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Public Lab Research note

Conference Update: Heralds of Crisis: Ecological Risk and the Role of Sentinels

by sara | June 13, 2012 13:58 13 Jun 13:58 | #2471 | #2471

This week I attended an exciting conference between US and French scholars on how attention is drawn to ecological issues in across a range of fields including: endocrine disruption, pandemic diseases, climate change and biodiversity. The conference brought together a small group of sociologists and anthropologists working in the field of Science and Technology Studies. The goal of the conference was to analyze how alerts to hazards are made in each of these fields in order to understand different process of drawing academic, scientific, media and public attention to these issues. We focused on the figure of the "sentinel", explored by Andrew Lackoff, one of the conference organizers. Lakoff developed the concept of sentinels in his study of the World Health Organization's network for recognizing, alerting and responding to impending pandemic viruses.

A sentinel, as defined in military terms, watches out for impending harm and reports back to a centralize authority when a potential harm is recognized. A sentinel in this sense assumes a discreet role in a larger organization that already recognizes the possibility of a hazard. A sentinel both knows what they are watching for, even if it just something out of the ordinary, and has someone to inform if something unusual occurs.

A question we dealt with was are there sentinels in toxics movements, biodiversity movements, bio-security and climate change in the same way? Why and why not?

One of the very interesting insights for Public Lab's development was that the concept of a sentinel relies on responding to a known harm. I spoke about my work looking at the history of endocrine disruption research, particularly how Theo Colborn formulated the endocrine disruption hypothesis. This case differs significantly from the case of alert systems for novel viral pathogens (which are known unknowns) as Colborn through her research had to learn how to recognize the signs of endocrine disruption. Endocrine disruption wasn't recognizable, before her research, as a phenomenon, she developed a theoretical framework--the endocrine disruption hypothesis--that made it visible. She also had to develop a set of other researchers to report her finding too as there was no existing organization for researching and responding to her problem. Sentinel is therefore, perhaps not a useful frame for describing this process, or her research describes one process for making sentinels?

The conference did not aim to settle these questions but rather examine differences between the fields. For instance, why do we have a world wide network for alerts to pathogens but not to toxic chemicals as hazards? An interesting question for me, is are there ways that looking for biological causes of disease makes finding chemically induced illnesses harder.

I also gave a presentation about Public Lab, which described how our DIY, decentralized and networked approached differed from the traditional sentinel model, by 1) empowering individuals to share their data laterally and/or act on their own data rather than reporting it to a central authority.
2) our interest in developing sensing systems where there are not strong national or international "sentinel" systems in place, toxics such as estrogens and hydrogen sulfide. 3) Or our interest in hacking existing sensing systems--satellites and spectral imaging--for civic purposes.

The conference was private, with researchers sharing their notes in progress so it somewhat hard to report in detail about all of the discussion immediately. The privacy was important to allow scholars to freely share their ideas in process . However the conferees will be developing an issue of the new open access hybrid journal limn on the topic. This journal is an exciting new way of sharing scholarly research relevant to contemporary controversies. There two first issues focus on Systematic Risk and Crowds and Clouds. Both are very relevant to the issues Public Lab confronts, from moving from crowd harvesting and data mining to community directed and owned science and to developing novel ways of addressing environmental risks at via networking hyper-local issues through the internet and shared DIY open hardware tools.

We discussed the possibility of a future Limn and Public Lab collaboration. One of the editor's Christopher Kelty, a scholar of open source movements in UCLA's center for Society and Genetics, has strongly influenced Public Lab's development through his concept of recursive publics. Kelty has been looking at how participation is has been differently configured by various online and open source projects. I'm reading over this paper by him:

Fish, A., Murillo, L. F. R., Nguyen, L., Panofsky, A. & Kelty, C. M. (2011). Birds of the Internet: Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation. Journal of Cultural Economy, 4(2), 157-187. doi:10.1080/17530350.2011.563069. [An unedited pre-print version is available here, but please cite the official publication: PDF]

He has begun a database collecting participatory web based projects, "Birds of the Internet". This project should be very interesting for us in thinking through how Public Lab compares and contrasts with other participatory web-based communities.


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