Algorithmic governance in environmental information (or how technophilia shape environmental democracy)

These are the slides from my talk at the Algorithmic Governance workshop (for which there are lengthy notes in the previous post). The workshop explored the many ethical, legal and conceptual issues with the transition to Big Data and algorithm based decision-making.

My contribution to the discussion is based on previous thoughts on environmental information and public use of it. Inherently, I see the relationships between environmental decision-making, information, and information systems as something that need to be examined through the prism of the long history that linked them. This way we can make sense of the current trends. This three area are deeply linked throughout the history of the modern environmental movement since the 1960s (hence the Apollo 8 earth image at the beginning),  and the Christmas message from the team with the reference to Genesis (see below) helped in making the message stronger .

To demonstrate the way this triplet evolved, I’m using texts from official documents – Stockholm 1972 declaration, Rio 1992 Agenda 21, etc. They are fairly consistent in their belief in the power of information systems in solving environmental challenges. The core aspects of environmental technophilia are summarised in slide 10.

This leads to environmental democracy principles (slide 11) and the assumptions behind them (slide 12). While information is open, it doesn’t mean that it’s useful or accessible to members of the public. This was true when raw air monitoring observations were released as open data in 1997 (before anyone knew the term), and although we have better tools (e.g. Google Earth) there are consistent challenges in making information meaningful – what do you do with Environment Agency DSM if you don’t know what it is or how to use a GIS? How do you interpret Global Forest Watch analysis about change in tree cover in your area if you are not used to interpreting remote sensing data (a big data analysis and algorithmic governance example)? I therefore return to the hierarchy of technical knowledge and ability to use information (in slide 20) that I covered in the ‘Neogeography and the delusion of democratisation‘ and look at how the opportunities and barriers changed over the years in slide 21.

The last slides show that despite of all the technical advancement, we can have situations such as the water contamination in Flint, Michigan which demonstrate that some of the problems from the 1960s that were supposed to be solved, well monitored, with clear regulations and processes came back because of negligence and lack of appropriate governance. This is not going to be solved with information systems, although citizen science have a role to play to deal with the governmental failure. This whole sorry mess and the re-emergence of air quality as a Western world environmental problem is a topic for another discussion…

New PhD Opportunity: Human Computer Interaction and Spatial Data Quality for Online Civic Engagement

We have a new scholarship opening at the Extreme Citizen Science group for a PhD student who will research in Human Computer Interaction and Spatial Data Quality for Online Civic Engagement. The studentship is linked and contextualised by the European Union H2020 funded project, WeGovNow! . This project will focus on the use of digital technologies for effectively supporting civic society, whereby citizens are partners as opposed to customers in the delivery of public services. By integrating a set of innovative technologies from different European partners in Germany, Italy, and Greece to create citizen engagement platform, the project explores the use of digital tools for citizen reporting, e-participation, and communication between the citizen and local government. Building on previous research and technology development, the project will include programme of innovation in technology and services delivery. More information on the UCL ExCiteS blog

Source: New PhD Opportunity

Extreme Citizen Science in Esri ArcNews

The winter edition of Esri ArcNews (which according to Mike Gould of Esri, is printed in as many copies as Forbes) includes an article on the activities of the Extreme Citizen Science group in supporting indigenous groups in mapping. The article highlights the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) aspects of the work, and mentioning many members of the group.

You can read it here:

Citizen Science Data & Service Infrastructure

Following the ECSA meeting, the Data & tools working group workshop was dedicated to progressing the agenda on data & infrastructure.

Jaume Piera (chair, Data and Tools working group of ECSA) covered the area of citizen science data – moving from ideas, to particular solutions, to global proposals – from separate platforms (iNaturalist, iSpot, GBIF, eBird) but the creation of different citizen science associations and the evolution of ideas for interoperability, can allow us to consider the ‘Internet of People# which is about participatory sharing of data. We can work in similar way to standards development in the area of the internet, and starting to consider the layers: interoperability, privacy/security, data reliability, infrastructure sustainability, data management, intellectual property rights, engagement, Human-Computer Interaction, Reference models and testing. By considering these multiple layers, we can develop a roadmap for development and consider a range of solutions at different ‘layers’. The idea is to open it to other communities – and aim to have solutions that are discussed globally.

Arne Berra explained the CITI-SENSE platform. There is a paper that explains the architecture of CITI-SENSE on the project site. He proposed that we use the European Interoperability Framework — legal, organisational, semantic and technical. in the technical area, we can use ISO 19119 and OGC – with 6 areas: boundary, processing/analytics, data/model management, communication, systems. We can use reference models. Also suggested considering the INSPIRE life cycle model. There is a challenge of adapting standards into the context of citizen science, so in many ways we need to look at it as conceptual framework to consider the different issues and consider points about the issues. In CITI-SENSE they developed a life cycle that looked at human sensor data services, as well as the hardware sensor application platform.


Ingo Simonis (OGC) – a standardised encoding to exchange citizen science data. He describe work that OGC is doing in sensor web for citizen science, and they collected data from different projects. Through citizen science data, information come from different surveys, in different forms and structures. The requirements are to have citizens + environment + sensor. Who did particular measurement? We want to know about the environment – e.g. that it was rainy while they collected the data, and then know about the sensor. So OGC O&M citizen observatories model is conceptual. It’s an observation model – assigning a value to a property – they also look at standards for sensors – OGC SensorML. He used the ISO 19100 series of standards. The observation model is trying to address issues of observations that are happening offline and then being shared. The model also deal with stationary and mobile sensing activities, and allowing for flexibility – for example having ad-hoc record that is not following specific process.


Alex Steblin – The Citclops project includes applications such as Eye on Water ( The Citclops have a challenge of maintaining the project’s data once the project finished.

Veljo Runnel covered EU BON work ( – mobilising biodiversity ata is challenges. They want a registry of online tools for citizen science projects – tool that will allow people who work with citizen science to record information about the project as related to biodiversity – such as link to GBIF, recording DNA, use of mobile app. Finding the person that run the tool is difficult. On EU BON they have ‘data mobilization helpdesk’, the elements of the standard were discussed within the the EU BON consortium and how they are going to explore how to provide further input.

JRC is exploring the possibility of providing infrastructure for citizen science data – both metadata and the data itself.

Translation of technical information into a language that is accessible is valuable for the people who will be using it. We need to find ways to make information more accessible and digestible. The aim is to start developing reference material and building on existing experiences – sub divide the working group to specific area. There are many sub communities that are not represented within the data groups (and in ECSA) and we need to reach out to different communities and have including more groups. There are also issues about linking the US activities, and activities from the small-scale (neighbourhoods) to large organisations. As we work through information, we need to be careful about technical language, and we need to be able to share information in an accessible way.

Esri survey123 tool – rapid prototyping geographical citizen science tool

There are several applications that allow creating forms rapidly – such as Open Data Kit (ODK) or EpiCollect. Now, there is another offering from Esri, in the form of Survey123 app – which is explained in the video below.

Survey123 is integrated into ArcGIS Online, so you need an ArcGIS account to use it (you can have a short experiment if you register for a trial account, but for a longer project you’ll have to pay). The forms are configured in XForms, like ODK . The forms can be designed in Excel fairly quickly, and the desktop connection package make it easy to link to the Survey123 site, as well as testing forms.  I tried creating a form for local data collection, including recording a location and taking an image with the phone. It was fairly easy to create forms with textual, numerical, image and location information, and the software also supports the use of images to items in the form, so they can be illustrated visually. The desktop connector application also allow use to render the form, so they can be tested before they are uploaded to ArcGIS Online. Then it is possible to distribute the form to mobile devices and use them to collect the information.

The app works well offline, and it is possible to collect multiple forms and then upload them all together. While the application still showing rough edges in terms of interaction design, meaningful messages and bug clearing, it can be useful for developing prototypes and forms when the geographic aspect of the data collection is central. For example, during data collection the application supports both capturing the location from GPS and pointing on a map to the location where the data was collected. You can only use GPS when you are offline, as for now it doesn’t let you cache a map of a study area.

As might be expected, the advantage of Survey123 is coming once you’ve got the information and want to analyse it, since ArcGIS Online provide the tools for detailed GIS analysis, or you can link to it from a desktop GIS and analyse and visualise the information.

Luckily for us, Esri is a partner of the Extreme Citizen Science group and UCL also holds an institutional licence for ArcGIS Online, so we have access to these tools. However, through Esri conservation programme can also apply to have access to ArcGIS Online and use this tool.

GISRUK 2015 papers: participatory mapping in Nairobi and mobile apps for Earthquake and Fire

The GIS Research UK conferences (GISRUK) are the annual gathering of the GIScience research community in the UK. While I have missed the last two (including the current one in Leeds), I have contributed to two papers that are presented in the conference.

The first, ‘Participatory mapping for transformation: multiple visual representation of foodscapes and environment in informal settlements in Nairobi‘ was led by Sohel Ahmed , and include myself, Adriana Allen (UCL DPU), Cecilia Tacoli (IIED) , Edwin Simiyu (SDI) and Julio Davila (UCL DPU). It was written on the basis of the work that was carried out in the Urban Zoo project and explores participatory mapping with food vendors. The summary of this short paper note that ‘although branded as ‘obstructionists’ and major agents of ‘disease and filth’ by city authorities, food vendors remain the pivotal node in the local food system in most informal settlements; therefore, their interaction with the environment and infrastructure services, and challenges they face to keep the food safe to eat, requires further grounded exploration. Food vendors from informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya, who are acting as mappers and change agents, are building multi-layered views of places through the deliberative process of knowledge co-production by participatory sensing, which lead to opportunities and challenges to improve those places.’. The paper is accessible here. See also Cecilia and Sohel blog post and briefing paper on their work in Nairobi

The second, ‘Exploring new ways of digital engagement: a study on how mobile mapping and applications can contribute to disaster preparedness‘ is written by Gretchen Fagg, Enrica Verrucci, and Patrick Rickles as part of the Challenging Risk project. The paper looks at mobile applications that can be used to help people prepare for natural disasters. The abstract note that ‘natural disasters can happen at any time and no community can consider itself completely safe from them. Digital technologies, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), are becoming globally pervasive (World Bank, 2014), with smartphones hosting excellent mobile mapping, data collection and information providing platforms. A report was compiled to investigate web and mobile applications that provide preparedness information and stimulate community empowerment, some using maps as a medium to convey the information. This paper discusses the purpose, results and implications of this analysis for further work to be undertaken to address the identified research gap.’ The paper is available here.

New paper: Footprints in the sky – using student track logs in Google Earth to enhance learning

screen shot for paperIn 2011-2012, together with Richard Treves, I was awarded a Google Faculty Research Award, and we were lucky to work with Paolo Battino for about a year, exploring how to use Google Earth tours for educational aims. The details of the projects and some reports from the project are available on Richard’s blog, who was leading on many aspects of the work. Now, over 2 years since the end of the project, we have a publication in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education. The paper, titled ‘Footprints in the sky: using student track logs from a “bird’s eye view” virtual field trip to enhance learning’, is now out and describes the methodology that we developed for tracking students’ actions.

The abstract of the paper is:

Research into virtual field trips (VFTs) started in the 1990s but, only recently, the maturing technology of devices and networks has made them viable options for educational settings. By considering an experiment, the learning benefits of logging the movement of students within a VFT are shown. The data are visualized by two techniques: “animated path maps” are dynamic animations of students’ movement in a VFT; “paint spray maps” show where students concentrated their visual attention and are static. A technique for producing these visualizations is described and the educational use of tracking data in VFTs is critically discussed.

The paper is available here, and special thanks to Ed Parsons who advised us during the project.