This post reflects on the experiences of working on a collaborative project while being physically distant due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we have maintained some semblance of research activity, this continuity is the result of months of collaboration and years of prior research.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, our cosy lab on the periphery of the busy New Museums site in Cambridge had been a hub of activity. For the past 9 months, this was a place where we organised, designed and built the integral infrastructure for the Airkit project. Here, cables, electronic detritus and bubble wrap reign. There is just about enough space for a wide array of sensors from the Air Quality Egg to our latest designs, as well as a soldering table, desks, chairs, computers, many books and a one-tonne fire-resistant filing cabinet.
Our collaborative efforts into developing technologies unfold as social scientists, computer scientists and practice researchers. We are a core team distanced over 200 miles, also working with collaborators across Europe and North America. Early in March it became clear that we would need to adjust our working practices in terms of how we collaborate, what infrastructure and production processes we use, how we document and distribute sensors, and how we conduct field studies.
We made the decision to proceed with some elements of our schedule, in particular the production of a further batch of Dustboxes with new enclosures and slightly revised PCB designs. We set up a distributed working system that involved mailing key supplies to one Citizen Sense researcher in the north of the UK, having new supplies shipped from online electronics warehouses through the steady and dedicated online shopping efforts of one team members in the south of the UK, and researching available parts and supplies from another researcher in the middle of the UK.
A steady stream of deliveries established the northern outpost as a new hub of manufacturing, and regular online meetings stood in for the tea-addled in-person confabs of yore. The rhythm and focus of snipping pin headers, soldering breakout boards, cutting wires, compiling code, and sourcing cables interspersed with COVID-related news, and texts and emails.
The Dustbox production unfolded as a flurry of soldering, building, programming, testing, and packing, scattered within musical equipment, cluttered desk space, and silent houseplants. In very little time, a new batch of Dustbox 2.0 devices with unique installation capabilities had been assembled, and with some expert coding piped in from our team member in the middle of the UK, the devices also began to send data to our database and display on our evolving platform.
The devices assembled as domestic creatures that required ongoing maintenance, remote programming, and occasional adjustments. Working alone together became another way to form networks, however imperfect, that allowed us to continue to rework technologies that might, with any luck, be installed in locations across London and Cambridge and farther afield in the near future.