Community informatics meets citizen sensing: from insight to action

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.

One of the panels this year was organized by the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT): “Nudging for Climate Through Citizen Sensing“. Together with representatives from TILT and citizen sensing collective Meet Je Stad, I was to discuss what is going on in this domain and where things are heading:

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.

My sensor is now part of the growing  Meet Je Stad-network of citizen sensors in Tilburg.

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?

Yes, very much so. In Expanding the Academic Research Community – Building Bridges into Society with the Internet, I made an an analysis of how to better connect academic research with society by way of a more effective use of the Internet.

191016_redefining academic research process
Redefining academic research

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.