SODW Notes: 8 Citizen Generated and Local Sensor Data

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Citizen generated data and sensors in public space

As local governments are responsible for our immediate living environment, they are also the ones most confronted with the rise in citizen generated data, and the increase in the use of sensors in our surroundings.

Where citizens generate data this can be both a clash as well as an addition to professional work with data.
A clash in the sense that citizen measurements may provide a counter argument to government positions. That the handful of sensors a local government might employ show that noise levels are within regulations, does not necessarily mean that people don’t subjectively or objectively experience it quite differently and bring the data to support their arguments.
An addition in the sense that sometimes authorities cannot measure something within accepted professional standards. The Dutch institute for environment and the Dutch meteo-office don’t measure temperatures in cities because there is no way to calibrate them (as too many factors, like heat radiance of buildings are in play). When citizens measure those temperatures and there’s a large enough number of those sensors, then trends and patterns in those measurements are however of interest to those government institutions. The exact individual measurements are still of uncertain quality, but the relative shifts are a new layer of insight. With the decreasing prices of sensors and hardware needed to collect data there will be more topics for which citizen generated data will come into existence. The Measure Your City project in my home town, for which I have an Arduino-based sensor kit in my garden is an example.

There’s a lot of potential for valuable usage of sensor data in our immediate living environment, whether citizen generated or by corporations or local government. It does mean though that local governments need to become much more aware than currently of the (unintended) consequences these projects may have. Local government needs to be extremely clear on their own different roles in this context. They are the rule-setter, the one to safeguard our public spaces, the instigator or user, and any or all of those at the same time. It needs an acute awareness of how to translate that into the way local government enters into contracts, sets limits, collaborates, and provides transparency about what exactly is happening in our shared public spaces. A recent article in the Guardian on the ‘living laboratories’ using sensor data in Dutch cities such as Utrecht, Eindhoven, Enschede and Assen shines a clear light on the type of ethical, legal and technical awareness needed. My company has recently created a design and thinking tool (in Dutch) for local governments to balance these various roles and responsibilities. This ties back to my previous point of local governments not being data professionals, and is a lack of expertise that needs to addressed.

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