Public Lab’s ‘Spectral Challenge’ Promotes Open Source Spectrometry

    by Shannon Dosemagen
    March 7, 2013

    This post was co-written by Public Lab organizer Chris Fastie.

    During the BP oil spill in 2010, as aerial mappers walked coastlines and boated waterways to document environmental impacts, we encountered tarry clumps in the sand or reddish clayey masses floating around the boat. We often weren’t sure whether these objects were crude oil from the oil spill, other contaminants or harmless natural products. This is when the idea for the Public Lab DIY spectrometer was born — with the hope of being able to quickly identify environmental contaminants. Would an inexpensive spectrometer be able to identify crude oil and distinguish it from other petroleum residues? Would it be possible for anyone with a smartphone or laptop to compare the spectrum of a substance in front of them with an online database of spectral signatures?

    Since Public Lab launched the DIY Spectrometer Kickstarter in September 2012, we have shipped more than 2,500 spectrometers to backers and a couple hundred more to those who purchased them in the Public Lab store. Many others have built their own from plans posted on the Spectrometer page or how-to instructions from Public Lab contributors. (Here is one example.) These spectrometers have been used to look for a bluing agent in “free” laundry detergent, to evaluate the color of aquarium or grow lights, and to follow the course of kombucha fermentation. But most users have been focusing on building and testing the spectrometers, improving the designs, and learning how to get the best results from them.


    Another 350 spectrometers will be shipped to the remaining Kickstarter backers in the next few weeks. We are committed to helping all of these new users put their spectrometers to good use.


    A webcam-based video spectrometer.

    2013 spectral challenge

    At the heart of the Public Lab non-profit mission is to be able to work with communities to provide toolkits that can help people, “identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns.” To help the thousands of new owners of spectrometers learn how they might apply them to environmental problems, Public Lab has launched the Spectral Challenge. We will award $1,000 to the individual or team that does the most before June 1, 2013 to help the thousands of people building and using open-source spectrometers to monitor and improve the environment. Participants are asked to share their experiences learning about the process of open-source spectrometry by posting their designs, observations, results and ideas at PublicLaboratory.org.


    Many dozens of research notes about spectrometers have already been posted at the Public Lab website. To make this growing archive an even richer resource for new users, we want many more people in the spectrometry community to post research notes and carefully craft them to help others get started and make progress. To participate in the Spectral Challenge, participants must publish their work on the Public Lab site. We hope teams and individuals from high school and college science classes, makers, graduate students, professional researchers, and anyone experimenting with open-source spectrometers will enter the Challenge and share their progress. Challenge participants don’t have to be experts in spectroscopy — the goal is to ease the transition into spectroscopy for new members of the community.

    Participants will be judged on:

    1. Collaboration — By either working within a team or sharing information with other teams, the goal is working together to empower the community.
    2. Educating and supporting others — Spectrometry is new to most people, but by sharing knowledge we can all make effective use of this tool.
    3. Open-source process — Give credit to those who helped you and make your contributions available to others.
    4. Affordability — We want to encourage the development of an effective spectrometer setup that costs less than $200.
    5. Safety — It is important to be able to collect, transport, store and analyze samples safely.
    6. Reliability — It is crucial to demonstrate that your results are repeatable and reliable.

    To see the rules of the Challenge and details of the entry and judging processes, or to make a donation to the crowd-sourced prize pool, visit the Spectral Challenge website. This first stage of the Spectral Challenge is focused on learning how to use DIY spectrometers. When it ends on June 1, 2013, the second stage begins.

    Stage 2, “Real World Use,” will focus on using an open-source DIY spectrometer to identify a real environmental contaminant. It will be like an environmental X Prize in that a cash prize (80% of the prize pool) will be awarded to the first team to meet the requirements, and the challenge will remain open until the prize is claimed. The winning team will establish protocols for using an open-source spectrometer to identify an environmental contaminant in a real-world situation. Details of the Real World Use challenge are being refined, but you can see the current guidelines here.

    A co-founder of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Shannon is based in New Orleans as the Director of Outreach and Partnerships. With a background in community organizing, prior to working with Public Lab, Shannon held a position with the Anthropology and Geography Department at Louisiana State University as a Community Researcher and Ethnographer on a study about the social impacts of the spill in coastal Louisiana communities. She was also the Oil Spill Response Director at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, conducting projects such as the first on-the-ground health and economic impact surveying in Louisiana post-spill. Shannon has an MS in Anthropology and Nonprofit Management, a BFA in Photography and Anthropology and has worked with nonprofits for over thirteen years.

    Tagged: civic science open source plots public lab spectral challenge spectrometer

    Comments are closed.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media