Community Internet of Things as Mobile Infrastructure: Methodological Challenges and Opportunities

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access

Community Internet of Things as Mobile Infrastructure: Methodological Challenges and Opportunities


  • Chelsea P. Butkowski Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, USA
  • Ngai Keung Chan School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
  • Lee Humphreys Department of Communication, Cornell University, USA


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Abstract:  From smart devices to homes to cities, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies have become embedded within everyday objects on a global scale. We understand IoT technologies as a form of infrastructure that bridges the gaps between offline spaces and online networks as they track, transmit, and construct digital data from and of the physical world. We examine the social construction of IoT network technologies through their technological design and corporate discourses. In this article, we explore the methodological challenges and opportunities of studying IoT as an emerging network technology. We draw on a case study of a low-power wide-area network (LPWAN), a cost-effective radio frequency network that is designed to connect sensors across long distances. Reflecting on our semi-structured interviews with LPWAN users and advocates, participant observation at conferences about LPWAN, as well as a community-based LPWAN project, we examine the intersections of methods and practices as related to space, data, and infrastructures. We identify three key methodological obstacles involved in studying the social construction of networked technologies that straddle physical and digital environments. These include (a) transcending the invisibility and abstraction of network infrastructures, (b) managing practical and conceptual boundaries to sample key cases and participants, and (c) negotiating competing technospatial imaginaries between participants and researchers. Through our reflection, we demonstrate that these challenges also serve as generative methodological opportunities, extending existing tools to study the ways data connects online and offline spaces.

Keywords:  community networks; infrastructure; internet of things; LPWAN; mobile communication; qualitative methods; sensing technologies

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v10i3.5372


© Chelsea P. Butkowski, Ngai Keung Chan, Lee Humphreys. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.