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