Introducing PARSE: Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments

by Carl DiSalvo

iot-graphic
From MIT’s Internet of Things Course Announcement

The Smart City has been an idea in circulation for well over a decade. Now, due to a confluence of factors, certain aspects of the Smart City are quickly manifesting from plan to reality. Distributed sensor networks are being deployed in testbeds within selected cities across the nation to monitor a range of environmental conditions, including in Atlanta. Through social media, average citizens are providing a torrent of data about where they are, what they are doing, and how they are feeling. Video cameras are ubiquitous. What’s more, all of this data is increasingly being networked together, bundled into so-called dashboards.  The idea behind these dashboards, testbeds, and in many cases the data collection efforts themselves is that everyday people, as well as government service providers, will be able to use data this to inform themselves, to make better-decisions, to enhance their (and their clients’) lives, and to improve civic conditions. But how can such goals be accomplished?

The prevailing interest, for both researchers and residents, is to work towards articulating a diverse and equitable vision for the Smart City. There have been, and continue to be, plenty of sharp critiques of the idea of smart cities and its implementation. While not being naive, however, many dedicated researchers still believe that participatory research and co-design can contribute to equitable local instantiations of the Smart City by collectively discovering, documenting, and sharing issues and potentials with the technologies being developed and implemented in the pursuit of “smartness.”

In this spirit is a new project known as PARSE (Participatory Approaches to Researching Sensing Environments), which combines design and social science methods to investigate the technologies and services of Smart Cities and more generally what is known as “Civic IoT”—the use of Internet of Things technologies for public life. The project draws upon practices of participatory design to gather together community, municipal government, and industry stakeholders to collaboratively explore the issues and possibilities of distributed sensing in urban settings.

PARSE is comprised of a series of workshops, beginning in October of 2016 and running well into 2017. The workshops will move between locations in order to draw in a more diverse set of stakeholders, with each workshop focusing on a different location and community in Atlanta. The workshops will run approximately two hours each, during which participants will learn about the sensors being deployed in Atlanta as part of the MAPPD project, and then engage in hands-on design activities to create scenarios, use-cases, and service prototypes for the data expected to be generated from these new sensors. Along the way, participants are expected to surface and discuss concerns, ranging from those of privacy to equity and beyond.

The PARSE project exemplifies a kind of community-based design research. It is intended to provide applied, actionable outcomes to inform the subsequent roll-out of Atlanta as a fully-fledged Smart City. The project also contributes to important research questions about the public element of the Smart City ideal. Much of the research into Smart Cities, especially in fields such as human-computer interaction and communication studies, has looked to specific devices and systems. PARSE, by contrast, is oriented towards issues of engagement, and the ways in which design might contribute to forms of material participation in the context of Smart Cities. In particular, researchers are interested in identifying and analyzing alternative modes of civics engagement in the context of neoliberal and technocentric governments, and in theorizing new understandings of data that take into account both community data economies and the affective aspects of data collection and representation.

Of course, PARSE will not be the first project to do this kind work, and its design research draws from experts in the social sciences undertaking similar projects. For instance, the Citizen Sense project demonstrates how a hybrid design and social science approach to environmental monitoring can illuminate a range of possibilities, from more diverse sensor platforms to a more nuanced understanding of the interplay of human and nonhuman agencies in sensing.  Similarly, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) demonstrates a socially engaged approach to environmental monitoring and the possibilities of a civic science — a participatory approach to data collection for the purposes of influencing governmental decision-making.

By combining expertise in design and public policy, PARSE provides a unique contribution to the study of Smart Cities. In addition to comparative case studies and frameworks for analysis and assessment, PARSE aims to contribute design guidelines and use cases to inform both engineering and policy. Organizations such as the Helsinki Design Lab and Public Policy Lab have demonstrated the value of design and policy labs in generating strategies for cities. The PARSE team believes similar efforts are needed with regards to the issues and potentials of Smart Cities. Moreover, these efforts must be open and provide opportunities for meaningful, substantive engagement from diverse stakeholders in shaping what the Smart City is, or will be, if the Smart City is to be equitable, just, and sustainable. PARSE is intended as a step in that important direction.

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