Professor Jennifer Gabrys: Case Study

Professor of Media, Culture and Environment at Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge


As the Chair in Media, Culture and Environment at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, I work on the intersections between digital technologies, social life, and environmental problems.

My work grapples with questions that are key to democracy, technology, and environmental protection. For example, my work over the past eight years with the Citizen Sense project has explored how citizens use digital technologies to monitor pollution and then use the data they have collected to try to influence change.

My latest project, Smart Forests, is examining how technology developed for smart cities can be applied to creating smart environments. Here, we are exploring how digital technologies can be used to transform forest environments, ranging from using drones to assess wildfires and automate reforestation, to encouraging citizens to monitor deforestation using remote sensing images.

By exploring the intersections between democracy and technology, my work examines the ways in which people might participate in policymaking while contributing distinct, unique insights through their own data collection. This might actually generate new forms of democratic participation. For example, by collecting data on air pollution, citizens were able to demonstrate that pollution was at elevated levels above regulatory guidelines, where the pollution was coming from, where it was located, and how it might be mitigated by interventions in infrastructure. Using what we have learned thus far, we are in conversation with several policymaking bodies about how to advance public engagement in policymaking early on in the process of assessing problems such as climate change, environmental justice, and air pollution.

Over the past year, I have worked with CSaP on a number of initiatives, including a year-long Citizen Science initiative. Through this initiative, we have been exploring how citizen science is informing and entering into spaces of policymaking. We have participated in a number of events, including lectures with the Natural History Museum Berlin’s Professor Johannes Vogel, a seminar with policymakers from the Food Standards Agency, and a virtual conference with experts in the field. This Citizen Science initiative has been a fruitful way of thinking about how to ensure greater democratic participation in policymaking, especially from the perspective of environmental engagement and social justice. It has given me an opportunity to reflect on how modes of public engagement can be broad, inclusive, and representative of the widest section of constituents possible.

What I have most appreciated over my time working with CSaP is that the conversations they have facilitated have been two-way. Through CSaP-facilitated discussions with policymakers, fellow experts, and the CSaP team, I have been challenged to push the boundaries of my research, to keep questions about effective public engagement at the forefront of my mind, and to incorporate new ideas into the major initiatives that I am now undertaking.