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When $100,000 is not enough: how citizen data (could) relate to government regulation

by liz with gretchengehrke , reltub1 | about 6 years ago | 4 | 3

October 29, 2013: The headline on airhugger.wordpress.com reads: “Houston we have a problem: Six little inches of air will determine whether millions of dollars will be spent to clean up the air of millions of people in the Oil and Chemical Capital of the World.”

From the front porch of a single family home in Galena Park, Houston, the sights and sounds of industry come from all around: diesel trucks revving and idling, the clank of cranes setting down new sections of pipelines, the screeching brakes of trains loaded with Bakken Crude Oil, the low tones of container ship horns.

Below, Galena Park with industry in the background. Houston Chronicle, August 5, 2014:


Galena Park is a predominantly Hispanic, low-income area of approximately 3,000 households living in single family homes located along the Houston Ship Channel.

The community’s commercial strip, Clinton Drive, is also the thoroughfare for all truck traffic generated by the Port of Houston and the many facilities along that part of the Houston Ship Channel. On average, Clinton Drive see several thousand diesel trucks daily. The high traffic roadways and petrochemical refineries expose the under-resourced neighborhood to significant air quality impacts from fine particulate matter (PM2.5) even as economic tightening and technological advancements have reduced the number of jobs available to those who live nearest this industrial cluster.

Being that the Houston-Galveston region is such a heavily industrialized area, the EPA closely monitors air quality via an array of regulatory air monitoring stations. And although Galena Park has a PM2.5 regulatory monitor right on Clinton Drive, community members will quickly point out that it is outside of the city’s primary residential areas. Clinton Drive runs alongside the shipping channel by Galena Park about a mile to a mile and a half outside the residential area where the bulk of homes, the elementary, junior, and high schools, Early Head Start, and Recreation Center host most of the population. The sources of PM2.5 are closer to the neighborhood than the monitoring station is.


There are two Federal Regulatory Monitors at the Clinton Drive site, a pump which draws 16.67 liters of air per minute through a 3” intake continually over a 24 hour duration, and a filter which collects physical samples to be weighed. The City of Houston and the City of Galena Park have made specific landcover improvements in the vicinity of the regulatory monitor that were not made in the neighborhood, such as planting trees in the median of Clinton Drive and paving nearby parking lots, both of which have the effect of keeping the dust down. For these reasons, the Galena Park community has longstanding concerns that the regulatory monitor is not reflective of the airquality within the actual community.

EPA long term data for Galena Park shows annual averages of PM2.5 hovering at 11.6 micrograms per cubic meter, just below the annual threshold of 12 μg/m3, which would be a violation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) (http://www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/criteria.html), as authorized by the Clean Air Act http://www.epa.gov/air/caa/.

Clinton Drive’s hourly real time data is published here (https://www.tceq.texas.gov/cgi-bin/compliance/monops/daily_summary.pl?cams=403) by the Texas Commision for Environmental Quality, accompanied with the following text:

PLEASE NOTE: This data has not been verified by the TCEQ and may change. This is the most current data, but it is not official until it has been certified by our technical staff. Data is collected from TCEQ ambient monitoring sites and may include data collected by other outside agencies. This data is updated hourly. All times shown are in local standard time unless otherwise indicated.

TCEQ data shows variability including peaks at times that seem to correspond with early AM diesel truck traffic and idling:


Notice PM 2.5 at the bottom row of parameters.

This hourly data shown here gives us a moment to consider that EPA 24 hour standards allow for much higher values of 35 μg/m3. This leads to a question often posed by fenceline communities, “Considering that some days the industrial campuses are not operating, and are releasing zero emissions, how many 0.0 μg/m3 and 35 μg/m3 days combine to create a 12 μg/m3 annual average? What is our actual health exposure to particulates?”

But back to the main story: If airborne PM2.5 were to have an average annual concentration above 12 μg/m3, then the federal EPA could assert authority, requiring Texas to draft a new plan to ensure that it will achieve the NAAQS standards, which would likely incorporate stricter emissions permits. Stricter emissions permits may require substantial technological upgrades or expensive operational changes, and therefore are generally met with resistance from industry groups; however, quoting Brian Butler, “Sometimes cost is the argument i hear from some industries about why they can’t do environmental improvements. But we have seen examples in the past where some industries have been able to recapture their investment in mitigation technologies through improved operational efficiency and reduction of loss of product.” Citizen groups also could take action to file against the Texas CEQ or the federal EPA for failure to take the actions available to each respective agency to uphold the Clean Air Act if the Houston air were not in attainment of the NAAQS (e.g. higher than 12 μg/m3 PM2.5 over a year).

Therefore, beginning in 2012, seeking to both understand and address air quality conditions in Galena Park, regional environmental advocates Air Alliance Houston (AAH) and international environmental health and justice non-profit Global Community Monitor (GCM) undertook a community health impact survey, a community mapping workshop, and a community air monitoring project.

Monitoring details

To skip ahead, we’ll present what data was actually collected by what methods: GCM and AAH conducted air monitoring over the course of a year for fine particulate matter and elemental carbon (a surrogate for diesel pollution) at four community-selected sites inside the Galena Park residential neighborhood. In total, over $100,000 was spent. The equipment and methods involve two MiniVol11 Tactical Air Samplers (TAS) http://www.airmetrics.com/products/minivol/index.html and laboratory analysis of the MiniVol filters, 47 mm Teflon filter media which has been approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (link to 1999 study http://www.airmetrics.com/products/studies/1.html, and look out for FRM documentation links later in this post).


It is fair to ask, why would a community group invest so much money in MiniVols? Global Community Monitor reports that Quality Assurance Protocols for the MiniVol have been approved by the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the State of Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. There is a monitoring project underway in Oregon with a DEQ approved plan, with one minor note that “because of the lower flow rate of the MiniVol, the minimum detection limits (MDLs) will be higher.” http://www.whatsinourair.org/2014/10/28/chapman-air-monitoring-plan/#.Vgw7oWRVikp Discussions are underway with some of the State of California’s Air Districts and EPA Region 9 that would mandate follow-up research to be conducted by the agencies if community submitted data from MiniVols or buckets indicated levels exceeding regulatory standards. Additionally, MiniVols are accessible because many state and county health departments own them and in some cases have loaned them to community projects, as in Albuquerque New Mexico to the South Western Organizing Project (SWOP).

Exhaustive details of the monitoring protocol excerpted from the final report issued by AAH can be found here: http://publiclab.org/wiki/galena-park-monitoring-report#B.+Monitoring+Equipment+and+Analysis+(Page+13+of+the+PDF)

Interestingly, in the Galena Park study, there was no statistical difference between community-collected MiniVol data and the TCEQ’s data. Stepping aside from the long standing debates between how government averages are calculated over periods of year(s) (for both pollution and human health response to exposure levels) versus how communities experience hotspots / peak events, the statistical similarity means that to some extent the MiniVols were on point. And yes, the community and several doctors continue to be concerned about the high peak levels of particulate matter. But here is where this post takes a different turn because those issues are not what the EPA addressed in their response to AAH’s submission:

The EPA wrote a response titled “Responses to Significant Comments 2012 Annual PM2.5 NAAQS December 17, 2014”, in their document “PM 2.5 Desig RTC EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0918-0337-1.PDF,” Section 3.2.4. EPA Region VI. The following is reprinted from page 56 of 68:


Comment: The commenters questioned whether the monitoring data obtained at the [EPA] Clinton Drive Monitor site is representative for the Galena Park community and submitted monitoring data gathered from five monitoring sites operated by Air Alliance Houston at various locations within the community (see Figure 2 below). The commenters believe the Air Alliance monitoring data demonstrated that the Clinton Drive [EPA] monitor was not representative of area air quality and that the area could be in violation of the NAAQS.

EPA Response: We first note that we must consider all valid data within the relevant 3- year time frame that is collected in conformance with the Federal Reference Methods and siting requirements in our designation decision. As discussed below, the Clinton Drive monitoring site meets these requirements and therefore, must be considered. The location of the Clinton Drive monitor conforms to all applicable siting criteria, as set forth in 40 CFR Part 58, Appendix D and E, and has been approved by the EPA as part of TCEQ’s most recent Annual Monitoring Network Plan and 5-year Monitoring Network Assessment. The Clinton Drive monitor is approximately 1.5 miles from Galena Park, as shown in Figure 2. At Clinton Drive, TCEQ operates PM2.5 Federal Reference Method (FRM) and non-FRM continuous monitors.

With regard to whether the data collected by Air Alliance Houston indicates a violation, Region 6 evaluated the monitoring data submitted by the commenter. Approximately 29 discrete samples were collected in the Galena Park community over a 16-month period from May 2012 through September 2013, thus the data is limited in scope compared to the data collected by regulatory monitors over a 3-year period and subject to data completion criteria. Additionally, these data were also not monitored and collected according to the requirements of the federal reference method for PM2.5 found in 40 CFR part 50, Appendix L. Our designations must be based on valid 3-year design values, and even if the monitoring data submitted by the commenters fully complied with the siting and data quality criteria, there are not sufficient data on which to derive a valid, 3-year design value.

Therefore, these data do not affect our decision to designate the area as Unclassifiable/ Attainment.

End Quote. Short story: despite the alignment in data, the EPA’s dismissal of the project because the tool and methods were not FEM/FRM (see below) appears to be undercutting the EPA’s own rhetoric of funding and working with EJ communities collecting citizen science data.

Oh and in case anyone’s looking for 40 CFR part 50, Appendix L, check page 84 of 91 in http://www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/standards/pm/data/fr20061017.pdf or here https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/40/part-50/appendix-L


In response to the response given to the AAH Galena Park monitoring project by the EPA, Brian Butler of AAH presented the above poster at the July 2015 EPA Community Air Monitoring Training workshop, and says,

”I wrote the title “What’s the Use?” as a double entendre expressing the futility of collecting data that won’t have impact and to also pose a honest question to the EPA.”

As writers of this post, we are wondering out loud about this kind of response from the EPA. During a time where the EPA awards grants to conduct citizen science under their Environmental Justice program area. and much time and effort is then spent by communities collecting data on environmental quality, a dismissive response like this seems patronizing and like an opportunity was missed for more collaborative environmental management.

NB: Please see a quick background on the EPA prepared for this blog post here: http://publiclab.org/wiki/usepa

Where does citizen data fit in the realm of EPA assessment and enforcement?

Not an exhaustive list, but the biggies:


Federal Reference Method & Federal Equivalent Method

drumroll please..."And at last we come to FRMs and FEMs"

FRM: Federal Reference Method FEM: Federal Equivalent Method

Title 40, Part 53 of the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR Part 53): http://www.epa.gov/ttnamti1/files/ambient/criteria/reference-equivalent-methods-list.pdf Title 40 CFR 53.1 - Definitions: https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/40/53.1

Definition of FRM: Federal reference method (FRM) means a method of sampling and analyzing the ambient air for an air pollutant that is specified as a reference method in an appendix to part 50 of this chapter, or a method that has been designated as a reference method in accordance with this part; it does not include a method for which a reference method designation has been canceled in accordance with § 53.11 or § 53.16.

Definition of FEM: Federal equivalent method (FEM) means a method for measuring the concentration of an air pollutant in the ambient air that has been designated as an equivalent method in accordance with this part; it does not include a method for which an equivalent method designation has been canceled in accordance with § 53.11 or § 53.16.

Definitions don’t quite capture “purpose”, so although it may seem obvious, let’s rhetorically ask why we have FRMs and FEMs? First and foremost, we have FRMs and FEMs because we want the highest quality data to inform us about our environment. The EPA also has liability to consider, and wants to ensure that the data underlying its assertions or actions are highly defensible. This is logical from a regulatory standpoint and an enforcement standpoint.

Issues arise, however, as we return to Appendix L and read that FRMs specify branded and trademarked technologies and list individual manufacturers of the devices needed to assess air quality. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/40/part-50/appendix-L


Restating this, the current status is that to collect regulatory quality environmental data, one must use blackboxed, patented products. Many patented technologies are commercialized to sell at prices that are inaccessible to most citizens, and thus there is a huge financial barrier disabling the public from gathering data and producing "valid" information. But this is the type of tech development (closed source, patented, expensive) funded by the EPA and established as the standard for environmental assessment. Requiring FRMs or FEMs for even the lowest screening-level assessments unnecessarily impede the ability of citizens to collaborate with environmental agencies in the monitoring of their local environments because FRMs and FEMs are too costly and time-consuming for persons other than official government personnel to perform.

Before even getting to phase where products are named and sold, there is a research and development phase yielding results on how technology works that could be published openly. There are many open source innovators eager to collaborate with the EPA that are hindered simply by closed publishing. In one anecdote from 2013 and 2014, the EPA excitingly came very close to supporting this space when they ran an assessment of low cost, air quality sensors being used in the DIY and citizen science communities, and published the summary results in the Air Sensor Guidebook http://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_file_download.cfm?p_download_id=519616. But, under the http://www2.epa.gov/ftta/collaborating-epa-through-federal-technology-transfer-act, the EPA was able to request that companies send in their devices for testing, perform an incredible amount of very valuable comparative testing, yet not release any of the actual data that could help citizen innovators learn how technology in this space was performing and spur open source innovation.

Why does the EPA distribute and use funds for closed source development? In some ways, it is a result of a worldview that holds that patents spur technological development through the future profits available to those who invest in research and development. http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-05/documents/ip-factsheet.pdf. But open source, commons-based peer production offers another path for spurring innovation.

Consequences result from this patent regime: as things currently stand, there’s simply no way for citizens and government to speak the same language on air quality. In an age of open data, we argue that “gov can dish it but can’t take it” (Barry, 2012). But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Air Alliance Houston is concerned that their time and money, and that of other grassroots groups, is being wasted because there is no pathway for community-collected data to have impact at the enforcement level. As Brian Butler writes, this is a serious issue of the EPA contradicting itself, or worse, patronizing EJ communities through offering citizen science grants just to go through the motions of a potemkin process. Clearly, technology is a fast moving space, and we are in an awkward period where the EPA’s proverbial door is opened to citizen data, but it can’t come in.

We need pathways for citizen and community collected data to connect to agency regulatory action

Perhaps modeled after QAPP levels, evidence levels could be established, and a place for screening to prompt further action. A suggestion along these lines has already been made in the EPA’s 2014 Air Sensor Guidebook report, though it is incomplete as it mostly discusses relative standard deviations that could be appropriate and does not include a pathway for driving action or response from the government at any level.

Here are some larger ideas around supporting innovation and citizen <-> government collaboration that have been informed by positions articulated by Mathew Lippincot @mathew :

  • results from federally funded research must be published in journals that do not require paid subscriptions to access, and the data from the study be published in open formats
  • federally funded tool development should not be patentable
  • additional federal funds for commercializing patented tech should not be awarded

Imagine with us for a moment how this might play out ... the EPA might become a steward of open source reference designs for environmental assessment technology. EPA-stewarded designs might specify performance criteria rather than branded and patented technologies. Data captured by these new “Open Federal Reference Methods” might be stored in open formats, with no specialized or closed source technology required to access it. Technology for environmental monitoring gets better, cheaper, and more accessible. Communities and agencies begin to speak the same language, cease wasting time arguing and move forward together on understanding and improving environmental quality.

In the US alone, thousands of individuals and communities are exploring open source environmental monitoring and are hungry to collaborate with the EPA. In the final tally, what’s at stake is human health and our combined abilities as community plus government to ensure environmental quality.

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EJ in LA

by stevie | about 6 years ago | 1 | 4

Lead image: EJScreen Snapshot of Baton Rouge, LA under the Environmental Justice Indicator: Number of facilities within 5k with potential chemical accident management plans.

There have been a number of conversations lately on the national level about Environmental Justice (EJ) and the new tools (particularly EJScreen) and strategies (EJ 2020) that aim to address EJ issues. Many of these conversations have specifically invited community groups and interested parties to the table for the EPA to introduce the new resources, and provide a space for comments. There is a genuine interest to explore if those tools and strategies:

1) reflect what is happening on the ground,
2) protect the right people, and
3) will support outcomes that stymie the perpetual exploitation of marginalized groups.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of these new resources and what they do (although I’d highly recommend taking a look at them), one interesting sidebar is in the relationship of this broader topic to states, Louisiana for example.

To say that Louisiana is a hot spot for EJ issues is an understatement. Zooming into this map from EJAtlas.org, it’s easy to see why these conversations are so important here.


Disclaimer: the information on this map depends on the information the group receives from partners and collaborators.

States are federally required to include environmental justice considerations in legislation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Yet, in a cursory search of the Louisiana DNR and the DEQ sites and policies, the only mentions of “Environmental Justice” is in comments they have received in response to public hearings…am I missing something? In a state where EJ issues are some of the most prevalent in the country, state regulatory agencies have been evading the issue.

In a webinar on the EPA Federal Interagency Agency Working Group (EJ IWG), there was discussion on Title VI, and Executive Order 12898, yet when faced with the question “Is there anything that dictates that states must recognize EJ issues in their policy?” The answer is: “well it’s different state to state.”

The federal government is doing interagency work but when it’s doesn't bring state accountability, where should people turn for answers on community EJ issues that are embedded in state policies that don’t protect people? Faced with this question, the EJ IWG answers that there is a hotline (800.962.6215, open 8-5:30pm ET) where people on the federal level will respond, and that they are working on providing trainings on the state level, building networks there and bringing in organizations. They are even taking public comments via email (ejstrategies@epa.gov)

But “EPA is required, by law, to implement a program in states that have never assumed responsibility for programs in the first place.” (EPA and the State's: Environmental Challenges Require a Better Working relationship, Steve Elstein, Eugene Wisnoski, Lisa Pittelkau. 1995) Maybe they are looking in on it, and at least there are conversations surrounding a “Louisiana Environmental Justice Collaborative Action Plan” -draft- by the EPA.

But where is the state?

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by stevie | over 6 years ago | 1 | 2

Check out this post from CATHERINE SCHUKNECHT in the Sierra Club Green Life Blog::

It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, taking the lives of 1,500 people and destroying countless homes, churches, businesses, and schools. The people of New Orleans have spent a decade rebuilding their city, but not everyone has felt the full impact of the recovery effort. A recent survey revealed a stark racial divide in how residents perceive improvements to infrastructure and their standard of living. But don’t be too discouraged: We found five green innovations that have taken root since the storm and are improving the lives of citizens across the board.


The world is your oyster. At least it is for Tyler Ortego, Matt Campbell, and two professors at Louisiana State University, who invented the OysterBreak system in 2005, bringing coastal protection to life — literally. The system, which is essentially a chain of huge linked concrete cylinders, is made of an oyster-growing substrate that, once installed, is colonized by oyster larvae and eventually grows into a living reef. Because these solid reefs grow faster than sea levels rise, they reduce shoreline erosion. ORA Estuaries, the company that Ortego founded in 2010 to run the building and distribution of the oyster reefs, recently won The Big Idea pitch competition at the 2015 New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. As of yet, the oysters can't be eaten, but Ortego is working on engineering the reefs to double as a sustainable food source.


New Orleans residents are bringing DIY to environmental protection. Powered by civic engagement, Public Lab is a nonprofit network of locals who are working to make sophisticated environmental monitoring tools accessible to the general public. They cover everything from water quality evaluation to aerial mapping, coming up with innovative ways to make complex monitoring devices out of inexpensive materials. Travis Haas, an environmental science teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and his eleventh grade students recently collaborated with Public Lab to map and assess the progress of wetland restoration. Acting as citizen scientists, the high schoolers launched a helium balloon attached to a camera and used Public Lab’s MapKnitter software to piece together the photographs it collected.


New Orleans residents say that Hurricane Katrina created 20 years of waste in a single day. True or not, the disaster left the city sitting on over 55 million tons of debris. Enter The Green Project. Founded in 1994 as a paint-recycling business, the New Orleans-based nonprofit stepped up after Katrina, taking material from destroyed homes and reinvesting them into community rebuilding projects. Ten years later, The Green Project is thriving. The project promotes creative repurposing of materials and prides itself on being accessible to all populations—materials are sold to community members at one-fifth of new retail costs. It also has the only paint-recycling program in the Gulf region and leads regular community recycling education workshops. We agree, it’s pretty much the whole package.


It wouldn’t be New Orleans without stormwater management. In 2013, Global Green USA launched its Water Wise NOLA program in New Orleans to advocate for simple solutions to water-related issues, such as flooding and substandard water quality. The organization is working to help residents lower their water bills by reducing consumption and promoting rainwater management. And they host regular rain-barrel builds—does it get better than that?


Don’t worry; the city government is making an effort to green-ify New Orleans, too. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city’s public transportation system in 2005, the Regional Transit Authority was tasked with a massive reconstruction project. Although the bus service is still operating at 35% of pre-Katrina levels, the RTA has made progress. Today, the transit network’s entire fleet is run on biodiesel and sixteen of their buses are biodiesel/electric hybrids. The city has also made pedestrian-friendly improvements to its streetlights. Since 2014, over 4,000 of them have been replaced with energy-efficient LED lights as part of the city’s ongoing Energy Smart Streetlight Conversion Program. We'd call that a step toward a brighter future.

Catherine Schuknecht is an editorial intern at Sierra. A recent graduate of UCLA, she spends her time writing, coming up with ideas for great podcasts and nursing various rugby related injuries. You can follow Catherine on Twitter at @CateSchuk.

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Lessons from mapping Bourj Al Shamali refugee camp in Lebanon

by clauds with Amal , firas , mustafa10 , Mustapha | over 6 years ago | 11 | 12

##Background on the project

Bourj Al Shamali is located 3 km east of Tyre in south Lebanon and has approximately 22,000 registered Palestinian refugees. Obtaining a map of the camp seems like an impossible task, and as it is a small compact space, the current aerial images (on google) are not of high enough resolution to distinguish the narrow streets and individual buildings.

For this reason with Al Houla Association in the camp, we launched a kite and balloon mapping initiative in May 2015. The aim of this aerial map was to have a tool that would help the local committee in the camp to do two things: (i) to launch an urban agriculture pilot project; and (ii) to create a green space in the camp.

Our Experience and Lessons Learned

As Bourj Al Shamali is such a compact space, we took images at various altitudes to ensure we had high quality images of rooftops, but also good overviews of the camp. The aim was to get close to the ground photos for small, precise images and higher up images with greater range but lower resolution to help us piece together the map. On average we took photos at 80-100 and then at 200-250 meters altitude. We measured this by marking our line with the different altitudes we needed.

Our main equipment issue was acquiring helium in Lebanon. Helium is expensive, although it was relatively easily available. In addition, logistical challenges stemmed from the physical aspects of the camp. In an ideal setting, one can cover large areas if you are able to walk around with the balloon and there are no obstacles. In Bourj Al Shamali, however, streets are narrow and therefore difficult to maneuverer in with the balloon.


There is also a maze of electricity cables above all streets and around the buildings.


The camp is on a hill and with the sea close by, the area is also often windy, with the wind going inland. At some of the most strategic locations this meant that the wind worked against us, making it difficult to steer the balloon where we wanted to.

We compensated for our inability to walk around by launching our balloon from many different locations. In total we mapped from 16 different positions within the camp, covering the whole area.


To solve our problems we also had a lot of community support: the wind meant that twice the kite broke and we needed help from a seamstress in the camp to help us fix it.


We also received help from a local carpenter who constructed a case to protect our camera, and from the school physics teacher who helped with ideas. When the balloon was shot down, the local tyre shop helped to patch up the holes. In addition, we were also invited to roof tops and people's homes constantly, as people wanted to partake in the project.

Photos by Firas Ismail, Mustapha Dakhloul and Claudia Martinez Mansell

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Argonne Interns at Public Lab 2015 Midwest Regional Barnraising

by wsnutt | over 6 years ago | 0 | 3

The Public Lab Chicago Barnraising was a great opportunity for local community members to connect with each other and with Public Lab about citizen science. This event provided us much insight about citizen science for our intern research project at Argonne National Laboratory, and we would like to share our experiences from the weekend!

The Public Lab Barnraising 2015 event addressed environmental issues by engaging with people locally in the Midwest region, while promoting participant driven activities, projects and technologies. The event integrated different people from different backgrounds in a fun way while brainstorming new ideas, past experiences and increasing awareness of environmental issues.

We are a team of summer interns at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory under Dr. Margaret MacDonell in the Environmental Science Division. We are identifying technologies people can use to better understand environmental conditions, with an emphasis on pollutants of interest to DOE programs. This includes mobile sensors for air and water quality, which can be affected by energy-related activities and wastes (such as power plant operations and petcoke).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is collaborating with DOE/Argonne for this project, with particular interest in technologies the public can use to learn about the environment in their neighborhoods. The Public Lab Barnraising 2015 event provided an exciting opportunity for us to participate in hands-on research as citizen scientists.

Dr. Amber Wise of Chicago State University, a DOE visiting faculty appointee in the Environmental Sciences Division at Argonne this summer, coordinated our involvement in the Public Lab event.

Meeting other citizen scientists at Public Lab Barnraising 2015

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Citizen scientists from the Midwest gather in Chicago, IL, for Public Lab Barnraising 2015.
Top: Barnraising participants introduce themselves. Bottom: Participants create the day’s schedule based on everyone’s interests and expertise.

DIY Kite Kit

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Citizen scientists, Argonne National Laboratory research interns, construct the aerial device for kite mapping with the help of Mathew Lippincott, Public Lab. The team altered the design by turning the tail vertical to replicate the model of a helicopter. The purpose of this device is to protect the camera and provide stability. Kite mapping can be used to gain aerial images of areas not otherwise readily accessible. Photos can then be combined (or “stitched together”) to create maps with the ability to estimate size and presence of large-scale environmental phenomena. From top to bottom:: Sam Nutt; Jamie (local participant), Mathew Lippincott, and Breyinn Loftin; Nicole Virella Maldonado; Jacqueline Wilson.

Kite Mapping

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DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Aerial Kite Mapping Top: Aerial unit (turned aside for testing camera) constructed by Argonne research interns with the assistance of Public Lab’s Mathew Lippincott. Middle: Lippincott inserting camera into the unit (the camera is attached with a series of rubber band knots to both hold the camera and the shutter button down).
Bottom: Kite from the DIY kit for kite mapping. (The kit comes with two kites.)

Petcoke Piles

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Southeast Chicago, view from the Calumet River: Petroleum coke, or petcoke, piles at the South Facility of KCBX Terminals Company. Petcoke is a byproduct of the oil refining process, and is brought to this location from refineries nearby in Whiting, IN. Local citizens are concerned about environmental exposures and possible health effects of windblown dust from these piles; they are also interested in understanding any issues related to runoff from the storage piles.

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North Facility of KCBX Terminals Company. This site was recently ordered to remove the petcoke for not having the proper certification to store the piles here.


Throughput transportation boat, used to move the petcoke piles. These are boats that transport petcoke to its next destination.

Balloon Mapping


Ben Sugar of CivicLab attaches a 3D-printed camera attachment apparatus to the line for balloon mapping the animal feed manufacturing plant, Agri-Fine, as Sam Nutt looks on.
Neighbors are concerned about odors coming from the plant, and about the possibility of health effects. Like kite mapping, balloon mapping is used to gain aerial images of areas not otherwise readily accessible. Publiclab has extensive online information on how anyone can do this type of science, from altering a camera to stitching images together.

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The team prepares the balloon for mapping the Agri-Fine facility.
Top: Filling the balloon with helium and holding down the top so it does not fly away. Bottom: Inflated balloon attached to a weight.

Citizen Science Aloft!


Inflated balloon flying with attached camera.
A rubber band continuously depresses the shutter, ensuring constant photography.
These are the types of images that can be obtained from aerial mapping. Hopefully someone is working on the images obtained from this day’s work and can post them in a future blog post!

Thank you, Public Lab, for organizing this event! We had a great time!

Shikye Bhuiyan (City College of New York) Elise Burton (Harris-Stowe State University) Lizmarie Camacho Velazquez (Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico) Breyinn Loftin (Hampton University) William (Sam) Nutt (Case Western Reserve University) Nicole Virella Maldonado (University of Puerto Rico, San Juan) Jacqueline Wilson (Tuskegee University) Dr. Amber Wise (Chicago State University)

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Case Study: Ecological Assessment and Management using Balloon- and Kite-collected Aerial Images

by gretchengehrke | over 6 years ago | 0 | 4

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series of case studies by Gretchen Gehrke, Public Lab's Data Advocate, highlighting different stories of environmental data's use in the Public Lab community. You can find the entire series here.

Ecological assessments and management strategies often require a combination of landscape-scale visualization and individual plant-specific documentation. Low-altitude high-resolution aerial imagery can be used to collect and distribute information on both of these scales. Community members have utilized Public Lab balloon mapping kits with a red-green-blue (RGB) and near-field infrared, red, green (NRG) filters to plan and monitor ecosystem services such as invasive species eradication and wetlands restoration projects.

Strong winds and salt water intrusion during Hurricane Katrina destroyed bottomland hardwoods in southern Louisiana in 2005. On the 86-acre Audubon Louisiana Nature Center property (above), nearly 90% of the bottomlands were uprooted and rapidly repopulated by the invasive species Triadica sebifera, known as Chinese Tallow. In order to help restore the natural ecosystem, Disaster Recovery Coordinator Amy LeGaux first needed to determine the extent of tallow infiltration over many acres, and used aerial images to do so. LeGaux and colleague Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network flew kites equipped with RGB-lens camera to visualize the area. In 2015, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center property still had 52 acres of tallow, and the Center received funding to remove 14 acres of the invasive plant. Using NRG aerial images Eustis collected using a Public Lab Kite Mapping kit, they were able to distinguish tallow from any surrounding vegetation due to its high photosynthetic activity, and LeGaux could make a detailed geographic plan for tallow removal. Using aerial images was more efficient than canvassing tree species on the ground, and facilitated strategic planning with tallow removal by maintaining a more comprehensive scale than is accessible on the ground. Aerial images have also been useful in documenting restoration progress and educating the public with compelling visual evidence about invasive species progression and eradication.

Other invasive species management programs by city and state departments have planned to use Public Lab Balloon Mapping kits for reconnaissance to collect information about the geographic extent and severity of invasive plant establishment. A collaborative effort between University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Charlie Schweik and personnel at the Fish & Wildlife Services developed a plan to use aerial images to map water chestnuts in a series of ponds in Westfield, Massachusetts, which had previously been painstakingly canvassed by personnel in canoes. The team attempted to do Supervised Classification of the image pixels, using R, G, B, and IR bands in order to discern water chestnut plants from surrounding vegetation. Unfortunately, weather conditions, including a large wind gust leading to a dunking of one of the cameras, impaired the student team’s ability to collect four-band images over the land area of interest, so the aerial images were not actually utilized in the water chestnut management plan. However, there is potential to utilize the sophisticated techniques such as supervised classification in do-it-yourself remote sensing, which makes those techniques available to resource-limited city and regional ecological organizations. With high resolution cameras, appropriate filters, and stable flying conditions, it may be possible to do spectral analyses, which could be useful for a variety of applications including species identification and temperature differentiations. An advantage of being tethered to the mapping unit, either kite or balloon, collecting images throughout the ascent, are the multiple scales and resolutions of emergent photographs, which then can be useful for a variety of applications.

Aerial imagery is useful in planning and monitoring ecosystem restoration projects. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has developed and implemented wetlands restoration programs throughout the Lake Pontchartrain watershed, including a marsh-creation project in Bayou St John spearheaded by wetland biologist Andy Baker. Andy and colleague Scott Eustis have used Public Lab kite mapping kits to collect a long-term time series of RGB aerial images along Bayou St John, first to determine the appropriate scale of restoration, and then to observe plant growth and channel migration, and highlight potential problems. Aerial images documented the migration of excess dredged material into the new marsh area, and the effectiveness of corrective measures. The time-series of aerial images has demonstrated differential growth patterns along the two shores of the bayou, which has implications for future restoration programs.

For ecological assessment and monitoring, temporal and spatial resolution are important. Various applications will require different degrees of data resolution, both on a per-pixel basis and over time, and it is important to incorporate those data needs into the mapping campaigns. If resources are available, it may be beneficial to use high-resolution cameras with a variety of filters to monitor aspects such as sub-aqueous vegetation with aerial photographs, or adapt the mapping kit with a remote trigger would allow the user to select when to capture a photograph with the balloon or kite flying. With a basic Public Lab kit focused on ease of use, individuals and communities can choose to make modifications to improve resolution in time and space that would enhance the utility of do-it-yourself aerial mapping for ecosystem management.


Audubon Louisiana Nature Center Image by stevie


Water Chestnut (invasive plant), Westfield, MA Image by atvolpini


Infragram of Bayou St John, Louisiana Image by eustatic

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