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Smart Emission: now it's the residents' turn

Smart Emission: now it's the residents' turn

In the Smart Emission project led by the Nijmegen School of Management, sensors are being lent to Nijmegen residents so that they can measure air quality and noise levels around their own homes and places of work. What is the value of this self-monitored information? "That is exactly what we are hoping to find out with this research," says assistant professor Linda Carton.


Linda Carton

Citizens are being increasingly consulted about the planning of their living environment. Reconstruction of a housing estate involves information evenings, consultation meetings, and discussion platforms. But citizen participation can be brought to a much higher level according to the leader of the Smart Emission project Linda Carton, assistant professor at the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.

The city is being increasingly designed by citizen initiatives

Smart Emissions in Schiphol and Groningen In the Smart Emission project, it's the residents' turn to act. Using innovative sensors they can monitor air quality, noise, vibration and meteorological indicators themselves. Every participating citizen is lent a sensor and together they form a network that is spread over the entire city.

To explain the project in more detail, Carton tells us about Schiphol airport and the earthquake-prone area of Groningen. "The citizens there have been making themselves heard for years. They experience nuisance from noise, smells and vibrations and have concerns about their health, their surroundings and the possibility of catastrophies. In spite of this, the government turned a deaf ear to their protests for a long time; according to the goverment's measurements there wasn't anything to worry about. Eventually this lead citizens to take their own measurements using new IT methods that are affordable for individuals. Only when they were backed up by the data they had collected themselves did they manage to get a foot in the door with the government."

Citizen power In general, there is an inequality in the communications between a municipality and its residents, says Carton. "Citizens simply aren't in possession of the same information as the government. Someone who lives near the railway line or opposite a factory can claim that it causes them problems, but can't prove it. By allowing citizens to monitor themselves, they will be able to support their experiences with facts in the future. Good for their empowerment. And incidentally, that is also in the city's interests: the more equal the relationship, the more trust."

Collectively making sense The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has two professional monitoring stations in Nijmegen measuring concentrations of ozone, particulates, soot and metal compounds in the air: one on the Graafseweg and one in the Bottendaal area. "Their equipment is incredibly accurate but tells us more about those two particular locations. With our cheap sensors we can carry out measurements in the whole of the city. They are less accurate, but by using the RIVM's data as a benchmark, we can come to a good interpretation of our data. That allows us to create a finely-detailed picture of what is going on. That's what we call collective sensemaking."

Collective sensemaking fits in with the trend of co-creation that is apparent in today’s practice of spatial planning, Carton says. "Citizen initiatives are increasingly becoming a part of the design of cities." Co-creation is also one of the research areas of the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment of the new study programme that is part of the Master's in Spatial Planning under leadership of Professor Peter Ache. "We have to make sure that we will have smart residents in the city; people who can contribute their knowledge and expertise to decision-making about our future living environment."

Action research may bring social change Following an appeal in the local free newspaper De Brug, a total of 35 Nijmegen residents signed up for a sensor, says Cécile Kerssemakers. The second year Master’s student of Spatial Planning is carrying out the research for her final-year thesis on the Smart Emission project. "I am interested in a healthy and safe living environment and in citizen participation. Above all, I find it interesting that this is action research; the results could possibly bring about social change. Knowledge is the key and the more citizens know, the better they are equipped for dialogue with their local government."

Everyone who has signed up for a sensor has their own reasons, Kerssemakers says. "One may have a specific complaint about air quality or noise, another is more interested in the technology itself." For her research, Kerssemakers is studying the motivations and expectations of citizens and wants to produce a list of recommendations for setting up citizen sensor networks. In March 2016 she will complete her thesis.

A collective effort The Smart Emission project is a collaboration between Radboud University, the City of Nijmegen, sensor developer Intemo, CityGIS (the developer of the data infrastructure and the central server), the RIVM, national knowledge institute Geonomum and, last but not least, the residents of Nijmegen. "Our research subsidy is too limited to be able to pay for all the efforts of the parties involved, but their enthusiasm is unheard of," says Carton delightedly. "Coming from our own disciplines, all of us are curious about the added value of a citizen monitoring network.”

Carton suspects that citizens are particularly interested in certain trends and peaks. "For a resident in the area of an industrial estate it is less important to know the exact annual figures than it is to be able to demonstrate that bad air quality causes him a lot of problems when the weather is hot. Now, I don't think that the municipality will immediately take action - many interests have to be carefully weighed against each other - but it most definitely produces input for dialogue. Above all, these data make it possible to think of bottom-up solutions and to evaluate the initiatives in the city according to the contribution they make to spatial quality improvements." / JvdB

*The Smart Emission project is financed by Technology Foundation STW and part of the more extensive research programme Maps 4 Society.

Smart Emission project website
Radboud profile of Linda Carton
Linda Carton on LinkedIn
Cécile Kerssemakers on LinkedIn
Radboud profile page for Peter Ache (in Dutch)
Radboud page about the Master's programme in Spatial Planning
Technology Foundation STW