Knowledge Processes and
Institutional Rigidity:
Environmental Sensing at Lake Constance

Vesna Schierbaum

Conference Header
The following article has been written in the context of the graduate conference “Un:reale Interaktionsräume: Formen sozialer Ordnung im Spektrum medienspezifischer Interaktion”, which took place on the 4th and 5th November at Fachhochschule Potsdam. The article is based on the author’s presentation “Interaktion ohne Konsens: Grenzobjekte und Sensormedien”.

Lake Constance. © Google Earth

Lake Constance is a border territory. Located between three states, it is one of the most important water ecosystems in Europe. Its intensive cultivation makes it a critical resource for a wide range of stakeholders. But water temperatures in Lake Constance are rising. Therefore, Lake Constance has been sensorily monitored by climate researchers for years. The collected data is of great interest. In 2005, an information system was developed that allows stakeholders to access information on water temperatures and currents at Lake Constance. There is also growing public interest in the measurements. A crowdsensing study conducted in 2020 shows that citizens want to participate in the sensor-based monitoring to gather knowledge about the effects of climate change. However, the interests operating at Lake Constance are closely interwoven, which complicates a long-term participation of citizens in the research of climate effects.

Conflicting interests at Lake Constance

Lake Constance is an intensively used water body that not only plays a significant role for tourism but has also always been a central source of income for the local fishing industry. In addition, the lake has served as a drinking water reservoir since the end of the 19th century, from which 18 waterworks draw drinking water for 4.5 million people. Its multifaceted cultivation arises from different interests, which reveal competitive relationships between the institutions, associations, and businesses active on Lake Constance. For example, the steadily growing tourism and the heavy traffic on the lake by ferries, sailing and fishing boats have resulted in increased pollution, which affects the quality of drinking water. Representatives of the waterworks have therefore been demanding a containment of the water nutrients for many years. A nutrient-poor lake, however, is opposed by the fishing companies, which profit economically from a higher saturation and the resulting increase in fish stocks. They therefore even advocate the artificial addition of fish food, which has sensitive effects on the entire ecosystem. The lake researchers, on the other hand, are troubled by the high volume of traffic and the wide range of recreational activities. Sensor measuring stations for climate research require regular maintenance, which must not hinder other interest groups. Researchers therefore have to deal with an uncertain data situation at Lake Constance.

From Border Territory to Border Object: The BodenseeOnline Information System

The versatile use of Lake Constance shows the need to guarantee a continuous access to the collected water data for the different actors. At the beginning of the 2000s the demand for an information system emerged, with which various questions regarding the use of the water can be addressed. The information system BodenseeOnline was launched in 2005 and allows the "description, quantification and prognosis of the effects of anthropogenic interventions" [1] at Lake Constance. It draws information from various models of flow conditions, water temperatures, as well as of wind and waves, which the Center of Water Research had already begun developing in the late 1990s. A static sensor network, which includes measuring stations at various locations in Lake Constance and is run by the Baden-Württemberg Institute for Lake Research, provides the data, which is then archived and visualized. These data and their presentation can then be accessed by the project partners via an internal interface. A Geographic Information System freely accessible on the Internet additionally makes parts of the information available to the public.

By accessing the data of the information system, the different stakeholders benefit from a cooperation with other stakeholders. For the lake researchers, for example, it offers the advantage of achieving a general improvement of the database by cooperating with economically motivated parties, since they themselves derive a benefit from the measurements. BodenseeOnline compensates for conflicting interests and thus enables sustainable knowledge production. The Sociologists Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer called such information systems boundary objects because they allow forms of cooperation in the scientific community that do not require consensus among the participating institutions. According to Star and Griesemer, boundary objects are infrastructural media that assume different meanings for the various actors and thus function as a means of translation between different social worlds. [2]  The BodenseeOnline information system has thus ensured successful cooperation for many years without the actors having to agree on the goals of this cooperation.

Crowdsensing at Lake Constance

The information system BodenseeOnline shows to what extent boundary objects can have stabilizing effects on knowledge production in the field of environmental monitoring. At the same time, information systems, especially in the field of environmental sensing, are characterized by incomplete datasets. In this case, especially data from deeper parts of the lake are missing, which are, however, important for the assessment of its ecological status. The 2020 feasibility study "CrowdSensing" at Lake Constance is an attempt to test possibilities to optimize this data situation. On behalf of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Environment, private individuals were equipped with mobile sensors that were then attached to boats to measure water temperatures over a longer period. The project team was initially focused on the feasibility and suitability of mobile sensor measurements for the information system.

The participants were given a simultaneous insight into the measurements via an interface that could be accessed with a smartphone. On the one hand, such crowdsensing interfaces make data collection more transparent, but from the perspective of the users they also intensify their perception of their own environment and increase their awareness of milieu-specific processes, i.e. processes related to their immediate surroundings. [3]  For the citizens, participation not only means active involvement in the measurements, but also gives them insights into technical issues. In addition, they bring their own interests into the knowledge process, which are not only related to the use of Lake Constance as a recreational destination or food supplier, but also as an environment for living.

A new actor enters the field

Information systems are fundamentally incomplete and always strive to expand knowledge. As much as they serve to stabilize existing networks between actors, they are also open to processes of knowledge enhancement. [4] Despite certain limitations due to the corona pandemic, project implementers considered the crowdsensing study a success because the measurements provided promising data that, after all, also raise the question of a re-evaluation of the models used. Furthermore, the citizens expressed their enjoyment of the technical work with the sensors as well as their interest in a continuation of the project. Such participatory approaches not only hold potential for the stakeholders, but also call a new actor into the field, i.e. the crowd, which has its very own interests in the sensory exploration of Lake Constance.

Detail of Peter Vincent Causemann. 2014. Zeit Raum Welle Nr. 8. Digital Slitscan shot with Epic Red, 5000x8090 pixel. 

It is noteworthy that the long-term operationalization of the study as well as the integration of its findings were never intended. Possible reasons for this are the increased error-proneness of the measurements. This problem, however, could be solved by standardization of methods. The gathered data then could also challenge the models that are now in use. This would mean new conflict potential for the joint use of the lake, especially because citizens would now be involved. The case study thus reveals a certain institutional rigidity that coincides with the use of the information system as a boundary object, which itself has a standardizing and therefore exclusionary effect on the knowledge production. Political actors may expect a certain show effect from crowdsensing projects, without pursuing an interest in the long-term involvement of citizens. Boundary objects like the BodenseeOnline information system thus develop an ambivalent relationship to the purpose they are supposed to serve. They move between the need for expansion and preservation of knowledge, between processuality and rigidity. [5]︎

Vesna Schierbaum is a media scholar and research associate at the Graduate School „Das Dokumentarische. Exzess und Entzug“ (GRK 2132) at the University of Bochum, investigating figurations of crowdsensing in institutional contexts. In 2022 she was short-term fellow at the CRC “Media of Cooperation” at the University of Siegen.

[1] Landesanstalt für Umwelt Baden-Württemberg. 2008. „BodenseeOnline. Ein Informationssystem zur Vorher-sage der Hydrodynamik und der Wasserqualität von Seen am Beispiel des Bodensees. Abschlussbericht.“ Lan-desanstalt für Umwelt Baden-Württemberg (November). Accessed on 30.10.2022, https://www.lubw.baden-wuerttemberg.de/wasser/bodenseeonline-beschreibung, p. 3.  

[2] Star, Susan Leigh und James R. Griesemer. 1989. „Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations‘ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoolo-gy, 1907-39“. Social Studies of Science 19 (3): p. 387–420.

[3] Cf. Scholz, Sebastian. 2021. „Sensing the ‘Contemporary Condition’: The Chronopolitics of Sensor-Media“. Krisis | Journal for Contemporary Philosophy 41 (1): 135–56. https://doi.org/10.21827/krisis.41.1.36967.

[4] Schüttpelz, Erhard. 2017. „Die Struktur der Grenzobjekte.“ In Schüttpelz, „Die Struktur der Grenzobjekte“. In Susan Leigh Star.Grenzobjekte und Medienforschung, published by Sebastian Gießmann and Nadine Taha, 229-240. Bielefeld: transcript, p. 236.
[5] Cf. Star, Susan Leigh; Geoffrey C. Bowker, and Laura J. Neumann. 2003. „Transparency beyond the Individual Level of Scale: Convergence between Information Artifacts and Communities of Practice“. In Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation, published by Ann Peterson-Kemp, Nancy A. Van House, and Barbara P. Buttenfield, 445–473. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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