Abstracts for Sensor Publics Workshop

Please find below all accepted abstracts for the Workshop Sensor Publics: on the politics of sensing and data infrastructure that will be held at the Vorhoelzer Forum, Technical University Munich, 5-7 April, 2017

If you would like to submit a visual vignette on the workshop’s theme the abstracts below may serve as inspiration.

Mobile devices as stigmatizing security sensors; How do we deal with crowdsourcing ‘broken windows’?

Gerard Jan Ritsema van Eck & Josef Gstrein, University of Groningen

Small traces of crime and vandalism, such as broken windows, are often seen as signifiers of ‘bad neighbourhoods’ where ‘bad things simply happen.

Various apps are available which encourage users to report where and when they feel they are in such an insecure or threatening environment. This crowdsourced content may be used to build datasets which can show areas that are considered ‘bad.’ These reports may be very valuable for law enforcement agencies who need to decide where to target their scarce resources. If such datasets are made public, they could also be used by citizens who wish to map out ‘safe’ routes through ‘bad neighbourhoods’ and other purposes.

Despite these advantages, this data inherently incorporates a danger: Streets or neighbourhoods become stigmatized and already existing prejudices might be reinforced. Furthermore, stigmas might also result in negative consequences for property values and businesses. Overcoming such an “evidence-based stigma” — even if based on outdated or biased data — becomes nearly impossible and leads to the question if total transparency should be desired and how this data has to be managed.

This paper will (1) introduce the problem, (2) describe some of the apps, (3) go on to discuss ethical and other consequences of their use and (4) analyse if there are legal remedies in the new EU Data Protection Framework for those feeling the negative consequences of crowdsourced reports of broken windows. The (5) conclusion will provide an overview and deliver some final thoughts in the context of the conference theme.

Network Governance: Governing Actors in a Big Data Age

Andrej Zwitter, University of Groningen

Big data requires an adequate response from disciplines tasked with seeking to understand, describe, critique, and prescribe governance. Traditional roles of actors within policy-making processes change in the digital era. Big data thereby challenges the legitimacy and effectiveness of governance mechanisms. In other words, there is a clear need to conceptualize the governance of big data and associated phenomena. This paper provides a first conceptualization of network governance situated within the wider literature of changing governance structures in times of globalization and functional differentiation. The theoretical and methodological framework of network governance will be developed along the changing roles that modern hyper-connectivity and digital entrepreneurship result in.

What’s the problem? Arguing for deeper levels of scholar engagement in participatory sensing

Alexandre Polvora et al, EU Policy Lab

Participatory sensing frequently rests in uneasy boundaries between expert strategies and the needs of citizens and communities in their contexts. But more often than not, those of us in research restrain ourselves from bridging such boundaries in deeper ways by adopting overly relativistic or cautious positions towards the empirical ground. We argue that scholars should be further engaged in specific participatory sensing outcomes, whether considering data uses in particular contexts or value laden features of specific technical developments, whether regarding the composition, governance or sustainability of the communities they work with. And we support deeper levels of engagement without foreseeing extreme agenda biasing or similar unwarranted deviations. Our stance emerges from lessons learned within the ongoing Making Sense project based on multi sited crowdsensing experiences in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Prishtina. It is an H2020 CAPS project that explores how open and low-cost DIY/DIT tools can be built and used by local communities to make sense of their contexts and address pressing environmental problems. We recently gathered Making Sense stakeholder experts and citizens in a generative creation workshop that allowed the design of a common sociotechnical and transdisciplinary framework oriented towards this issue under a participatory action research model. Always acknowledging the need of deeper scholarly engagements in participatory sensing, we focused on how to amass multiple expectations and needs from both citizens and experts into meaningful collective and committed strategies that would feed back into both parties. Our presentation will focus on the framework developed within this context and the strategies proposed for making it tangible.

Calculating & Countering Surveillance Risks in an Environment of Ubiquitous Sensors.

Becky Kazansky, University of Amsterdam

With the proliferation of digital surveillance, how to act under the presumption of monitoring and tracking has become a central subject of concern to civil society. The responsibility of the ‘surveillance subject’ extends to the ability to anticipate the likelihood of one kind of ‘digital threat’ over another; to apply risk management strategies to determine the appropriate course of action under fearful circumstances; and to own responsibility for the impacts of any ensuing threats. The extent of this responsibility leads civil society actors to call upon the assistance of security experts, who harden the information infrastructures of civil society organisations, develop security-centric software such as encrypted message and email programs, and push for the standardisation of risk management processes such as threat modeling and adversarial analysis. This push for risk standardization presents an interesting moment of translation among different ‘communities of security practice’. It comes at a time in which ubiquitous sensor networks present new risks and threats to civil society actors. Current security resources aimed at civil society actors are only beginning to address, for example, how activists can safely protest when their every move is tracked across devices and physical spaces with technologies such as advanced facial recognition and mobile phone surveillance. What are the frameworks and practices that civil society and technical communities turn to in order to calculate and counter these new risks and threats of surveillance? This conference paper draws upon my doctoral research, which is done through participant observation, document analysis, and extensive semi-structured interviewing, crossing national boundaries in order to trace the interactions of different communities of practice. In order to conceptualize the interactions between non- security focused communities and security experts, the study draws upon Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker’s work on communities of practice in relation to boundary infrastructures and boundary objects. The study bridges science and technology studies approaches to the study of information infrastructures with the work of critical data and critical security scholars such as Louise Amoore and Claudia Aradau, in order to conceptualize how risk epistemologies are produced and circulated throughout different communities of security practice. The paper presentation draws upon one year of desk research and three months of field work.

The Shape of Food to Come: On Drones, the Mediation of Nature, and Data Farming

Christopher Miles, Indiana University

We live in view of catastrophe. In the next 30 years, world population will rise to nearly 10 billion people, placing unanswerable new demands on our already over-taxed planet. But all is not lost. Hope approaches in the guise of big data, borne on drone’s wings.

This is, at least, a vision advertised by a growing industry in farming known as “precision agriculture.” In precision ag, farmers use sensor-equipped drones to digitally map their fields, rendering them in multi-spectrum visualizations offering granular new ways to manage crops. For some, the substantial economic and environmental savings farm drones promise make them no less than hovering heralds of a new Enlightenment, ushering in a “3rd green revolution.”

While a body of critical scholarship on drones already exists, it has overwhelmingly focused on their military uses. Yet drones are increasingly legal in commercial domestic contexts around the world, and by some estimates farming will account for up to 80% of that use. This presentation draws from dissertation research on farm drones in the United States aimed at addressing that gap, arguing that the story farm drone advocates tell requires serious environmental and agricultural re-contextualization to really understand the ramifications of big data in the food chain. The technology-as-solution approach precision agriculture represents has its own politics, assumptions, and consequences, benefitting certain environmental, economic, and epistemological orders above others. Drones may have an ecological role to play, but industrial, commodity-oriented agriculture cannot simply innovate its way out of the problems it has caused.

Critical Reflection and Affective Experience in the Making Visible of GNSS Infrastructure

Christopher Wood,
Queen Mary University of London

This paper describes a series of walking workshops designed to make GNSS satellite infrastructure visible and thereby provoke reflection on participants’ sociotechnical practices around location services. The method leveraged architecture’s ability to create moments of breakdown in mobile devices’ ability to establish a location fix, by blocking lines of sight and producing multipath errors. This approach proved powerful in creating critical reflection on the existing functionality of GNSS infrastructure. In this way, it can be seen in a tradition of ‘infrastructural inversions’ (Star and Bowker 1999). The participants reported alienation from their usual tasks and suspicion around the role of state and corporate actors within GNSS and attendant infrastructures. However, alongside these critiques of power and visibility, they also expressed feelings of companionship, play and a sense of the sublime. The paper reflects on the intersections between these affective aspects of participants’ experiences and the strongly felt, but expected critical engagement with asymmetries of power, surveillance, privacy and GNSS’ military origins. It describes what emerges from the making visible of infrastructure and how to make sense of affect within methods which promote reflection on sociotechnical practices. In this way, it thickens understandings of how GNSS satellite and sensor infrastructures currently create practices and what alternative practices they could potentially create.

Low Power Wide Area Networks: from low cost sensors to “low cost publics”?

Claudio Coletta,
Maynooth University

Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) are being tested in various cities to allow long-range communication at a low bit rate and low battery consumption. They are specifically designed to network battery-powered Internet of Thing devices and to support low cost sensors at wide scale for delivering different urban services. The proliferation of beacons, buoys and other IoT related devices embedded in bins, bicycles, cars, lampposts and so on would then converge in a common infrastructure able to articulate and make sense of data relating to environmental conditions, mobility, energy, and other aspects of the city, and also reduce maintenance costs. Thus conceived, the infrastructure raises a number of concerns from an STS perspective regarding the relations between centralised and distributed calculation, as well as the kind and agency of the publics mobilised: analytics processes are opaque and invisible, hidden in the infrastructure which collects and associates tiny bits of information dispersed in fragmented situations and practices. This aspect also involves the uneven ability to produce valuable information: it seems that the more sensors are low cost, the more asymmetric is the relation between infrastructure and publics, not only because the value and quality information produced by low cost sensors is almost entirely delegated to the infrastructure, but also because it seems to perform a difference on the value and quality of publics themselves. Focusing on ongoing fieldwork activity on city-region scale, smart city initiatives, the paper explores how the associations between the large low power infrastructures and low cost sensor networks affect the publics involved.

Smart as an empty space of encounter

Sara Degli Esposti, Universidad de Catalunya

Technological trends, such as the Internet-of-Things or big data, which are at the core of the ‘smart’ revolution, are often interpreted by experts, working in the field, as marketing buzzwords. However, these terms, often vaguely defined or even meaningless from a scientific perspective, result to be extremely powerful in shaping political agendas, mobilizing economic resources, and entering into people’s everyday life. By analyzing the genesis and use made of these terms in policy documents and marketing communications, this article argues that the relationship between these speech-acts and the reality they refer to is intentionally left blurred and indeterminate. This intentional lack of clarity and definition is meant to create a space of encounter between public and private actors, scientists and citizens, who are often called in just as spectators or data donors. Within this foggy space, the actors involved confuse multiple monologues for common dialogue and produce fuzzy agreements on how to allocate resource to solve societal problems. Overcoming the elusive reality created by these terms is necessary to help actors engage in a fruitful, critical and sincere exchange of ideas, and in accordance with Responsible Research Innovation principles. This paper, based on analytical work developed as part of the CANDID project, contributes to unveil the emerging reality of sensing infrastructures, their associated socio-technical imaginaries and its performative.

Thermal discomfort? Spatial data, climate change adaptation and the social sciences

Leslie Mabon, Robert Gordon University

This contribution assesses the role of social sciences within interdisciplinary data infrastructure research for climate change. I discuss ongoing research into urban heat island effects in Taipei City, Taiwan, which combines remotely-sensed thermal imaging data and satellite imagery with neighbourhood-level census data to assess variability in heat hazard across Taipei. I address the tension of undertaking research on a topic where data infrastructure has the potential to be a force for good in informing practical responses to a very real hazard, yet can also mask the underlying structural causes of problems.

Particular attention is paid to the use of remotely sensed satellite data and large social datasets to identify areas in a city that are ‘vulnerable’ to extreme heat. I argue that in Taipei at least, visually mapping heat hazard in this way risks closing down the debate on urban heat island responses to a set of technical ‘green interventions’ whose effects can be visually tracked via thermal imaging. I suggest this emphasis on data infrastructures diverts attention away from the possibility that solutions to extreme heat may be governance or policy-related, or indeed that social processes such as distribution of greenspace and prioritisation of certain areas for urban renewal over others can increase heat vulnerability for some people in the first instance.

Drawing on both the research outputs themselves, and also my own reflections on participation in the research process, I argue it is thus vital to work towards strategies to ensure the ‘evidence base’ on which urban climate adaptation decisions are based incorporates critical social science perspectives to temper sensor-derived spatial data. This is a crucial first step towards ensuring urban climate change research based on sensing and data infrastructures delivers benefits to the sections of society who need it most.

Making Things Public: A Sensitive Affair

Magnus Eriksson, Lund University

Open data for cities are said to be able to contribute to more efficient management of public service, new innovation and increased transparency. It is also becoming ever more technically trivial to store, process and transmit large quantities of data. Thus, every city with dignity invests in their own open data platform of real-time sensor nodes, open API:s and a citizen portal.

But what happens when the bus drivers think that their unique pattern of acceleration and deceleration constitutes personal information, when EU wants the platform operators to be responsible for any future privacy violation occurring from the infinite potential combinations of anonymized data, and what happens when transparency laws for public authorities says “store all data!” while the data protection laws says “Throw all data without immediate use!”? And whose responsibility is it to keep the hackers at bay?

This paper highlights the challenges of an attempt at “going public” with an open data platform originally developed for use in a project around an infrastructure for electrical public transport. It traces the negotiations of integrity and publicity among the human and non-human actors who directly or indirectly will be included in the data platform.

Sensing Security – Deviant Publics and their Infrastructures

Nikolaus Pöchhacker, Technical University of Munich

Predictive analytics in law enforcement and other related security fields is increasingly bringing together diverse and extensive data sources from various contexts, including surveillance of public spaces, social media, or Internet traffic profiles. However, within critical data studies and Science and Technology Studies the notion that “raw data is an oxymoron” (Gitelman, 2013) and that it “should be cooked with care” (Bowker, 2005) is widely accepted. Following this argument, sensing in surveillance practices is not representing objective data collection, but includes forms of sense-making bound to specific perspectives on the (social) world. As a result, the most recent advent of big data within surveillance and security practices raises the question, how the collected data has been cooked and for whom it should be digestible. The very form of sensing is already assuming attributes connected to imaginations of (in)security – the data does therefore not speak for itself, but is given a specific voice through a difficile apparatus of sensing and sense-making. Furthermore, by installing regimes of (re-)interpretation of the world in security systems a distinction between potentially deviant and normal publics is constructed. As a result, forms of governmentality and knowledge production are relocated in these infrastructures, marking a shift of political power to data scientists. This contribution strives to highlight the role of infrastructures in stabilizing these forms of sensing, the embedded translation processes – as understood in the Actor-Network Theory – and therefore a specific form of constructing deviant publics from a theoretical perspective that goes beyond the notion of social sorting (Lyon, 2002).

Twisting concepts: Reflections on the governance of ‘Sensory Publics’ and the ‘Sensory Governance’ of publics

Nona Schulte-Römer,
UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research

With this paper/presentation, I propose to explore how your concept of ‘sensory publics’ relates to the concept of ‘sensory governance’ that I am using to describe strategies and policies for mediating and resolving public controversies over perception-related, ‘sensible issues’. Both concepts have in common that they 1) problematise the im/perceptibility of technical infrastructures, 2) highlight the politics of sensor-based data and evidence production, which is not always congruent with our sensory experiences of the world and 3) take controversies as a methodological point of departure. Yet, ‘sensor publics’ are concerned with hidden, invisible the data-producing and -collecting infrastructures and their ‘politics of sensing’. ‘Sensory governance’ on the contrary, is rather concerned with keeping invisible infrastructures black- boxed and hidden from the public eye.

In my presentation I will draw on empirical evidence from the field of lighting where presence- detection cameras and sensors are used to establish intelligent lighting systems and the emergence of ‘sensory publics’ is prevented by ‘sensory governance’. I would also like to share with you early insights from upcoming collaborative projects on urban noise and ‘citizen sensing’ and ‘sensory governance’ in the renewable energies sector.

Technologized Security Governance: The Politics of Satellite Observation of North Korea

Philipp Olbrich, University of Groningen

Addressing unitary understandings of technology, new materialist scholarship of security focuses on the role of specific technologies in governance arrangements. Yet, it rarely engages with the existing security governance literature. Instead it draws on a diverse pool of disciplines, including anthropology, (political) philosophy, sociology, and science and technology studies. This creates an equally diverse research program which ultimately renders access for and conversations with other security governance scholars difficult. In an attempt to facilitate such a conversation, the paper discusses the technologization of security governance along the well-established concept of epistemic communities. This lends itself to scrutinize the implications of the inclusion of technologies into security governance in the contexts of the problematization of security, human-material agency, and political implications. Putting the insights to a test, the paper draws on new materialist scholarship to examine the politics of satellite observation of North Korea. First, the notorious uncertainty surrounding North Korea in addition to its pariah status and lax international regulations of remote sensing construct it as a desirable and legitimate target of constant surveillance. Second, despite the view from above satellite technology does not neutralize uncertainty but translates and blackboxes it into a socio-material mobile assemblage of satellite data, eyewitness accounts and other sources. Third, satellite imagery closes off important controversies and political alternatives as it locks in a hierarchy of evidence that reifies an adversarial posture and discredits North Korea as a dialogue partner.

Scratching, digging, drillingTowards a geological approach for understanding information infrastructures

Vlad Niculescu-Dincă, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Drawing on ethnographic research performed in the “Sensing project” of the Dutch police, this paper takes an STS inspired approach to analyse surveillance practices of road infrastructures. It looks at various ways in which Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) is used as a sensor network in both reactive and proactive profiling practices. Building on this analysis the paper highlights new phenomena with ethical implications emerging at the intersection of sensing infrastructures and policing practices.

On the one hand, the paper engages technological mediation theory to show how infrastructures play an active role in solidifying practitioners’ perceptions and in mediating their actions concerning suspicious entities. On the other hand, it analyses the code of a set of real-time profiles and shows how outdated knowledge and pockets of prejudice can get trapped in the layers of information infrastructures. Occasionally they resurface during police actions, affecting persons and categories and contributing to erode the trust between communities and the police.

To improve the account of these phenomena, the paper proposes a geological approach for understanding infrastructures (in a methodological, not ontological sense). Borrowing notions from this discipline, the paper argues for a sedimentology of infrastructures. Broadening and deepening the archaeological focus on human activities in the past, geology retains an approach of ‘digging up’ strata while also accounting for a whole set of processes that may or may not be traceable to an initial human activity. The depth and scope of sedimentology offers an adequate metaphor to account for both human and non-human agency, depositions, accumulations, erosions, volcanism and more.

Whose bacteria get to count? Epidemiology as a patchy sensing practice for global health intervention

Véra Ehrenstein, Goldsmiths College, University of London

The organisers of the workshop invite us to explore “how sensing and data infrastructures become publicly controversial and invested with political and moral capacities”, for example in relation to global action. Grounded in STS, this paper will put epidemiologists centre-stage and explore the challenges of generating epidemiological data in Africa. The focus will be on a bacterium called pneumococcus. Living in people’s nose without necessarily being harmful, pneumococci can move to the lungs or meninges and become infectious. According to epidemiological models, the bacteria are responsible for frequent and serious diseases (pneumonia or meningitis) in young children all over the world. In poor regions, notably in Africa, the situation has been considered particularly alarming. There, epidemiological studies have associated pneumococcal diseases with very high mortality rates. Since 2010, an overseas aid arrangement addresses the problem by making pneumococcal vaccines widely available to the immunization programmes of health administrations in such low income countries. Routine vaccination against pneumococcus happens today in more than 30 African countries, and in a few places, it is accompanied by so-called effectiveness studies. Their aim is to sense the consequences of vaccination, to detect and assign to the vaccine an effect expressed in terms of changes in disease rates and levels of bacteria present in people’s nose. The paper will unpack this sensing practice, which combines statistical and bacteriological methods and skills. It will emphasise epidemiologists’ reflexivity but also the debated extrapolation capacity of their work. By focusing on a study in Burkina Faso where the production of epidemiological data became contentious, the paper will show that what is at stake in this patchy scrutiny is whose bacteria get to count? Indeed, global health interventions can spread across vast and diverse areas where they affect many publics (human bodies and their microbial flora). But such a spatial expansion is often based on evidence from a few locations assumed to stand for a broader whole, like Africa or poor countries. The paper will address the productive yet problematic tension at the core of epidemiology, a patchy sensing practice with global consequences.