The Green Watch Programme in Dublin: Citizen-driven Sustainability Initiatives in the City

Yesterday I attended a workshop in the Science Gallery in Dublin about the Green Watch Programme, a joint initiative from the Dublin City Council, Trinity College and Intel. The main idea of the programme is to tackle waste in the city through a participatory mobile phone app with a focus on four key areas: water waste, air pollution, green initiatives and litter. As a Dublin City Council representative pointed out, the mobile phone penetration in Dublin is approximately 48%, so it makes sense to create an app that engages citizens to adopt waste prevention behaviours (he did point out that the remaining 52% can be reached through other ways).

The idea taps into the concept of smart, sustainable cities and crowdsourcing. While the project researchers have through about deploying wired and wireless sensors to capture data, they have pointed out that these need electricity, maintenance, and can be costly, while using citizen’s smartphones to sense the environment makes…sense.

During the workshop, in which we were expected to contribute ideas after being introduced to the project, questions were raised about how to engage citizens and what would they benefit from contributing information. The workshop organisers were keen on brainstorming issues of waste across the city. There were many suggestions put forward, such as: unblocking drains, identifying location of recycling black spots, identifying community garden projects (and coordinating volunteers for these), and several others. It remains to be seen how citizens might actively engage in such initiatives and what would be there reasons for doing so. Personal interest? The urge to socialise? Guilt?

One after-thought I had was that the targets of combating waste and engaging citizens can be linked in certain ways. I though specifically of time-wasting (an immaterial form of waste) on online social networks. While many forms of material waste are quite obvious, online time-wasting is a grey area (there are certainly many positive things to be said of online social networking). How can you measure online time-wasting ? Does it eventually translate into physical waste eventually (electricity needs, access to remote data from database centres)?

Instead of harvesting little farms on Facebook’s Farmville app, for example, users could spend time harvesting (real) mini-farms across the city. Perhaps the trick is to make the app as ‘fun’ and engaging as Farmville (et al.). Less time online, more exercise, the opportunity to harvest your produce (rather than spend money on virtual goods to harvest a virtual farm in exchange for virtual scores), and the opportunity to meet your elusive neighbours. Or maybe the solution is somewhere in-between , such linking the ability to score online points and build online ‘wealth’ to your physical efforts in the ‘real’ mini-farm.

If we consider the mind-boggling success of Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker , perhaps the middle ground approach is the only way to go forward. Gamification with a purpose?


Dublin Mini Maker Faire – DIY and Performative Publics

Last Saturday I took part in the first ever Dublin Mini Maker Faire, an event hosted by the Science Gallery and Trinity College for crafters, tinkerers and hobbyists and displaying all sorts of DIY stuff. People from all ages and backgrounds were in attendance, and the organisers estimated that 6500 people visited the event, more than twice their predicted outcome. The event had an emphasis on engaging the public to participate, either through demonstrations or by getting people to produce things, from cardboard robots to electronic badges to music.


I took part with a prototype of an Arduino project I’ve been working on, a Moveable DIY LED lamp, a.k.a. “Dynolamp’. It consisted of a very simple interaction, where motion and tilt combined changed the colour of a LED light on top of an animal-like structure with flexible legs, designed to be hung around different objects and surfaces. I added some TIC TAC boxes to add to the sensorial experience (sound and smell). Despite the simplicity of the project I was surprised by people’s interest, scrutinising my rough sketches and asking me all sorts of questions (what controls the light change, what are the TIC TAC boxes for, where is the power source…).

I put a sign up encouraging people to pick it up and move it around, and was delighted to see many kids having a go at it, bending Dynolamp’s legs, tilting and shaking it and suggesting things (make it walk!). From 10am to 6pm I was flat out explaining Dynolamp to people from 3 to 80 years old. I took a break and got a volunteer to replace me for an hour. When I came back, the table was surrounded by people listening to an explanation given by volunteer Maurice.

In the opposite corner of the room I was in, the NUI Maynooth crew was even busier, and their popular gesture-controlled giant Tetris game was a hit. It created an ad-hoc performative space where people surrounded the player and cheered them on as they played. It was great to see how a re-appropriation of a game considered banal and trivial was generating so much interest, including from kids that are so used to much more sophisticated games. I didn’t see a single person completing one round of the game, as the gesture controlled system was quite difficult. The NUI crew said they had to do some work on the code to make it smoother, but I think that by making it harder to control it actually created a more interesting challenge for people. They also had a DIY old-school arcade cabinet with several games from the 80s and 90s, and kids seem to enjoy playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders and other ‘oldies’.

The Faire extended into the Trinity College Physics lawn, where, among other things, there was a giant drum that could be played by up to twenty people at the same time. It was a nice collaborative device, and I particularly liked the idea of having a dozen people in a circle performing on the same instrument. One guy seemed to be performing the role of percussion leader, and he got people to synchronise (to a certain degree) their drum playing.

In several tents, kids were creating and playing with things. Among these: a giant scalectrix activated by the electricity generated by a participant using a gym walking machine; DIY remote controlled submersibles, and a class on soldering techniques.