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 (

Image: SmartCitizen sensors around the world (

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.

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.

In The Wake of The Charleston Massacre

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

On June 17th, 2015 a white supremacist gunman murdered nine African-Americans in their place of worship in Charleston, South Carolina. The national response questioned the flying of the Confederate battle flag and even Wal-Mart banned sales of the battle flag. Alabama and South Carolina have since taken measures to remove the flag and the nation has celebrated some imagined milestone towards eliminating racism in America. And so we allow ourselves to be distracted by conversations of symbolic progress while police, policy, and vigilantes continue the destruction of Black lives in America.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1816 in the slave trade capital of the nation. For 199 years it has provided a safe haven as a black space in the midst of a society transitioning from selling black bodies to excluding black people from restaurants, waiting rooms, and bathrooms to the continued resistance of integrated housing and schools. Spaces like Emanuel AME foster community building and empowerment through fellowship between worshippers who share the experience of oppression in America. They are places of refuge and safety in the midst of a city that has normalized the exclusion of black residents from the economic and civic opportunities enjoyed by its privileged residents. On June 17th, the safety of Emanuel AME was shattered by the undercurrents of hatred that have never respected the boundaries it created to keep its citizens separate and unequal.

One week after the Charleston massacre, I joined Derrick Johnson, Mississippi State President of the NAACP at a local branch meeting in Meridian, Mississippi. Similar to Emanuel AME, the NAACP in Mississippi has long served as one of the only spaces for African-Americans to speak freely about the injustices faced in their communities. Even this space was often not safe. Known NAACP members were consistently targeted in the 1950’s and 60’s—fired from jobs, beaten, and killed by white Mississippians fearing changes to their ‘way of life’ in southern comfort. As a white male similar in age to Dylann Roof [and the only white male at this NAACP meeting], my mind flashed to images of Charleston’s tragedy as I entered the room and caught surprised glances or suspicious stares. I realize that much of this interpreted suspicion was only in my head. But after all, this is Mississippi.

Within 10 days of the Charleston massacre, 8 southern black churches had been burned. Fourteen days and 23 miles from that Meridian NAACP meeting, Jonathan Sanders was strangled to death by a white police officer while riding his horse. On the day that we held a prayer vigil and called for the Mississippi State flag to be taken down, a TV advertisement exclaimed that Confederate battle flags were “going fast! As the last supplier in town, get yours while supplies last!”

Photo 1: Jackson residents attend a prayer vigil and call to remove the Mississippi state flag

Since I arrived in Jackson—a predominantly African-American city—I have been more aware than ever of my skin. Everyday I consciously question what it means for me to be in an organization of people fighting for their humanity against a ruthless power structure that looks like me. When I hold community meetings in the Delta in rural black churches, I wonder how I can possibly call upon people to question and challenge their local leadership that looks like me. On the weekends, I find myself on a barstool listening to the sounds of a beautiful culture that has preserved 20 generations of Africans forced to work for the profits of men that look like me. In a conscious effort to prove that, “I’m not like them,” I find myself distancing myself (‘other’-ing) white Mississippians and the racist pundits that educate our society from local and national media outlets.

I’ve realized that this is just as problematic as Northerners pointing fingers at “the South” in order to not deal with the consequences of their own racism (Dear Boston readers, see the recent Color of Wealth Report). It is just as problematic as Bernie Sanders supporters booing #BlackLivesMatter activists in Seattle while declaring themselves in solidarity with the movement from the comfort of their blogspots. If this last year of police brutality, racist killings, and mass protests have taught me anything, it is that white folks cannot excuse ourselves from our personal role within a system of racism and oppression that kills black and brown people and preserves our own privileges and comfort.

I waited a long time to put this post together because I somehow thought that I would have a profound moment of revelation to explain my role in working in a black space and what it means. I haven’t. Being white in a black space, in the end, is a lot like being white in America. It is to live without fear for your life in a country that instills fear in all marginalized communities that have been welcomed/coerced/forced into the streets of America. The difference is your degree of comfort in living with that fact. The difference is whether you are working towards a society in which Black and Brown lives matter as much as White lives. The difference is your ability to ignore the American history that has created the stark reality of racism and inequality of modern America. The difference is how often your heart calls into question the decisions you make.

Waste reduction in Nicaragua


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Spencer will be working in Bluefields, Nicaragua over the summer to scale up a waste reduction system that was piloted in January. The pilot has been functioning to quickly convert organic waste into animal feed and compost. Due to the success, interest has grown in turning the system into a commercial enterprise that would be capable of processing a significant portion of the cities organic waste. Spencer will be working with the current pilot operators to improve the design of the current system so that it can be scaled more easily and cheaply, and also to work with the municipal government and local investors to gain the necessary regulatory and monetary support for constructing the commercial facility.

For more information on the work that was conducted in January, please visit this previous blog.

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Improving the livelihood of tea farmers in China


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Rishi will be spending the summer in Yunnan, China working with Kangti Company to define an export strategy for teas picked by ethnic minority groups in southern Yunnan. Tea farmers in parts of China currently lack the financial and regulatory capacity to export some of the best teas in the world. Exportation represents a tremendous growth opportunity for these farmers and would result in significantly increased living standards. Rishi will work with Chinese regulatory agencies and farmer cooperatives to introduce high-quality loose leaf teas to the artisanal American market in an effort to improve the livelihood of farmers in China.

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Cycling mobility after earthquakes in New Zealand


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Lily Bui will be working in Christchurch, New Zealand, in order to design, develop and deploy a mobile app for that tracks cyclist commutes, which will assess mobility patterns of cyclists after the 2011 earthquake. She will be working with the smart city trust SensingCity and the University of Canterbury.

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CURE International Hospital in Uganda


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This summer, Katelyn will be traveling to Mbale, Uganda to work with CURE International Hospital. CURE is a children’s neurological surgical center that provides lifesaving surgeries to patients suffering from spina bifida, hydrocephalus, brain tumors, and other cranial and neural abnormalities. Katelyn will be providing biomedical technical support by updating many of their current technologies along with providing pre- and post-surgical psychological support to the children and their families.

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Data and capacity building for better health in Togo


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This summer, Julia and Cathy will travel to Togo to work on expanding Hope Through Health’s current data management skills by training staff skills in Microsoft Office. In order to improve the clinic’s monitoring and evaluation techniques, they plan on capacity building through expansion of data analysis skills. To ensure the clinic’s growth, they will develop a sustainable training program for future staff which can be continued in their stead as Hope Through Health undergoes a major expansion program over the next ten years. Additionally, Julia and Cathy will train the clinic’s new IT hire in Commcare, a mobile health platform which involves transitioning from paper-based to computer-based patient records.

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Collaborative problem solving in environmental conflicts in Salt Lake City


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Hannah will spend the summer in Salt Lake City, Utah, working for the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program (EDRP), based at the Wallace Stegner Center in the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. Over the summer, she will be helping to build capacity for collaborative problem solving of environmental conflicts in Utah and the Intermountain West. She will work on a number of projects, including developing programming for the Utah Forum on Collaboration and investigating opportunities for using collaborative processes to address climate change in Salt Lake City.

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Community-building in Mississippi


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Grant will be working with rural cooperative members across the state of Mississippi regarding the obstacles and exclusions they face in their communities, particularly around issues of economic opportunities, decision-making, and community energy. Grant and his team will provide tools and workshops to educate the community about the cooperative structure and values. The community and organization will work together to develop a strategy for overcoming barriers of exclusion and creating local democratic processes for change.

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Sustainable charcoal in Tanzania


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This summer Fernando will be working with ARTI Energy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. ARTI is an NGO that works to create sustainable charcoal by training farmers to carbonize their agricultural waste; ARTI processes the carbonized waste to make charcoal briquettes. Fernando will be assisting ARTI in creating improved training techniques by documenting current carbonization practices and training methods as well as analyzing samples of char produced by farmers.

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