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Public Lab Builds Environmental Monitoring Community, Online and Off

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, August 19 2014

Balloon photo of Gowanus grossness by Eymund Diegel Public Lab

Environmental monitoring can be expensive and difficult. It takes a lot of money to get a helicopter in the sky to take pictures of say, Brooklyn’s notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal. But with the right kind of knowledge, combining both technical know-how and the needs of a specific community, something pretty close to that can be done. In Gowanus, there’s maybe no better example than Eymund Diegel, a 53-year-old Brooklyn resident and environmental planner for New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation. Walking at a fast clip down 9th Street in the heart of Gowanus, he explains his involvement in local environmental activism:

“I live here, I think my environment sucks, what should I do about it to make it nicer?” His motivation is simple, but his methods and projects can be elaborate. We cross Third avenue and stop at a wide concrete lot contained by 10 feet of chain link topped by barbed wire. In a gentrifying neighborhood like Gowanus, the lot is practically an invitation to build a condo. Diegel explains how with the help of local historians, and an open source toolkit kit to take pictures of the site from a balloon, he and a couple other volunteers might have identified the lot as the burial site for America’s first casualties from the Revolutionary War. “At this angle you can’t see much besides weeds,” he says pointing through the fence, “but take it from above you’ll see patterns of cracks going on a north-south axis –a Christian burial axis– that are roughly spaced at 8 feet apart.” So ok, maybe, he discovered a bit of important history. But how does it relate to the environment?

“Well, it is open space,” he says “if it happens to have a cemetery thrown in for good measure we’re not gonna cry.” Diegel wants to turn the lot into usable greenspace for the neighborhood. His strategy requires an intense knowledge of local history and needs, some technical facility with monitoring tools, and the willingness to team with local groups to help advocate for open space using what he might have found. It’s a dynamic or maybe messy way to go about accomplishing environmental objectives. But it’s exactly the sort of neighborhood-based environmental activism promoted by Public Lab, an open environmental community that developed the tools for Diegel and his local collaborators to investigate.

Tech is changing how we relate to the environment. But until recently, the mechanics of political influence in America created a segment of environmental activism that isn’t always about connecting people to the environment. Well financed national groups like the National Resources Defense Council and the Environment Defense fund have had notable successes pressing for environmental legislations or regulations, but they haven’t always fostered much local involvement. Indeed much participation in environmental causes these days would qualify as “thin”– people sharing upsetting or uplifting photos and videos, signing petitions, and maybe sending checks. But as smart phones have gotten into more hands, and more people get connected online, environmental activism has started to shift, or grow, as well.

One obvious trend is crowdsourcing, as scientists and preservationists create platforms for crowdsourced ecological monitoring. The Bay Area-based Nerds for Nature, which among other projects, has created a system to monitor fire recovery in parks. To do this, they set up brackets on information stands in the middle of a park. Hikers are then invited to slide their smart phones into the bracket and take a picture, adding a hashtag for the specific site they’re at so it can be easily found on Instagram, Twitter, or Flickr. According to the Nerds for Nature site, all the uploaded photos are “compiled into a crowdsourced timelapse of recovery.”

Another example is Project Noah, a software platform which allows people to documents local wildlife worldwide. The platform also allows scientists to direct what people document, and has specific tools for educators. Beyond environmental monitoring, and nature cataloging, some researchers have even turned the elaborate work of folding proteins and synthesizing DNA into online games that people can join in their spare time.

These kinds of activities have come to fall under the banner of “Citizen Science.” Generally this term refers to amateurs participating in scientific research, with the aid of tech tools. For instance The Citizen Science Initiative, a collaboration between research institutions in the UK and US describes itself like this:

The CSA is a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop, manage and utilise internet-based citizen science projects in order to further science itself, and the public understanding of both science and of the scientific process. These projects use the time, abilities and energies of a distributed community of citizen scientists who are our collaborators.

A potential pitfall of this sort of engagement is that it’s expert directed. And if people are going to be involved in a more “thick” way, they need a community to engage with, and, ideally the ability to conduct their own research. A “thick” form of citizen science wouldn’t set up those participating as research assistants, they would be researchers themselves, and peers to boot.

That’s part of why Shannon Dosemagen, the 31 year old executive director of Public Lab, shirks the label.

“We typically don’t call ourselves a citizen science organization,” says Dosemagen, in part because “we don’t want to be…posing research questions and then telling people to give us data." Moreover, she finds the label inadequate. “We work way outside of what the normal scope of that is.”

Building a Community

Founded in the fall of 2010 as Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Public Lab is a non-profit supported community of several thousand in the US and globally that “develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation.” In practice this means many things. Public Lab’s community develops open source software and cheap do-it-yourself hardware like home made spectrometers and balloon mapping tools for environmental monitoring. It maintains a robust online network where community members can post notes from individual profiles on whatever research they’ve been conducting either using tools in the field or developing new ones. All findings are maintained in open databases. Public Lab’s online presence is buttressed by an equally significant offline one, consisting of nearly 20 local chapters that work on projects, often teaming with community environmental organizations and citizens to develop their own.

“Our purpose is to enable everyone to ask their questions, and get the support they need to shape a research methodology,” says Liz Barry, 36, Public Lab’s director of community development in New York.

Public Lab provides a fascinating case of an organization equally committed to online and offline organizing. It also demonstrates how a broad, largely volunteer community can be structured to allow for a variety of substantive engagements, tying together everything from environmental activism to software development and science education.

Public Lab got its start in 2010, in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time Dosemagen was working for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental NGO that was doing air sampling in communities next to industrial facilities. After the spill, she says, “We saw that it was going to be really hard to get people involved and participating and contributing information,” so her group started entertaining new media strategies, like creating a map with Ushahidi to document the crisis, and sending citizen groups out along the Gulf Coast to report back their findings.

Then she met fellow cofounders Jeff Warren and Stuart Long. In 2009 Warren, while still a grad student at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, had developed a project in Lima, Peru using balloons and digital cameras so that communities could create aerial maps to support land tenure claims. Shortly after returning he developed software so individual aerial photos could be stitched onto larger flat maps online. Warren’s approach was applied to tracking damage from the spill, which the Public Lab’s history page says attracted “over a hundred volunteers” who “have produced dozens of data sets since the spill.” (you can see Warren talk about his early work here, at PDF 2010) The combined force of the effort resulted in Grassroots Mapping, which in fall of 2010 was absorbed into a new organization called the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, or Public Lab. A Knight News Challenge prize gave the group $500,000 in 2011 and 2012.

“I think the absolute key,” says Barry, “was that we were going to pair traditional community organizing and capacity building, with this hardware hacking and all this new technology.”

Above: a video demonstrating Public Lab's map making software.

Based In Place

One of the primary ways that Public Lab builds community is through regional chapters and groups. There are chapters across America, with a smattering of outposts in South America, Europe, and Israel, but the formal nonprofit organization has two main areas of focus: in the Northeast, from Washington D.C. to maritime Canada, and along the Gulf Coast. Individual chapters organize via publicly accessible Google groups, and there’s a yearly gathering, the Barnraising, where the volunteer organizers of chapters and Public Lab staff meet to exchange knowledge, foster cohesion, and have fun. The Northeast has the highest concentration of individual chapters, with outposts in Baltimore, Vermont, Philadelphia, Providence, Somerville, and New York. But Louisiana, with its high density of petroleum refineries and historically lax enforcement of environmental regulation, is something of an ideal place to apply Public Lab’s low cost monitoring systems.

“There’s tremendous opportunity for enforcement by citizens across the Gulf Coast because everything is on fire and leaking,” says Louisiana native Scott Eustis. Eustis is a coastal wetland specialist for the environmental advocacy group Gulf Restoration Network. He is also an organizer and prolific contributor to Public Lab.

“There’s a tremendous need for education about the persistence of oil in the environment as well as the continuing effect of BP’s oil on Louisiana’s coast and the Gulf coast,” says Eustis. Despite that need, Public Lab’s Gulf coast volunteers there aren’t solely motivated by environmental activism.

“I think there's a range of different reasons why people get involved,” he says. “Some people are more into the social science aspect of it, and some people are into the maker–playing-with-cool-toys thing, some people are just really into the aesthetic aspect of the photography.” He adds there are 30 to 40 people involved with the Gulf Coast chapter on a weekly basis, mainly doing kite mapping Barataria wetlands.

Eustis’ research notes posted to his Public Lab profile demonstrates some of the potential range of engagement Public Lab offers. They include efforts to document marshland restoration, musings on how best to analyze refinery flares, and also the uncovering of coal pollution seeping into the Mississippi at a United Bulk coal terminal.

In this final instance, access to Public Lab’s kite mapping tool was essential. Eustis had flown over the area before in an airplane without identifying where any pollution was coming from. The picture taken from a kite gave him a view of the terminal from the side. “It gave me a much better idea of the specific process that was flawed that was leading to all of this black stuff pouring into the Mississippi river.” A manager at the plant called a sheriff while the kite was in the sky, but by the time he arrived, the pictures were already taken. The photos were then reported to Coast Guard officers working at the National Response Center, which takes reports of oil and hazardous substance spills, and sends them to the EPA.

Barry says pictures like the one Eustis took can help activists more effectively communicate their complaints. “It’s extremely easy to ignore someone on the phone,” she says, “it’s much harder to ignore a photograph that’s printed in the local paper.”

The same approach has been in play in New York. After Hurricane Sandy flooded New York’s sewage infrastructure in 2012, Public Lab volunteers used a balloon to document bacterial blooms feeding on waste in the Gowanus canal. The photos corroborated water tests showing bacteria in that spot from the New York City Water Trail Association, one of the many local groups that Public Lab partner s with. Barry says the whole packet of information pushed the EPA to add an extra block to their planned clean-up after Hurricane Sandy. “So that will be an additional city block of tidal wetlands that Brooklyn will now have, because the community showed them what they didn’t know,” she says.

Oriented by Interest

Public Lab’s community is organized around place, but it’s also organized around interest: particularly its monitoring tools, sales of which Dosemagen says account for about a third of Public Lab’s budget. Among Public Lab's hardware-software hybrid tools, there’s the balloon or kite mapping kit for $100 or $180, which allows someone to fly their old digital camera and take photos from above that combined with a software suite can be stitched into Google Map, and a $50 kit to make a spectrometer, a tool which breaks down the light coming from a sample to identify things like oil in water or soil. There are also tools between $10 and $130 to make a near infrared camera that can be used along with an online tool called Infragram to assess plant health, and others. The site also contains instructions for anyone to construct these tools on their own.

The output from the tools –- an aerial photo, a spectra which charts all the colors given off by a sample in order to identify what it is, a near infrared pic –- is visual by design. Barry says Public Lab wants to “let images communicate complexity, we don’t want tools that release a spreadsheet of numbers that then you have to painstakingly figure out what it means.”
The tools are also designed to be cheap. Whether made using things found around the house (like a piece of an old DVD to be used in a spectrometer, or an old digital camera to be sent up in a kite for aerial photos), or bought in a kit from Public Lab’s store, Dosemagen says the tools are available “at a price point that would be amenable to the everyday person rather than just corporations.”

Public Lab’s tools, software, and material on the website-–from tutorials to research notes–-are all protected by open source licenses. According to Barry, keeping their material open source helps bind the Public Lab community. “Upstream collaborators are protected by the license that says anyone else thats using the code will contribute back anything they learn from it, so it’s like planting a seed,” she says, “and downstream contributors are protected because they’re using something they’re never going to be denied access to.”

Whereas Public Lab chapters organize online, but then often meet in person, most of the work developing the tools is done by individuals working on their own and then connecting online. This happens first via Google Groups focused on specific tools. The groups let community members exchange information, trouble shoot and get feedback on how to go about individual projects. The results from using tools can be posted to the individual tool project pages, and/or as research notes on members’ individual profiles.

Attracting the Experts

Public Lab has around 2,200 people on its main mailing list, but with a giant range of potential engagements, and no mandated documentation for any of them, pinning down the exact number of active members is a challenge. Barry thinks the list undersells participation, and she estimates the site has grown from 500 to around 5,000 in recent years. Regardless of the exact number of community members, the site hosts more than 300 local maps, over 2,000 research notes, and community members have uploaded over 20,000 samples to Spectral Workbench, a site started in 2012 where people can identify materials by measuring the colors they absorb.

The organization relies on grant funding Arduino, might be used to recreate scientific devices that would normally be prohibitively expensive to anyone but research institutions in the developed world, when he learned about Public Lab. “They had taken this idea, and run with it in a really sophisticated way,” says Blair, “and had already built many of the structures that we were thinking might be useful, and many more that we hadn't thought of.”

Although both are organizers, they do very different work for Public Lab. Regalado has runs workshops with Public Lab tools in the UK and Europe for kids, journalists, and community groups. “It’s not about patronizing people with science tools so that they use them, but instead, here’s a tool: how can we use it for your specific needs?” Blair’s work often sits on the technical end. He contributes his own designs and modifications, is “very enthusiastic on the mailing list,” and tries to cajole his fellow scientists to participate.

Public Lab is broad enough to incorporate people with different types of expertise, and engage them all substantively. Orchestrating tool trainings and demonstrations, contributing to tool designs, posting research notes, and doing ongoing environmental monitoring would all fall under the category of “thick” engagement. So does Public Lab’s dedication to place-based observation activism, and fostering ongoing working relationships between members online, and off. Public Lab provides connections and structure for people with various kinds of expertise, but it relies on a very educated community to bring that expertise to the table. By relying on hyper-motivated expert volunteers, Public Lab doesn’t have to raise as much money for its staff. And By making its kits (relatively) cheap, and keeping its software open, Public Lab maintains its focus on engaging a community rather than making money.

“You want to believe that we don’t need experts and we don’t like experts, we wanna do it all ourselves,” says Blair, but he acknowledges that it’s more of a healthy aspiration than a reality. In any case, Public Lab recognizes that expert work doesn’t matter much in isolation. “My expertise is meaningless unless someone listens to it, and that means you have to build up broad based community support with local groups,” says Diegel.

Public Lab’s mission seems not so much to create new experts, as to bring them together, as a quote (appropriately) compiled from a presentation by Liz Barry demonstrates:

The main thing we are doing is building [a] community of expertise. We function as a learning, living network of people. The datasets, the tools, even the environmental victories -- these are just artifacts of our community's activity, it's the stuff we leave behind as evidence that we were there, like footprints.

Back in Gowanus, Eymund Diegel is walking me down Third Avenue to a relatively new Whole Foods that overlooks part of the canal. Even at night, part of the water has a slick and oily sheen to it. Diegel explains how Public Lab helped him identify and map streams that feed into the Gowanus Canal and overburden the sewer system. Public Lab “gave me the technical tools that made my arguments sound credible,” he says. “People think you’re talking crazy at first, but after awhile they start rubbing their chin and saying ‘you know, that’s not a bad idea.’”

Disclaimer: PDM’s Micah Sifry has been on the board of Public Lab since January 2013