Sense and the City: Representations of Air Quality Data in the “Smart City”

The proliferation of sensor devices in the emerging landscape of ‘smart cities’ provides new mechanisms with which to measure the built and natural environment. City governments increasingly rely on sensor data to monitor infrastructure, mobility patterns, environmental hazards, disasters, and more. At the same time, citizens have increasing access to tools with which to examine urban concerns outside of institutional means. By looking at the use of one specific category of sensor data, air quality, this thesis provides a critical analysis of the plurality of ways in which urban sensing data is generated and represented. Specifically, the thesis examines representations of air quality data intended for governmental to grassroots audiences, and how these representations may prove to be problematic in attempts to reconcile their myriad forms and meanings across contexts and constituencies. Urban planning and design, disciplines that rely on the interpretation of environmental data in order to propose strategies for shaping the built environment, serve as a unique point of convergence of the key tensions that persist in the use of sensor data in cities. Case studies of various urban sensing initiatives in the U.S. and abroad illustrate disjunctions between different modes of sensor data collection and the way that data is communicated, affecting the way that governments negotiate with citizen stakeholders and vice versa. The core research questions this thesis examines are twofold: (1) What are the ways in which air quality sensor data is represented and given meaning in city dashboards, data portals, and other graphic user interfaces for different audiences, and (2) How might sensor data be used in the context of urban planning and design to reveal new frameworks for environmental data collection and representation that promote collaboration between government and citizen stakeholders?


Lily Bui

About Lily Bui

Lily Bui's masters research focused on using sensors to support environmental monitoring, and communicating sensor-based data to different stakeholders. She is currently a PhD student at MIT's School of Architecture & Planning in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning. She holds dual bachelor's degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. Before joining MIT CMS, she worked at Public Radio Exchange (PRX), where she helped generate and distribute science public radio; and SciStarter, where she helped find and tell stories about citizen science. In other past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she can be spotted on a surfboard or skateboard (and/or strumming a ukulele) somewhere warm. Thesis: Sense and the City: Representations of Air Quality Data in the “Smart City”


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