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The sensor desert quandary: What does it mean (not) to count in the smart city?

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Rachel FranklinORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


As a central component of the smart city, sensor infrastructures locate and measure a wide range of variables in order to characterise the urban environment. Perhaps the most visible expression of the smart city, sensor deployment is a key equity concern. As new sensor technologies and resultant data interact with social processes, they have the potential to reproduce well-documented spatial injustices. Contrary to promises of providing new knowledge for cities, they can also create new gaps in understanding about specific urban populations that fall into the interstices of data collection—what we term sensor deserts. Building upon emerging data justice debates, specifically considering distributional, recognition and procedural forms of injustice, we conceptualise and analyse sensor deserts through two case studies, Newcastle’s Urban Observatory (UK) and Chicago’s Array of Things (US). Open sensor locations are integrated with small-area socio-economic data to evidence the demographic configuration and spatialities of sensor deserts across each city. We illustrate how the structural processes via which inequality is reinforced by smart agendas manifest as uneven social and spatial outcomes. In doing so, the paper opens up a new conceptual space in which to consider what it means (not) to count in the smart city, bringing a demographic perspective to critical debates about smart urbanisms.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Robinson C, Franklin RS

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Year: 2021

Volume: 46

Issue: 2

Pages: 238-254

Print publication date: 01/06/2021

Online publication date: 24/09/2020

Acceptance date: 26/08/2020

Date deposited: 27/10/2020

ISSN (print): 0020-2754

ISSN (electronic): 1475-5661

Publisher: Wiley


DOI: 10.1111/tran.12415


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