How can post-automation developments such as new sensing technologies and big open data come together to foster more democratic and sustainable local and at-a-scale environmental monitoring? The case of the GROW Citizens’ Observatory

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


What challenges and opportunities for post-automation can a Citizens’ Observatory (CO) bring by creating synergies between low cost and widely available sensing technologies, open big environmental data and citizen science (CS)? COs are a recent prototype to test ways to connect people, science and technologies to create and sustain collaborative data, knowledge and action around environmental problems. COs seek to extend what is understood as conventional CS activity to scale up participation in data gathering and introduce new sensing technologies in participating communities. COs are predicated on the provision of data services underpinned by business models for financial sustainability.

We present the case of the GROW Citizens’ Observatory. GROW has created a new socio-technical system that brings together multilevel social connections (from place-based interaction to online communities) with technologies and artefacts (such as sensors, satellites, mobile devices and apps). This operational CO system is focused on sensing soil, in particular soil moisture and its changing state, by leveraging the potential of CS and open data. We explore the tensions that arise in the different layers of this system, with a focus on 1) technology used 2) temporal sustainability and 3) value propositions. GROW is combining off-the-shelf sensors with open platforms, a combination that creates innovative applications, but exposes tensions with technology control and user experience. At the same time, GROW is exploring democratisation of the technology through the adoption of DIY sensors. However, DIY models are still too complex for the average user to build. We consider the environmentally sustainability of sensor parts, and geographical and socio-economic dimensions of their production.

Many participants in GROW are small food growers new to soil sensors who do not have the time, skills or financial resources to carry out multiple soil tests. GROW provides them with a low cost soil sensor, which can empower growers to take their own measurements and gain insights to improve the way they look after their soil whilst submitting soil moisture data to the Observatory. Additionally, the collective anonymised dataset will ground truth the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite remote-sensing of soil moisture data. The use of citizen-generated data aids in the interpretation and analysis of satellite-generated datasets and help refine climate models developed to predict extreme weather events such as floods, fires and droughts, which affect food growers and society at large. Ultimately the ambition of COs is to foster changes in practices on the ground and to inform policy making process related to matters of environmental concern. We report on the challenges posed when translating big open data into useful information for the citizens who have generated them and beyond, i.e. making data useful and useable.

We discuss sustainability challenges for COs. Open data and CS are poorly understood, and current market models for data driven services means new and innovative value propositions are required to support the sustained generation of data that are open and free to access. It is also important to consider demographics in relation to participation in CS and technology innovation projects
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 Sept 2019
EventSPRU - Science Policy Research Unit: International Research Symposium. Post-Automation? Exploring Democratic Alternatives to Industry 4.0 - University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom
Duration: 11 Sept 201913 Sept 2019


ConferenceSPRU - Science Policy Research Unit
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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