The Citizen Sense project is led by Professor Jennifer Gabrys at the University of Cambridge. The project, which began in January 2013 with funding from the European Research Council, investigates the relationship between technologies and practices of environmental sensing and citizen engagement.

Sensors, which are an increasing part of digital communication infrastructures, are commonly deployed for environmental monitoring within scientific study. Practices of monitoring and sensing environments have migrated to a number of everyday participatory applications, where users of smart phones and networked devices are able to engage with similar modes of environmental observation and data collection. Such “citizen sensing” projects intend to democratize the collection and use of environmental sensor data in order to facilitate expanded citizen engagement in environmental issues. But how effective are these practices of citizen sensing in not just providing “crowd-sourced” data sets, but also in giving rise to new modes of environmental awareness and practice?

Through intensive fieldwork, study and use of sensing applications, this research sets out to contextualize, question and expand upon the understandings and possibilities of democratized environmental action through citizen sensing practices. The project area, “Pollution Sensing,” concentrates on the increasing use of sensors to detect environmental disturbance, including air and water pollution. The project area investigates “Urban Sensing,” and focuses on urban sustainability or “smart city” projects that implement sensor technologies to realize more efficient or environmentally sound urban processes; the project area, “Wild Sensing,” focuses on the use of sensors to map and track flora and fauna activity and habitats. We have also developed an AirKit project area, which provides a citizen-sensing infrastructure for people to monitor their air quality.

While environmental citizenship and citizen science are established areas of research, citizen sensing is an environmental practice that has not yet been analysed in detail. The Citizen Sense project will develop a considerable body of new primary research, while seeking to raise distinct questions about the politics and practices of sense that emerge at the intersection of sensor technologies, citizen participation and environmental change. How are practices of citizenship configured in relation to these technological sensing applications? How do sensors and the environmental processes they trace influence relations and responsibilities toward environments? In what ways do the political, material and affective orientations of sensing devices fulfill their performative potential, and to what extent do the diverse practices of citizens’ everyday sensing practices reorient the intended programs of these devices?

Citizen sensing is not just made up of observations of environmental change, but also involves technical and political practices that form a complex ecology of sensing. Citizen-sensing initiatives often depend upon forms of monitoring, reporting, managing and even self-managing in order to establish environmental engagement. This study seeks to advance the conceptual and practical understandings of citizen sensing through a more rigorous engagement with theories and practices of sensing, citizenship, and environmental change.

In order to undertake this research, the project works through a set of inventive fieldwork and practice-based methods that first document existing citizen sensing projects and applications; and that then take the form of seminar-walking events and making workshops where sensing practices and technologies are tested through attention to distinct project-area related environmental issues. The fieldwork and practice-based methods work through participatory processes, and participants invited from the first survey phase of the project will be given sensing kits with which to develop sensor walks over a span of several months that document their environmental concerns.

The project ultimately seeks to generate new interpretive understandings of citizen sensing through an iterative relationship between theory, practice and field-based investigations, and to put forward new models for understanding citizen sensing.



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