citizen sensing?
Well, first, as a citizen, I built my own sensor! Earlier this year, a workshop was organized at the Tilburg Public Library together with Meet Je Stad where interested locals could come and build their own basic sensing station that measures temperature and relative humidity. This as part of an initiative to start monitoring changes in climate at the city level.
However, also from a professional view I am interested. Community informatics as a field of research and practice focuses on how to build, empower, and link communities through the effective use of information and communication technologies. Citizen sensing is a great example of technology-supported local communities of engaged citizens working on a common interest, in this case climate change. However, such communities are about much more than just measuring: they really are about fostering engagement towards collective impact. No community can address huge, “wicked” problems like climate change on their own. Citizen sensing communities, for instance need connections to a network of related communities, like neighborhood, research, education, and business communities. They also need to grow strong connections – without losing their independence and critical voice – with local governments, so that they can, for instance, help inform policy making at the municipal level.
One way to embed such communities in a larger context is through the public library as a trusted third party supporting and connecting local communities. One example is the national Dutch KnowledgeCloud project, initiated by the Tilburg public library, for which I was the project leader in developing the demonstrator at the time. Through this approach, public libraries facilitate citizen-driven knowledge groups through providing meeting spaces, an online platform, relevant parts of collections, and support by community librarians.
How did your interest in citizen science grow? Why are you interested?
The very essence of community informatics is that research continuously meets practice. I see three main ways in which citizens can act as an important complement to professional scientists:
Citizens can be eyes and ears: there is simply too much to be done, scientists cannot be everywhere at the same time. Citizens can help scale up the number of observations, like the micro-climate measurements through citizen sensing. They can also alert their professional peers to potentially interesting phenomena happening in their area.
Citizens can ask interesting questions: as professionals, we are often biased in the kind of research questions we ask, because we are working from within existing research paradigms, frameworks, networks, and projects. Citizens can help frame new questions, as they look at reality from a different perspective, and are not hindered by existing research constraints. In the Netherlands, this role has even been formally acknowledged by using citizens’ questions as an important input in the construction of the Dutch National Research Agenda.
Citizens can be influential science ambassadors: in the era of fake news, anti-vaxxers and Flat Earthers, there is an increasing public distrust and misunderstanding of what science is and what role it plays in society. This is a very dangerous development and hard to counter. Citizen science can form a first line of defense here. Citizens being involved in science themselves first of all get a much better sense of the potential – and limitations – of science. Second, they can help educate and convince their circles of peers that science does not provide “just another opinion”, but forms the bedrock of modern, diverse society and is worth protecting. This is not to say that scientists are infallible and what they say should be taken at face value. However, a scientifically engaged citizenry can provide constructive criticism to strengthen science rather than destroy it.
Can citizen sensing be considered science in your opinion? What are the benefits and challenges?
Citizen science in general – and citizen sensing in particular – can of course play an especially important role in the data collection and analysis stage. However, one could imagine roles for citizen sensing in all research stages – especially when embedded in a strong network of communities. For example, by having academic researchers actively participate in various citizen sensing communities, citizens can also be instrumental in research question framing and impact assessment. Roles are also conceivable for citizens to author, review, and disseminate their own findings in the local press and on social media, as well as to help “translate” peer-reviewed scientific articles into language and local examples that the general public can understand.
As to the challenges: of course, there are risks involved if local groups are working in isolation, possibly misinterpreting scientific models and findings. All the more reason to work on designing carefully balanced socio-technical systems where citizen and professional scientists get to know and collaborate with each other, and on developing strong and lasting research communities around the distributed sensing projects springing up everywhere. Again, public libraries, with initiatives like the KnowledgeCloud can be important mediating and enabling third parties by providing the necessary meeting, content, and collaboration infrastructure.
What can policy/decision-makers learn/take from citizen sensing?
A lot. Citizens and scientists are only two important citizen sensing stakeholders. Policy/decision-makers, especially in government, should also be strongly connected to the citizen sensing communities operating in their area of governance. Some take-aways for them:
Help fill the information gaps: there is often only a very coarse grid of official measurement stations. Effective air pollution measurement may require a much finer network of sensors, however. In the case of woodsmoke, the produced (extremely unhealthy) fine particulate matter and other pollutants come in high concentrations from very local sources (e.g. home wood stoves). Average measurements only covering a large area over a longer period of time literally do not make sense. Such pollution sources should be measured continuously at the neighborhood or even street level to inform effective action.
Citizen engagement in common agenda setting: as citizens generate and steward their own data, they have much more of an interest in DOING something with them. Governments always lament that they would like a more involved populace in defining what it is that their citizens want and need. This is their chance to get that engagement and act on it.
Make government more accountable and legitimate: like science, governments all over the world face grave problems with defending their legitimacy. Populist movements carry out vicious attacks, dangerously eroding eroding democratic foundations. One key tactic is fanning the flames of distrust in governmental (and scientific) authority, often by spewing fake news in social media. By developing strong citizen sensing communities, with active involvement of citizens, scientists, and civil servants (in the true sense of the word), accountability, trust, and ultimately legitimacy of policy making can be strengthened. This on the condition that government takes those communities seriously, and not just sees them as an easy way to check the “citizens involved” box, without actually listening to and doing something with the concerns brought up.
How can each of us contribute both at an individual and group level?
As a citizen, you could take the following concrete steps to become a true “citizen sensor” in the way outlined in this post:
Join a local citizen sensing community: There are many wonderful citizen sensing people very willing to get you going. In the Tilburg area, for instance, you could come to one of the LoRa IOT-In-Action Network meetups.
Collect data: with the help of your local community, build a sensor and install it at home. Don’t forget to continue to take care of it once up and running!
Interpret the data: start thinking about what all those data really mean? How might they be used to change things at the local level?
Inform(ed) discussion: don’t keep your insights to yourself. Go out there, on Facebook, on Twitter, attend physical meetings and debates. Share your results, your interpretations, engage in constructive conversation, build alliances.
Influence policy: with your collective interpretations, start reaching out. Contact your municipality, get journalists from the local papers interested. Make suggestions for policy change based on (your hard-won) evidence, corroborated by peer-reviewed methods and data. Use the support network you have developed through your community and interactions with stakeholders far beyond.
In sum, citizen sensing is a powerful form of both citizen science and community informatics. Citizen sensing may look “geeky” at first sight. However, citizen sensing communities, properly embedded in their local stakeholder networks, should be on the frontlines of the fight to restore faith in science and government. There is still a long way to go for citizen sensing to live up to those hopes. Join us in making it happen.
Last week, I gave a presentation at the 12th edition of the PechaKucha Tilburg event. PechaKucha is a lively presentation format in which anybody can share an idea(l), project or passion close to their heart. The challenge is that this has to take place in 20 slides of 20 seconds each, so you really need to be very focused in telling your story in exactly (and only…) 6 minutes and 40 seconds! As the photos attest, the event taking place in the Tilburg theatre De Nieuwe Vorst was packed and the atmosphere was vibrant.
In my presentation, I talk about the need for new ways to look at and address the multitude of “wicked problems” such as climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, and migration that humanity has to deal with. I introduce my CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping and show how it has been applied, together with network visualization tool Kumu to strengthen agricultural collaborations in Malawi, as described in more detail in this post.
Hoe breng je een community in kaart; de case van de Tilburgse Stadse Boeren
Communities en netwerken zijn een essentieel onderdeel van de kennismaatschappij. ‘Community mapping’ is een krachtige techniek om de samenhang en samenwerking binnen communities en netwerken in kaart te brengen. CommunitySense heeft een participatieve methodiek ontwikkeld om dergelijke communitykaarten te maken en in te zetten voor het versterken van communities.
De methodiek bestaat uit een visualisatie ‘taal’, een ondersteunende online tool en een proces voor het maken en gebruiken van communitykaarten. In dit seminar staat de case van de Tilburgse Stadse Boeren centraal. In deze case is een eerste versie van de methodiek ontwikkeld en toegepast voor het maken van een overzichtskaart van deze community (http://bit.ly/1L0jusT).
In het seminar worden de geleerde lessen besproken en wordt een demonstratie gegeven van de gebruikte tool, Kumu. Daarna ga je met elkaar in gesprek over hoe community mapping een rol zou kunnen spelen bij het versterken van Social Innovation.
Wil je het verhaal weten achter deze communitykaart? Wil je weten hoe je community mapping in jouw activiteiten succesvol kunt toepassen? Kom dan naar het seminar en meld je aan via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last October, I gave an invited talk at the School of Communication and Information, Rutgers University, USA. Topic of my talk was “Knowledge Sharing for Social Innovation: The Dutch Tilburg Regional Case”. I published the slides of my talk in a previous post. In the meantime, however, with the help of the good people of Rutgers’ IT staff, I worked on creating an indexed YouTube version of the video recording that was made of my presentation. In it, you can find the Tilburg story of knowledge sharing for social innovation. It contains the slides combined with my presenting them, plus a very lively Q&A with the audience afterwards. In this YouTube video, you can watch me tell the full story. Click here to get a larger version (handy for reading those crowded slides!).
If you want to jump to a particular topic, see the index below the video.
Social innovation as a process is about multiple stakeholders working together on joint, economically and socially sustainable solutions for wicked societal problems. Social innovation both co-creates value for individual stakeholders involved, and contributes to the common good. It has been an important theme in the the Dutch city of Tilburg and the surrounding region of Midden-Brabant for years. A successful regional social innovation ecosystem exists. Knowledge sharing about the innovations remains a bottleneck, however. Two initiatives to increase regional social innovation knowledge sharing capacity are presented: the social innovation storytelling architecture and the Tilburg public library prototype KnowledgeCloud for catalyzing knowledge sharing across regional themes of interest.
As part of my visit to the University of Alabama in Huntsville I gave a presentation “Creativity Meets Rationale – Collaboration Patterns for Social Innovation” at the College of Business Administration. It was based on the book chapter with the same title that was published earlier this year in the book “Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience by Design”. The slides can be downloaded here.
From the discussion, it seemed that Europe is ahead in implementing scaled applications of social innovation, although the US is catching up and making it a national priority as well, as indicated by the White House having created an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. See also the Economist article Let’s Hear Those Ideas. It would be interesting to see to what extent collaboration patterns for social innovation are alike and differ in the US and European contexts. As Huntsville has an incredible wealth of high-tech engineering knowledge seeking new applications, it would be a very worthwhile exercise to build and compare libraries of collaboration patterns in the Dutch Noord-Brabant and US Alabama cases. A common theme to investigate could be civil aerospace applications, for instance.