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Empowering citizens with micro-sensors, monitoring air quality has been a fashionable social campaign recently with footprints spanning around the world, from Portland, WA in the United States to London (UK) and Barcelona (Spain). These social campaigns born upon the idea to empower citizens with low-cost technologies and big data to encourage them to participate in local politics and policies. However, our empirical research shows that there is little evidence that these sensors actually helping citizens with measuring local-level air pollution data. Our findings from 5 cases; 3 cities in USA and 2 in Europe are questioning the relation between pollution sources and pollution types with sensors geographical distribution in the local area. The awareness of citizens of local pollution patterns is another missing link. In simple term, our findings questioning the validity of these technologies and the data for the promised goal of the social campaign. Do these air quality sensors even measure pollution in the first place? or is there a relation between were sensors are and where pollution impacts citizens in daily life? Our findings disapprove the relation.
Data (big data) without context will not generate information that is necessary and crucial for citizens to initiate any political action, individually or collectively, or engage with local politics. Our research highlights the role of the design of these socio-technical infrastructures to make data meaningful for citizens and direct them to use data for citizen actions at the different levels. To help citizens to go beyond device and data make a change in their communities. One implication of design that we propose is to link sensors locations map with pollution sources map and provide meaningful interfaces for citizens to makes sense of their sensors data and local air quality, data and motivate them to take actions.
What our findings suggest is that citizens find it difficult to tie technology and data to outside real-life challenges they face in their life and initiate an action for change. These design upgrade (providing a meaning data and technology) could be an example of the missing component that links technology and data to the real world problems.