Christopher Charlton, Co-founder of software development agency Tariff Street, discusses the second #smartmcr meetup, as a participant in FutureEverything’s new environmental sensing project. #smartmcr is part of Smart Citizen, the world’s largest independent environment sensing network. This post originally appeared on the Tariff Street blog, and is reproduced with their kind permission.

James Galley and I attended the latest Manchester Smart Citizen workshop on Thursday evening. The session combined practical hardware advice for pioneers of the distributed sensor network such as ourselves as well as a discussion group to explore ideas for future applications.

Smart Citizen is a programme to connect data, people and knowledge. In practical terms it means equipping people across cities with internet-connected sensors to monitor and share local data on noise, air quality and temperature. Such basic indicators gathered and shared by citizens themselves present opportunities for transformation. Transformation in the relationship between citizen and city, hopefully with positive consequences not just for quality of life, but crucially for engagement and citizenship.

We explored the domains of healthcare, transport and education for possible ways to implement a citizen-based sensor network. How could a network of sensors owned by the people help in each of these broad areas?

Preventative medicine could be boosted from an understanding of the best places and times to conduct certain activity. So if planning a bike ride or a run, knowing which routes have the poorest air quality could help to reduce our individual risk. Ongoing prevailing conditions might guide choices of places to live for people with particular respiratory issues. Over time the data might even inform planning of new housing developments. In the hospital itself, objective measures of environmental quality such as natural light levels, heat and humidity could be monitored by patients and their relatives – data to make better arguments against sick buildings. Conversely such data in the hands of hospital trust managers might enable more optimal use of existing facilities or help to better prioritise building improvements budgets.

In transport, journey planning and traffic advice are the usual go-to thoughts when it comes to distributed sensing and data gathering. So we instead turned our thoughts to the behavioural and perceptual dynamics. Could wearable sensors (or smartphones) be used to gather movement data revealing the true differences in journey times for different modes. The data from moving people could be interpreted to different modes based on the speed and vector of the points. A person appears to move at 30mph from outside of their front door means they’re in a car. A person moves at between 5-20mph on paths and roads means they’re on a bike. If the dot representing a citizen pauses on a railway station it means they’ve taken the train. This would give a much stronger data picture of journeys than any survey-based self reporting. I might perceive that it’s quicker to drive to the city centre than to take the tram, but faced with the data from actual travellers on my street I might see the situation differently.

By far the most interesting area of all however was education. Sure as in any other field, real transformation has a better chance if we start with the young. Children are less resistant to new ideas and more likely to challenge existing thought patterns, without even realising that they are doing it.

So using Smart Citizen to engage children and young people in the monitoring, collection and interpretation of data seems sensible for a number of reasons:

1. Students benefit from cross-curricular learning
Collecting, analysing and discussing the implications of data will cut across maths, science, technology and the humanities. It’s a key to the cross-curricular holy grail of many educators, at the same time both practical and theoretical.

2. Society benefits from greater engagement
Many societal problems, from serious crime all the way down to litter, have at their root a lack of engagement. We all must care more about the world around us, even as our attention is dragged further into the little screens in our palms. We must encourage a generation of data-aware youngsters combined with a re-affirmation of the principles of openness, transparency and accountability.

When you feel part of something, a co-owner, you are less likely to want to harm it.

3. The data society is coming anyway; so let’s have it on our own terms
Data collection and processing has the potential to be harmful as well as beneficial. We need to engage with it as a medium for understanding and improving the world. We take the initiative as citizens rather than letting others worry about it, to our potential cost. Indeed we can support our institutions, public authorities and governments, building a more constructive partnership.

4. Campaigns are more effective with a young voice
There are many social and environmental issues that might be transformed by the collection and development of data. The implications and next actions may need to be argued for, campaigned for and institutions may need to be convinced of both the benefits and the public will for change.

Any legitimate call for change – based on evidence – is only made more impactful by the addition of young voices.

When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, citizenship lessons focused on equipping us to deal with an opinionated media and persuasive advertising industry. To understand the craft of persuasion and the bias of different newspapers would help us to appreciate them rather than to be manipulated by them. I believe the same is now true for our informatics future. We need to engage the future citizenry to become more active participants in the community – not just in terms of local action but in terms of understanding and contributing to the broader strategies for development through data; the big picture. Sure, I can pick up litter on my street, but can’t I also have access to the data and schedules for collections so I can contribute my local knowledge in a way that makes things more efficient?

It comes down a question of digital citizenship. Perhaps this is the difference between Smart Cities and Smart Citizens. If the future is about data, connectivity and information – then this needs to be a future we own and co-create rather than one we are simply subject to.