Device Studies of Participatory Sensing: Ontological Politics and Design Interventions

Nold, Christian (2017). Device Studies of Participatory Sensing: Ontological Politics and Design Interventions. PhD thesis UCL (University College London).



This study investigates how ubiquitous sensing technologies are being used to engage the public in environmental monitoring. The academic literature and mainstream media claim participatory sensing is contributing to science, improving the environment and creating new forms of democratic citizenship. Yet there have been few studies that examine its material practices and impacts. This study addresses this gap via three ethnographic 'device studies' and an experimental design intervention. The methodology is based on post actor-network theory with a material-semiotic focus on the notion of the 'device' (Law & Ruppert 2013), in order to follow the sensing objects over their lifetime from design, usage with participants and later outputs. The design intervention uses the notion of the device as a research method to materially intervene in one of the study sites as a public controversy. The findings show that despite claims in the literature to be an empirical knowledge practice, the subjects and objects of participatory sensing are continually shifting and blurring. Instead, participatory sensing involves a 'stringing together' of hardware, participants and rhetorics to form new ontological entities and create publicity. However, this creates conflicts with actors for whom environmental pollution is a health concern, who want to organise collectively and want to engage with decision-making. Yet these studies have shown that it is possible to reconfigure sensing devices with situated ontologies. This led to the building of experimental design prototypes that show that participatory sensing can support pluralistic ontologies and build new connections towards decision-making. The contribution of this study is to identify the ontological politics (Mol 1999) of participatory sensing and demonstrate a 'device study' method that combines ethnography with material design to intervene and transform public controversies.

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