Multiple pollutants and substances are churning through the air of modern environments. Toxic gases and intensifying carbon, carcinogenic particles and novel viruses circulate and accumulate into atmospheres that have effects spanning the bodily and the planetary. This book is a study of how people attempt to sense and respond to air pollution. More specifically, it documents and analyzes research from the Citizen Sense project, which worked with communities in the US and UK to monitor air pollution and propose transformations to environments. The Citizen Sense research project, initially funded through the European Research Council, began in 2013 as a study into how sensor technologies organize, promise, and activate citizenly engagements. This research looks at how people are taking up citizen-sensing devices to monitor air, collect data, inform policy, and act on environmental pollution.
Even more than observing citizen-sensing technologies and practices, however, this research has worked with communities to develop collaborative studies to document and map pollution, build sensing devices, work through datasets, propose action points, and circulate data stories to influence policymakers and industry. By working with communities to install and test sensors, while monitoring and analyzing data outputs, we investigated how these devices operate, and the potential citizenships that they would activate. We also studied the varying effects of citizen data as it is collected, circulated, acted upon, rejected, or ignored.
When the Citizen Sense project began, there were few social-research projects that specifically researched and analyzed how community, citizen, or participatory sensing takes shape through these emerging digital technologies. Many of the early studies in this area had been undertaken within the realm of human-computer interaction, where a focus on developing digital devices and systems has been more central; or in creative practice, where speculative arrangements of technology, environments, and social practice spurred different encounters with environments. I detail some of these projects in my earlier book, Program Earth. Yet the research described here seeks to move beyond a central focus on sensor technology to understand in more depth the concrete social, political, and environmental engagements that are made possible or restricted through citizen-sensing practices over time.
The primary way in which this work pursues this area of inquiry is by investigating how citizenships are operationalized along with sensing technologies in the attempt to act on environmental problems. The focus on the citizen is in part a response to one of the most frequent set of questions that surfaced during this research, namely: who or what is the “citizen” in citizen sensing, what form of political agency is this, and what forms of membership are captured here? This is where the notion of “citizens of worlds” comes into play, as the mutual constitution of political subjects and environments. As a concept, “citizens of worlds” signals how diverse political subjects, collectives, and technologies form with and through multiple milieus, and how they undertake practices that express diverse and diverging environmental experiences. This approach expands into an analysis of citizens as more multi-agential, pluralistic, and collective than a seemingly singular unit of abstract citizenship. But it also points to collisions of worlds, where power to make worlds matter is unevenly distributed and wielded. These are conditions that are central to struggles to make more breathable worlds.
Environments are increasingly sites of pollution, extraction, disaster, and development. Technologies and practices for documenting environmental pollution and destruction are not just capturing evidence of these events; they are also devices, operations, and milieus through which citizens and communities materialize and make sense of environmental problems. By documenting practice-based investigations of sensing technologies used to monitor and evidence concrete environmental problems, this study considers the collaborations, conflicts, aspirations, troubleshooting, disappointments, and political change that are forged in specific sensing projects. In doing so, it seeks to identify practices for engaging with environments and working with digital technologies that generate more expansive possibilities for citizens and worlds. How people work with, respond to, care for, shape, fight for, and transform environments informs the political subjects and collectives that materialize. This is also a way of reworking political subjects through their environmental affiliations and attachments—toward citizens of worlds. Different formations of subjects and worlds are constitutive of distinct possibilities for being in and becoming with worlds. Citizens form through worlds, and their coming into being and political capacities register not just in relation to other political subjects, but also through the conditions of those worlds.
While this work is practice-based, it is not a project of making sensors for making’s sake. Moreover, the research does not stand back and observe participants using sensors, but instead works through a collaborative set of engagements to understand environmental problems and diverse responses to them. This work includes learning about existing monitoring projects, while proposing how to develop potential further sensing practices. It involves ongoing attempts to make sense of data and searching for ways to operationalize observations for more breathable worlds. In this process, some contributors to this research have asked to be identified as project contributors and authors of data, while others have asked to remain anonymous, in which case more generalized descriptions of participants are used. Overall, this approach to research involves mutual investigation, shared learning, and respect for the multiple contributions that can be brought to a research project as a democratic and collective endeavor.
My work on sensors has followed a very long trajectory, and it is difficult to identify a starting point for work that has been ongoing for nearly two decades. I began the core part of the research described in this text while at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2013, and completed it while at the University of Cambridge from 2018 onwards. Thank you to both institutions, including the Departments of Sociology where I have been based, for providing lively environments in which to undertake this research over a span of more than 8 years.
So many colleagues, friends, researchers, and students have contributed in different ways to this research, from providing logistical support, serving on our advisory board, extending publication invitations and contributing to publications, contributing to events and hosting events, arranging exhibitions, sharing ideas, and much more. A very incomplete list includes: Anne Alexander, Barbara Neves Alves, Ramon Amaro, Christian Andersen, Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, Ilia Antenucci, Nishat Awan, Les Back, Karen Bakker, Andrea Ballestero, Richard Balme, Daniel Barber, Ronita Bardhan, Benjamin Barratt, Andrew Barry, Caroline Bassett, Laura Beloff, Vikki Bell, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Michaela Benson, Erich Berger, Armin Beverungen, Didier Bigo, Alan Blackwell, Zach Blas, Dominique Boyer, Rosi Braidotti, Bruce Braun, Roger Burrows, Bram Büscher, Sebastian Büttrich, Baki Cakici, Dominique Cardon, Ele Carpenter, Vivian Chang, Mel Y. Chen, Katie Cohen, Beth Coleman, Rebecca Coleman, Geoff Cox, Endre Dányi, Didier Debaise, Jennifer Deger, Manali Desai, Tridibesh Dey, Mark D’Inverno, Robert Doubleday, Rachel Douglas-Jones, Vera Ehrenstein, Bianca Elzenbaumer, Ulrike Felt, Laura Forlano, Kim Fortun, Sarah Franklin, Matthew Fuller, Elaine Gan, Emma Garnett, Bill Gaver and the Interaction Research Studio, Natalie Gill, Olga Goriunova, Lisa Gormley, Christelle Gramaglia, Ros Gray, Andrew Grieve, Michael Guggenheim, Miren Guttierez, Muki Haklay, Gay Hawkins, Yasunori Hayashi, Charles Heller, Stefan Helmreich, Steve Hinchliffe, Tom Holert, Erich Hörl, Cymene Howe, Yuk Hui, Helena Hunter, Engin Isin, Anab Jain, Dan Jones, Finn Arne Jørgensen, Melody Jue, Kat Jungnickel, Sarah Kember, Hannah Knox, Olga Kuchinskaya, Brandon Labelle, Brian Larkin, Bruno Latour, Ingmar Lippert, Jamie Lorimer, Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Andres Luque-Ayala, Ruth Machen, Adrian Mackenzie, James Maguire, Alice Mah, Simon Marvin, Cecilia Mascolo, Karen M’Closkey, Joel McKim, Ella McPherson, Ali Meghji, Doreen Mende, Mike Michael, Stefania Milan, Helge Mooshammer, Louis Moreno, Mónica Moreno-Figueroa, Peter Mörtenböck, Debashree Mukherjee, Rahul Mukherjee, Alex Murray-Leslie, Tahani Nadim, Chloe Nast, Joshua Neves, Daniel Neyland, Christian Nold, Susan Owens, Tiffany Page, Weixian Pan, Sylvain Parasie, Luciana Parisi, Lisa Parks, Doina Petrescu, Lorenzo Pezzani, Peggy Pierrot, Søren Pold, Alison Powell, Maria Montero Prieto, Helen Pritchard, Jane Prophet, María Puig de la Bellacasa, Nirmal Puwar, Dennis Quirin, Andrew Ray, Hannah Redler Hawes, Donato Ricci, Wood Roberdeau, Scott Rodgers, Gillian Rose, Ned Rossiter, Evelyn Ruppert, Alder Keleman Saxena, Sven Schade, Lea Schick, Susan Schuppli, Emily Eliza Scott, Bev Skeggs, Shela Sheikh, Brooke Singer, Vicky Singleton, Sam Skinner, Joe Shaw, Johanne Sloan, Eric Snodgrass, Winnie Soon, Michaela Spencer, Will Straw, Lucy Suchman, Tomoko Tamari, Güneş Tavmen, Alex Taylor, Manuel Tironi, Martin Tironi, Nate Tkacz, Anna Tsing, Lynn Turner, Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, Jorge Saavedra Utman, Keith VanDerSys, Lucy van de Wiel, Michiel van Oudheusden, Pauline von Hellermann, Rachel Wakefield-Rann, Antonia Walford, Janet Walker, Laurie Waller, Claire Waterton, Eyal Weizman, Jennifer Wenzel, Sarah Whatmore, Ron Williams, Brit Ross Winthereik, Anne-Sophie Witzke, Nicole Wolf, Mark Peter Wright, Kathryn Yusoff, and Matthew Zook. Thanks are also due to the numerous organizers, hosts, institutions, and audiences who listened and responded to presentations of this work, and who were important interlocutors throughout the development of this text.
Multiple communities, collaborators, researchers, technologists, and designers have contributed to the three case studies that I discuss in this book. Thanks are due for the fracking-related research undertaken as part of the first “Pollution Sensing” case study to participating residents in Pennsylvania, including Frank Finan, Rebecca Roter, Meryl Solar, Vera Scroggins, Chuck and Janis Winschuh, Paul Karpich, Barbara Clifford, John Hotvedt, Barbara Scott, Audrey Gozdiskowski and Alex Lotorto, along with anonymous participants, as well as Citizen Sense contributors, including researchers Helen Pritchard, Nerea Calvillo, Tom Keene and Nick Shapiro, and consultants including illustrator Kelly Finan, data architect Thiam Kok Lau, web designer Raphael Faeh, filmmaker Catherine Pancake, and atmospheric scientist Benjamin Barratt. I am grateful to Illah R. Nourbakhsh and the Create Lab at Carnegie Mellon University for loaning Speck devices for use in the fracking-related research.
For the second London-based case study, “Urban Sensing,” thanks are due to postdoctoral researchers Helen Pritchard and Lara Houston, atmospheric scientists Benjamin Barratt and Khadija Jabeen, graphic designer Sarah Garcin, web designer Raphael Faeh, materials designer Francesca Perona, data architect Lau Thiam Kok, and electronics designer Adrian McEwen for contributing to the collaborative research, design, calibration and development of the citizen-sensing technologies used in this research. My gratitude also goes to the Southeast London participants, and to the organizations that have hosted workshops and events, including Deptford Folk, Deptford Neighbourhood Action, Pepys Estate, Crossfields Estate, Voice for Deptford, APT Gallery, New Cross Gate Trust, Deptford Lounge library and New Cross Learning. Along the way, Citizen Sense also benefited from conversations with Councillor Sophie McGeevor and Christopher Howard at Lewisham Council; Barbara Gray, former Mayoress of Lewisham Council; Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah of The Ella Roberta Family Foundation; and Ronald Bourne of the Lewisham Environmental Justice Alliance; as well as everyone involved in the New Cross and Evelyn Assemblies.
For the third case study, “Wild Sensing,” situated in the Square Mile of the City of London, thanks to materials designer Francesca Perona and graphic designer Sarah Garcin. Paul McGann of Grow Elephant developed the planters in which the air-quality gardens were installed at the Museum of London. Thanks also to the Phyto-Sensor workshop and walk participants, including Sandra Beeson, Natalia Morris, Beth Humphrey, and anonymous participants who contributed ideas for developing the toolkit. My gratitude goes to the Museum of London for coordinating the Phyto-Sensor project, with support from Lauren Parker, Oliver Whitehead, Tracky Crombie, and Alwyn Collinson; and to the City of London for supporting and contributing to the organization of this project, including Beth Humphrey, Ben Kennedy, Louisa Tan, Asmajan Noori, and Ruth Calderwood. Special thanks to Sarah Hudson for sharing resources on the clean-air gardens developed by residents in the City of London in 2017. The Phyto-Sensor workshop and walk, as well as planters, were also made possible through additional funding from the Museum of London and Low Emission Neighbourhood (LEN) initiative with the City of London. The LEN is funded by the Mayor of London.
For the AirKit Proof of Concept research, I thank postdoctoral researchers Joanne Armitage and Sachit Mahajan, materials designer Andrea Rinaldi, graphic designer Sarah Garcin, digital designers and technologists Common Knowledge Coop (including Gemma Copeland, Jan Baykara, Chris Devereux, and Alex Worrad-Andrews), data architect Lau Thiam Kok, and research assistant Verena Eireiner. I am also grateful to the participants and residents in the Forest Hill area of London, including Clean Air SE23, the Dalmain School and local residents, who contributed to the development and testing of the Dustbox monitoring kit, as well as to the collection and analysis of data and communication of results to wider publics and regulators. And while she had gone on to work as a lecturer in computing at the time of the AirKit project, Helen Pritchard should be offered a final thanks in triplicate for her epic generosity that has made for ongoing expansive exchanges with Citizen Sense research.
It has been a mammoth effort assembling so much material into one book. Special thanks are due to Melissa Larner for her expert contributions to manuscript preparation and copyediting. At the University of Minnesota Press, Doug Armato, Zenyse Miller, and Anne Carter brought this text to published form, and Danielle Kasprzak contributed to the earlier Forerunners version of Chapter One that informed the overall how-to structure for this book. Terence Smyre provided expert support on developing this publication for the Manifold platform, an impressive and engaging experiment in open-access publishing. I am grateful to everyone at the University of Minnesota Press for their ongoing work in making this a truly exceptional and innovative academic press.
The Citizen Sense project and research would not have been possible without the generous and transformative support provided by the European Research Council (ERC). With initial funding through a Starting Grant (313347 from 2013 to 2018) and further funding through a Proof of Concept Grant (779921, 2019 to 2020), this work has benefited from sustained and substantial resources from the ERC. Two seed-funded research grants from Goldsmiths, University of London from 2007–08 and 2009–10 allowed me to develop the initial research on citizen sensing that informed my applications to the ERC. Follow-on funding from the University of Cambridge, including through the Economic and Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account (ESRC IAA) in 2020 has allowed for further development of public engagement and outreach activities. Thank you to these funders and institutions for their contributions, which have been so crucial for undertaking this research.