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.
The biennial Communities and Technologies (C&T) conference is the premier international forum for stimulating scholarly debate and disseminating research on the complex connections between communities – in their multiple forms – and information and communication technologies.
It is one of my favorite conferences, and as usual, it was an amazing meeting of minds. See the tweet stream for an impression of the topics discussed. More on the paper I presented in a future post.
After the conference, some of us took a tour of the futuristic new campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The buildings are phenomenal, however, what really struck me was how the concept of the campus being a community space has been designed into everything, from the overall master plan of the campus area to very specific building details. Instead of constructions creating artificial barriers between people, this campus in everything promotes the meeting and mingling of people and the building of community. There is a lesson or two to be learnt here by us working on community building with ICTs, where we often still let technology get in the way instead of acting as a community catalyst….
At any rate, a great symbol of where the worlds of physical architecture and online community spaces meet is this picture, where the three words I am pointing at neatly summarize what I am working on with CommunitySense. I am eager to further explore how the worlds of “traditional” urban planning & architecture and community informatics can mesh. Surely to be continued…
In this tribute to Michael Gurstein, we first summarize three of his key concepts: Community Informatics, Effective Use, and Community Innovation. We then apply his ideas to a case on participatory collaboration mapping in Malawi. We end the tribute with a reflection and re-iterating Mike’s call for Community Informatics research and action to keep meeting.
Participatory community network mapping can support collaborative sensemaking within and across communities and their surrounding stakeholder networks. We introduce the CommunitySensor methodology under construction. After summarizing earlier work, we show how the methodology uses a cyclical approach by adopting a Community Network Development Cycle that embeds a Community Network Sensemaking Cycle. We list some observations from practice about using community network mapping for making inter-communal sense. We discuss how extending the methodology with a pattern-driven approach benefits the building of bridges across networked communities, as well as the sharing of generalized lessons learnt. To this purpose, a community collaboration pattern language is essential. We show initial work in developing and using such a language by examining the cross-case evolution of core community network interaction patterns.
On October 8th, Michael Gurstein – founding father of the field of Community Informatics – sadly passed away.
I first met Mike when I stumbled into the wrong” workshop room at the first Communities and Technologies conference in Amsterdam in 2003, the workshop being chaired by Mike. This was the first time I learned about Community Informatics as a field, and I immediately knew I had “come home”.
Mike and I have been good friends and colleagues ever since, bumping into each other regularly at conferences and events, and, of course, having had countless interactions online. Mike has always been a great source of inspiration, a mentor, and role model to me, and has played an important part in mentally preparing me for setting up and defining the mission and approach of my own research consultancy CommunitySense.
Mike, we all owe so much to your being the founding father of our now thriving field of Community Informatics. Your contributions have been numerous: your vision and passion about the field; your deep insight that it is not the technologies per se, but how they are being put to effective use that truly empowers communities; your heartfelt conviction that Community Informatics researchers and practitioners strongly depend on one another to achieve that goal; your tireless efforts, from lobbying at the highest international political levels to guiding young researchers and practitioners asking for your advice; and, of course, establishing The Journal of Community Informatics and the Community Informatics Researchers mailing list as crucial fora for the field to develop.
Mike, you are now no longer with us physically, but – in the spirit of the field you helped create – will always remain a virtual member of the Community Informatics community, continue to inspire us and be present as we continue to develop our collective work “from ideals to impact”.
10 years ago to this day, I took the plunge. On April 1, 2007, I walked into the Tilburg Chamber of Commerce, and registered my very own company, CommunitySense. From the application form: “CommunitySense is a research consultancy company in the field of community informatics. It offers a range of consultancy services for developing innovative collaborative systems and services for online communities.” An ambitious mission, and I was only at the very start of finding out what that meant in – literally – practice.
It was both exciting and scary to take off as an independent consultant. I had loved my academic environment. I still felt very much an academic at heart, cherishing the wonderful network of people and ideas I had worked with for over 12 years while at Tilburg University, the Free University of Brussels and going for research visits and attending conferences all over the world. Still, for various reasons I needed to break free from the academic golden cage. Work pressure was one thing, but another very important reason was that I wanted to have more of a direct impact on the world.
Community Informatics really is about how to empower communities with ICTs. I feel very strongly about helping communities unleash that power for the common good. Although academic research is an important part of that quest, it is not enough. Our field is also very much about the practice of making those technologies really work in the daily lives of people working together in communities of all kinds.
Through my research consultancy, I hope to act as a bridge between science and society, using my academic research to distill lessons learnt from projects, while bringing real world cases back into the scientific literature. Over the past 10 years, I really found my niche, both developing a range of consultancy services and soldiering on with my publications. I am particularly excited about my newly discovered passion of community mapping, which is becoming a cornerstone of my work.
It’s not always been easy, transforming myself from being (only) an “abstract academic” to becoming a more “concrete consultant”. Still, the panoramas along my personal development path travelled have often been breathtaking. I haven’t regretted my move one single day. I feel blessed that I can work on the cutting edge of science and practice, every day bringing new challenges and ideas. I am particularly grateful that I am surrounded by a global and ever growing network of dear friends, colleagues, and clients (many of whom have moved to the “friend” category over time :-)). Thank you all so much for sharing and adding to my experiences along the way!
The first 10 years have been exciting and full of surprises. Who knows where I will be 10 years from now. One thing is for sure, my journey with CommunitySense has only just begun…