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Enabling Citizen Science

City Tech, GeoLocation, Health, Mobile and The Web
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We propose an important new shift in mobile phone usage – from communication tool to “networked mobile personal measurement instrument.” We explore how these new personal measurement instruments enable an entirely novel and empowering genre of mobile computing usage called citizen science.

Through the use of sensors paired with personal mobile phones, everyday people are invited to participate in collecting and sharing measurements of their everyday environment that matter to them.

Our research hypothesis is that this new usage model for mobile phones will:

  1. improve the science literacy of everyday citizens through active participation in basic scientific principles
  2. provide professional scientists with access to richer, finer-grain data sets for modeling and analysis
  3. create a new experience and usage models for the mobile phone as a tool for grassroots participation in government and policy making, and
  4. by choice of sensors and software create a deeper and more informed understanding and concern for our climate and environment.

Mobile phones are rapidly becoming the computer platform of choice in developed and developing nations. These mobile phones already shape our culture – collapsing space and time by enabling us to reach out to contact others at a distance, to perform just-in-time coordination of events, and to purchase, play, and game “on-the-go.”

We carry mobile phones with us nearly everywhere we go; yet they sense and tell us little of the world we live in. Look around you right now. How hot is it? Which direction am I facing? Which direction is the wind blowing and how fast? How healthy is the air I’m breathing? What is the pollen count right now? How long can I stay outside without getting sunburned? Is the noise level safe here? Were pesticides used on these fruits? Is this water safe to drink? Are my children’s toys free of lead and other toxins? Is my new indoor carpeting emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?

Now look to your phone for answers about the environment around you. What is it telling you? For all of its computational power and sophistication it provides us with very little insight into the actual conditions of the atmospheres we traverse with it. In fact, the only real-time environmental data it measures onboard and reports to you is a signal to noise value for a narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Certainly, one could imagine accessing the Web or other online resource from their mobile phone to find an answer to some of these questions. But much of that online data is calculated and published for general usage, not for you specifically. For example, the official weather station for a city may report that the temperature is currently 23ºC by taking one measurement at the center of the city or averaging several values from multiple sites across town. But what if you’re in the shade by the wind swept waterfront where it is actually 17ºC or waiting underground for the subway where it is a muggy 33ºC. The measurement that means the most to you is likely to be the one that captures the actual conditions you are currently experiencing, not citywide averages.

Imagine you are deciding between walking to one of two subway stations and could gather live data from the passengers waiting on the platform at each stop about the temperature and humidity of each station at that very moment? What if you were one of the 300 million people who suffer from asthma and could breath easily as you navigated your city with real-time pollen counts collected by your fellow citizens? What if you could not just be told the level of noise pollution in your city but measure and publish your own actual decibel measurements taken in front of your home? What if you were one of the more than 3 billion people, nearly half the world’s population, that burned solid fuels, including biomass fuels (wood, dung, agricultural residues) and coal, for their energy, heating, and cooking needs indoors and yet had no way to monitor the health effects of the resulting pollutants on yourself and your family even though nearly 2 million people die annually from indoor air pollution?

Mobile phones are allowing us to communicate, buy, sell, connect, and do miraculous things. However, we claim that this mobile technology, coupled with new sensing and software, can enable us to go beyond finding friends, chatting with colleagues, locating hip bars, and buying music.

Our proposal hopes to expand our perceptions of mobile phones as simply a communication tool and to research our envisioned understanding of them as personal measurement instruments capable of sensing our natural environment and empowering collective action through everyday grassroots citizen science across blocks, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. Our near-term goal is build and study a series of mobile devices outfitted with novel sensors along with an infrastructure that provides public sharing and remixing of these personal sensor measurements by experts and non-experts alike. The overall long-term goal is to develop new communication paradigms that empower communities to produce credible information that can be understood by non-experts, in order to effect positive societal change.

We have already seen the early emergence of sensor rich mobile devices such as Apple’s Nike+iPod Sport Kit (music player + pedometer), Apple’s iPhone (mobile phone + proximity sensor and accelerometer), Nokia’s 5500 (mobile phone + pedometer), Samsung’s S310 (mobile phone + 6 axis accelerometer), LG Electronics LG-LP4100 (mobile phone + breathalyzer), t+ Diabetes (mobile phone + blood glucose sensor), and Samsung’s planned body fat and fertility monitoring phone. Similarly, we have seen the “Web 2.0” phenomenon embrace an approach to generating and distributing web content characterized by open communication, decentralization of authority, freedom to share and re-use, and “the market as a conversation” (O’Reilly 2005).

We assert that there are two indisputable facts about our future mobile phones:

  1. that they will be equipped with more sensing and processing capabilities and
  2. that they will be driven by an architecture of participation and democracy that encourages users to contribute value to their tools and applications as they use them as well as give back collective value to the public.

There are countless examples already in existence of such systems from Flickr to Wikipedia to Creative Commons (Lessig 1994) to open source movements such as FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open-Source Software) where the de facto moral etiquette of openly contributing and sharing the collective repository of knowledge is upheld as the foundational and driving principle of the technology. What if we simply enable mobile phones to more easily participate in this emerging computing paradigm? There is an inevitable and powerful intersection of people-centric sensing with the current online remix culture.

More specifically, what happens when individual mobile phones are augmented with novel sensing technologies such as noise pollution, air quality, UV levels, water quality, etc? We claim that these new mobile “sensing instruments” will promote everyday citizens to uncover and visualize unseen elements of their own everyday experiences, improve public literacy in science, and augment official scientific datasets. As networked devices, they shift the role of the individual citizen from passive consumers to active producers of a vast openly shared public data set. By empowering people to easily measure, report, and compare their own personal environment, a new citizen-driven model of civic government can emerge, driven by these new networked-mobile-personal-“political artifacts” (Winner 1999).

Our research strategy is to design and deploy a series of networked measurement instruments that are embedded within our everyday places as well as coupled to personal mobile devices to collectively capture a view of our environment. More importantly, our research positions citizens as the driving element for collecting, reporting, interpreting, and collectively improving the health of our natural environment. Our hypothesis is not only that a wealth of novel and important untapped computing interactions exist in this research space, but that such experiences are certain to become a dominant paradigm in our evolving relationship with technology.

Our proposal also addresses a larger research topic of “the rise of the professional amateur” by exploring the characteristics of more personal mobile phone applications that are designed and built by non-experts and contain content contributed by other citizens rather than many of today’s large scale systems with corporate and government backing (such as location services, friend finder social networking systems, and communication tools). Large-scale services, while tremendously important, often suffer from lowest common denominator effects as they seek to make a single system satisfy the needs of everyone. We see our future technologies as a mixture of large-scale systems and personally customized small tools. In our proposal we are interested in exploring this new model of citizen measuring, public sharing, and personal remixing of the environment driven by personal experiences and measurements. We hope that the resulting systems will:

  1. convey more personal meaning to citizens,
  2. provide a more informed and responsive civic government unburdened from its reliance on solely low resolution, generic, and filtered data-driven solutions, and
  3. a better place for us all to live.

By elevating everyday citizens into the role of data collector, commentator, and policy maker, we hope to directly empower such individuals to act as change agents within their world.

Photo of Eric Paulos

Eric Paulos

Carnegie Mellon University

Eric Paulos is an Assistant Professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute within the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Previously he was Senior Research Scientist at Intel in Berkeley, California where he founded the Urban Atmospheres research group – challenged to employ innovative methods to explore urban life and the future fabric of emerging technologies across public urban landscapes. His areas of expertise span a deep body of research territory in urban computing, sustainability, green design, environmental awareness, social telepresence, robotics, physical computing, interaction design, persuasive technologies, and intimate media. Eric is a leading figure in the field of urban computing and is a regular contributor, editorial board member, and reviewer for numerous professional journals and conferences. He received his PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley where he helped launch a new robotic industry by developing some of the first internet tele-operated robots including Space Browsing helium filled blimps and Personal Roving Presence devices (PRoPs).

Eric is also the founder and director of the Experimental Interaction Unit and a frequent collaborator with Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories. Eric’s work has been exhibited at the InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Japan, Ars Electronica, ISEA, SIGGRAPH, the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF), SFMOMA, the Chelsea Art Museum, Art Interactive, LA MOCA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the ZKM, Southern Exposure, and a performance for the opening of the Whitney Museum’s 1997 Biennial Exhibition.

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Picture of Gene Becker
Gene Becker
03/11/2009 11:45am PDT

Ubicomp + sensing + environmental/social conscience = v. promising research agenda

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