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A recent update on how the Safecast project is tracking radiation remediation in Japan in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima got Ethan Zuckerman thinking.

After trying his hand at radiation monitoring himself, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media connected citizen science and data collection with civic participation in a long essay at his blog:

“If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting.”

Stepping back from the specific instance, the big idea here — citizens monitoring infrastructure — is not a novel one, at least in the world of development, where people have tried to apply information, communication technology (ICT) for years. It just hasn’t been particularly well executed in many places yet.

Ethan points to “Shovelwatch,” a collaborative effort by ProPublica and WNYC to track federal stimulus projects in the United States.

While the (now defunct) Recovery tracker enabled people to query data, there’s no section for people sharing pictures of progress on reports like the one below.
arra-reflecting-pool

New opportunities afforded by the increasing penetration of mobile devices, Internet connectivity and sensors are balanced with challenges to them working well, from data quality to cultural contexts.

First, citizen engagement matters for transparency initiatives, as Lee Drutman observed at the Sunlight Foundation this summer. People won’t become involved in monitoring infrastructure or projects unless they knew such a need or opportunity exists.

Second, the incentive structure matters. Why should people contribute pictures or data? Are there monetary rewards? A lottery ticket? Public recognition for participation by government or media organizations?

Third, who participates matters, in terms of project design. Leveraging “citizens as sensors,” doesn’t work as well in places where the men have the cellphones and the women get the water. Pilots that asked people to send text messages about whether water pumps were working haven’t done well in Africa.

Fourth, there needs to be a low barrier to participation. If people are going to be involved, bandwidth constraints and user-centric software design matter.

Those considerations don’t inherently mean that mobile monitoring projects like the USAID-funded mWater won’t work, but they’re worth watching closely as case studies.

All of those factors have led to increased interest in the development of inexpensive sensors that automatically collect data, as opposed to depending upon people to monitor.

Beyond Safecast, which is now developing the capacity to do air quality monitoring in Los Angeles, there are a growing number of projects focused upon environmental data collection.

For instance, the WaterwiseWater Canary” uses inexpensive hardware to help monitor contamination in water supplies.

A new nonprofit, WellDone, is pursuing a similar approach to water pump monitoring, combining open source hardware, software and mobile messaging. A prototype of their monitor is pictured below:
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A new generation of data-driven journalists are also working “sensoring the news.

Although there’s a long way to go before sensor journalism experiments go mainstream, the success of the Associated Press independently measuring the air quality in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics shows how data collection has already provided an alternative narrative to government reports.

beijing-air-quality-days-compared (1)

Earlier this year, computer science professor David Culler created a prototype for “conscious clothing”, winning a one hundred thousand dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

These wearable air quality sensors could be an important clinical tool for physicians and researchers to analyze changes in environmental conditions.

In the photo below, taken at the 2013 Health Datapalooza in Washington, DC, Culler shows off the prototype to Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services.sivak-culler-datapalooza

If you have other examples to share of projects that are collecting or creating data that’s used to hold government or corporations accountable, please share them in the comments or let us know on Twitter or email.

As more and more people become connected using social media, researchers, media and public health officials naturally are increasingly interested in what their updates can tell us about the world. According to the Pew Internet and Life Project, 18% of American adults online are on Twitter with some 200 million active users globally sending out 400 million tweets every day. That amount of data is catnip for researchers interested in everything from sentiment analysis, food security or embryonic pandemics.

sentiment-analysis

When people are sharing what they’re seeing using social media, city managers and public health agencies have increasingly learned to listen to what’s happening in the hopes of responding to fires, floods, odd smells, tornados, crimes or other public emergencies more effectively.

Some of the reported results are genuinely exciting, too: according to David Kirkpatrick, the director of UN Global Pulse, Twitter data accurately predicted the cholera outbreak in Haiti two weeks earlier than official records. Kirkpatrick’s team is now examining the predictive value of millions of tweets sent in Jakarta, Indonesia for assessing food security.

There are caveats to crunching Twitter data as a proxy for what’s happening in a given region or industry. As Pew Research showed in March 2013, what’s happening on Twitter is not necessarily representative of public opinion or a representative sample of a given population.

The perils of polling Twitter are particularly worth noting for media, as New York Times interactive developer Jacob Harris demonstrated this July.

That said, there are an increasing number of projects that are exploring the potential of Twitter for socially networked transparency. In Chicago, health authorities are seeking out Chicagoans who tweet about feeling poorly and ask them to share the restaurants they ate in most recently. Chicago’s health department told the Chicago Tribune that 150 Chicagoans have been contacted since the “Foodborne Chicago” initiative began, triggering 33 restaurant inspections in the first month, some of which found health code violations.

This kind of “high touch, high engagement” human approach requires a lot of humans, however, whose time is hard to scale over an entire city.

Further to the east, a research group at the University of Rochester analyzed millions of tweets in New York City to develop a system to monitor food-poisoning outbreaks at restaurants. The research crunched 3.8 million tweets, traced 23,000 restaurant visitors and found 480 reports of likely food poisoning.

As Henry Kautz highlighted in his column on public health and social data in the New York Times, there’s considerable interest in what can be gleaned from what people are sharing online:

“Groups at Brigham Young University and the University of Iowa have done extensive work on influenza monitoring via Twitter posts. Researchers at Microsoft are helping to identify women who are at risk of severe postpartum depression by analyzing changes in their online behavior. And researchers at Cornell are mining the social media stream to gather data for urban planning and environmental conservation.”

As always, anyone making public policy decisions based upon such data will have to take into account who is represented in the data or who is not.

That’s also true in efforts like Lungisa in South Africa, too, where a project is encouraging residents to hold government accountable using Twitter and Facebook. The issues raised on social media reflect the needs of the connected, not necessarily those of the poor, or of the powerful, who have their own channels to influence policy.


We’re looking for more examples of socially networked transparency, so please keep them coming. There’s already some rich veins for inquiry that some digging is turning up. For instance, in the most recent installment of his “week in civic innovation,” David Sasaki shared two helpful resources, which in turn have many more links to various projects and initiatives:

1) The Crowdsourced International Civic, Democratic and Transparency Website List, maintained by mySociety, has a long list of global efforts.

2) This list of Transparency and Accountability Resources & Initiatives, from the Engine Room, has a more US-centric collection.

If there’s something important happening in your town, state or industry, please let us know.