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Turning the Tables on Research: A Q&A with Kristen Bos of U of T’s Technoscience Research Unit

Kristen Bos & Daniella Sanader | September 21, 2021

This is part of the Art Museum’s ongoing series of Virtual Spotlights centred on the exhibition Plastic Heart: Surface All The Way Through, organized by Synthetic Collective and produced by the Art Museum where it is on view until November 20, 2021. Click here for details on how to visit the exhibition.

In 2019, the Environmental Data Justice Lab at UofT’s Technoscience Research Unit (TRU) released their project Pollution Reporter. It’s a mobile app that offers community members in the Aamjiwnaang First Nation—and others who live near Chemical Valley, a major region for Ontario’s petrochemical processing industry—the opportunity to report pollution events directly to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. Developed by TRU’s Indigenous-led team, the app also provides accessible information about pollution from the refineries, including research on known health impacts. Pollution Reporter falls under TRU’s broader project, The Land and the Refinery, an Indigenous-led research project focused on the region, developed to be in service of members of the Aamjiwnaang community.

In the first Dialogue session held in conjunction with Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through, the Land and the Refinery project leads Vanessa Gray and Michelle Murphy spoke at length about their work in Chemical Valley, describing the deep interconnections between extraction, pollution, and settler colonialism. You can re-watch the conversation “Plastic Pollution, Toxicity, and Policy Change” here.

In the following Q&A, TRU Co-Director Kristen Bos describes Pollution Reporter and the Land and the Refinery Project in further detail, discussing their collaborative approach to Indigenous-led research, both situated within the university context and beyond it.

Art Museum: In a recent video about the Pollution Reporter app project, you described the work of the Technoscience Research Unit as “turning the tables on research.” Could you describe what you meant by that statement?

Kristen Bos: There is a famous and well-cited quote from Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies (1997): “Research is one of the dirtiest words in the vocabulary of Indigenous peoples.” We [Indigenous peoples] are the most researched people on the planet and as Smith and many, many others have articulated—the term “research” is “inextricably linked” to European imperialism, colonialism, resource extraction, and capitalism, and continues to be used to dispossess Indigenous peoples from our land.

In universities, conventional research is extractive. From the conceptualization of research questions, to the chosen methods and the write-up, it is normal to see a project in which a researcher arrives, extracts data from their research “subjects,” “interlocutors,” or people from communities that the researcher often and overwhelmingly does not have a relationship with, and then leaves and does whatever they deem appropriate with their data. We can talk about the politics of citation here, but the problem is a methodological one and extractivism in academia is everywhere.

So, the challenge then is: How do we make our research less dirty? How do we acknowledge power? How do we strive towards better relations in and outside of the academy?

When I describe our work at the Technoscience Research Unit and the Environmental Data Justice Lab as “turning the tables on research,” I mean that we are doing something different: instead of having university researchers coming into an Indigenous community to study colonialism, pollution, and its health effects, our project has Indigenous researchers studying polluters and holding companies like Imperial Oil—a historic and important company in Canada and Chemical Valley—responsible for creating pollution, harms to health, dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their land, and maintaining Canadian colonialism.

AM: Can you speak about how the Land and the Refinery Project came together through the Technoscience Research Unit, and how an environmental data justice framework informs the project itself?

KB: We came together through a series of (un)fortunate events. 😉 Our project began in 2017. We—myself, Professor Michelle Murphy, Vanessa Gray, and Dr. Reena Shadaan—came together following one particular violent flaring incident at the Imperial Oil Refinery in Chemical Valley in 2017. The incident was caught on camera by local people who said that from across Lake Michigan, the whole refinery looked like it was on fire, and a subsequent legal investigation brought no charges or consequences to the company. For us, this flaring event was representative of how Canada’s environmental regulatory framework creates a permission-to-pollute system and thus, a permission-to-violate system that is reliant on industry-produced data, or what we call bad data. For example, the bulk of our emissions data are from indirect methods, which means that not only is industry reporting on itself—it is also offering “best” guesses. And so, we formed the Environmental Data Justice (EDJ) Lab and the Land and the Refinery project.

As the name makes explicit, our project is informed by an environmental data justice framework. For example, our research questions, objectives, and goals are towards land protection, land defense, and Indigenous sovereignty. For example, the Land and the Refinery project investigates the histories and operations of a petrochemical company, but it also stories the land on which the refinery operates, which has existed for far longer than 150 years and will continue to exist long after. Moreover, our methods are non-extractive, community-driven, and draw from citizen science.

AM: Tell us about the Pollution Reporter App, as it has been used by community members in Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and what’s been learned from the data collected through that project so far. 

KB: When we started imagining the Pollution Reporter App, we knew that we wanted it to do two things. We wanted to make reporting pollution events to Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment easier and we wanted to link pollution emissions data to polluters and to known health harms: connecting polluters to chemicals, and connecting chemicals to health harms.

We wanted to make reporting pollution easier. At the time, and still in most cases, if you wanted to report a spill, or flare, or smell, you would call into Ontario’s Spill Action Centre, which is a 24-hour, province-wide telephone reporting service. Your operator is not going to be near you—they are not going to have any information for you. Instead, they’re going to ask you several questions, including your location, weather conditions, wind direction, what kind of pollution etc. The whole thing is going to take a while. A case number is supposed to be assigned, but getting follow-ups proves difficult, and if you’d like a record of the investigation—you’re going to have to fill out a Freedom of Information request. This was not useful in the moment, or accessible.

We wanted to link pollution emissions data to polluters and known health harms because it needs to be done. Initially, our app was called “The Chemical Responsibilities App” because we wanted to responsibilize all this bad and purposefully disaggregated data and put it back into the “right relation” with industry and the state, using an Indigenous feminist and science and technologies framework that essentially says, “Pollution is not an accident.” In fact, pollution is colonialism. However, “The Chemical Responsibilities App” didn’t quite roll off the tongue, and didn’t fit onto an icon. 😉

When we discussed it at first, Vanessa would often talk about how frustrating it was to receive industry alerts, which are intentionally vague. For example, an alert might come through and say something like, “There is a planned plant start-up or shutdown,” but it doesn’t say why or what process exactly is being started-up or shut down, or how long the start-up/shutdown is planned for, or what processes, chemicals, risks, or releases are involved—but it’s something, or else there wouldn’t be an alert. In fact, alerts aren’t always a given. When there’s an alert, we assume it is bad because industry is never forthcoming out of caution.

On the rare occasions when the alert names a chemical, it will (again) be intentionally vague, such as simply naming “hydrocarbons,” which is a whole class of chemical compounds. And so, we wanted to create a tool that people could open to find quick, accessible, and translated information that was useful for them in the moment.

Now, what’s been learned about this data? We do not collect data on the app. There is an option for users to share their pollution reports with us, but users have to consent for each report and so, we know that people are finding it useful. But we don’t collect data on how the app is being used, or what users are searching for, etc. This is part of doing something different, finding alternatives to extractivism in academia, and building on an environmental data justice framework. Enough data has been collected about the lived experiences of Indigenous and frontline communities. These people are experts, and they are not our research subjects. What I have learned most from co-creating the app is how deeply oil and gas are tied to Canada. In fact, the industry in Chemical Valley is older than Canada itself with the first oil prospectors arriving there in 1850-51 after hearing about how Anishinaabeg had utilized the gum beds there for millennia. I have also learned how to make bad data activate decolonial data possibilities. For example, the emissions data we use is sometimes the only place that a company will openly admit to their pollution. That’s something.

For information on downloading and using Pollution Reporter, click here.


Kristen Bos is the Co-Director of the Technoscience Research Unit. Kristen is an Indigenous feminist researcher trained in archaeological approaches to material culture as well as an Indigenous science and technology studies (STS) researcher, who is concerned the relationship between colonial, gendered, and environmental violence. She is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Science and Technology Studies in the Historical Studies Department at the University of Toronto Mississauga, with a graduate appointment in Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto St. George campus. She is also a graduate of the University of Oxford and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Kristen is urban Métis based in Toronto, but her homeland is in northern Alberta. Find out more about her research at @TRU_UofT or download her app @pollutionreporter on the Google Play Store or App Store.


Images: Pollution Reporter App. Image courtesy of the Technoscience Research Unit, University of Toronto.

Virtual Spotlight developed by Daniella Sanader, Content Curator, Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through