Tools for navigating landscape of community action

Posted on May 12, 2009


Image3In the early 90s I worked on the Otago Regional Council’s land and vegetation monitoring programme. One of the strategies we used was to closely involve the land managers in monitoring and analysis.  We hoped (and found) this would give greater credibility to the process and ownership of the results. The  involvement stemmed beyond labour in the field into collection of other information, analysis and interpretation and community input into the research planning process.   I can clearly remember the evening meeting in the Oturehua hotel when we introduced our plans for satellite monitoring of land condition.  By the end of the night the discussion resulted in the Land Health Index.  The LHI assessed land against its potential growth of land for each landtype.  Again, all the field work and much of the analysis was carried out by the community.  We purposefully didn’t use it as a regulatory tool, instead the maps were displayed by members of the community at field days for farmers to quietly see for themselves how they we seen to be doing “from space”.

Paul Aoki puts this sort of work in perspective when he examines the role of citizens in environmental sensing and the design of systems to facilitate such involvement in his paper “A vehicle for research: using street sweepers to explore the landscape of environmental community action” (ACM DL).

The usual approach to HCI Sustainability research (how cool, I used the word “usual” in front of HCI sustainability research), is for “green interventions” at the level of personal behaviour modification. Here, Paul reports on work at a different scale:

we consider opportunities, challenges and considerations for the HCI community in developing technology to facilitate environmental change via political processes.

This is an important area, as they argue here, community behaviour is more complex than the sum of the parts:

Reflecting a resurgence of popular concern about environmental sustainability, the HCI community has recently been searching for ways in which its abilities and disciplinary concerns can be brought to bear on environmental issues. However, such societal-scale issues are canonical wicked problems, ones in which stakeholders have radically different views such that the definition and explanation of a problem, the formulation and acceptability of possible solutions, and the meaning and permanence of success are broadly contested


They argue that the action research framework is valuable here.    Crucially, the research agenda must be left open for stakeholder input. 

Using air quality as an example, they explore the “social and organisational landscape of environmental action”.    For example, they describe stakeholder perspectives 

in order to help researchers interact effectively with different parties and to illuminate the context in which technologies and data will be received – or… be judged as irrelevant.

While there has been several art-works where community data has been used in display, Paul and his colleagues aimed to “moblisation of social action and practical engagement with the environmental decision-making process”.     Incumbent on such work is the involvment of the community in all aspects of the process – a “community sense making” that extends beyond data collection but also to designing and implementing solutions.  

They describe the application of community based sensing via city street sweeping vehicles in San Francisco. A wide range of stakeholders were involved in the whole process: “city and state government representatives, advisory board members, remediation consultants, air quality consultants, urban planners, physicians, scientists, NGO organizers and volunteers, lung cancer survivors, and many others” (strangely no mention of the drivers). The authors point out that “adversarial” is an oversimplification of the usual interaction between these stakeholders, there are complex interactions, “a constant struggle to influence”.

Different stakeholders place different weights on different environmental issues, some disagreed on whether existing air quality measures “represent the air that citizens breathe on a day-today basis” (with sites away from peak emitters to get an average, but activists argue that citizens are exposed to such peaks) while others felt that anything that deviated from the scientific norms would result untrustworthy information.

Paul describes the process of proposing and developing a mobile sensing approach to air quality.   He describes a variety of responses and critiques.   For example, different responses to the whole notion of a monitoring programme: 

People were often very interested in mobile sensing as a means to influence other people’s opinions or to pressure other people to take action. They believed that more data would help them make a more convincing case to policy makers, gain media attention which would pressure policy makers and/or corporations to take action, or galvanize (currently uninvolved) individuals from the community to “make noise” or band together to advocate for action.
However, it became clear that there are many situations in which actors in the environmental decision-making process are not interested in data. For example, many people were not particularly inclined to adopt or endorse mobile sensing for the purpose of informing their own beliefs. Many of our participants (from government officials to citizens) had already formed strong beliefs about a given environmental situation, and they did not anticipate that more data would strongly impact their opinion…


For different participants, locally obtained data is placed alongside already held scientific interpretation of situations from known principles; regulatory interpretation;  and personal interpretation.  Hence a strong community feeling that more data is unwarranted – “we’re going for the solution”.

Other factors include the questions of whether the data is “good enough” and can citizens participate credibly.  That is, can the community conduct responsible science and use complex equipment -understand the importance of calibration etc.    

Paul discusses the importance of delivering on promises and that “data must be made relevant to action”.   They report a community leader who says “Just about every agency has tools now and they all tell you, ‘Well, just go to our website”. To this end, they argue strongly that information be presented in a way that is directly linked to action:

This has direct implications for data visualizations and interfaces…Participants were critical of representations that did not directly imply action, but rather simply raised awareness or satisfied curiosity. Systems may be most effective in the environmental action context if they provide a unified interface for exploring data and taking actions; for example, some participants suggested that visualizations should include mechanisms for communicating with policy makers.

Another finding of the research is the need to balance specific needs of interest groups with long term support for the notion of interest groups, recognising their sometimes ephemeral nature yet providing a platform for continuity in monitoring.

When Paul presented this paper at CHI, most of the questions revolved around trust – what if a passionate stakeholder gets data that supports/conflicts with their argument?  Paul says that it is important that the possibility of contentious data is raised in early discussions with all stakeholders.  This needs commitment from all about the use the data will be put to. In our work in the Otago high country,    We found this too, while local participation gave us local ownership, the questions of data quality (would people really report bad practices of their neighbours and family?).    As both the problems and solutions are political problems – then the information that is used to inform this decision making is part of that p0litcal process.    The challenge for designers is to develop systems that recognise these tensions.