Sunday 20 June 2021
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Improved urban monitoring with citizen sensing

We are witnessing the emergence and proliferation of a new science called citizen science, which is being applied in different fields of research, and driven by the emergence of powerful super computers in citizens’ pockets.

The rise of smartphones has made computers ubiquitous, nowhere yet everywhere at the same time. Moreover, these devices are equipped with powerful sensors, providing an opportunity for citizens to leverage on their mobile phones to collect data and generate information, enabling them to better understand their environments. In this article, we provide an overview of smart urban monitoring using practical examples of the work we are doing to monitor air quality, temperature and noise levels in two parts of Windhoek, Wanaheda and Windhoek West.

Furthermore, the article explains how cities, towns and villages in Namibia can leverage on the power of citizen science to timely acquire useful information to support and improve decision making. The Oxford English dictionary defines citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions”. Citizen science has been around for many years, and some of its uses can traced in evasive species monitoring studies.

In this article, we will not look at citizen science from an academic point of view but analyse its impact from a practical, participatory angle. Conventionally, environmental monitoring is conducted by official authorities that usually spend large amounts of money for high quality but expensive monitoring equipment followed by continuous labour and money investments on maintenance and calibration, which leads to often low spatial and temporal resolution.

Many a times these data sources are often too sparse to meet the information demands from the people. Although technologies such as Arduino are still not perfect, they are powerful and simple tools to experiment how citizens can collectively source data and information faster and cheaper. Using Arduino boards called Smart citizen kits, we were able to collect data from two different suburbs in Windhoek. We picked up important issues that affect the measurement of air quality, which is sensor data calibration. At this stage, we did not reach conclusive findings as we are still analysing the data and the study is still underway.

Today, our country is facing a severe drought, which has killed thousands of livestock and impoverished many Namibians – especially those who are dependent on livestock and crop farming. Using citizen sensing data, one could easily have predicted this drought through sufficient and timely environmental information. This calamity should be a lesson for Namibia, thus we need to become more proactive instead of being reactive and only respond to events once they occur. Collecting enough data pertaining to our environments and other areas is critical to provide useful insights to enhance decision making as well as service delivery.

It is not only about predicting droughts and other natural calamities, but empowered citizens taking the future of the places in which they live, work and play into their own hands. They become “smart” by mastering and sharing technologies that help them to express themselves, connect to others, share resources and ideas, and reflect; so they can decide the best course of action – for themselves. One of the most striking examples of this movement in Namibia is the Namibia Business Innovation Institute developer circle, who meet in the NBII mobile lab.
The developer circle community empowers citizens mostly developers and computer scientists to use open source technology to understand their environments better, and develop applications based on their findings to solve problems facing communities. Citizen science is an epistemic tool that can complement, not replace, the tried and accurate methods of expert-driven scientific inquiries. Despite the differences in skills, motivation or background, together as citizens we can collaborate and leverage on the power of citizen science to help everyday people ‘gain knowledge about the areas they live in, scientific literacy, learn about technology and meet people in their community who care about the same issues. And together, over the challenges we face as a nation.

*Lameck Mbangula Amugongo is country Ambassador of 1 Billion Africa in Namibia. He holds B.IT: Software Engineering, B.Hons: Software Development (Cum Laude) and is currently pursuing MSc. Computer Science

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