stories from the Public Lab community
A full five days before the Appalachia Barnraising, out of work for only three days, and I get an email from Stevie through the Public Lab listserv -- registration has been extended! I had no idea what a "Barnraising" or an "un-conference" was in this context, but after doing a little research on the website I make a quick decision that I should definitely get in my car and drive from western MA to Morgantown, WV for this event. Since I had lived in the Appalachians of southwest VA and had done some research on contaminated mine drainage, the theme of extreme resource extraction (such as mountaintop removal coal mining and natural gas fracking) really drew me in. Even more so was the opportunity to hear the personal stories of those directly affected by the dusty and cancer-causing air, flammable and polluted water, and who live in towns manipulated by out-of-town greed and a desperate need for local jobs. As best I could I prepared myself to not be an obvious out-of-touch academic and went forth with as little expectations as possible, with an open mind and ready to learn.
The Barnraising event was held in a fantastic space for having collaborative interactions such as this, at the Media Innovation Center at West Virginia University. Being used to huge academic conferences where you have to be approved to give a presentation months in advance, I was initially confused as to why there was no schedule. But oh! This was an "un-conference." So after setting up a few ground rules and explaining the ethics policy (an interesting and definitely important idea), we set about creating a schedule of sessions in a democratic-type way. First, each person wrote an idea for a discussion topic that most interested them, shared it with the group and stuck it to the wall. Not being at all prepared for this, I wrote something like "water quality monitoring -- what we have and what we need." With a wall full of very diverse ideas, we grouped them and put them on the whiteboard schedule. I found this to be a fascinating exercise in how complete strangers had to interact, balance competing personal interests, and without any obvious overtones of elevating anyone's expertise above another. (Sidenote: having nametags with just names and introductions without listing off the resume is a great way to level the playing field!)
Photo credit: Carol Johnson
Throughout the day, I participated in many interesting discussions: youth outreach with art and data integration using Public Lab resources, how to create sustainable economies in WV, how to assemble Kaptery dataloggers for obtaining environmental data (e.g. temperature and barometric pressure), and how communities can monitor air quality. Without naming the specific sessions, I would like to share some observations I had about what worked and what didn't in terms of achieving a useful outcome. These thoughts could be helpful in any gathering of diverse groups of people who are trying to come together to solve a critical problem.
Having a clear goal
In one session, the moderator had a specific goal in mind. While that goal was not achieved through consensus, it was helpful to have a specific issue to discuss, and it appeared that many useful ideas were generated that were likely to be quickly implemented.
In the water quality / data logger session that I moderated, after some uncertainty as to the goal of the session, I just had everyone break into smaller groups to assemble and test out the two data loggers. This ended up working fairly well because there were enough people who were comfortable enough to take the lead and could show the others (like me) who had no experience assembling small electronics. Two groups managed to get the Kaptery Nano ($29) up and running and collecting data, which was uploaded to Excel and graphed. The other group practiced soldering the components of the Kaptery Mini Pearl ($19) and learned that shorting out a circuit board is not too scary. So while we didn't get to do any particularly useful experiments with the data loggers, we learned how easy they were to put together (a big step for those of us who are not DIY technologists!).
Photo credit: Public Lab (Twitter feed)
Asking questions first rather than jumping to answers
In one particularly well-moderated session, everyone in the group was there to learn and no-one was an expert on the topic. At first, we questioned what we could really accomplish with our discussion. But our excellent moderator facilitated a brainstorming session in the following way:
Even if we didn't come up with solutions to problems, we all learned a great way to facilitate discussions when planning community campaigns! Being able to ask good questions is a valuable skill we all need to practice more.
Photo credit: Carol Johnson
Prioritizing community needs
Most people in Public Lab are familiar with the concept of experts "helicoptering in" to solve a community-level problem, but end up focusing on their own goals instead of the community's. This occurs with academics, government officials and nonprofits alike, and with experts and non-experts alike. In the discussions I participated in during this Barnraising event, I was disappointed to see the members of affected communities grossly outnumbered by outsiders like me, and moreover in discussions where community members weren't present, to me their voices were painfully absent. Some people tended to focus on their own agenda without visible attempts to incorporate affected community members' perspectives. I don't think this was intentional, but it was disconcerting how out of practice we are at critically thinking about someone else's needs outside our own bubble, and we are conceivably people who want to be compassionate and create an equitable society. This is where asking questions rather than jumping to answers, especially with regards to long-term visions, really helps. Questions regarding economic, social, and environmental pros and cons from community perspectives, and ways to humanize collaboration and cooperation, could be really useful for centering community need in our discussions and actions.
Overall, it was a great experience for me to get out of my academic bubble, and observe and participate in the democratic exchange of knowledge to address critical problems. I think we can do better in centering community need rather than ideology or tangential agendas, and we can do so by asking critical stakeholders questions to generate and discern clear goals. A big thanks to the folks at Public Lab who organized the event and invited me to share my thoughts on this blog!
About the author: Carol Johnson has a Ph.D. in Geosciences from Virginia Tech, and researches a wide variety of environmental pollutants ranging from metals in mine drainage, mercury in estuary sediments to quantum dot nanoparticles in TVs that end up in landfills. While at Virginia Tech, she spent a lot of time rock climbing and hiking in the Appalachians, and really misses the mountains when she's not there! You can follow her on Twitter @nanoCAJ.
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Photo by Kayana Szymczak
When I started working in New Orleans, one of the first, and most valuable resources I was connected to was Karen Savage’s Gulf Coast Fund. Karen volunteers her time to collect and organize a daily email about the Gulf Region’s community events, activities, and resources. It has been a vital way for me to connect with others working in the Gulf, and stay informed on what’s going on. Then in 2014, I met Karen at a Bridge the Gulf event. I had long thought of her as my “information angel” and it was so nice to meet her in person. I soon learned Karen’s work extends well beyond her daily email updates. Her community work, research, and journalism to expose companies who bring harm to communities and families across the Gulf Coast has brought much needed attention to disturbing injustices.
For example, In 2013 Cherri Foytlin and Karen published an article in the Huffington Post that exposed, among other things, the company ChemRisk. The article went on to explain that ChemRisk “released an “independent” study concluding that off-shore workers who cleaned up BP’s oil between April and October 2010 were not exposed to harmful levels of certain airborne chemical compounds” (quote from the Huffington Post article). The article goes on to call out ChemRisk’s “long, and on at least one occasion fraudulent, history of defending big polluters, using questionable ethics to help their clients avoid legal responsibility for their actions.” In response ChemRisk filed suit against Cherri and Karen saying that “Ms. Foytlin and Ms. Savage had intended to write a “hit piece,” and as long as the article remained online, its “falsehoods will continue to do substantial harm to ChemRisk’s reputation.” (New York Times article by Barry Meier published October 2015 “Science Consultant Pushes Back Against Unlikely Opponents”) The New York cort dismissed the claims and Cherri and Karen “shot back with a motion to dismiss the Massachusetts suit under the anti-SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, statute. They had a reasonable factual basis for their statements and, in writing the post, they had merely exercised their right to petition...The appeals court agreed.” (from a Law360 update “Enviros Cleared Of Defamation For Huffington Post BP Blog” written by Kat Sieniuc)
The obvious, funding! Goes without saying but it’s a reality. It’s also really important that whatever resources there are, and whatever groups they go to, that there are folks that are there to help to listen to community and follow their lead, as well as offer expertise.
People, connections and relationships have been really helpful with work on the ground. Individual communities are fairly small voices, but once those voices are amplified and pushed out they can be connected to others in similar struggles. We all try to get better at this, but also look to allies with a larger organizations with more resources for getting the word out.
It’s one of those things that you have to kind of need. That’s been the best way for me to learn. If I learn something that I might use two months from now, it’s not going to stick as much as if I’m desperate to find something.
It’s always useful, but it also depends on the level of discourse. The facilitators need to come from a really informed and connected place. I’m interested in effective ways to research corporations and what their company history is, who their people are, what their plans are. I’m looking for the nuts and bolts of the business for watchdogging them. I’m interested in knowing these things and getting ahead of the game. We’re always reacting. Someone has decided to build a pipeline, now we have to react. We need to get ahead of this curve. Every strategy for fighting these folks is valuable, and we have different ways of going about it. We and we need to go toe to toe against these companies.
I think we need scientists. I think it’s incredibly important the whole science debate that goes on by the “industry of doubt”. All their tricks and secrets need to be brought out. Scientists, policy people, lawyers, people with local detailed environmental management knowledge are all important stakeholders to be able to engage with.
A framework of respect. Everyone is in a different place. Generally folks who do this work have the same goal. People have different ways to go about this, and we have to respect them because we need all the ways. We need people who might not be standing next to us on the front lines, to value their work and incorporate it. Keep doing what you’re doing, we need to all be together in the next 4 years.
--End of Interview--
To Karen, Cherri, and others who expose those responsible for environmental injustices in the Gulf Coast, and lift the stories of those who struggle at their hand. In solidarity.
**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.
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The lead image is of Ramsey and taken by Weenta Girmay and was from a publication Medium by 350.org called "@350/from-the-bayou-to-the-bay-voices-from-the-gulf-f6707c7ecff3">From the Bayou to the Bay: Voices of Gulf Resistance"
On February 22nd of this year, I had a chance to interview Ramsey Sprague of Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition with @warren for the series we're exploring talking to grassroots and environmental justice community organizers (read more on the series here). Ramsey is an amazing community organizer, and since this interview happened in February, we're excited to share that MEJAC is a community partner we'll be working with under the new NAS grant. So stay tuned for projects, ideas and questions coming from MEJAC and collaborators in Africatown, Alabama on Public Lab!
In the meantime, below is our interview with Ramsey:
Generally, the basics - someone willing to contribute financial resources to support effort, willing to actually go out and meet people, and be trained on what the issues are that a community is interested in.
We look for people that have a bedside manner about their politics, a willingness to listen and hear where concerns are coming from and how to meet them collaboratively. When groups are looking to work with us, I ask for them to review our strategic plan and to ensure they feel alignment with what is there and what is not. If they represent an organization, I look for their willingness to sign an MOU to avoid confusion about the work we'll do together and on each others' behalf. I hate that it's necessary to have personal relationship documentation spelled out on paper but have found that it's sometimes necessary. It's dangerous to a project that's fragile to have new partners come on that don't respect that their input is contingent on the community wanting them there. Also, when people come here, I like to hear what you're not able to do. I appreciate the honesty.
For the community I'm most focused upon, the most useful tools are ones ready out of the box. I look for power-point presentations that can be customized for our community about a specific issue, so they have a frame. The vast majority of community aren't digitally savvy, so websites or online monitoring resources or guides aren't as useful as they may be elsewhere. There is too much front-end training for this and only a small handful are willing to submit to that kind of intensive computer literacy 101 stuff. Something immersive and engaging and conversational like a power point has been really useful.
There's a strong need for 101 orientation about environmental sciences generally. These are important frames to give and see who has propensity or capacity to move into doing things like testing or monitoring. We need that kind of talent. Local monitoring must move into the gap that undone or underdeveloped federal work has left.
Ultimately, a perfect scenario would be an organization able to build literacy for frontline communities, bring in monitoring orientation resources, train people to do it, and open the door for people to do it themselves, perpetual support of questions, troubleshooting -- legal support, perhaps. No doubt that once we're monitoring, we'll find things where legal action must be taken. Even small stipends for work that needs to be done to give an incentive for younger people to involve themselves.
Well, the community here has repeatedly expressed concerns over the perception of disparate advocacy by larger regional or national organizations advocating for white communities strongly and less so for black communities like this one. People have asked me: "Are you getting support from local environmental organizations?" No, by and large. We've been around for 3 years, and individually, socially, I'll talk to people with paid positions in larger groups. They know how to find me, and members of my group have asked for assistance, but only a few regional environmental groups have ever sat down with me to unpack what MEJAC is working on and how they could assist. I think some of this may be that the political terrain is hyper-racial, so folks just avoid confrontation. Many white professionals are uncomfortable directly assisting untrained black leadership. But before MEJAC's work, local monitoring from independent agencies fell almost exclusively into the hands of folks who didn't meet the community at the table and seemed to be resistant to the idea of directing resources to the environmental justice communities in and around Mobile. I know there's a fair two-way street argument here, but work ought to be done to meet a variety of black leadership to work around any potential anti-environmental gatekeepers. The environmental community is adept at recognizing potential concerns but less so at affording patience and resources for working a long-term community engagement plan. If there is a need and a concern, keep knocking on doors. If you think there will eventually be a need to know folks from a part of your service area that's underrepresented, keep knocking on doors.
In-person face-to-face is best. We can do teleconferences, but sometimes the internet works and sometimes it doesn't. But even for in-person meetings, our local community centers are expensive to rent. We need plenty of advance notice to work around the ridiculous fees. As I mentioned earlier, a huge swath of the community with the leisure time to learn new things have very limited computer and technological fluency.
Definitely. Networking is the gold standard, but the ability to marshal access is challenging. To belong to something of the larger networks is expensive, and we can't afford that. People are willing to contribute to things that are useful, but any network is going to seem like any old network until it doesn't. It's hard to convince people to shell out money for something that doesn't have an obvious great utility. What I would hope for is some table of expertise of science and monitoring with low cost effective techniques, subsidised lab work - things like that.
Emphasize what the network doesn't or cannot currently do and how the network makes these decisions. It just as important to emphasize what cannot be done as what can be done. Also, a lot of scientists don't have easiest manner of interacting with folks. It would take a unique kind of field organizer to turn science into a how-to that's not alienating, so for larger organizations or professional societies, implicit bias and anti-white supremacy training might go a long way. Even with strong cultural cleavage between those serving and those being served, honest recognition of shared values steeped in the history of the organizing terrain can ease tensions within power dynamics enough to move forward with challenging work. Expressing where one is coming from is a constant requirement that only gets easier with practice.
--End of interview--
Thanks Ramsey! We're so excited to loop in with you here shortly on projects in Africatown! Anyone interested in following? We'll be using the tags MEJAC and Africatown. Stay tuned for the next interview in the series, I'll post it next week.
**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.
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Here in New Orleans, we've been involved in the larger conversation with the Public Lab community about water quality monitoring. Over the past few years we've hosted builds, and discussions, we've explored water monitoring methods, and worked out in the field. One thing we started to notice was that the tools and monitoring methods themselves were in the driver's seat on a lot of these activities. We wanted to flip our attention, and refocus on the local issue to driving our exploration. So in March, we along with I See Change, Grounwork New Orleans and Water Works started a new workshop series and looked explicitly to our backyard, and to our own unique questions, to drive our exploration forward. We also want to thank New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, Ripple Effect, and Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans for their support of the workshop series.
In New Orleans, we're constantly dealing with issues of street flooding. The infrastructure of the city is taxed with pumping out all the rain that falls on it. Otherwise, it stays standing in our streets. Read more about our previous water workshops in New Orleans and about the stormwater issue here
In this series we started by picking locations of stormwater interest and thinking specifically about those locations. Within three blocks of our workshop location, we found three site of diverse stormwater interest. The first site was Groundwork's Earth Lab which includes a bioswale and groundwater storage tank that captures stormwater off of nearby warehouse sized roofs. The second site was a street that has an incoming green development project with proposed construction beginning in September to deal specifically with stormwater issues. The third site was a flooding hot-spot just outside an elementary school.
The series we ran included six events in total, with a month of monitoring in the middle. Below is a summary of each workshop with links to larger writeups about them.
In the first event we got together with the goals of both learning about stormwater, and identifying the questions we wanted to to carry through the series. We spent time discussing what we know about stormwater on a personal level, and we heard from our friends at the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board about the stormwater system in the city.
After some learning, we went outside and did a visual survey of each of the sites.
For a final activity, we went back inside with all the knowledge we acquired and the site surveys in mind, and we brainstormed all the different questions we had about stormwater at the sites. Through a process of culling out what we deemed as the most important and the most achievable scientific questions, (we used this post to help us with this activity), we decide on the research questions we wanted to take forward. Those were:
This was closely followed by: How can we tell what contaminants are in the stormwater?
Tried and true, our second workshop was about capturing the bigger picture of what was going on on the ground at our project sites. We used the Public Lab balloon and poles mapping techniques for this, as well as ground photos to gather a better understanding of our project sites.
In workshop three, we annotated our maps from the second workshop with information and photos from around our sites. This helped us ground our knowledge of the sites. We then broke into groups and brainstormed all the resources, tools, and activities we could think of to help us answer our two research questions for each site. Those were "How long does water stay standing in an area?" and "How much rain does it take to flood?"
We checked out methods people had used on Public Lab, and compiled all of our ideas for how to answer our questions on one big sheet of paper. Then we talked about the list together and picked the best and simplest combination that would help us get to the bottom of our research questions for each site. With our ideas in place, we pulled out what we would need to do, and how we wanted to do it so that in our next workshop, we had the resources and ability to set up our study.
One of the things that came out of the last workshop was our interest in using different resource to see how we could best get to the bottom of our questions rather than picking one method for all three sites. We had gauge boards, rain gauges, and trail cameras to learn about and put up. We had site surveys to create, a photo repositories to build out and I See Change accounts to make! This workshop was all about getting us ready to start monitoring.
The fifth workshop was actually added on last minute. We realized that because we were interested in different methods for monitoring the sites, we needed to be on the same page about how to get this done. In this workshop, we did a dry run of data collection, and over the course of the three weeks to follow, that's what we did every week day.
In this last workshop, we celebrated with a Pizza Party. There was so much we had learned about monitoring, our questions, the sites, and about how to walk through this process from beginning to end. Going through all the data we had gathered, we spent time talking about what worked, and what was hard. Reflecting on the original research questions, it really felt like methods we developed help us answer the questions we asked different ways. With some tweaks, and some new ideas we have a few methods for monitoring stormwater built out. Finally, we explored new ideas and next steps. We'd be excited to continue on any of them given the opportunity.
This workshop series was great. It embodied our local issues and questions, utilized the resources of the broader Public Lab community and beyond, and emphasised exploration, learning, and sharing. I was so encouraged by everything we pulled together, everything we were able to test out, and all the people who came to the table.
Now, thanks to the work of everyone on this series, we have a wealth of knowledge to add about methods for monitoring stormwater. In true Public Lab form, our challenge back out to you is two fold. First, engage in our work: check out our activities and research notes, give us feedback and post questions for us to move forward with. Second, help us all learn more about what monitoring and exploration looks like in your backyard. We'd like to explore your new methods and ideas too.
Partners in this project include:
Support for this series comes from Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans and Ripple Effect
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As part of our series on all the amazing work that's been done with kite and balloon mapping over the years -- work that's led to our new Mini Balloon and Kite kits, today we'd like to highlight a number of educational projects from our community and partners over the years.
Pictured above: Launching a Mini Kite Kit at Parts & Crafts' Girls Invention Week
To start with, this morning we ran an activity with Parts & Crafts in Somerville, Massachusetts, who have been a great partner over the years. Parts & Crafts is a makerspace for kids and their friends, and an alternative school program and DIY-centric camp. They've done a lot of Public Lab projects since the very start, and this week was Girls Invention Week -- so we took the Mini Kite Kite out for a spin with some amazing girl inventors!
We've kite-mapped with Parts & Crafts before, too -- read more about their work at: https://publiclab.org/tag/parts-and-crafts
Pictured: balloons on Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, NY -- image CC-BY-SA Nicholas Johnson
The Public Mapping Mission was a combination online/offline course and a collaboration between Public Lab, GovLab Academy, the Center for Urban Science and Progress and the MIT Media Lab. The second part of the course was a public event in which participants mapped Newtown Creek on December 7th. This is their story...
After a rainy and cold Friday night, the forecast for Saturday afternoon was looking much better. High of 41ºF with 10-15mph winds from the west, and indeed it was a clear, cold and windy day. Our group of dedicated mappers met at Newtown Creek at the Plank Road site in the afternoon. We were carrying two kites, two Public Lab balloon kits, an 80cf tank of helium and other miscellaneous supplies.
Shortly after our arrival on foot, an armada of canoes from the North Brooklyn Boating Club arrived, reinforcing our efforts and providing naval support...
Read more about their work at: https://publiclab.org/n/9843
Students building Soda Bottle Rigs for their cameras - photo CC-BY-SA Meghan Jain
In 2014, Meghan Jain spent about a month creating a Balloon Mapping Curriculum, which you can download from her post: https://publiclab.org/notes/mjain26/07-28-2014/youth-balloon-mapping-workshop-complete
When members of a community are faced with a problem, generally they need evidence. Most people rely on labs to produce these studies. Through using balloons and kites to produces areal image data, citizens can increase the amount of power they have. Using a balloon is inexpensive and accessible, which helps members of the community engage in their civic communities. The more they know, they more they can do.
Read more about their work at: https://publiclab.org/notes/mjain26/07-28-2014/youth-balloon-mapping-workshop-complete
We're looking for more stories -- and great images -- to highlight, so please tweet out a picture and tell your story -- and mention @PublicLab!
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Thanks for a terrific first week of our Kickstarter! 47% in our first seven days is awesome -- thanks for your support.
We often talk about how Public Lab is dedicated to collaborative work, and we've mentioned that the new Mini Balloon and Kite Kits are "prototyping kits" -- but we want to get the ball rolling on what exactly we're hoping to collaboratively prototype.
So we'll be announcing "challenges" or "unknowns" that we're inviting folks to chip in their thoughts on -- and if you're already a mapper, to try out yourself.
We'd also love it if people would post their questions, ideas, and challenges, so we can collect them and help get this collaboration going. That's how Public Lab works -- and I wanted to mention that we've been doing this in person as well; at the Appalachia Barnraising (read more about these Public Lab events here) this past weekend, we spent a morning testing out these new kits in Morgantown, West Virginia (lead image).
Online, we've already begun collecting basic information about the kits at these pages on the Public Lab site:
Each has a "Questions" area where you can post your questions, and we've started things off with a few already.
For today, we want to break the ice with a discussion of weight -- these balloons can lift over 60 grams each, which means that on a perfectly calm day, you can lift one of these GoPro alternatives. But what are the best options?
Have you tried these cameras out? Know of something cheaper, lighter, or better resolution? Of course we've done some preliminary testing, but we're also on the lookout for more lightweight cameras. Tell us what you know!
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