Shipped from Ithaca, New York, by first-class post, an Air Quality Egg has arrived in our Citizen Sense project lab. Written on its cardboard box is the message, “Care about your air? Problem solved.” Designed to make the air we breathe more visible, the project consists of a kit that enables the collection of air quality data within our local environments.
How is this achieved? Which air is enacted through this sensor kit?
The Air Quality Egg (AQE) is a collective, DIY, air quality sensor and network that emerged in 2012 out of an international collaboration of people involved in exploring aspects of the Internet of Things. The egg sensors measure concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), because as noted on the project’s webpage, “they are the most indicative elements related to urban air pollution that are sense-able by inexpensive DIY sensors.” Although the egg can be implemented with other sensors, in this case the aspects of air quality that are measured depend on the technologies available.
The sensor kit, built in parallel or even in opposition to institutional measuring networks, intends to give voice to citizens in environmental issues, thereby raising the environment and its management as a matter of concern. But to make the air matter as an issue of common interest, a whole new assemblage of people, environments and technologies is required, which configures another way of understanding urban infrastructures. This assemblage is articulated around two main differences: the material conditions of the apparatus and who engages in undertaking its deployment.
The sensors used are a DIY combination of off-the-shelf and cheap components that can be expanded and reconfigured. This approach is meant to allow citizens to deploy the eggs in all their phases (funding, designing, managing, monitoring, and making data public). As a consequence, the spaces for the construction of the prototype have been displaced from high-tech international companies to international media labs and art and technology institutions such as Eyebeam, de Waag or Medialab Prado.
Two main controversies, enacted and made public on the Air Quality Egg webpage, arise from this specific material assemblage:
Quantity versus quality of sensors
The network functions through a multiplicity of nodes, and not necessarily through the quality of the data that each of them provides. Such multiplicity of sensors reconfigures the scale and space of a public infrastructural network. However, there is still the assumption that technological devices will be the drivers of a political change into a non-representational democracy by providing the tools to coordinate and decide collectively about environmental concerns, which raises questions about the implicit expectations of relying on technology as the means of social and political change.
Access vs precision and calibration
The economical aspect of sensing is prioritised toward the quality of the data. This opens up one of the main controversies between scientific and citizen science, which revolves around accuracy and what counts as valid data. Such an approach constructs a distinction between primary (accurate and technical) and secondary (subjective, soft) data. If, as Bruno Latour, Annemarie Mol and other STS-based thinkers propose, there is a need to eliminate this distinction and level the two epistemic modes of knowing, the question that arises is how to evaluate types and modalities of data, as well as the practices that they generate and organise.
In the AQE, sensing is meant to be configured for participating in a public debate about the environment through the deployment of the sensing kit. By shifting the question from the quality of the data to what it enacts and which worlds and actions it makes possible, it proposes that there are other aspects that matter in air sensing, such as the measuring process itself. Measuring the air is a practice of engagement that unfolds through the making of a technical device, and which might be seen to be a contested strategy of dealing with air quality and public infrastructures.
The Air Quality Egg also proposes a material agency for the sensing kits themselves. Instead of enhancing an invisible ubiquity of sensors, the project developers attempt to make them visible. Both the sensors and the base station have been encased within an egg-shape plexiglass case that is tactile and illuminated, thereby presenting an embodied and distinctly materialized relationship with the sensing process. There have been multiple “design” efforts to make sensors more engaging (such as the Speck project), but the AQE aims to gain engagement through the shape of the object and through interactivity: by making the egg glow.
But how one is meant to respond to the glowing egg has been left to the user to decide. The egg can be seen as an open design that enhances participation, although it would be interesting to research when deployed whether it achieves these material and political effects. Data is also not seen through the object itself, is not inscribed where it has been measured, but it is uploaded to a collective platform of sensor data (Xively, formerly Pachube and Cosm, one of the most active supporters of the Egg). This platform has the advantage of making the data public and comparable (it is in fact this platform that transforms individual measurements into a network). However, the measurements can only be compared in real time, since the sensing kits are not building datasets. This opens the question of the purpose of a real-time network of independent sensors, and the kind of socio-political changes they might enable.
But there is another level of care, which comes out of the material properties of the sensors. Sensors and their assemblage are not stable and need monitoring (their technology is fragile and requires repair, recalibration and attention), so monitoring the air with these sensors implies the monitoring of the sensing kits themselves, thereby producing a new relationship: caring for the environment requires caring for the machine. However at the same time it may reduce the spectrum of citizens that can be implicated in this conversation, as technical and electronic knowledge is needed for this care.
By focusing the sensing process on mattering and its capacity of raising matters of concern, the AQE kit operates in a way that problematises institutional modes of sensing. It does so by making public the deployment of the kit, revealing doubts and uncertainties as a way of opening up science to citizens to produce engagement. As a result, what matters are the normative implications of the kit and the practices that it enables as the spaces for political action. However the sensor kit also challenges some of the presuppositions of the scientific-policy making sensing process, showing how the fact that the object can be touched (and built) makes air sensing relevant for a community of practice. It also proves that content and hardware cannot be separated and demonstrates that the material conditions of the apparatus matter. By shifting a few conditions such as the price of the sensors or who deploys the network, a whole sensing process is reconfigured, transforming the type of infrastructure that it constitutes, as well as its effects in relation to environments.
Images: Initiating the assemblage of an Air Quality Egg at the Citizen Sense Lab, 2013