HomeSense: digital sensors for social research


HomeSense will develop and demonstrate how digital sensors and associated devices can be used to advantage in social research. The project is a collaboration between the University of Surrey’s Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) and its 5G Innovation Centre. Drawing on recent developments in the use of fixed and mobile sensors to measure location, movement, noise levels, air quality, temperature and a range of physical states, the project team will trial the use of such sensors in a sample of UK households. We will document the technical and ethical considerations arising from using sensors, test their value for social research, and develop a suite of tools and resources for training and capacity-building activities through the NCRM.

UK households come in all sorts of configurations, with or without dependents and elderly adults. They vary in their ways of organising the use of rooms, household devices and energy sources, as well as in the extent of communications amongst household members and the purposes for which members spend their time at home. Observations of households to-date have relied on self-reporting and on-site observations. With HomeSense we will demonstrate how to collect data from a host of sensors, fixed and mobile, and how to manage, technologically and responsibly, the intensive measuring of state, location, activity and interaction that sensors afford. We will show the extent to which this method affects respondent burden, consent, privacy and data security, and how the data can be converted into meaningful descriptions of socially relevant activities in conjunction and comparison with time-use diaries, questionnaires and walking interviews/observations.

An important aspect of HomeSense is to demonstrate how sociologically relevant factors can be observed in different household configurations, activities and interactions that are measured with sensors. For example, sensor data may be able to support new ways of contextualising energy use and other economic factors, family life, selfhood and household relationships. The data can also contribute to better understanding of lifestyle, health and wellbeing, and more.
The project will organise expert consultations with members of the research communities concerned with digital process and pattern methods, household research methods, ethics, data protection and security. We will also support the methodological development of the project with a series of meetings with representatives of citizen initiatives, companies who are interested in smart homes, and other stakeholders.

We aim to establish best practices in data collection and processing methods, in data management and security, and in safeguarding ethical conduct in this kind of research. We will also consider how best to combine the application of digital methods with qualitative approaches for methodological comparison and quality assurance, for example, to show what of social science relevance can be gleaned from automated data streams and how to present such data through visualisations and other accessible analytic representations. The details of these methodological considerations (technical, ethical, practical) will be documented for training and capacity-building activities, yielding guidelines for the uptake of this novel addition to social science research methods.


Bringing together sensor technology and social research - workshop - presentations available



Nigel Gilbert

Kristrún Gunnarsdóttir

Jie Jiang

Ewa Luger

Klaus Moessner