Participatory Air Monitoring in the Midst of Uncertainty: Residents’ Experiences with the Speck Sensor

  • Jacob Robert Matz Northeastern University
  • Sara Wylie Northeastern University
  • Jill Kriesky Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project
Keywords: fracking, citizen science, air monitoring, Marcellus shale


How do participants engage in at-home air monitoring in the midst of uncertain exposures to airborne emissions associated with unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) activities? We investigate residents’ experiences with the “Speck” particulate matter sensor with an emerging environmental health resource center called the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP).  In response to the gaps in knowledge about the health impacts of UNGD and the growth citizen science tools, participatory environmental monitoring (PEM) projects have taken off in shale gas communities. Using interview and survey data from residents, advocates, and activists we show that residents use the Speck as: 1) “environmental health thermometers” to make real time decisions based on readings; 2) real-time tools of exposure-validation to immediately validate or invalidate suspicions of exposure; 3) “epistemic objects” or tools manipulated in exploratory ways to understand their efficacy in monitoring UNGD; and 4) passively by those who chose to rarely interact with the monitors and rather waited for overall analysis of results.  While PEM’s have been critiqued for potentially passing the burden of monitoring onto communities, our research shows PEM, when connected with research and public health organizations like EHP, can both empower individuals by increasing their perceived and actual agency and build collective knowledge by producing novel scientific findings. The modes of participation identified here each imply individual and community-level outcomes. When connected with an organization like EHP, Speck monitoring enabled participating individual the latitude to develop their own research and make immediate use of the data, while also creating data useful for aggregated scientific analyses that provoke new questions about the health risks associated with UNGD.

Author Biographies

Jacob Robert Matz, Northeastern University
MA in Sociology from West Virginia University; Doctoral Student at Northeastern University Department of Sociology and Anthropology; Student Member of the Northeastern University Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI)
Sara Wylie, Northeastern University
Assistant Professor Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Bouve College of Health Sciences; Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute
Jill Kriesky, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project
Associate Director Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project; MS Economics University of Wisconsin-Madison; PhD Economics University of New Hampshire
28 Sep 2017
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