(Summer ’16) Lily Bui, G

Lilian Bui (G, Comparative Media Studies)

Lily will be spending this summer in Barcelona, Spain, working with Fab Lab Barcelona on an air quality monitoring project called SmartCitizen. This project is part of a larger, Europe-wide project called Making Sense, which seeks to enable cities around the world to monitor the environment (starting with air quality) from the grassroots, upward. She’ll be designing educational materials for participants and testing out the next set of SmartCitizen kits before their official release at the end of summer. Check back for updates!

All onboard: getting ready for the pilot launch



Our SmartCitizen & Making Sense team during a workshop (Photo: Tomas Diez)

Last week’s user studies set the stage for the last big thing that I was involved with during my time in Barcelona: a design workshop that involved mapping out the entire unboxing and setup process of the SmartCitizen kit v1.1.

During a three-hour workshop, our team painstakingly reviewed every step that a brand new user would go through in order to set up their kit for the first time. In our user studies, we heard from people with a variety of skills sets — some with no background knowledge of open source hardware or software, others with some, and others with plenty. It was a different experience consciously going through the process ourselves as a team to better understand the challenges that users have identified.

The process offered us to be reflective and critical of the current design of the site and how to find information. For example, if I am a new user, and I get stuck connecting my kit to the computer, where might I find the instructions on what to do? And if I continue to encounter problems, might that process of getting help escalate to a forum, or eventually a person over e-mail or Skype to help me through?

The larger scope of doing this work is to be able to lower the barrier to entry for this sort of technology. The rhetoric of open source projects often promises to deliver accessible technology to all, but that promise also assumes that “all” people might have some baseline knowledge of technology as a jumping off point. Our aim is to be able to design for those who may not necessarily come from a technical background, in order to broaden the scope of communities of interest and communities of practice who participate in the project.

Beyond this mapping exercise, our team will prioritize which parts of the setup process can be better automated, so that it demands less from the user in terms of inputting information. This works toward a more plug-and-play approach so that the emphasis shifts toward the data that the devices produce rather than the struggle that is currently the setup process.

A key challenge to doing this work is that it is all in preparation for a pilot program in Barcelona which will further test our assumptions. A lot remains to be seen in terms of whether these critical design changes will make a difference in a community member’s experience or not. However, that is what makes it more exciting to be experimenting with methods that are different than what is done before. There remains a hope that with some changes may come more (hopefully positive) changes.

I wrap up my time with SmartCitizen and Making Sense this week, which feels all too fast, as it goes when one is having fun. I feel as though I made meaningful connections here that will lead to collaborations further down the line. My work here is done for now, but it is not done for good. Working with this team inspired new questions and new lines of investigations at which I want to be at the front of the line, and I look forward to when we can revisit working together again.

Fun fact: I was invited by our project manager to be in the Making Sense documentary, which will be completed in September! Here is a quick behind-the-scenes shot. What a treat to represent MIT and the SmartCitizen and Making Sense team!



Behind the scenes of the Making Sense documentary (Photo: Mara Balestrini)

What’s that noise? Sound pollution in Barcelona.

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Our fearless SmartCitizen & Making Sense team at Fab Lab Barcelona (Image credit: Tomas Diez)

When thinking about environmental pollution, noise often takes a backseat to issues of air and water contamination. However, in Barcelona, it is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue among local residents here.

While I did come here expecting to focus mostly on air pollution in the city, I have found that air and noise pollution are invariably intertwined. The more an area is being used by people, the more likely it will be noisy, as the air is more likely to be polluted by transportation, cigarette smoke, industrial output, etc.

In my last post, I highlighted some of the flags that people have hung on their balconies in order to express discontent with mass tourism and excessive noise in mixed-use urban areas as a result. The municipality has actually recognized this as a problem, and Ajuntament de Barcelona has gone as far as to create a plan of action to address how noise can be mitigated.

There are a few tricky things about documenting and measuring noise pollution, though. The SmartCitizen kit contains a noise sensors along with other environmental sensors, and it is quite good at documenting sound levels. While it is true that you can measure sound in decibels (dB), the interpretation of what constitutes “noise” is much more subjective. For some, the noise from a crowded area with loud music is tolerable while for others, it’s stress inducing. Consequently, drafting policy around these subjective experiences is nonetheless challenging.

Furthermore, the anecdotal evidence is paradoxical. While people complain of noise, property values near “noisier” and more active areas (like city center) tend to be higher. Thus, the value of being close to activity (which includes mass tourism) is usually higher, despite the noise.

Ada Colau, the beloved Barcelona city mayor, has written and spoken extensively about this exact issue for international audiences as well as local ones. While some local residents see noise pollution and tourism as going hand-in-hand, she distinguishes to two:

“[T]he answer is not to attack tourism. Everyone is a tourist at some point in their life. Rather, we have to regulate the sector, return to the traditions of local urban planning, and put the rights of residents before those of big business.”

To Colau, combatting noise pollution as a proxy for tourism is not the right thing to do. That perspective villainizes a central part of the city’s economy, and one that keeps the city diverse, inclusive, and open. A campaign against tourism could have adverse effects in perpetuating localism to an extent that elides hospitality for visitors altogether.

So, does raising awareness of noise pollution help toward regulating it? Is there a way to do so that doesn’t alienate the tourism industry but placates locals and restores some peace of mind?

These are, indeed, difficult questions to answer, and I am not convinced that we will be able to answer them. However, a technological solution to enable people to measure sound pollution to create evidence for environmental issues for themselves might be one step in the right direction.

City Safari: A Rapid Ethnography of Barceloneta, El Barrio Born, y el Distrito Gótico

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Anti-tourism flags map, Barcelona (Image credit: Lily Bui)

In Barcelona, many people hang flags on their balconies as a form of expression – of their identity, geography, and politics. Walking through a typical neighborhood, you may see the Catalan flag, Barcelona flag, or the Spanish flag hung above.

In recent years, local residents of Barcelona have used flags to begin communicating something else: discontent and frustration. The exponential rise in tourism in the city, leading back to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, has transformed previously quiet neighborhoods into overcrowded, loud ones; raised property values for local residents; and posed a cultural threat to the Barcelona way of life.

So, in order to express their discontent, some citizens have used their balconies as a medium for protest and activism against the massification of tourists in their neighborhoods. By hanging flags with messages against tourism, residents signal disapproval of current conditions in the city. For example, the flag below says, in Catalán, “No more terraces, no more noise.” Locals often complain of excessive noise pollution caused my late-night tourist traffic in mixed-use commercial and residential district in bars, restaurants, and clubs. The terraces also refer to the number of outdoor tables there are in front of restaurants; in general, the more there are, the more people are likely to come and socialize there, causing more noise.


Anti-tourism flags on Barcelona balconies (Image credit: Lily Bui)

Since the SmartCitizen sensor kit also measures noise pollution in decibels (dB), being able to understand the context of noise pollution as a social problem is extremely important. Before a big team meeting this week, our project manager sent me out on a city safari to do some ethnographic data collection about these visual complaints. I used photography as a form of inquiry into how these flags were being used, which neighborhoods they showed up in, and how frequently they could be spotted.

I presented my findings at a big team meeting this week, which helped informed the process of developing the onboarding toolkit I mentioned in my previous blog post, a set of guidelines that could help pilot SmartCitizen organizers across different cities tackle different environmental issues — among them, air quality and noise pollution.

This mixed-methods approach (ethnography, data science, co-design) is particularly reflective of the SmartCitizen team. We all come from different backgrounds, among them advertising, academia, software engineering, hardware development, and design. However, we love to work across disciplines to solve social problems. I am optimistic that we will work well together in order to create a toolkit for new users that helps make not only the technology but also the social context of the environmental problems at hand more accessible.

This upcoming week, I will be focused on doing some user experience research in order to identify current frustrations that users have with the platform and sensor kit. This will involve interviewing current community members as well as identifying possible community partners with whom SmartCitizen can collaborate during this upcoming release of the sensor kit.


SmartCitizen kit Piña (Image credit: Lily Bui)

On a separate yet related note, I deployed my own SmartCitizen sensor in Barcelona and named it “Piña,” the Spanish word for pineapple.

Citizen Sensing in Catalonia

Image: Casa Batllo, Antoni Gaudi (Lily Bui)

Image: Casa Batllo, Antoni Gaudi (Lily Bui)

The first thing I wanted to do when I arrived in Barcelona was to go see some Gaudí.

Antoni Gaudí is a Catalonian architect whose abstract an eccentric buildings have made their way into photographs that I had only seen in slideshows and books. Wanting to see them in situ, I took a walking tour in 90-degree (Fahrenheit) weather to visit some of the well-known buildings: La Casa Batlló, La Pedrera, La Sagrada Familia, Palau Guell.

For much of his career, Gaudí was transfixed by nature — and how it might be adapted to make urban form more organic. If you look at La Casa Batlló, for example, you will notice how it lacks straight lines and right angles. No two balconies or columns look exactly the same.

While admiring the complexity of his work, it suddenly hit me that Gaudí’s architectural language could well be a metaphor for why I have come to Spain in the first place.

This relationship between urban form and nature is one that carries over to my fellowship work this summer with SmartCitizen at Fab Lab Barcelona. SmartCitizen is a citizen sensing platform for air quality that allows individuals to share air quality data they have collected with a sensor kit. FabLab Barcelona is part of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, where it supports different educational and research programs related with the multiple scales of the human habitat, one of which is SmartCitizen.

The initiative looks at the relationship between air quality and civic engagement in cities, and how urban form (e.g. land use) might affect where pollution is worse. Traditionally, air quality information is collected by governments or institutions, and the information is not always accessible or legible by the general public. SmartCitizen hopes to give publics the right tools and educational materials to investigate air quality independently of governments and institutions.

SmartCitizen has been around for a few years and already has sensor kits deployed all over the world (see map).

Image: SmartCitizen sensors around the world (https://smartcitizen.me/kits/)

Image: SmartCitizen sensors around the world (https://smartcitizen.me/kits/)

For my masters thesis, I bought a sensor kit myself and began tinkering around with it (see below) to participate in the initiative.

Image: SmartCitizen sensor (Lily Bui)

Image: SmartCitizen sensor (Lily Bui)

During my time here, I will be working with the SmartCitizen team to create an “onboarding toolkit” for new users of the sensor. This toolkit will help two different target audiences get started with the technology: pilot organizers of city-specific SmartCitizen deployments and communities of interest with varying degrees of experience with technology. The team has found that while participants of sensing projects like these show keen interest in being involved, the drop-off rate in early stages of the project is unsustainably high.

For this reason, the team finds it important to research what the experience is like — positive, negative, and in-between — for past, current, and interested participants. The hope is to use this research to create a toolkit that can be adjusted for different audiences, with different levels of engagement.

This week, our team began to put together a work plan that breaks down some key tasks and a timeline for the project at hand. I have a sense of where to start and the team with whom I will be working. Now, it is a matter of making the most of the time I have here to produce valuable work in service of the bigger picture.

While air itself is equally distributed, air quality can often be inequitable. Air pollution is not just a problem in cities like Barcelona (which, by the way, is in Spain’s top five most polluted cities according to the Generalitat de Catalunya’s Air Quality Index). It is also a global environmental issue that knows few geographical or socioeconomic boundaries.

This is exactly (and I mean, exactly) what my masters thesis topic was about, and I am ridiculously fortunate to be able to jump straight from spending two years researching a problem to being part of a solution for it.

The work that happens here has the potential to impact many others, and one can only hope that we can be as bold, inventive, and meaningful as Gaudí in the long run.

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