Human sensor network

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Human sensor networks provide real-time feedback, which is essential to managing complexity and can be used to help identify potential solutions to be explored, tested, and monitored. Networks created for ordinary monitoring or exploration can then be deployed in times of extraordinary need – when a natural disaster or a pandemic hits, a trusted network providing a real-time situational assessment might be readily available to deploy or tap into.

Human sensor networks are key to gaining a greater understanding of our democracies. Continuous engagement with citizens leads to more trust and thus more cooperation.

A human sensor network can be established within a variety of different organisations such as companies, schools, universities and colleges, communities centres, sports clubs, neighbourhoods, regions, countries or just about any kind of community. A human sensor network in the context of citizen engagement is termed a 'citizen sensor network'. In this article they are used interchangeably.

Here is a video of Dave Snowden explaining how the attractor landscapes created by the data from human sensor networks can be used to create change.

What is a human sensor network?

A human sensor network is a network of engaged people who are collecting and sharing observations on an ongoing basis. Rather than just capturing a snapshot in time, we are instead enabling the continuous collection of stories and observations over long periods of time, much like a virtual journal.

Such as network can provide a continuous account of what a large proportion of the target community/population is observing and experiencing, and what that means to them. This provides people with a framework through which they can reflect on their day-to-day experiences and interpret them. This engages participants in making sense of the system of which they are part. We call this ‘distributed cognition’ — when a network of people make sense of what’s happening around them and what it means to them by combining multiple perspectives and viewpoints that transcend the limitations of the individual. This approach draws on a diverse range of situated knowledge and wisdom.

Multiple safe-to-fail experiments running in parallel can then be employed to explore pathways towards a desired outcome.


Citizen sensor networks are a type of human sensor network applied to public and civic life. A key aspect of creating a citizen sensor network is citizen journalism. Just like any human sensor network, a citizen sensor network provides an opportunity to gain real-time situational assessment across a large group of people. Real-time feedback is essential for evidence-informed decision making and informing strategy in complex environments, especially where there is rapid change, e.g., during times of crisis or emergency. This approach draws on the power of anecdotal evidence to get a real sense of what is happening on the ground and creates the opportunity for emergent and innovative thoughts, ideas, and solutions to arise. It also allows us to tap into informal networks which are the conduits of culture by asking citizens to engage with interpreting data as much as sharing it. Such a network might also reveal underlying ideation patterns, enabling strategic intervention as events unfold rather than in retrospect, and be used in policy formulation, testing, and wider public participation.

Local communities: No one has a better understanding of the real needs and concerns of a local community than the community themselves. In the past, agencies and governments have imposed well-intentioned interventions from afar, often with little effect and unintended consequences. A community human sensor network is, instead, a bottom-up approach that aims to co-create initiatives from the ground up and include experts in a targeted way and according to the community's needs.

Asset-based development: A human sensor network allows communities to take an asset-based development approach; to take stock of existing assets and capabilities (which are often unrecognised) and to consider how they could be grown, developed, and used to solve the community’s challenges.

Exaptive discovery: A key aspect of a human sensor network is that it can be exapted(radically repurposed) in times of emergency or crisis, or simply when a new engagement process is needed. For example, a network infrastructure can be activated for emergency communications or a situational assessment.

Crisis management:

Weak signal detention:


Ongoing sensing:

Why use a human sensor network?

Mass consultation with real time feedback: A citizen sensor network provides an opportunity to gain real time situational assessment across a large group of people. Real time feedback is essential for evidence-informed decision making and informing strategy in complex environments, especially where there is rapid change, e.g., during times of crisis or emergency. It enables measurement of what is happening on the ground and underlying ideation patterns which provide insights into strategic interventions before ideation patterns become visible to conventional monitoring techniques that rely on retrospective research and evaluation. Immediate feedback about the impact of decisions and interventions enables faster responses to dampen negative outcomes and amplify desired ones.

Localised sense-making: No-one has a better understanding of the real needs and concerns of a local community than the community themselves. In the past, agencies and governments have imposed well-intentioned interventions from afar, often with little effect and unintended consequences. This is a bottom up approach rather than a top down, impositional, neo-colonial one, which implies communities need the help of external experts to assess the situation, generate solutions and apply them. Sometimes communities do need help, but not always, and often bringing experts in can have a negative impact. We aim to help communities understand their context so they can determine whether external experts are needed and how to include them in a way that manages negative consequences. This approach draws on the knowledge, experience and wisdom that exists within communities and enables communities to make sense of their own patterns and co-create initiatives that will make a real impact. Putting the power of sense-making in communities’ own hands is a key part of what the Cynefin Centre does.

Taking stock to take action: A citizen sensor network allows communities to take an asset based development approach; to take stock of existing assets and capabilities (which are often unrecognised) and to consider how they could be grown, developed and used to solve the community’s challenges. This counteracts the convention to parachute in external resources/ideas which is often underscored by a more impositional, neo-colonial way of thinking. Communities are empowered to take ownership of the solutions and manage them themselves.

Bridging the gap: SenseMaker® can be used to bridge the gap between top down and bottom up citizen engagement in realistic and coherent ways, through the use of citizen sensor networks. They can be used by citizens to connect with institutions and vice versa, thereby bridging the gap usually found between citizens and the institutions that serve them. They can also be used by citizens to reach out and engage with their community, or to inquire about and advocate for a specific cause.

People-focused: A key aspect of our approach is that it is people-focused; using SenseMaker®, storytellers interpret their own story, hence, process their own data. This data can be further filtered to draw out insights that can be translated into action. Our approach also removes layers of professional curation and interpretation in a process known as 'disintermediation'. This means knowledge and information can flow from those who have direct experience with a topic/situation within the network.

Radical repurposing in times of crisis: A key aspect of a citizen sensor network is that it can be exapted (radically repurposed) in times of emergency or crisis, or simply when a new engagement process is needed. For example, a citizen sensor network infrastructure can be activated for emergency communications or a situational assessment. Radical repurposing draws on an evolutionary biology concept—exaptation—using something for a totally new purpose. Or more specifically, “a trait evolved/designed for other uses, and later ‘co-opted’ for its current role” (Vrba & Gould, 1986). One of our favourite examples is the theory that dinosaur feathers, which developed for other purposes such as warmth, were repurposed for flight. Exaptation is fast becoming a key concept in innovation because it means not waiting for slow, incremental changes, but making bigger advances by looking around for what you already know/have and applying it in a new context or to a new purpose. Find out more about exaptation and complexity here.

Paying attention to blind spots: In rapidly changing, high-stake, complex situations, decision-makers risk missing important information if they rely on familiar thinking, the perceptual lenses of their profession and dominant narratives, without considering weak signals—the outliers in the data where opportunities and challenges exist. We often miss things we’re not looking for, which is known as inattentional blindness. If we do not see what we are not looking for, we can miss opportunities and challenges. SenseMaker® helps make weak signals clearer and easier to attend to all perspectives in order to make an informed decision.

We also need to consider what’s totally in our blind spot: things we didn’t know existed and so weren’t looking for, ‘unknown unknowns’. Citizen sensor networks can pick on new happenings/phenomena/situations as they begin to emerge.

Further engaging communities in sense-making: After stories and observations have been collected using SenseMaker®, there are a range of different participatory ways including (but not limited to) workshops, citizens juries and assemblies, online forums, and community knowledge repositories and workshops. These processes could bring citizens/community members together to read the stories that have been collected and generate insights and actions using a range of techniques and activities.

Using Existing Groups and Networks

Staff and organisations

Leadership, development, training

Schools & Colleges: Not only are schools and colleges ready-made communities full of engaged, fresh, and diverse viewpoints, they also often require students to do research and community engagement. Students can easily be turned into citizen journalists and sensors with the provision of exercises and assignments, such as asking them to interview members of their community or people of their grandparents’ generation. This can provide students with an opportunity to gain valuable research experience for their CVs/resumes.

Sports clubs: In the course of trying to improve their services and grow their membership, a sports club can also become a valuable gathering space that brings people together. Even in the course of looking at questions such as who plays sports and why, a club's members can form sensor networks even without their awareness.

Similarly, community centres, civic organisations, church/religious groups, companies who are large employers in their towns, local government, or civil servants need and can engage their communities. This allows them to both better serve and manage their people, but also to collect valuable and lively information on the ground that they can call upon when they need it.

Creating new groups and networks

Setting challenges for engagement

Using SenseMaker in human sensor network creation

MassSense and human sensor networks

How to create a human sensor network?

Our approach is very flexible and SenseMaker® can be applied in many different ways. Here are the typical steps involved in using SenseMaker® to engage your community:

Initial consultation: The Cynefin Centre talks with those leading the engagement project to understand what they want to explore within the community, along with their needs and goals.

Design workshop: In this step, the project leaders will decide what types of SenseMaker® capability to use such as a one-off, regular journaling for a specific time period, or long term engagement. It also includes designing the questions and dissemination strategy, and identifying the target sample. We have many templates, or a SenseMaker® framework can be designed from scratch. This can include support from The Cynefin Centre and consultation with members of the community.

Test your framework: Piloting the SenseMaker® framework is very important in order to check how participants respond to questions, whether they feel they are relevant to their context and story, and that they make sense to everyone, not just academics or policy wonks. Data collection: Implement the dissemination strategy by inviting people from relevant communities to take part in a SenseMaker® framework. This may include citizen journalists who go out into their communities and collect stories from their communities.

Analysis: The raw SenseMaker® data is presented on our easy-to-use interactive dashboard so that themes and patterns can be readily interpreted. The Cynefin Centre can provide training and support on how to use the dashboard, and we can also produce reports.

Further engagement & problem-solving: Invite either those who participated in the SenseMaker® or others within the community to a workshop in which they explore the stories collected and options to address the issues in their community. In workshops, participants consider ‘how can we create more stories like that and fewer like those?’. Community-led interventions like this are a key to creating buy-in. Alternatively, invite a wider proportion of the community/population to take part in a MassSense framework which is more refined and informed by analysis of the first SenseMaker® data collection.

Exapting: Once established, those who completed the SenseMaker® framework can act as a citizen sensor network which can be exapted for other purposes. For example, if there’s a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, you can pulse people in that geographical area to get real-time, information about what’s happening on the ground, or what stories are circulating about what is happening on the ground. Citizen sensor networks could also be exapted for a public decision making/consultation process.

Method card material

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Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

A human sensor network is a network of community members engaged in distributed discovery and distributed decision support including anomaly detection ideally using SenseMaker®

Back of card summary

Human sensor networks are designed to engage a significant percentage of employees, customers, or citizens in the real-time continuous collection of their observations and experiences. They also reflect on and signify the meaning and influence those observations and experiences have on them as part of a collective sense-making process. Ideally, human sensor networks are built for ordinary purposes and can be activated in times of extraordinary need to provide real-time feedback and situational assessment. The HSN also reflects the diverse perspectives within the population and highlights outlier groups who are thinking differently.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

Method Properties - Ratings

Represented by symbols - interpretation/voting scales are:

COST & RESOURCES: How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?

  1. Requires only common office equipment (eg paper and pens)
  2. Requires simple facilitation materials (special hexies, printouts, whiteboards etc)
  3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials
  4. Requires moderate investment in tools or software to apply
  5. Requires significant investment in software or other specialist tools

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?

  1. No complex facilitation experience is required
  2. Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space
  3. Should be mentored while developing complex facilitation skill
  4. Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical
  5. Advanced, requires deep knowledge of theory and experience

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?

  1. Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease
  2. Requires time commitment but overall, engaging and not difficult to achieve
  3. Mild uncertainty or discomfort, may need work to keep people engaged
  4. Indirect/ambiguous method, requires engagement through sustained levels of uncertainty
  5. Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach