ParkLife at the TIPS by Design Symposium

Published on:
January 24, 2019

By Andrew Kelloe, ParkLife Project Coordinator, The University of Edinburgh.

How do you collect data about how parks are used whilst engaging those who use them and ensuring informed consent? This challenging question was explored at a recent workshop that was part of a two-day symposium called TIPS by design: Building a Community of UK TIPS researchers. This symposium was attended by PhD and early career researchers from across the UK, whose research involves issues of trust, identity, privacy and security in technology.  

The workshop began with a short presentation introducing our project, ParkLife, and explaining the wider context. Across the UK, council funding is being squeezed, so it is important to find new funding sources and/or ways for park managers to allocate resources more effectively. The ParkLife project is a collaborative initiative, between The University of Edinburgh and The City of Edinburgh Council, and is looking at new ways of using data and digital technologies to better understand how parks are used and valued, and to engage park users in shaping the future of these greenspaces.  

Next the attendees were divided into groups and asked to think about the type of data that can be collected, what it means to get informed consent and how we can design a process to get it.  

What kind of data can be collected?

Some examples considered by the attendees included:

● Air quality

● Conversations

● Monitoring litter bin levels

● Emotions of individuals (self reported or cameras)

● Sport ground usage

● Entry and exit points

● Capturing users’ gaits through a park

● Dog walkers’ regular or irregular routes

The attendees were then asked to consider the above examples and discuss gaining informed consent. This discussion was wide-ranging and generated the following questions:

● Do you need informed consent if there’s no publicly identifiable information?

● Is there a difference here between legal requirement and ethical requirement?

● Should you inform the public about any data collection even if you are not collecting personal information?

● Is it even possible to introduce sensors into a public environment and for the public to understand and be clear about what you doing in order to give their consent?

● Is this about getting citizens to engage or give consent or both?

● Is this even a problem that needs to be solved with technology?

● Who would be accountable for these systems?

● Is this normalising surveillance and making it more acceptable?

● Should it go through a collective governance process or vote to allow a local community to decide?

What might an interactive and ethical approach to collecting data look like in practice?

One group explored the strengths and weaknesses of using a mobile app. This approach could be designed to be a less invasive way of giving consent and enable the collection of more generalised, anonymised data rather than information on an individual's movement. On the other hand, an app would be time and resource-intensive to develop and may not be accessible to all park users.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

An alternative option is giving park users the choice of picking up and carrying a device that monitors their movement through their mobile phones. This would flip the concept of tracking people through the space via sensors to park users actively sharing information about how they use a park.  

Any of the above approaches would require awareness of intent, purpose and ultimately trust from park users. A starting point for engaging park users, and showing them the the collective benefits of monitoring parks, could be through data on things of interest, such as wildlife or other biodiversity that exists.  

The questions raised and discussions from this workshop will inform the ParkLife project and will also feed into a larger piece of work being led by The University of Edinburgh IoT Research and Innovation Service and its associated IoT Ethics Committee. We would like to thank the organisers of the symposium for giving us the opportunity to host the workshop and the attendees for their insightful ideas and discussion.

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