As part of the “Data Practices” seminar series hosted across the Sociology and Design Departments at Goldsmiths, the Citizen Sense Lab presented preliminary research on tests undertaken of environmental sensing technologies.

The Citizen Sense presentation addressed three technologies used for monitoring air pollution and the types of environmental data that they produce, including how environmental sensor data are generated, validated, mobilised and used as an attractor for different types of environmental practices and politics. The three monitoring technologies discussed and displayed during the event included the London Air Quality Network, with a specific focus on the New Cross road monitoring station and the London Air app; the Air Quality Egg, a well-known DIY air quality sensor built up through a distributed maker community; and our own air quality kit, an array of sometimes-working sensor prototypes from which we have been generating environmental data.

In the process of testing these monitoring technologies, we identified four key practices that animated our analysis of how environmental data emerge and circulate. The first of these is what we call “smoothing and selecting,” which involves determining which sensors are used, at what rate data is sampled from the sensor, at what rate changes in sensor readings are converted into data outputs and how the curve continuity of visualisation software softens outliers. The second process of “validating” entails both various means of calibration and the legal and scientific logics that collaborate in maintaining the authenticity of certain forms of data. “Distributing,” our third category, revolves around the physical structures of data as they are circuited through and stored within geographically remote servers and across public and private infrastructures. Our final category, “functioning + affecting” opens out to the modes of engagement developed by sensor advocates, the social and political practices such engagement is intended to enable and the publics they mobilise. In order to capture these aspects of our sensor analysis, we developed a physical relational database that attempted to capture the imbroglio of matter, practice and politics involved in air sensing.

The presentation consisted of a hybrid format in which Jennifer Gabrys first presented our collective research on environmental sensors and data, followed by a workshop with three environmental sensor stations, where the audience was invited to interact with and query technologies that generate environmental data on air pollution. Participants modulated real-time readings of humidity by breathing into sensors, they increased temperature and CO2 outputs with the flame of a match, they watched values plummet when sensors were isolated within a plastic bag, and they used the London Air Quality Network smart phone app to compare site-specific readings at fixed monitoring stations in London. Together, we collectively interrogated the affordances of these devices and began to re-imagine the capacities and future applications of environmental sensors.

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