Green shoots for sensors, civic science and infrastructure monitoring

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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.
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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.

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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.

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