Crowdsourcing light pollution data: A means of infrastructure awareness?

The Globe at Night project is an international citizen-science campaign to measure the impact of light pollution. It invites citizen-scientists (aka: you) to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations from a computer or smart phone. Light pollution is often left out of discussions about waste and discards, possibly because of its un-material, non-toxic status. Yet, if waste is broadly defined as the externalities of social-technical systems, then light that exceeds its use or that effects areas outside of designed intentions certainly qualifies as waste. Light pollution is usually defined as “excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial” (usually outdoor) light. Too much light pollution has consequences: it washes out starlight in the night sky, interferes with astronomical research, disrupts ecosystems )particularly nocturnal animals), has adverse health effects (particularly circadian rhythms) and wastes energy. There is even something called “light trespass,” where light shone onto a property prevents the owner from using or enjoying the property–basically, light as nuisance, the early hallmark of waste legislation.

The Globe at Night project claims that “Light pollution threatens not only our ‘right to starlight,’ but can affect energy consumption, wildlife and health. Nearly 100,000 measurements have been contributed from people in 115 countries during the campaigns each winter/spring over the last 8 years, making Globe at Night the most successful light pollution awareness campaign to date!”

The Globe at Night Project-- 2013 data. The lighter the dot, the more light pollution and the more difficult it is to see the stars.

The Globe at Night Project– 2013 data. The lighter the dot, the more light pollution and the more difficult it is to see the stars.

be at Night Project-- 2013 data. The lighter the dot, the more light pollution and the more difficult it is to see the stars.

Globe at Night Project– 2013 data. The lighter the dot, the more light pollution and the more difficult it is to see the stars.

Basically, the Project asks people to look into the night sky and try to identify stars. The clarity of the stars are an indication of light pollution.

Yet, gathering information for a scientific project is really a side effect of the goals of the project, which is to raise awareness of the problem. While my views on awareness campaigns tend toward the critical, in many ways this is a campaign for infrastructural awareness, as it quickly becomes clear that one person’s behavioral change is not going to impact the larger problem. In many ways, light pollution is both an overlooked form of urban industrial pollution as well as a material allegory for other forms of pollution and what sorts of intervention might be appropriate for mitigating or eliminating effects.

In the spirit of an exploration of a large-scale urban infrastructure, here are the directions to participate in the Globe at Night:

Five Easy Star Hunting Steps:

  1. Use the Globe at Night website to help find your constellation in the night sky.
  2. Use the Globe at Night website to find the latitude and longitude of the location where you are making your observation.
  3. Go outside more than an hour after sunset (8-10 pm local time). The Moon should not be up. Let your eyes become used to the dark for 10 minutes before your first observation.
  4. Match your observation to one of 7 magnitude charts and note the amount of cloud cover.
  5. Report the date, time, location (latitude/longitude), the chart you chose, and the amount of cloud cover at the time of observation. Make more observations from other locations, if possible. Compare your observation to thousands around the world!

Luckily, there are apps for that:

Loss of the Night: Germany’s Cosalux GmbH developed the Loss of the Night app to help scientists measure and understand the effects of light pollution on health, environment and society. Loss of the Night allows for the measurement of light pollution in three steps. The first is an arrow that guides users to a star, similar to a compass. The app then asks users to select visible stars in various constellations and submit their data once observations have been completed.

Price: Free
Platforms supported: Android

The Dark Sky Meter:  TheDark Sky Meter app, developed by DDQ, works by taking two pictures. First cover your camera phone using your jacket or a pocket and then press “dark shot” button. Then aim your iPhone to the point in the sky directly above your head and press the “sky” button. The greater the difference between your dark shot and sky shot, the more reliable the data.

Price: $4.99
Platforms supported: iPhone

The interface for entering data.

The interface for entering data.

If readers start participating in this project (or already do), we’d be interested in hearing about how your understanding or interaction with the project relates to the wider urban infrastructure (or lack thereof). Does this project change your views on other forms of pollution? On questions of materiality in pollution and waste studies? Let us know!

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