In 2009, Ud Doron, who studied on our MSc in Environmental Systems Engineering developed a research project together with Tse-Hui Teh, who is doing her PhD on urban water issues. The project was co-supervised by Sarah Bell.

The focus of the project was on a series of participatory workshops to understand the relationships between urban residents and water technology. The workshops explored the perceptions and actions of environmentally aware citizens. Ud also explored the use of environmental information by the participants of the workshops.  The output of this work is now written and published in the Water and Environment Journal.

The paper is titled Public engagement with water conservation in London

The abstract is:

Understanding water demand and consumers’ capacity for change is essential in underpinning water demand management and water efficiency programmes. This paper presents the outcomes of a qualitative study, which used discussion groups relating to water infrastructure with environmentally aware citizens in five London boroughs in the Lower Lea River Basin. The results showed a subtle interaction between users, water and technology. Users are generally unaware of their own water consumption. Individual perceptions of changes in water behaviour are constrained by habit and lack of knowledge about what changes can be made and how. Knowledge of environmental information was described as the inspiration behind making any changes. The paper concludes that access to information about water resources, infrastructure and conservation measures should be enhanced because although information sources are abundant, participants claimed they were inaccessible without considerable effort. Finally, an emphasis should also be put on helping the public form a more substantial part in environmental decisions.

and the paper is accessible in the early view section of the  Water and Environment Journal http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-6593.2011.00256.x/full

A speech from Al Gore was published last Thursday in the New York Times calling for the US to go on a 10 years project to switch to 100% renewable energy (well, electricity). The link is to the annotated version from Andy Revkin, the scientific correspondent of the paper – which adds an important insight.

It makes a very interesting reading about the links between climate change, energy security, the economy, and the ways in which the challenges of moving to an environmental sustainable mode of economic activities will be negotiated by society.

Especially interesting is to read the text critically, and to consider what is included, and why. Noteworthy is the roles of different domains of human activities  – science is used to demonstrate the problem, technology to offer a solution and the power relationships in society in both the financial investment and the political arenas are playing their part to benefit from the potential disruption of climate change.

The Experienced Noise

3 June, 2008

While the new Defra noise maps provide the results of a computerised model, the experience of noisy places can be mapped through community mapping, as was demonstrated recently in the Royal Docks area and the Pepys Estate.

Within the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities project, and through the collaboration with London Sustainability Exchange and London 21 projects on Environmental Justice and with the help of Christian Nold, we have recently carried out studies of noise in two areas in east London. While the method is based on a systematic data collection framework, it does not intend to replace detailed acoustics studies that the authorities should carry out regarding sources of noise which influence residential areas. What it does is enable communities to get evidence about their experience, the maximum levels of noise that they are exposed to and to identify the sources of noise that influence the specific place.

The following text is taken from the press release that we have just issued:

People living in the Pepys Estate in Lewisham and in the Royal Docks area in Newham have led the way with a new way to tackle noise. The Pepys Estate currently suffers noise pollution from a scrapyard near the centre of the estate and very close to both a primary and nursery school, while Royal Docks suffers noise problems resulting from flights in and out of London City Airport (LCA), where a major expansion is threatened.

The project supplied local residents with noise meters and trained them in how to use these devices. They went on to make over 1500 measurements at all times of day and night and developed their own ‘noise maps’.

The results of this ‘citizen science’ have been remarkable. On the Pepys Estate members of the Community Forum found disturbingly high levels of noise, often continuing outside normal working hours. This noise affected quality of life up to 350 metres from the scrapyard. They have been trying to deal with this problem for over six years, initially raising concerns with the Mayor of Lewisham and others in September 2002. Since this time the disturbance has actually escalated. Now armed with this information they called a public meeting to present their findings to the council and the Environment Agency.

Lewisham Council and the Environment Agency accept that there is a problem. After seeing the results of the survey the Agency has appointed an acoustic consultant to carry out a detailed analysis of noise in and from the scrapyard. The residents who carried out the survey will meet with the consultant to share their information, and will work with the council to agree an action plan for moving forward.

The communities surrounding London City Airport (LCA), including Virginia Quays and Thamesmead, also found troubling results. Many readings exceed levels deemed to cause serious annoyance under the World Health Organisation community noise guidelines. The measurements gathered by the community revealed a clear correlation between unacceptable levels of noise and the LCA operational hours. More interestingly, the results obtained by both communities indicate that people are quite accurate in their perceptions of noise levels and the survey enabled them to express how these affected them. One of the residents said ‘the noise is irritable, I can’t relax or have the window open – but I can’t shut out the noise so have to turn the TV up – but everything is then so loud.’

The full press release is available here.

One of the questions that might arise from a look at my publications and work is ‘how public access to environmental information links to GIS, and what are the reasons to explore usability and HCI in this context?

The answer is straightforward – there are strong links between all 3 areas and, in order to make sense of one of them, you need the others. In my 2001 paper ‘Public access to environmental information: past, present and future’ I go into more details , but here is my current summary of the issue.

One of the core concepts of environmental decision making is the use of information. In current environmental debates you can see how much opponents dispute the accuracy and validity of information, but rarely dispute the need for information or the role of information in decision making. This approach to information in decision making can be traced back more than 40 years, and has been a constant feature of environmental politics.

The next element in the chain is Geographical Technologies – GIS, Remote Sensing, ground-based monitoring and the like. One of the features of environmental information is the heavy reliance on these technologies that, historically, the environmental field adopted early on. For example, consider the following (rephrased) paragraph:

‘Existing technology now makes possible the development of a global resource data base (GRID), which will be a data management service designed to convert environmental data into information usable by decision makers. The technical feasibility of GRID has been assessed by expert groups.

‘GRID technology allows us initially to describe, eventually to understand and ultimately to predict and manage the environment.’

This is not a description of Digital Earth or from a specification document of Google Earth – it is based on UN Environmental Programme documents from 1985 and 1986, when the GRID system was in its first stages. Even today we don’t have anything like the system that is outlined above. Was it a visionary view of the potential of GIS or yet another example of technophilia? In any case, it shows the strong link between GIS and environmental information.

The next element is usability and Human-Computer Interaction. GIS are hard to use (more about this in other posts) and the reliance on them to deliver information creates real obstacles for occasional users – which most users are. I have observed the difficulties of intelligent and competent people during workshops where they were faced with the task of using GIS or web mapping technologies. That’s where my interest in this area emerged.

In summary, the challenge of providing environmental information to the public is not just the technical one of making it available over the Internet – without understanding how to make GIS more accessible for the average user and understanding which are the most efficient, effective and enjoyable ways of helping people to use the information effectively, we can’t really deliver on the promises of the Aarhus convention on public access to information, participation and justice.

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