Citizen Science & the Internet of Things

citizenscientists1Since the release of the book which, apart from occasional stock shortages, has gone really well I’ve been spending my time presenting findings from the project at various events around the world, mentoring a number of really interesting start-ups in Vietnam and the UK, developing ideas for my next book and working on a number of consulting engagements.


My next book, when I have figured out how to finance and publish it, will start where Learning {Re}imagined ended. It will consider some of the challenges that we as a society already know that our children and their children will encounter during this century. Rather than flying cars, interactive watches and an increasingly digital world the things I’m thinking of are population, climate change, antibiotic resistance, environment, ideology and increased urbanisation. But more than simply identifying the challenges I’m going to explore the kinds of projects and people that make me optimistic about our future chances as a species.


It was with this outlook I was introduced to a project lead by London’s former Deputy Mayor, Nicky Gavron. Nicky, it could be said, is a force of nature, a person who has made a career out of an obsession with grassroots community activism to improve the lives of Londoners and potentially the populations of other urban cities. Amongst many achievements Nicky has lead London’s response to climate change, she introduced policies and programmes to reduce C02 emissions across energy, water, waste and transport. Her initiatives include establishing the London Climate Change Agency and the C40: Large Cities Climate Leadership Group.


Nicky’s challenge to me was how can we encourage grassroots community awareness of key urban issues in the creation of smart cities. Specifically how could we empower communities to engage in the discourse around the design of their urban environment? How do we engage them in the policy discussions around transportation, energy, sustainability, health and well-being? If we’re going to design smart cities then surely it must be smart communities of smart citizens who build them.


It was with this in mind that I embarked on designing a learning experience that will be piloted during March and April this year in schools in Lambeth with a cohort of up to 50 children age 9-11, their parents/carers, their teachers and members of the local community.


citizenscientist2We hear a lot these days about STEM, STEAM and the importance of engaging young people in learning science. We also hear a lot about computer science and learning coding. We hear a lot about making. We hear a lot about parental engagement in their child’s learning. We hear a lot about flipped classrooms. You get the picture.


So in Lambeth this month and next I will be working with Nicky and colleagues to provide a cohort of children, parents and community members with a collection of internet connected sensors and activity trackers. The idea is that we will use these devices as part of the Internet of Things to conduct experiments that encourage conversations and deeper learning as a result of experiences and multi-generational participation. We also hope that it may embed some knowledge and thinking about some vital urban issues and we want to do this by co-discovery engaging all of the participants.


Over the course of the pilot we will be distributing 30 low cost, Arduino-based, air quality sensors to families in Lambeth with instructions on how to install them at home and connect them to the Internet. The sensors consist of a base station which connects to the household broadband router and a remote sensor that detects changes in air temperature, humidity, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO). We chose Arduino because I’m familiar with the coding environment and I can perform any necessary calibration in situ by uploading sketches. These sensors will be used in tandem with a number of more expensive sensor devices provided by project partner, Intel Collaborative Research Institute (ICRI).


The installation of so many air quality sensors in a relatively small catchment area provides us with a unique opportunity for the children to consider and learn about the air quality around the school and the routes to and from it. The data from these sensors feeds a central website that will inform conversations that we will encourage with the children in school time. It provides a chance to think about and discuss possible reasons for different air quality readings from different locations and circumstances such as weather, temperature and traffic density. The quality and accuracy of the data from these sensors won’t be to the same standard of the devices that cost about the same as a small car but they will provide a contextual hub that will inform learning that travels across the curriculum effectively catalysing new conversation, explorations and learnings. More importantly the child and their family will own the device that provides open public data to the rest of the world.


Thus we are flipping the science laboratory where the experiment and measurements are occurring at home but monitored from anywhere over the internet and discussed at school with their co-learners.


Each child’s parent/carer will be provided with a wearable activity tracker that comes with free apps for Apple or Android smart phones owned by the parent. The data is anonymised and fed into another central website that can be studied at school. This will allow the child to study their parents walking activity and dietary impact against this activity then make comparisons and consider reasons. The objective of this experiment will be for the children to study their parents attitude and behaviour to walking when it is being quantified.


citizenscientist3It may be, for example, that air quality around their school might improve if more people walked rather than use their cars for short journeys of less than 1 mile. But might there be other benefits to walking? By flipping the science lab, we’re encouraging the children to become “Citizen Scientists”. We hope that they will engage with the design and creation of experiments with their parents to learn more about their environment and participate in decisions about it. We also think there’s a lot of fun to be had in this activity and that the experiential nature of it will embed the knowledge and understanding that they will discover together with their co-learners, parents and teachers. We wonder if this understanding will inform future behaviour and decision making at the community level.


Of course, all of this might not work but that’s the thing about science and innovation, failure is always an option. Besides, if we can encourage new conversations with the children around some of these important subjects whilst at the same time engage them in science practice, I’ll take that as a win!


If your school or city borough whether you are in London, New York or Beijing would like to get involved in this programme then please get in touch. It’s not a free programme but you will be part of a new movement that empowers communities to make smart decisions about their environment.


I’ll update this blog in a month or so and let you know how we get on but in the meantime please feel welcome to follow me on twitter via @GrahamBM and in the meantime you can follow my air quality sensor here.


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.