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The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) uses a network of over 60 monitoring stations in various sites spread over the whole of the Netherlands - agricultural areas, busy roads, housing estates. These stations, two of which are located in Nijmegen, measure values such as the concentration of particulates, soot and metal compounds in the air. In addition to this, the municipality measures the concentration of nitrogen oxide and particulates in several locations. "Nijmegen has great ambitions in this area," explains Henk Nijhuis, senior air quality consultant for the municipality. "Our local standards are stricter than the national ones, partly because our critical citizens demand it."
By getting citizens actively involved, cities can build up trust and support
Building support and trust
When Nijhuis heard and read about projects elsewhere in the country where citizens were able to use relatively cheap sensors to carry out their own measurements to monitor the quality of their own surroundings, his interest was immediately piqued. "A community monitoring network such as this can provide us with additional information in a relatively cost-effective way; useful information for the city as well as its residents."
Nijhuis got into conversation about this with colleague Paul Geurts. He is a senior staff member for information architecture and it is his day-to-day work to consider how to get the right information to our target groups in the smartest way possible. "An information network of citizens sounded interesting particularly because they sometimes have the idea that local government doesn't inform them enough or too late, eventually resulting in mistrust or even opposition. By actively involving citizens, we can build up trust and support."
Geurts and Nijhuis brought their idea to Linda Carton, assistant professor at the Department of Geography, Spatial Planning and Environment at the Nijmegen School of Management. Together they set up the Smart Emission research project.
Linking and comparing data
An important partner in the research is Intemo, the company that developed the sensors. "Our company name stands for innovative technology in motion'," says Bas de Greef. "We make tailor-made products on demand, but we also have an innovation programme in which we go in search of innovative solutions using our own resources. The sensors for the Smart Emission project are a result of this section of our operations.”
A unique aspect of the sensors is that they are not 'imprisoned' in a device and can communicate freely. De Greef: "The smart thermostat that you hang on the wall at home contains a sensor that will only talk to the supplier of the thermostat. The user is able to read out the data, but only the suppliers have full access: only they can link and compare the data. The information generated by the sensors in the Smart Emission research is open data: citizens can work with the it; the municipality and the RIVM can use it and other interested parties also have access to the data."
Answering our questions Nijhuis, Geurts and De Greef are looking forward to finding the answers to questions such as: How many sensors or monitoring points are necessary to approach the accuracy of the RIVM's monitoring stations? Will we be able to draw conclusions about air quality in the city at district level in the future? Which data will citizens be using to confront local government? And how will the availability of this data change their dialogue with the municipality?
A good place to start
“To counteract possible over-expectation by the participants, we have made it quite clear that the research does not offer any guarantees,” says Geurts. "If somebody is taking part because they live on a busy road and that causes them problems, they might be able to use the data to support the complaints. But even if they measure a major peak in CO2 emissions or vibration during the rush hour, there is not much chance that the municipality will take immediate action. There are a number of other factors involved: economic and related to environmental technology and planning."
Nevertheless, Nijhuis and Geurts can definitely picture a community monitoring network influencing local government's decision-making, as Nijhuis explains. "Imagine if we know that the quality of the living environment was lower at particular times, during a particular period or in a structural way, local policies could be based on this information. Think of all sorts of modifications, large and small: pedestrianisation, banning heavy vehicles in certain zones, lowering the speed limit, subsidising sustainable energy and cleaner vehicles, tightening up environmental norms for companies... Research like the Smart Emission project is a good place to start."/JvdB