The idea of the emerging participatory panopticon scares a lot of people. That's not surprising; after all, there are numerous ways in which a world in which millions of us carry always-on, mobile networked recorders could lead to invasions of privacy, harassment of the powerless, and an increased coarsening of public discourse. But if we accept the notion that the participatory panopticon is a likely consequence of otherwise desirable improvements to communication and information technologies, it becomes incumbent upon us to think of ways to use it as a tool for good.
I've long admired the Witness project, which provides video cameras to human rights activists around the world in order to document violations and abuses. I was particularly happy to see the recent news that Witness plans to open up a web portal to enable users of digital cameras and cameraphones to send in their recordings over the Internet, rather than just as hand-carried videotape. While thinking about that development, however, it occurred to me that a similar model might work well for a "second superpower" army of networked environmentalists: imagine a web portal collecting recordings and evidence of ecological problems (human-caused or otherwise), environmental crimes, and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be, in essence, an "Earth Witness" project.
Such a project wouldn't need to be limited only to problems. In the best WorldChanging spirit, the "Earth Witness" site (or "Environmental Transparency Project," or "Smart Mobs for Natural Security") could also serve as a collection spot for data about conditions around the planet. The data could be tagged with geographic information and, once uploaded, mashed-up with online maps for easy viewing and analysis.
What makes this prospect appealing is that most of the necessary components are already available. Cameraphones, of course, would be absolutely fundamental to such a project, as for a growing number of us, they're as close as we now have to always-on, always-connected information tools. We may not remember to bring our digital cameras with us in our day-to-day travels, but we rarely forget our phones. Mobile phones with Global Positioning System (GPS) chips -- an increasingly common feature -- would be better still, as they make it possible to tag the exact location of whatever has been photographed or recorded right on the spot.
That's enough, right there, to build a compelling database of environmental changes, with images taken on the scene, rather than from hundreds of miles above. But we can do more.
It's possible to build environmental sensors that attach to mobile devices. We've pointed to several examples in the past, but today's news brought an amusing -- but quite important -- variation on the story, via research from UC Irvine:
A flock of pigeons wearing mobile phone-style backpacks are to be used as air-pollution monitors.
The 20 pigeons will each carry a GPS satellite tracking receiver, air pollution sensors and a basic mobile phone transmitter. Text messages on air quality will be beamed back in real time to a special pigeon "blog", or online journal, while miniature cameras slung around the birds' necks will post aerial pictures.
The pigeons are to be released in August into the smog-filled skies over San Jose in California.
The sensors pick up levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, two key elements of smog. That the mobile pollution monitors are to be carried by pigeons gives the story its humorous edge, but the underlying work is what really matters. The combined pollution sensors, camera, GPS and mobile phone system is now lightweight enough to be carried by a small bird; the kit could just as easily be an add-on for existing phones, carried by people.
Other environmental add-ons could measure temperature, CO2 levels, even the presence of biotoxins. Biochip-based sensors have become remarkably tiny, and the costs are dropping dramatically. The "Earth Witness" phone could provide abundant data about the conditions of the world around you -- and link that data with what thousands or millions of other people are seeing, too.
For the moment, the analysis of what's being picked up by the sensors will likely be handed off to network servers. Mobile phones are startlingly powerful in comparison to computers of even 25 years ago, but they're not yet ready to take on challenging computational tasks. That's okay; we've seen multiple examples of mobile phones being used as medical devices, taking infrared photos to detect cancer or bloodwork data from an add-on system, then sending that information out to medical clinics for analysis. It won't be too long, however, before the chip in a typical mobile phone will rival those in recent laptop computers.
So what's would need to be done to make "Earth Witness" (or whatever it gets called -- the Witness humanitarian group is not connected to this idea) a reality? Aside from the central server to collect and display data, it would need either an add-on kit with adapters for a variety of phone models, or a new phone design that combines the necessary components. The latter isn't as far-fetched as it might initially sound; even if the big phone makers pass on the idea, we know that open source hardware hackers are working on building their own mobile phone devices. The Earth phone could be built off of one of those designs.
It could even build its own mobile phone network. Not directly, of course -- the costs are far too high -- but through something called "Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO)."
A Mobile Virtual Network Operator is a company that does not own a licensed frequency spectrum, but resells wireless services under their own brand name, using the network of another mobile phone operator. The first was Virgin Mobile, launched in the United Kingdom in 1999.
This would allow for unique services, such as rebates for providing data to the system or specialized forms of Common Alert Protocol messages dedicated to environmental issues.
It's clear that the components for a mobile technology-based environmental information and monitoring service are here, and we could build such a network now. It's kind of exciting to think about what might be accomplished with such a system. We'd have far better knowledge of what's happening on our planet, environmentally, than could ever be gathered with satellites and the handful of government and academic sensor nets. It would be the mobile, active equivalent of the Climateprediction.net distributed computation effort. Every little bit of information matters, and this would be a tool for all of us to participate in the improvement of our knowledge and of the planet itself.
And beyond the practical aspects, there's the cultural weight something like this would acquire. At first, few people would know or understand the project, and carrying an "Earth Witness" phone would be an obscure badge, important only to others who are part of the group. But as environmental issues become more pressing -- as we know they will -- people who take responsibility for the planet will take on a far more visible cultural role. In time, carrying an "Earth Witness" phone could symbolize one's commitment to changing the world for the better, and one's willingness to work with others to bring about the bright green future.
That's a scenario I would be happy to see come about.