Sensor Citizens and Participatory Sensing

Until recently sensors had been used primarily by governments and businesses to monitor and report on the physical world. For the most part, sensors were fixed devices, often referred to as nodes, under centralized control and requiring special hardware that was both inflexible and expensive.

Steep declines in the cost of mobile devices such as cell phones, and sensor technologies have enabled the emergence of a phenomenon called “participatory sensing’. Coined by UCLA professor Jeff Burke, this term refers to the “ability of individuals to act as sensor nodes and come together with other people in order to form sensor networks.” This approach to urban sensing is decentralized and grassroots in nature and opens up new possibilities for people to participate in both art and science.

As with the advent of any new technology, the rise of the sensor citizen has negative as well as positive aspects. Here is quote from an article written by Anne Galloway and titled The Rise of the Sensor Citizen published in the Vodafone Receiver managazine: “given public concerns around environmental risks and their connections to technological progress, I believe that this kind of active citizenship should promote more critical reflection on the values and goals of the very projects that expect to create such profound changes in these domains, and carefully consider the limits of its own power.” Though this quote specifically refers to environmental uses of these technologies, I find this advice holds true more broadly in relation to the uses of this technology.

A recent publication from Nokia highlights many possibilities created by the addition of sensors to mobile phones. It enables humans to become creators, custodians, actuators, and publishers of the data they and others collect. “A people-centric sensing network would behave much like a self-organizing organic system, with personal data interplaying in fluid and unpredictable ways with environmental, community, and global data.”

Nokia strongly supports the notion that mobile phones are the most sensible devices for making sensor technologies widely available. Current technology already enables these devices to support various types of sensors, including location, barometric, temperature, vibration, sound and light. [via Putting People First blog]

Many of the researchers and projects exploring the emergence of “sensor citizens” and “participatory sensing” focus on how these phenomena create opportunities for community action and science. Here is a short list of projects that share this focus:

Proboscis is a UK-based creative studio that partners with universities to explore how sensors can be used to support public action around environmental issues. Their best-known project, called Social Tapestries, uses remote controlled cars tricked out with sensors and GPS to capture data regarding air quality. The data is then visualized with annotations on a map.

The Common Sense Project is a California-based team that is focused on creating a platforms, including both hardware and software, that provide sensing capabilities to support community action and citizen science. Here is an excerpt from their paper titled Mobile Environmental Sensing Platforms to Support Community Action and Citizen Science:

“To make environmental sensing useful for practical action, one must… produce information artifacts that are “credible enough” to engage with bureaucracy; appealing enough to be useful in community mobilization; and personally relevant enough to maintain interest and motivation. We therefore seek to enable community members to engage in collaborative “citizen science” or “street science” that will be useful in interactions with government agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs). In doing so, we posit that one can go beyond the groundbreaking and inspirational work of electronic artists in using environmental sensor data for awareness-raising and social provocation. “

From a hardware perspective, last year Nokia released a concept phone that can support a number of sensors including environment, wheather, and health. It is so portable that it can be worn as a watch. Pretty cool stuff though I think we are still quite a few years away from this product becoming a reality. [via Wired]. As open source hardware technologies continue to evolve portable sensors are likely to be coupled with other mobile devices such as GPS modules, cameras, MP3 players, laptops (and even cars).

“While there is a lot of talk about using these technologies for socially, politically and environmentally positive ends, they also implicitly support existing consumption practices in the developed world, and hide the role that technological progress has played in creating the very problems they seek to improve… [also] when active citizenship requires access to particular technologies, people without access are effectively excluded from the democratic process.” [quote from Anne Galloway].

Artists have also been exploring the use of portable sensor technology to capture more data regarding more subjective aspects of reality – for example monitoring, visualizing and reporting on people’s emotional states. Currently map-based visualizations are most common; I am certain this will evolve as citizen sensing becomes a more widespread phenomena. The most ambitious project of this type that I’ve been able to locate is the Bio Mapping project. “Since 2004, over 1500 people around the world have participated in the Bio Mapping project to create “emotion maps” of their cities and neighbourhoods.”

The power of emergent sensor networks, created by commonly available mobile devices, is having an impact beyond activists and artists. People have begun to embrace these types of technologies as they are becoming increasingly available for personal uses. This is an important area to consider because this is the first time that sensors have become available to support such personal endeavors. Previously they have been used for environmental monitoring and to support other institutional or business concerns.

Here are some examples of how this technology is being used by individuals:

Storytelling: People love to tell stories about their lives, adventures, trips, parties, triumphs and failures. So it’s only natural that this would be one the main uses for which people have begun to adopt mobile sensing technologies. The most common example is the way in which people are using GPS enabled cameras to capture pictures that can be added to online maps, via popular web services such as Flickr and Google Maps, or to personal picture books, using desktop software such as iPhoto. Sony is about to launch a GPS-enabled camcorder.

Lifestreaming is an interesting storytelling phenomenon that is being impacted by the proliferation of sensing capabilities on mobile devices. This technological progress enables humans to collect, curate and publish new types and volumes of data about their life experience and context. As sensors continue to improve it will be interesting to discover the new possibilities that will be created for storytelling (imagine being able to add scents to your picture slideshow).

Transportation: Transportation and traffic coordination is another area where distributed sensor is in the process of being quickly adopted by consumers. An interesting application available on Android is Ecorio. It estimates your environmental impact by using GPS to determine the type of transportation that you use. Another more powerful use of distributed GPS sensors is mentioned in the Nokia Insights study. A project from UC Berkley explored the use of GPS-enabled mobile phones as sensors for traffic reporting and management. Researchers claim that type of system can provide a cost-effective, and just plain effective, alternative to fixed sensors; best of all it can work when as little as 5% of the drivers on a road have a sensor.

Here is one application that I would personally appreciate: a service that enables bus riders (such as the ones who take the M15 bus in Manhattan) to check real-time location of the bus enabled by GPS of bus riders.

Convenience: In today’s fast paced world we are always looking for opportunities to simplify our lives. That is why people are always looking for products that offer convenience. Locale is a cool android app that definitely fits the bill. It enables you to set-up your phone to perform pre-defined actions based on your location. Now you can set your ringer to vibrate anytime you go to the movie theater near your house (or the office). This application can even communicate with other phones to enable people to keep track of each other (e.g. parents keeping track of their kids).

Public safety: coupling location awareness with messaging, audio and imaging capabilities can also be used to support public safety. The proliferation of messaging and networking tools coupled with the increasing capability of devices to search and contextualize information by location has made it possible for local individuals and communities to better respond to crisis. Ushahidi is an example of a service that was developed with public safety in mind. It “allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Our [Ushahidi’s] goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.”

While there are many opportunities for using these technologies for personal benefit, there are also a lot of valid issues and concerns that need to be openly discussed and addressed to ensure the proliferation of these technologies is a liberating rather than suffocating phenomena. First and foremost is the issue of privacy. Next is the need for mobile sensor technologies need to be designed to respect and support human social, cultural and emotional (as well as physical) needs with dignity. There is also the issue of ensuring that the spoils of technology are widely distributed so that the benefits can be accrued by as many people as possible.

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