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Disclosure: I'm Joining Public Lab's Board, and Here's Why

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, January 28 2013

Department of Disclosure update: I'm pleased to announce that I've joined the volunteer board of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. Founded in 2011 by a collective of seven, Public Lab, as it's known in short, is a community that develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation, like balloon mapping and kitchen-table spectrometers. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible “Do-It-Yourself” techniques, Public Laboratory is nurturing a collaborative network of practitioners who are actively re-imagining the human relationship with the environment.

I first got turned on to Public Lab before it actually existed, when one of its co-founders, Jeff Warren, gave a thrilling talk at PDF 2010 about "Grassroots Mapping," a project he had started while a graduate student at the Center for Future Civic Media* at MIT's Media Lab. He described how they started by figuring out how to cheaply use commercial helium balloons and digital cameras to stitch together high-resolution maps of everything from the BP Gulf oil spill to property lines in the slums of Lima, Peru. A year later, he and co-founder Liz Barry were back to talk about their vision at PDF 2011of "Citizen Science," which the Knight Foundation validated with a big two-year $500,000 grant as part of its annual News Challenge that year.

There is now a growing community of DIY citizen scientists around the US and the world, that in part owes its existence to Public Lab's efforts to weave relationships and share data and best practices. People are meeting up to do ongoing community environmental monitoring of Brooklyn's polluted Gowanus Canal, hunt for hidden signs of what may be America's first veterans' cemetery (under a parking lot near the canal), track environmental problems along the Gulf Coast, protect a critical ecosystem in the Czech Republic, and plenty more.

All along the way, the community is documenting its gleanings and learnings on a vibrant wiki. Right now, on a site called Spectral Workbench, folks are figuring out what their homemade spectrometers can be used for. This is part of what excites me so much about Public Lab's model: it is creating a framework for active discovery and participation for thousands of self-starting individuals and local groups. While its tiny staff works hard (and doesn't pay itself enough), the product of their labors is scalable to a much greater level of participation by more people precisely because inclusion and sharing are a requirement.

A lot of us are also supporting PL by buying its tools, either by buying tools off its online store or donating to support the growing nonprofit. If you want to find out more, join the Public Lab Google Group or sign-up for an account on the Public Lab website. Or just follow @PublicLab on Twitter.

[*Now just known as the Center for Civic Media. Let's hear it for mainstreaming the future!]

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