From a Test Bed to a Living Lab: Some Community Informatics Thoughts on Community Oriented Science

Posted on July 24, 2010


For the last several months I’ve been acting in an advisory role to an EU funded project (N4C) on “Delay Tolerant Networking” (DTN)  The project–N4C is based at Lulea University of Technology (LTU) in Northern Sweden but including partners in a variety of EU countries and including universities, SME’s, and the private sector.  My role has been to comment on the community engagement component of the project and most recently on the notions (and differences) as between technical “test beds” and “living laboratories” (LLs) .

The overall project is an interesting one from a variety of perspectives (for community informatics) as the initial problem being addressed is one that was presented to LTU by community partners (in other project areas), the Sami (indigenous) people of Lappland in Northern Sweden who make their living by reindeer herding and supporting tourism related to the northern lifestyle. The question was, how could the Internet be used to support the Sami’s reindeer activities, northern lifestyles, and particularly how could the internet be made accessible and usable under northern geographic and environmental conditions i.e. very dispersed and semi-nomadic lifestyles, extreme weather conditions and so on?

In practice, the project has been examining and developing software and hardware supports for DTN i.e. networking (internet access and other communications networking) which allows for considerable (measured in hours and even days) delays between the initial information request/upload and the ultimate information access/download.  I won’t in this blogpost go into this matter in detail although the ultimate technology solutions which are being examined would, I think, have wide applications in the kind of extreme environments which many of those with limited current internet access (as for example indigenous peoples in various parts of the world) are experiencing.

However, rather than discussing the Sami and the more direct possible impact of the project I would like to discuss another aspect and partner of the project which is the small meteorological and engineering consulting firm, MEIS based just outside Ljubljana in Slovenia.  I had a chance to have a very enjoyable visit with them and in the course of this visit to observe something that might be of wider interest.

It should be noted overall that the major orientation of the EU funded project is to advance the technology—hardware and software—in the DTN area and all but one (a Lappland based SME) of the partners have a strong technical background.  MEIS in Slovenia consists of 5 Masters and Ph.D.’s in various branches of Engineering, Physics, Computer Science and Climatology–these are heavy duty techie (and brainy) dudes (and dudettes 😉

One of the issues we discussed at some length and following an earlier discussion in the context of the broader project was the difference between a “technical test bed” and a “living lab”.  In fact, the discussion was for much of its length concerned with finding a common language to discuss these matters—questions of “problem setting”, “methodology”, “data capture”, “data analysis” and so on, all had a somewhat different meaning when viewed from the perspective of highly qualified scientific researchers conducting formal research or from the perspective of a social scientist concerned with community based social and technical processes.

In the technical context a “test bed” involving the community was understood as the process of finding a local person who would volunteer to facilitate the collection and transmission of data as prescribed by the researchers.  In this instance the problem definition, methodology, data capture, analysis and reporting and so on are (and were) all done within the framework of normal accepted scientific practice with the initial problem and the ultimate reporting all being structured for and by scientists/technical developers. In this context data/information “access” was the process of publication of the ultimate results in peer reviewed journals or possibly making the interim data available in “raw” form but ultimately in a form that would be of interest (usable) only to those working very much within the shelter of the scientific/technical tent.

My abstract point to the MEIS people (and previously to the overall N4C consortium) was that a “Living Lab” (LL) would differ dramatically from their “test beds” in that the initial problem definition would have to be collaboratively determined with the community partner in the LL, the research methodology would have been at least reviewed for authentication with the community partner, and the analysis and reporting would have been done in such a way that the requirements identified at the beginning by the community partner in the LL, would have been satisfied.

Not being sufficiently familiar with the Lapland component of the project I couldn’t comment on how much the overall N4C might conform to the LL approach but certainly the activities of the MEIS folks which was designed around using DTN for the capture of meteorological and environmental data using a local volunteer for supporting data capture and transmission appeared to me to be firmly of the “test bed” rather than the “living lab” variety.

And then serendipity intervened…

The MEIS principals Marija Zlata  Boznor and Primoz Mlakar and I, went out into the field to meet with their data capture volunteer and to examine their monitoring sites which were located in a steep valley some 50 km from Ljubljana at the location of a major steel plant with a history of environmental pollution issues.

As well as reviewing the monitoring devices in place the purpose of the visit was to hand over to the volunteer a report that MEIS had done on a voluntary basis for him after having worked with him for some time and having established a friendship with him.  What had happened was that the local volunteer, a person who had worked in steel and associated plants in the region all of his life was experiencing some health issues. He had found similar concerns among his neighbours and had mentioned these to the MEIS group in the course of their on-going interactions around the N4C project.  In fact, the volunteer and his neighbours were very concerned about the possibility of there being dangerous levels of radioactivity in the slag from the steel plant (they are currently also re-processing scrap steel) or that there were other dangerous pollutants coming form the steel plant.

MEIS, as part of their overall scientific capability have the technology and the knowledge to monitor for radioactivity and various kinds of dangerous pollutants and in response to the request from the volunteer they put in place a set of monitors additional to those installed for the N4C project specifically to test for the areas of local concern.  As part of this process, they established the monitoring procedures such that the local volunteer would initiate the monitoring on a regular daily basis and sign off on each of the procedures undertaken.  The results were captured in the same way as for the N4C project (via DTN) and returned to the MEIS lab for processing.

I was privileged to be in attendance when the report on the monitoring was delivered to the local volunteer.  Marija Boznar of MEIS walked the local volunteer through the report which (according to Marija) had been structured so as to provide the data in graphic form and overall presented so that it could be readily understood by a lay person such as the local volunteer.  After a quick glance through the project;, noting the nil result on each of the graphs presented, the volunteer smiled extremely broadly and beamed with pleasure pumping the hands of the MEIS scientists and thanking them profusely.  He walked away with the report indicating that his neighbours would be equally interested in the results which he would be sharing with them directly.

It was at about that point that the penny dropped and I realized that what MEIS had done here was to provide an extremely good example of how a LL could and should function in this type of environment and also provided some useful lessons on how to in fact, make use of “open access information” in support of community processes. The issue of concern here was the level of possible radioactivity in the ground (gama dose rate) and dangerous pollution in the air.  The local residents had heard about possible dangers and difficulties elsewhere through the media but had no means of checking out the reality and determining for themselves the situation and thus alleviating anxieties about possible dangers in their community (which of course, would depress possible resale value of property and so on).

The location of a test site in the community by MEIS was of course quite fortuitous as was the development of a trusting relationship between MEIS and the local volunteer.  However, MEIS was in a position to volunteer its services in this area with little cost to themselves (they already owned the equipment and had the expertise) and they were well disposed to undertake the project since the volunteer was providing them with a somewhat equivalent service.  Importantly, the way in the “research” problem was defined was determined both by the concerns of the community and by MEIS’ technical knowledge with the research methodology being identified by MEIS but implemented in such a way that the volunteer was a party to the process and thus was willing to trust the data collection of which he was a part.  The analysis and reporting by MEIS reflected their understanding and sensitivity to the requirements of the community for results which would be visibly accessible by those with no scientific or technical training i.e. simple graphic displays.

The result was a win-win… the community got the reassurances it was looking for and MEIS got its committed volunteer for the future life of the N4C project and presumably beyond if they so chose. If a way could be found to wrap an institutional (and minimal funding structure) around this activity a quite effective LL could quite possibly be developed – perhaps not for this specific community which might not be large enough to support such, but possibly on a regional basis.

And as well there are other things that could be learned from this example about how scientific knowledge and skill can be made both accessible and useful at the local level.  It would have been a very normal process and result for MEIS to have gone into this community, set up their monitoring equipment, gathered their data, done their analysis, reported and packed equipment again – all without having had an impact in the community much greater than purchasing a few tankloads of gasoline.  And yet with minimal effort or cost MEIS (and indirectly the N4C project) has had a quite significant and positive impact on this community by simply being able to listen and learn, to adjust expectations marginally and adapt their knowledge and expertise to local circumstances and requirements.

As an interesting post-script (and additional rationale for the LL approach), MEIS is now considering developing a product or service that could support the type of overall environmental monitoring that they are doing with the N4C project but as might be more widely useful/usable as per the experience with the community volunteer.  The combination of scientific/technical expertise and end user application might just be a winning combination and indicates the kind of value for commercial innovation (and product development) that Living Labs can frequently precipitate.–a further justification beyond the altruistic for implementing Living Labs.