Science for Change Kosovo is a grassroots project that uses collaborative citizen science to tackle Kosovo’s air pollution problem and simultaneously engage with a politically disenfranchised generation of young people.
The term ‘citizen science’ encompasses a broad spectrum of initiatives; there are many examples where participants simply collect data or complete tasks for a scientist-designed experiment. By contrast, Science for Change Kosovo (SfCK) is a ‘radical’ citizen science project. We describe ourselves as radical because we believe people from the communities should be involved at every stage, from framing the research questions to designing the data collection, conducting data analysis and interpreting the results. In this way, we see ourselves in accord with Public Lab‘s idea of civic science.
Our ethos, much like Community Based Auditing1Tattersall, Philip J. ‘What Is Community Based Auditing and How Does It Work?’ Futures 42.5 (2010): 466–474. ScienceDirect. Web. in Tasmania, is to be an experiential way for citizens to undertake their own disciplined inquiry into environmental issues affecting them, so that they can assert their rights and obligations as generators of valid knowledge and as agents of change. We are also inspired by environmental justice projects such as Global Community Monitor; who train and support disempowered ‘fenceline’ communities harmed by serious air pollution from industrial sources.
Citizen science versus institutional science
How can citizen science compete with the expertise and sophisticated equipment of professional scientists? In practical terms, citizen generated data can fill critical gaps in knowledge. Official air quality data is often sparse, coming from a limited number of fixed monitoring sites, and uses mathematical models to fill in the gaps. Statutory data gathering is all about averages; it doesn’t record the variable exposures experienced by different people, the effects of their daily choices, or the related impacts on their health.
Institutional science also struggles to work with local knowledge and soft data, losing out on useful insights as a result. Without increased citizen participation and accountability, institutional science also risks alienating itself to the point of mistrust by the citizen community.
Photo credit: Science for Change Kosovo, CC-BY-NC
Kosovo is a very polluted country, with some daily pollutant levels significantly exceeding European Union and World Health Organisation limits. The ageing lignite power plants in Kosovo are a major source of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulates (dust). Air pollution in Kosovo annually causes hundreds of premature deaths and thousands of emergency hospital visits due to respiratory tract infections. When considered alongside other countries in the region, Kosovo scores poorly on health indicators such as life expectancy, maternal death rates or infant and child mortality.
The constitution recognises environmental protection as one of the principles on which the Republic of Kosovo is based. The Law on Air Protection (no. 2004/30) assigns responsibility for air quality and emissions indicators, with set obligations for protection. However, while the Kosovo environmental protection agency say that current data on air quality levels is poor and incomplete, there is a lack of capacity for environmental protection at a local level. Poor finances mean that it’s hard even for statutory agencies to get the budget for necessary maintenance and training. However, Kosovo has a long-standing political aspiration to join the EU; where making substantial efforts to tackle pollution will be a condition for accession. Signing up to EU principles will also mean agreeing to measures like the Aarhus Convention which sets out rights to environmental information and participation in environmental decisions.
Although half the population of Kosovo is under 25, their current participation in decision-making at all levels is limited. That’s why SfCK is focused on young people – and we are also trying to involve marginalised communities, which in Kosovo includes Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians. Through our involvement with Social Innovation Camp Kosovo, we had already formed working partnerships with key local groups and built credibility on the ground. Working with young people, these hackathon weekends turned back-of-the-envelope ideas for digital social change into working prototypes. The camps were hosted by the UNICEF Innovations Lab, the young participants came from the local Peer Educators Network, and many of the coders were part of Free Libre Open Source Software Kosovo.
Year 1 of Science for Change Kosovo
Our project began in June 2014 with a weekend co-design event at the UNICEF Innovations Lab in Prishtina. Participants included young people from parts of Kosovo with severe environmental issues, including Plementina (under the polluting power stations), Prishtina (the capital city, downwind of the power stations and with heavy traffic pollution) and Drenas (near the Ferronickel plant). There were sessions on methods for air quality measurement, such as diffusion tubes, and we had a member of the Smart Citizen Kit team who introduced their Arduino-based citizen sensing device and trained the young people on installation and connection to the online data platform.
A key thing we understood from researching other DIY air quality sensing projects is the importance of calibration. While this might sound pretty unexciting, this is one of the main discontinuities between the smoothness of data projects and the awkwardness of material reality. So much of what passes as data journalism and data visualisation takes its data from existing sources, whereas a citizen science project is generating data from interactions with the physical world. If citizen science data is to be at all meaningful there should be a way to tie it to the material; to set a baseline that has been verified in the lab and in the field. Although the Smart Citizen Kits represented the positive maker-movement trend to open hardware sensing, we were concerned by their lack of calibration. So we decided to co-locate our kits with diffusion tubes, and use the fact that both measured nitrogen dioxide to calibrate SfCK data against the tube analysis from the lab.
The field mobilisation of Science for Change Kosovo was, frankly, impressive. Kosovo can be a very frustrating place, where post-Communist institutional inefficiency overlaps with entrepreneurial corruption, and it is hard to get things done if you don’t know the right people. By contrast, the young people in the project self-organised with the help of the UNICEF lab, installing Smart Citizen Kits in houses in each location and installing and collecting diffusion tubes over three monthly cycles of data gathering. This included a large group of young Roma who installed and monitored the collection devices in Plemetina.
Unfortunately, in practice, the data from the Smart Citizen Kits was difficult to use. There were severe spikes in the data which blew holes in our ability to compare an averaged reading with the tubes. This was a real shame because the kits were our route to live data; emitting sensor readings every second, they were connected to the net and held out the prospect of a live pollution map, not to mention ideas around live campaigning (e.g. triggering tweets to members of parliament each time the pollution exceeded EU levels). On the other hand, we gathered significant readings from some of the nitrogen dioxide tubes in the capital city, Prishtina. Through the dedicated field work of the volunteers, it looks like we have identified local hotspots which were missed by the government’s data and which exceed statutory limits by a large margin. We will be following these up in the next phase of data gathering.
Our next goal is to expand our measurement activities to particulates i.e. very small dust particles, which are categorised as PM10 (under 10 microns diameter) and PM 2.5 (under 2.5 microns diameter). Particulates are a form of pollution where the link to serious and deadly health problems is absolutely unambiguous. A TSI Sidepak, a semi-professional portable detector, will enable us to take readings at different locations and also on the move. We’ll be able to compare PM exposure over the course of daily life for different groups of people, including activities such as driving, walking or cycling. From this we’ll also be able to test ameliorative measures – following the work of the Breathe London project and the air quality & health team at King’s College, London, who have been piloting alternative back street walking routes to school for children in areas of central London.
From December 2015 we are running junior citizen science workshops in high schools. Rather than the traditionalist pedagogy that is customary in Kosovo, these are non-formal, experiential and practice-based workshops. The students also get to experiment with the Smart Citizen Kits, using them to take indoor air quality measurements in school and learn about open tech for environmental monitoring.
The difference between collective data gathering and collective action
We are exploring how our citizen science measurements can best be used for advocacy and campaigning, but any strategy must take into account the complexities of the local context. Currently, PM measurement events in each locality are tied to holding ‘Town Hall’ meetings shortly afterwards as a way to inform and engage local people. The data we generated from Drenas has already been used in reports to the Parliamentary Commission, and the Ministry of Environment of Kosovo has initiated a court case against the heavy metal plant ‘Ferronikeli’ in Drenas. However, these developments are heavily enmeshed in party political battles, which generates a certain amount of cynicism in everyone else. We’re hoping to learn from the EcoGuerilla campaign from neighbouring Macedonia, where leaked information about pollution from a power plant led to mass protests against PM levels.
For us, there is not an obvious link between data and agency, nor do we think that participation is the same as empowerment. We have noticed that some citizen sensing projects assume that participation of communities in gathering data will increase people’s sense of responsibility and lead to the generation of solutions. In fact there may be a tendency for forms of governmentality like the ‘Smart City’ to re-constitute populations as having a duty to measure their environments, while at the same time producing a society that is, overall, less democratic.
It’s the relationship between air quality and democracy which underlies SfCK. Kosovo is democratically challenged, facing different forms of corruption including political interference in knowledge production. Orthodox political processes are completely captured by elites and oligarchs. The older generation have a hold on power and it is very hard for young people with a more open, socially progressive outlook to make headway. The emphasis of SfCK is on practices, not simply on what is produced; on the construction of data and what that means about subjectivity and agency, not just on the data as such. We know the air is political, that “the air’s chemical composition reveals a history and a politics in itself”2Nieuwenhuis, Marijn. ‘Atemwende, or How to Breathe Differently’. Dialogues in Human Geography March (2015): 90–94. Print.. Most of the time we do not feel this with an intensity that leads to action. What is it in citizen science that causes an ‘affective’ response, which ‘so amplifies our awareness of the injury which activates it that we are forced to be concerned, and concerned immediately’3Tomkins, Silvan S., and E. Virginia Demos. Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S Tomkins. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.? This is a question we hope that SfCK will help to answer over the next two years.