Sensing and Sentinels
Monday 29 March, 2021, 11:30 – 13:00
This session explores how digital technologies are being deployed to sense nonhuman mobilities and forge novel more-than-human relations.
Discussant: Dr Chris Sandbrook, University of Cambridge
Oscar Hartman Davies, University of Oxford:
References to sentinels and ‘canaries in the coal mine’ are multiplying across the natural sciences and the public domain. Sentinels are used to signal emergent conditions that would otherwise go unnoticed until their effects were more pronounced. Whilst reading the nonhuman world for advanced signs of change is not a novel practice, the present articulation of this through environmental sensing technologies that engender particular ways of registering and interpreting worldly signals is much more recent. Sentinels, then, express in particular ways the imbrication of environmental sensing with emerging ways of knowing and governing a world imagined as plural, complex, and contingent. In oceanic environments, often difficult and costly to monitor, these sensing practices and networks increasingly include animals equipped with satellite transmitters and other data-collecting devices. For some ecologists, these ‘animal sensors’ are the foundation of an approaching ‘quantum leap’ in the ecology and our understanding of the Earth (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2019). This paper focuses on two sentinel projects using albatrosses equipped with radar-detectors and satellite tags to detect commercial fishing vessels, one around the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean and the other around South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic. It draws on document analysis and interviews with ecologists and practitioners to ask after the affordances and capacities that make albatrosses ‘good’ sentinel animals, how the birds might themselves experience these novel assemblages, as well as how human-environment relations are reconfigured in these technologically-mediated ecologies. Taking cautious cues from ecologists who describe albatrosses’ roles in these projects in terms of agency and empowerment, the paper seeks to open up questions around the ontological status of the animal in movement ecology and about the modes of governance and management this sensed/sensing animal both enables and is produced by.
Oscar is an environmental and cultural geographer at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He is interested in the practices and politics of environmental monitoring at the poles. His doctoral research investigates how assemblages of people, digital technologies, and animals have come to be configured as ‘early warning systems’ for polar environments, with a particular focus on the tracking and monitoring of seabirds.
Hira Sheikh, Queensland University of Technology
Marcus Foth, Queensland University of Technology
Peta Mitchell, Queensland University of Technology:
City governments increasingly use environmental sensing technologies and resulting data to respond to urgent planetary challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Although these initiatives are positively focused towards conservation, as a number of researchers have noted, biodiversity conservation projects are largely embedded in positivist scientific discourse and often do not question the neoliberal capitalist framework cities are operating within (Brockington & Duffy, 2010; Büscher et al., 2012). The environmental sensing technologies used to track nonhuman species for conservation purposes are designed by humans to understand the environment and its inhabitants, therefore, they are geared towards human perception (Gabrys, 2016). Moreover, as Adams (2019) has argued, these approaches often exercise a form of spatial control over nonhuman life and their movements (Adams, 2019) that also reinforce human exceptionalism (Clarke et al., 2019). Similarly, the biodiversity databases confine nonhuman beings into matrices of knowledge that commodify them (Youatt, 2008) as sources of ‘natural capital’ (Costanza et al., 1998). Building on this discourse, we argue that techno-scientific approaches alone are not sufficient to address urban biodiversity loss. Our research also finds previous studies and current urban governance approaches have not successfully addressed the increasing biodiversity concerns. The failure to address biodiversity concerns has political and ethical implications for the future of urban life – both human and nonhuman. This paper argues for a different methodological approach to biodiversity conservation in city governance – speculating desirable future(s). The paper is divided into three sections. First, it identifies issues embedded in urban science and smart city data-driven approaches to biodiversity conservation. Second, under the rubric of more-than-human studies (Houston et al., 2018; Loh et al., 2020; Todd, 2015; Van Dooren et al., 2016) and critical data studies (Iliadis & Russo, 2016), it proposes a turn to desirable future(s) approach in urban data governance by engaging with methodologies such as value scenarios (Nathan et al., 2007), urban imaginaries (Estrada-Grajales et al., 2018), and speculative design fiction (Dunne & Raby, 2013). Third, it discusses the potential of these methodologies to address some identified issues in data-driven approaches to city governance for more genuine sustainability outcomes and better urban policies. In this paper’s concluding discussion, we articulate a practical set of guidelines; on how speculative methodologies can offer better urban policies relating to biodiversity conservation.
Hira is a Ph.D. Candidate with the Urban Informatics Research Group at the QUT Design Lab and QUT Digital Media Research Centre. She is an architect and an urban design theorist by background. Her research focuses on more-than-human smart urban governance.
Marcus Foth is Professor of Urban Informatics in the QUT Design Lab. His transdisciplinary work is at the international forefront of human-computer interaction research and development with a focus on smart cities, community engagement, media architecture, internet studies, ubiquitous computing, and sustainability.
Peta Mitchell is Associate Professor in QUT Digital Media Research Centre and School of Communication. Her research focuses on digital geographies, location awareness and mobile media, algorithmic culture, and network contagion.
Julian Rochlitz, University of Bonn:
Digital technologies increasingly reshape relations between humans, nonhuman lifeforms and matter. In this contribution, I argue that one way they do this is by enabling inherently anticipatory forms of knowing and acting on biological, chemical and physical entities. This is in line with more general observations that environmental concerns are often framed with regard to the future and that environments not only can appear as threatened but, at the same time, as potential threats to be prevented from materialising. I analyse how these technologies mediate human-plant relations drawing on a case study of a programme that attempts to improve plant health in smallholder farming in Kenya, in part by incorporating a number of digital devices, including a plant health database, smartphone/tablet apps for data collection and access to expert information, and predictive computing. Based on this, I identify four digitally mediated ways of formatting knowledge on insect pests and plant diseases: diagnosis, prescription, data analysis and prediction. In an attempt to confront potential yield losses and to make the threat of pest and disease outbreaks manageable, these formattings render knowledge about plant health anticipatory in that they produce statements not only about what is, but also about what is to come and what is to be done.
Julian Rochlitz is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Bonn, where he works within the Collaborative Research Centre “Future Rural Africa: Future-making and social-ecological transformation”. His research focuses on information technologies in the agricultural sector in Kenya. He is particularly concerned with questions on the digitally mediated translation of environmental knowledge into agricultural practices and on how this shapes small-scale agriculture more broadly.
Erica von Essen, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research
Navinder Singh, Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences:
From red dots on a GPS-tracking app, heat sources on thermal images and captures on trail cameras, to statistics reported into a database, wildlife are now increasingly digital. What is the role of citizen sensing in the digitalization of wild animals? Using contemporary case studies from Swedish wildlife management of charismatic wildlife species, we synthesize empirical insights on participatory monitoring of golden eagles and moose with discussions on the future of the public in collecting and also consuming wildlife surveillance data. Shared platforms for digitalization are investigated in relation to hosting two tensions common to citizen science projects. First, we assess the relative autonomy of the platform as a forum for accommodating citizens discussions over wildlife compared to how pre-defined and mediated by experts it is. We measure this in terms of asking to what extent there are channels for horizontal communication between users, in which they are free to thematize around wildlife observations on their own terms. Do data entries have to go through verification processes by experts? Within this we thus raise a broader issue of the formalization and ‘scientization’ of wildlife observations to fit expert protocols. We trace this back to how it may impact human-wildlife-expert relations. Second, we examine the platforms as to their accommodation of sometimes conflicting motivations for participation. Research now draws attention to tensions between ‘work’ and ‘play’, labor and leisure. We show how the co-existence of motives for collecting data and how various aspects of the process can draw out different motivations among users. Our talk contributes to a problematizing of the ambiguous role of citizens in citizen science for wildlife management.
Erica von Essen is an associate professor with Stockholm University and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. Her research focuses on changing human-wildlife relations in modernity, including new roles and expressions for animals in human leisure, sport, consumption, technology and aesthetics. She is currently leading several projects on biosecurity and wild boars in Europe and in Scandinavia. Previously, she has been published on illegal killings of wildlife.
Navinder J Singh is an associate professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå. His research is focussed on finding innovations to solve societal problems arising from movements of animals and people. Singh works across diverse taxa (large mammals, raptors, rodents and fish) and ecosystems and studies ecological and evolutionary consequences of global changes. A dominant part of his work is to develop monitoring methods for quantifying changes in biodiversity and human behaviour and how this knowledge can be used for sustainable management of natural resources.
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