How artists stimulate innovation and engagement in climate action: the case of GROW Observatory

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Europe's eyes on Earth is the vision for Copernicus, the European Union's Earth observation programme. Building on this vision, the Horizon 2020 GROW Observatory is training CITIZENS' eyes on Earth, by mobilising thousands of citizens to collect, share and make use of data on the Earth system. 

Citizen science in GROW generates soil moisture data at high temporal and spatial scales, verified in quality and validity, to integrate in global monitoring systems, and create information services built on that data. The ambition is to inform practice and decision-making, on the management of land, soils and food production, and to ground truth the first Copernicus mission, the Sentinel-1 satellite constellation. In doing so, GROW will ultimately help to increase resilience to a changing climate, and enhance the accuracy of information on climate events such as floods, droughts and wildfires. 

One major challenge for the current generation of citizens' observatories  (COs) is the delivery of a complete, operational CO system for citizen participation in data collection at a continental scale and over an extended period. Creating meaning and relevance from data for target audiences is a critical factor to success, and data visualisation is an established scientific approach. GROW introduces novelty by working with artists, to illuminate these concepts to new audiences, and to stimulate innovative ideas. The result offers new perspectives on GROW data through imaginative interfaces to the GROW continental-scale sensor network.

Artists Kasia Molga and Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) created an artistic representation of soil moisture, temperature and light data from the cluster of GROW Sensors in closest proximity to the personal computer of the audience member, based on IP address. This networked artwork is triggered by the transition of Sentinel-1A overhead – once every 6 days – encouraging reflection on the instrumentation of Earth observation. The artists developed code and algorithms that translated dynamic data from soil sensors, combined with static data on soil texture and season, into different graphical shapes and electronic sounds, creating a 'data portrait' of soil properties in each place.

For the GROW Dynamic Soil Moisture Map, Moritz Stefaner is creating a visualisation of the correlation between point measurements from sensors, and a gridded product derived from satellite and sensor data which represents a continuous estimation of water content over a terrain. This is piloted in a number of sites across Europe representing distinct climatic and geographic zones. The use case is for farmers, scientists and policy makers to interrogate dynamic spatial patterns of soil moisture for applications in agriculture and climate forecasting.

Such artworks can play an important role to make tangible the ambition of citizens' observatories. Several members of the GROW team work at the interface between art, science and technology, and offer a track record of working with artists and presenting works in prestigious galleries and festivals. There exists knowledge and recognition of how art and artists can also contribute novel datasets to science, and can even influence the direction of future technology development. We hope by introducing artists to the European Commission's Horizon 2020 programme, we will engage new audiences and stimulate innovation in Earth observation, and, moreover, enrich and widen the conversation around a sustainable future for planet Earth.

The article has been written by Drew Hemment (University of Edinburgh) & Mel Woods (University of Dundee), Principal Investigator and Coordinator of GROW Observatory project.

Picture Kasia Molga and Robin Rimbaud Scanner 2018 'By the Code of Soil'.

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