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…

Building Centre – from Mapping to Making

The London based Building Centre organised an evening event – from Mapping to Making –  which looked at the “radical evolution in the making and meaning of maps is influencing creative output. New approaches to data capture and integration – from drones to crowd-sourcing – suggest maps are changing their impact on our working life, particularly in design.”  The event included 5 speakers (including me, on behalf of Mapping for Change) and a short discussion.

Lewis Blackwell of the Building Centre opened the evening by noting that in a dedicated exhibition on visualisation and the city, the Building Centre is looking at new visualisation techniques. He realised that a lot of the visualisations are connected to mapping – it’s circular: mapping can ask and answer questions about the design process of the build environment, and changes in the built environment create new data. The set of talks in the evening is exploring the role of mapping.

Rollo Home, Geospatial Product Development Manager, Ordnance Survey (OS), started by thinking about the OS as the ‘oldest data company in the world‘. The OS thinking of itself as data company – the traditional mapping products that are very familiar represent only 5% of turnover. The history of OS go back to 1746 and William Roy’s work on accurately mapping Britain. The first maps produced in Kent, for the purpose of positioning ordinances. The maps of today, when visualised, look somewhat the same as maps from 1800, but the current maps are in machine readable formats that mean that the underlying information is very different. Demands for mapping changed over the years: Originally for ordinances, then for land information and taxation, and later helping the development of the railways. During WW I & II the OS led many technological innovations – from national grid in 1930s to photogrammetry. In 1973 the first digital maps were produced, and the process was completed in the 1980s. This was, in terms of data structures, still structured as a map. Only in 2000, MasterMap appear with more machine readable format that is updated 10,000 times a day, based on Oracle database (the biggest spatial data in the world) – but it’s not a map. Real world information is modelled to allow for structure and meaning. Ability to answer questions from the database is critical to decision-making. The information in the data can become explicit to many parts of the information – from the area of rear gardens to height of a building. They see developments in the areas of oblique image capture, 3D data, details under the roof, facades and they do a lot of research to develop their future directions – e.g. challenges of capturing data in cloud points. They see data that come from different sources including social media, satellite, UAVs, and official sources. Most of Smart Cities/Transport etc. areas need geospatial information and the OS is moving from mapping to data, and enabling better decisions.

Rita Lambert, Development Planning Unit, UCL. Covered the ReMap Lima project – running since 2012, and looking at marginalised neighbourhoods in the city. The project focused on the questions of what we are mapping and what we are making through representations. Maps contain potential of what might become – we making maps and models that are about ideas, and possibilities for more just cities. The project is collaboration between DPU and CASA at UCL, with 3 NGOs in Lima, and 40 participants from the city. They wanted to explore the political agency of mapping, open up spaces to negotiate outcomes and expand the possibilities of spatial analysis in marginalised areas in a participatory action-learning approach. The use of technology is in the context of very specific theoretical aims. Use of UAV is deliberate to explore their progressive potential. They mapped the historic centre which is overmapped and it is marginalised through over-representation (e.g. using maps to show that it need regeneration) while the periphery is undermapped – large part of the city (50% of the area), and they are marginalised through omission. Maps can act through undermapping or overmapping. Issues are very different – from evictions, lack of services, loss of cultural heritage (people and building) at the centre, while at the informal settlement there are risks, land trafficking, destruction of ecological infrastructure, and lack of coordination between spatial planning between places. The process that they followed include mapping from the sky (with a drone) and mapping from the ground (through participatory mapping using aerial images). The drones provided the imagery in an area that changes rapidly – and the outputs were used in participatory mapping, with the people on the ground deciding what to map and where to map. The results allow to identify eviction through changes to the building that can be observed from above. The mapping process itself was also a mean to strengthen community organisations. The use of 3D visualisation at the centre and at the periphery helped in understanding the risks that are emerging or the changes to their area. Data collection is using both maps and data collection through tools such as EpiCollect+ and community mapping, and also printing 3D models so they can used by discussions and conversations. The work carries on as the local residents continue the work. The conclusion: careful consideration for the use of technology in the context, and mapping from the sky and the ground go hand in hand. Creating these new representation are significant and what is that we are producing. more information at  and

Simon Mabey, Digital Services Lead for City Modelling, Arup. Simon discussed city modelling in Arup – with the moved from visualisation to more sophisticated models. He leads on modelling cities in 3D, since the 1988, when visualisation of future designs was done stitching pieces of paper and photos. The rebuilding of Manchester in the mid 1990s, led to the development of 3D urban modelling, with animations and created an interactive CDROM. This continued to develop the data about Manchester and then shared it with others. The models were used in different ways – from gaming software to online, and trying to find ways to allow people to use it in real world context. Many models are used in interactive displays – e.g. for attracting inward investment. They went on to model many cities across the UK, with different levels of details and area that is covered. They also starting to identify features underground – utilities and the such. Models are kept up to date through collaboration, with clients providing back information about things that they are designing and integrating BIM data. In Sheffield, they also enhance the model through planning of new projects and activities. Models are used to communicate information to other stakeholders – e.g. traffic model outputs, and also do that with pedestrians movement. Using different information to colour code the model (e.g. enregy) or acoustic modelling or flooding. More recently, they move to city analytics, understanding the structure within models – for example understanding solar energy potential with the use and consumption of the building. They find themselves needing information about what utility data exist and that need to be mapped and integrated into their analysis. They also getting mobile phone data to predict trip journeys that people make.

I was the next speaker, on behalf Mapping for Change. I provided the background of Mapping for Change, and the approach that we are using for the mapping. In the context of other talks, which focused on technology, I emphasised that just as we are trying to reach out to people in the places that they use daily and fit the participatory process into their life rhythms, we need to do it in the online environment. That mean that conversations need to go where they are – so linking to facebook, twitter or whatsapp. We should also know that people are using different ways to access information – some will use just their phone, other laptops, and for others we need to think of laptop/desktop environment. In a way, this complicates participatory mapping much more than earlier participatory web mapping systems, when participants were more used to the idea of using multiple websites for different purposes. I also mentioned the need for listening to the people that we work with, and deciding if information should be shown online or not – taking into account what they would like to do with the data. I mentioned the work that involve citizen science (e.g. air quality monitoring) but more generally the ability to collect facts and evidence to deal with a specific issue. Finally, I also used some examples of our new community mapping system, which is based on GeoKey.

The final talk was from Neil Clark, Founder, EYELEVEL. He is from an architectural visualisation company that work in the North East and operate in the built environment area. They are using architectural modelling and us Ordnance Survey data and then position the designs, so they can be rendered accurately. Many of the processes are very expensive and complex. They have developed a tool called EYEVIEW for accurate augmented reality – working on iPad to allow viewing models in real-time. This can cut the costs of producing these models. They use a tripod to make it easier to control. The tool is the outcome of 4 years of development, allow the navigation of the architectural model to move it to overlay with the image. They are aiming at Accurate Visual Representation and they follow the detailed framework that is used in London for this purpose

The discussion that follow explored the political nature of information and who is represented and how. A question to OS was how open it will be with the detailed data and while Rollo explained that access to the data is complicated one and it need to be funded. I found myself defending the justification of charging high detailed models by suggesting to imagine a situation where the universal provision of high quality data at national level wasn’t there, and you had to deal with each city data model.

The last discussion point was about the truth in the mapping and the positions that were raised – It about the way that people understand their truth or is there an absolute truth that is captured in models and maps – or represented in 3D visualisations? Interestingly, 3 of the talk assume that there is a way to capture specific aspects of reality (structures, roads, pollution) and model it by numbers, while Rita and I took a more interpretive and culturally led representations.

Public engagement with water conservation in London

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

Can the US change to 100% renewable energy in 10 years?

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

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.

Linking Environmental Information, GIS and Usability

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.