How to approach participatory sensing practices during a pandemic?

by Daniela van Geenen

In the beginning of this year, I had fleshed out an outline of my PhD research project aiming at the study of sensors as everyday knowledge technologies. As I sketch in my project description, sensors play an increasing role in the production and processing of data that inform about and help governing public spaces and matters, the everyday lives of citizens and their surroundings. The idea(l) of ‘smart governance’ culminates in the ‘smart city’, in which inbuilt sensors (semi-)automatically measure and help monitoring environments in combination with the behavior of their inhabitants. For instance, the Dutch Brainport Smart District is a widely discussed and critiqued example of the development and implementation of sensor-driven technologies into a newly built residential area. Central in these critiques is the question of the actual opportunities of the people who are involved in and impacted by these environments to actively and critically engage with the (partially) hidden ways in which knowledge is produced through sensors and then acted upon, for example, in political decision- and policy-making.

Scholars who study how ‘responsible smart cities’ could be developed, examine opportunities that do exist and might be (co-)created to enable and stimulate relevant actors – including non-experts and laypeople – to interface with public matters such as climate change and health issues through openly accessible data (De Lange, 2019). In my PhD project, I draw from and expand this understanding of ‘interfacing with data’ to finding entry points to engage and interfere with the ways in which sensors enable and frame everyday data practices. I pay particular attention to the conditions of possibility for ‘critical data practice’. That is to say, I focus on critical engagements with sensor data developed and promoted by both those who are involved in the development of urban spaces governed by sensor technologies, and citizens themselves, for example, those who are active members of citizen science/sensing initiatives. This blogpost and my conference presentation deal with my – partially successful – efforts to engage with the latter group.

COVID-19 hit Europe around the time I started to inventory possible case studies. In order to make sure I will be able to conduct long-term fieldwork, I decided to establish contact with potential partners located in the Netherlands, where I live. One of the projects I favoured because of its founders’ explicit interest in collaboratively promoting data literacy and technical skills – or ‘sensor literacy’ (Nold, 2020) – is the Amersfoort-based participatory sensing initiative Meet je stad (English translation: Measure your city). Due to the partial lockdown announced by the Dutch government at the end of March, Meet je stad’s monthly meeting in April was the first meeting held online and my first meeting with members of the initiative ever. I attended this meeting and some of the meetings that followed, which were also organized as remote meetings using open source video conferencing software Jitsi, to receive the first impression of Meet je stad’s organization and working practices. This experience helped me to carve out one of the central questions that I concerned myself with during the summer semester of 2020: What is the ‘field’ I am exploring and what counts as research material to access and investigate it? 

In following an ethnomethodological understanding of ‘data practice’, I strive to approach the field following and making sense of the ‘methods’ of the members of a citizen sensing setting on their own terms (cf. Garfinkel, 1967). In that, I was lucky that the founders and members of Meet je stad immediately broadened their online and digital means of collaboration. To guarantee access to and ‘tweakability’ of their project, open-source technologies are key to the initiative, which holds also for the software they use to communicate and document their project. Besides participating in the initiative’s online meetings, I became a member of their Matrix chat channel. This ‘partial membership’ enabled me to start familiarizing myself with other members’ everyday conversations on the cooperative project management, technical troubleshooting to keep the sensing infrastructure running, and new proposals for future environmental sensing possibilities. Yet, I did not succeed in exploring their ways of engaging with sensor data and the practices these data thrive on and bring about ‘in the making’ (cf. Garnett, 2017). On the contrary, through Meet je stad’s online communication I soon realized that studying sensor-enabled data practices implies becoming part of the participatory sensing initiative by means of building a sensing device in order to monitor matters such as air quality myself. Most of the initiative’s physical workshops this year to build such a device, however, had to be postponed, including the one I registered for in mid-October. Thus, the pandemic and measures to contain its spread underscored that studying sensors as everyday knowledge technologies implies having access to the ‘social life of such methods’ (Law & Ruppert, 2013). That is to say, in order for me to actually interface with participatory sensing communities and to follow their practices engaging with and through the device as a material object is vital. The sensing device is therefore more than just a piece of technology, but building, using, and maintaining the device provides access to the shifting socio-technical arrangements that it shapes and is shaped by.

As feminist scholar Donna Haraway (2016) notes aptly, ‘[i]t matters what matters we use to think other matters with’ (p .12), not only conceptually, but also literally. Haraway’s call to ‘stay [..] with the trouble’, which she elaborates on in the same volume (2016), sums up what pandemic attuning meant and still means with regard to my case study: On the one hand, the phrase denotes Meet je stad’s struggle to care for their joint effort, to keep the project running and even expand its scope including more environmental issues such as the monitoring of particulate matter – issues that have got out of sight due to the pandemic. On the other hand, I read Haraway’s call as a motivational phrase to keep working on my relationship with the site of study, and take this relation’s instability as a chance to inquire into my – always only – partial perspective on the ways in which sensors are understood and operated as knowledge technologies in such projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *