The Faces Behind Public Lab’s Grassroots Research Community

    by Shannon Dosemagen
    March 12, 2012

    This post was co-authored by Sara Wylie, a a Public Laboratory co-founder.

    Public Laboratory is an open-source software and hardware development community dedicated to producing low-cost tools for environmental research. The nonprofit portion of Public Lab grew out of using aerial mapping to address the BP Oil Spill. Since then, we’ve grown enormously as a community, expanding to more than 400 contributors.

    As part of a series, we’ll be discussing contributions to open hardware projects by people other than the initial seven founders of Public Lab who write for the PBS IdeaLab blog. We’re focusing on these individuals as Public Lab is about to hit a growth spurt — we met our recent fundraising goal by over 550 percent in our very successful Kickstarter campaign. As part of this campaign, Public Lab will be shipping more than 300 balloon-mapping kits to people worldwide.


    By focusing on those who have contributed to Public Lab’s growth, we aim to highlight how these new balloon mappers can become actively involved in growing this innovative online research and development community by contributing stories of their mapping work, innovations they make in kit designs and uses, and their experiences in creating their own Public Lab research sites.

    Contributions to Tool Development and Kit design


    Public Lab is designed around the concept of “recursive publics” developed by Chris Kelty, anthropologist of science and technology. In his book “Two Bits“ Kelty coins this term to describe how open-source software communities are brought together by working on, improving, refining and versioning the structure that brings them together: software code. Unlike a representative democracy where citizens vote periodically for representatives who work on their behalf to shape their shared legal system, open-source software tools for collaborative coding enable participants to actively reshape their own communities’ infrastructures by contributing to ongoing projects, generating offshoots of existing projects, and even developing new versions of the software that enable collective coding projects.


    Inspired by this and other ideas about open hardware development, Public Lab’s founders, and now staff, set out to build a community where individuals could reshape research tools as well as expand research questions within the non-profit’s mission of generating low-cost tools for environmental health investigations led by everyday people.

    A particularly thriving branch of research in the community is low-cost thermal imaging. Kyuha Shim of RISD’s Digital+Media department developed the first working prototype of what we term a thermal flashlight and shared it with Public Lab’s broader community.

    Eymund Diegel, an activist working at the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, has taken the concept of the thermal flashlight for detecting home heat leaks and developed an idea applicable for the site he’s working at. His thermal fishing bob is designed around identifying thermal pollution in the canal. Most aquatic organisms, being cold blooded, have their metabolic clock governed by water temperature, so when they end up in warmer water, the demand for food and oxygen increases — thus a warm water inflow can create dead zones and other life cycle disruptions.

    Lief Percifield, a New York-based technologist and the developer of DontFlush.me, who has been working on the thermal fishing bob with Diegel, said one of the reasons the development of open hardware projects has been successful is the “expansion of tools and incorporation of people from a huge variety of fields and backgrounds is essential to how tools are designed and then created. It’s going to be amazing to see what comes in the future as the network continues to expand outwards.”


    Eymund Diegel with the thermal fishing bob.

    Michele Tobias, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of California-Davis learned about Public Laboratory last summer, while using aerial photography to look at coastal landforms and environments. Since then, she’s made extensive contributions through research notes, and she helped organize mapping during the Occupy Davis Protests last fall.

    Tobias explained that she has “contributed instructions to the balloon and kite mapping curriculum for how to make ground control point targets and instructions for how to make a sturdy camera housing for heavy cameras like SLRs.” She is planning on adding another one soon — a “pattern for how to sew your own drogue tail for kites” and has also added four research notes. Her research note from the Occupy UC Davis mapping event went viral, which she said “is pretty cool.” Like many other members of the Public Lab community, she’s contributed advice and support on our active mailing lists where members can post questions, ideas and interesting news items.

    Contributions to Grassroots Community Development

    Public Lab was formed not only as an organization that develops and designs low-cost “non-technical” technology, but also out of the direct experiences collaborators had while working remotely and locally to address the largest oil spill in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico. This collaborative project is Public Lab’s a benchmark for success that we look for in other community research sites.

    In coordination with existing members of the Public Lab community who have been aerial mapping in Lima, Peru since 2010, anthropologist Anita Say Chan has been working to map the “pueblo jovenes” — literally “new settlement zones” (which normally gets translated into English as “shanytowns”) — of the Villa Maria district in Lima. These are some of the fastest-growing districts in the city, absorbing new migrations from the surrounding rural provinces. “These results significantly change and update the data represented in Google Earth/Maps, which are about 2 years old, and don’t represent any of the local roads, homes, and facilities that have appeared since the images were last captured,” she said. “This was done in collaboration with local residents of the shantytown, indigenous youth, engineers who hail from rural provinces, and of course, the larger Public Lab community.”

    In the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, N.Y., Diegel, who is a community organizer and active advocate for environmental remediation at the Superfund site, commented, “We have the ability as local residents to contribute specialized local knowledge to the planning and decision-making process, and Public Lab gives me the tools to reconnect the state and its agencies of change to Grassroots local insights — which makes for better solutions through better fact finding. Because Public Lab uses innovative low-cost tools from the everyday consumer digital and scientific technology revolution, it sets up a process whereby an individual ‘this would be a fun way to do this!’ can create better quality data and solutions when and where we need them.”

    Using Grassroots Mapping, Diegel has been able to create bridges between the community around the Gowanus Canal Superfund site and authorities responsible for cleanup. “The high resolution of the balloon and kite pictures, coupled with my interest in historical maps of the Canal have allowed us to use Grassroots Mapping images as credible evidence of historic streams that will affect decisions about how the Superfund cleanup program will have to proceed,” he said.

    Contributions to Social Media and Outreach

    Outreach efforts in Public Lab happen both online and offline. Online outreach depends largely on efforts from within the extended Public Lab community to generate active discussions around tool design and use, ethics, site development and topics related to Public Lab activities such as the currently popular conversation on drones.

    As Public Lab is partially an online community, outreach for the development of the non-profit arm involves making use of the myriad of social media tools currently in circulation, from Facebook to Twitter and Kickstarter. Creating social media buzz about Public Lab is a vital aspect of growing the community in an online environment.

    Members of Public Lab, such as Manpriya Samra, take an interest in designing the future direction of social media and communications at Public Lab because, as she sees it: “Public Lab is a truly collaborative organization that brings together everything I’m passionate about: the environment, empowering every citizen with the tools they need to accomplish their goals, and open-source invention of technology that can change people’s lives … I dream that everyone who may not think of themselves as technically savvy will learn how to use tools so that we can all be empowered citizens.”

    Offline, outreach is localized. In New York City, for instance, Public Lab planning meetings happen in the way a traditional community meeting would take place; in New Orleans, training sessions happen in public spaces that are accessible for anyone to participate in. Key to the success of each of these localized efforts is the ease of access to the training process and the way in which it can be transferred and reinterpreted for local uses.

    With the “March Mapping Madness“ aerial mapping meet-ups currently being conducted, the extended team has become core in organizing efforts across the country with different individuals agreeing to host meet-ups in either cities that they are from or where they will be traveling. Jen Hudon from Boston was the primary person organizing a Public Lab panel and meet-up for SXSW in Austin, while Samra has taken on organizing efforts in New York for the mapping meet-up.

    Hudon began aerial mapping in New York and then started mapping with students from New School in New Jersey to “study the use of collaborative mapping for community development in an ongoing city park project.” She’s continuing work with Public Lab in the hopes that going forward Public Lab tools could be used for large-scale collaborative projects with government agencies. “Public Lab continues to inspire me,” she said. “It’s a forum (and workspace) for students, technologists, environmentalists, public servants, geographers, scientists, journalists and a host of other professionals and non-professionals alike to find a common, DIY open-sourced ground for learning and doing.”


    Jen Hudon and Lief Percifield mapping in New Jersey.

    Contributions to Web Development and Web Design

    The Public Lab website is based on the Drupal platform, allowing for a collaborative, open approach to development. We started, as many online collaborations do, as a mailing list. As our mailing list grew and the projects being discussed diverged, the list started to become unwieldy. Important ideas were buried deep in conversation threads, and the flood of messages was overwhelming for all but our hardcore contributors. We discussed moving to a forum or a wiki, but felt that a forum had the same organizational problems of our list, while a wiki lacks the spontaneity of posting a quick message to the list.

    Our solution is somewhere in the middle — we have a wiki, but also use a Drupal-based system to receive quick research notes that don’t have to be integrated into other content. Our mailing list is still active, providing a place for coordination and requests for help.

    One of the main contributing developers on the website has been R.J. Steinert, who commented that the “biggest driver for me to fix something is when I’m using something on the site that I find frustrating; it’s very rewarding to be able to fix the issue causing me grief.” He went onto explain his motivations for creating new website components. “We are presented with an opportunity to reinvent the creative process of inventing from a cloistered activity to a social one. In doing so, we have the power to influence what is invented and whom it benefits. As someone who seeks social, environmental, and economic justice, I see no more powerful way to work towards those ends than building tools that will help people reinvent the world around them.”

    Becoming a household name

    We hope these examples give you a sense of the wide array of ways in which Public Lab members have contributed, are contributing, and could in the future shape the development of this unique public space for environmentally and socially oriented grassroots scientific research and technology development.

    As Tobias put it: “I’d love to see Public Lab become more of a household name. What we do is so important, particularly in this political climate where secrecy is common and money is lacking. I’d like to see more people using the tools and contributing.” Samra echoed, “I would love to see Public Lab become a worldwide movement and a household name. Every time someone has a problem to solve — how do I prove that heat is not being turned on in my building or how do I map clear cutting in the forest adjacent to my home — they’ll think ‘Public Lab has exactly the tool I need and will teach me how to build it myself!’”

    Tagged: balloon mapping community environmental research grassroots hardware projects open source plots public laboratory

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