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My name is Shannon Dosemagen, I am Co-founder and Executive Director for the Public Laboratory of Open Technology and Science, “Public Lab” for short.
What is Public Lab?
Public Lab is a global open community, supported by a non-profit organization. We're interested in coming together to create do-it-yourself style tools that are low cost-which for us means under $150-specifically to do environmental monitoring projects. The non-profit is particularly interested in doing monitoring around issues about industrial pollution. We are interested in working in the full data life cycle, bringing people together that have different backgrounds and different areas of expertise. We work with people from the very initial steps of problem identification, to building the hardware and software tools that can be used to do community monitoring.
Shannon (center), Scott (left), and Jeff (right), deploying one of their balloon-borne sensors.
We started back in 2010 during the BP oil spill. I was working for an organization called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is a local nonprofit. Jeff (Warren) at the time was a graduate student at MIT, and one of the other co-founders, Stewart Long, was an independent cartographer based out of California. I started working with public health students prior to meeting Jeff and Stewart, using Ushahidi, which is a crowdsourcing platform to do crisis mapping of the oil spills. We were asking people to submit whether they were smelling certain things, like the oil being burned on the Gulf, if they're seeing things when they're out on their boats. That project had a bit of recognition in a CNN article, which is how Jeff and I ended up connecting, and launched a full scale project to aerial map the Gulf during the oil spill.
One of the things that we noticed as organizers was that information sources, what to trust and what to believe was very shadowy. We saw this as a really good way to start creating our own data sets. We also saw that because of the nature of the spill, you had to have very specific training to be involved in the cleanup efforts. But there was so much desire from people to be out and doing something, and this was really a way to get active and engaged. It was university students and residents, fisher people and even people that were coming outside of Louisiana trying to find a way to work on the spill. So we launched this mapping program.
Can you describe the BP oil spill? What were the impacts of the spill?
On April 20th of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and basically sank into the Gulf of Mexico. It killed (eleven) workers on the platform and started, in essence, the spill that lasted about five months. I think it was approximately 70 miles southeast from the coast of Louisiana, and it spread across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Panhandle of Florida.
A fishing boat collects oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP Oil Spill.
At the time the oil was coating wetlands, and of course there was destruction to animals. They also did massive burns on the Gulf, it was something that we could smell when the wind was blowing the right way, even in the city of New Orleans which is quite far. On top of it they did a spraying of Corexit, which is one of the complaints that people had that there was an added chemical that's been banned in certain areas. The rhetoric during the spill was really, “Why as a population do we feel like we're being tested on by something that we don't know what it's going to do to human health?”
What happens with aerial photographs from the balloons and kites?
The advantage of utilizing cameras attached to balloons and kites is that you're getting very high resolution imagery. Once people collect images, they'll sort them and use a single image or a couple of images, even stitch the images together to create a map. We have a browser based software platform called MapKnitter, which is a really great way to store all of the metadata. You'll be able to leave notes about why you collected the images, and the names of people who put them together. During the oil spill back in 2010, we worked on developing a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, which allows our maps to basically be funneled into Google as historic or primary.
A camera is attached to a balloon by the Public Lab team for aerial imaging.
During the oil spill, one of the restrictions that we were working against was that there was a 3,000 foot flight cap over the Gulf. In essence we were going from below and keeping our cameras, balloons and kites under that flight cap. Images of the Gulf showed a very striking picture of how the oil was moving.
Tell me about the aerial blackout. Do you feel like the media had adequate access to the spill to tell the story right, without you guys?
There are lots of reasons floating around why the flight cap had been put on, but we really saw the kites and balloons as a way to fill in a data gap that was going to come from the spill if people weren't allowed to fly below that certain mark. As an organizer, you take a look at something like that and say, "OK. How do we then support the goals that we have even though restrictions have been put in place?"
I think that the media relied quite heavily on Gulf Coast residents, which of course is a good thing. I think that the aerial images also showed a much broader landscape. People would be on the ground focused on an individual bird or a nesting population, and taking images from above showed a much broader landscape. How it was going to affect the larger swath of area, which I think, perhaps, was missing in that story.
Do you think government vigilance is adequate in preventing environmental disasters?
The government does not have the capacity to be everywhere. In refinery communities in Louisiana we have a very particular example. Refineries will shoot off their emissions in the middle of the night: we call it the "midnight sun." You're not gonna have a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency available at three o'clock in the morning. But you are going to have somebody that lives within 50, 100 feet of that refining facility. Same with during the oil spill. Imagine if every trawler that was utilized to clean up oil had a robust set of sensing devices that could also collect environmental data and contribute to our wider understanding of environmental impacts. I do believe that community-collected data can help to fill in information gaps, and also call for larger systemic studies and environmental assessments that are needed.
Public Lab isn't just about cameras anymore, right? What have you expanded into?
Taking the work that was used during the oil spill and looking at it as a model for how to build our community, we've decided to expand the grassroots mapping list into Public Lab. We now organize primarily under three different initiative areas which are incredibly broad. Basically water, air, and land. We worked with the Public Lab community and our extensive network of partners to create tools that allow people to collect and do observations within those three topics.
That ranges from a couple of other tools that were created based on potential use during the oil spills such as our near infrared project, Infogram, our DIY spectrometry projects, to newer projects that we have. We are working on issues around sand frack mining in the Midwest region and developing PM (particulate matter) sensing devices. We have a platform we've been working on called "Where We Breathe" for indoor air monitoring. And we have open water projects that have been going on for about a year. At this point, I'm looking at conductivity, turbidity, and salinity in water.
We have a staff of roughly 13, plus contractors that work on specific things. We're in five different states as a staff. We have about 65 organizers and around 15 different chapters that we support. In terms of our online community, we have about 5,500 people. One of the beautiful things of open source licenses is that people are able to take the tool designs and methods that are developed and employed by the Public Lab community, and apply them to the work that they're doing. Many times we'll hear about somebody using the air mapping kit because they'll either email or post a blog.
What is different about your work that doesn’t make it “citizen science”?
We frame our model as “community science”, and that it is developed from a question particular to a local community. The question comes from the people that are going to work on it, done in complete collaboration. That tool development process, the methodological portion, and then also the action, I think is really important to our work. We don't collect data and then write a peer review article. We collect data for action, and to support the goals and objectives that people have for themselves. We're trying to make sure that data doesn't get stuck in academia, but is community-accessible and can be used for various purposes. It’s important for us to have access to collecting our own information. Because again, we're the ones who are situated here, wherever it might be, and we have questions about our environments.
Do you think that this type of open source data is something that can change the world?
Yes, I do. I think it will also help to transform our relationship with science which is really important right now. We're dealing with massive issues like climate change that are abstract to people. I think something like climate change we need people to understand how it's affecting them personally and affecting their communities. Until we can do that, it's going to continue to be an abstract term that I don't understand how I'm contributing to necessarily. I like to see how people transform and are motivated in the way that their work goes forward. It's really inspiring to me.
Shannon flying a DIY sensor taking aerial images.
Do you think data is being democratized?
The structure of Public Lab is helping to democratize science and data. The reason being is that we're seeing a shift in the way that people from research institutions are interacting. The way the people are interested and sharing information, providing fixes and helping other people to troubleshoot. We've created a space so people are able to give back information, and also teach and learn at the same time. I think that we're making strides towards it. I think that everybody should be involved in the scientific process. I definitely see a place where researchers should have their own questions to help us get at very particular things. I also think there's a great area for people to begin posing their own questions. So, really getting us back to the heart of scientific exploration, the questioning, observing, and experimenting.
If governments, agencies, and corporations don't have the capacity or willingness to interpret the data in a way that is usable and accessible by people, then I think there's opportunity for others to become involved, the civil sector, civil society. We've gotten so used to just kind of putting something into the world and not thinking about where it goes. I think that we need to ask questions of our service providers. We need to have clear understandings of how data's being used, and we need to engage in those conversations, not just wait to be reactive when something is used in a way that we don't like.
What do you think is special and beautiful about the Gulf Coast? What’s at stake if people don’t act?
I'd say first and foremost the people here are really a great group of people. We're surrounded by water here, but to be somewhere in the landscape of southeast Louisiana is really important. It's calming, I've never been anywhere in the world that makes me feel the same way that being here does, especially at very particular points in the day. We're facing losing our land, homes, culture, everything that is particular and unique to the people here. That's what's at stake.