Reflections on Outreach

A key part of our approach to CitySounds was involving the most relevant stakeholders from the outset. This included

  • soliciting their input to the initial experiment proposal;
  • inviting a broad spectrum of people onto our management team;
  • inviting an even wider group to our initial Co-design Workshop, in order to plan how to create engagement and impact around the project.

While it is not always easy to get a community gardener, a senior data technologist, a Council biodiversity officer and a sound designer talking to each other, it worked amazingly well in this experiment. The ‘kick-off’ and ‘touch-down’ (closing) Management Meetings as well as the Co-design Workshop provoked insightful, valuable and engaging discussions where knowledge, learning and ideas were shared across research disciplines and city sectors. We formed new relationships and are continuing to build on them. One outcome was that a conversation in the Co-design Workshop led to a team of people submitting a proposal to Nesta extend the project to three more parks in Edinburgh, and we are very happy to say that project is now going ahead.

The more challenging part of the project was developing relationships with people who live in and around the Meadows and attracting them to our workshops. We had a very high response to the talk from Chris Watson and the Sonikebana event because it was publicised through a partner organisation — New Media Scotland — that had a large, established, active and interested community. Reaching out to community groups, Community Councils, and local residents requires working through multiple channels and building up relationships over time. While we worked as much as possible through the contacts and networks of the team members, it was challenging to attract community biodiversity enthusiasts and greenspace users to our workshops. Valuable insights from the final management team meeting were that (a) we should take our message out to community groups where they are already meeting, inform them about the project and build a relationship with them first, if we hope to get them to attend workshops; and (b) we will attract a lot more interest in the project once we have a larger volume of data from the devices in a form that can be easily shared.

This experiment also helped us to reflect on what we mean by ‘community’ and ‘citizen’ and how we engage with and reach people with new ideas and opportunities at the interface of technology and civic/city issues. We aimed to reach biodiversity enthusiasts with new monitoring technology, data and communication methods; technology enthusiasts with sound recording devices and biodiversity data; and sound art enthusiasts with audio and biodiversity data, but also people using or interacting with the Meadows who might have little or no experience of biodiversity monitoring, sound recording devices or biodiversity and audio data analysis and presentation. All of these people are in some way community members and citizens of Edinburgh, but the latter group was our ideal target and was, unsurprisingly, the most difficult to identify, reach out to, and draw in.

As we further develop the Edinburgh IoT network, we will be continuing our outreach activities and continuing to build relationships with people and groups interested in biodiversity monitoring. We will also continue collecting and using audio data to improve the ways that we interact with and value greenspace and the natural environment in the city. Finally, we will alo be looking at ways that we can connect with and support community initiatives that are already underway and have strong and active groups around them. One example would be the Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative ‘Living Wild’ project, which is developing a community plan for greenspace within a major city development.

In summary, CitySounds was an excellent opportunity to begin community engagement with Edinburgh’s new IoT initiative, which is being designed as a Research and Innovation Service for experimenters. We think that it is absolutely essential for citizens to be involved in experimenting with tools, services, data and urban development. It is part of the explicit mission of key partners in this project, including the Edinburgh Living Lab and Edinburgh Living Landscapes, as well as of the Scottish Government, to ensure that citizens are actively involved in shaping the way the city develops, including the ways that technologies and data are used to understand, inform and communicate about city decision-making