The Public Lab Blog

stories from the Public Lab community

About the blog | Research | Methods

"Dust in the Wind: How Data Visualization Can Help the Environment"

by stevie | about 8 years ago | 1 | 2

Image above: DustDuino can help individuals with limited resources monitor PM10 and PM2.5 concentrations, indoors or outdoors.

Check out this article below by Willie Shubert (@willie) published in Scientific American! Willie and some of the people working on projects mentioned in this article were recently on OpenHour. Check it out if you missed it. It's the July 6th one on "Open Air Projects."

Dust in the Wind: How Data Visualization Can Help the Environment By Willie Shubert | July 15, 2015 |

The lidar instrument aboard the CALIPSO satellite sends out pulses of light that bounce off particles in the atmosphere and back to the satellite. It distinguishes dust from other particles based on optical properties.

Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio A recent study using NASA’s CALIPSO satellite described how wind and weather carry millions of tons of dust from the Sahara desert to the Amazon basin each year – bringing much-needed fertilizers like phosphorus to the Amazon’s depleted soils.

To bring this story to life, NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization team produced a video showing the path of the Saharan dust, which has been viewed half a million times. This story is notable because it relies on satellite technology and data to show how one ecosystem’s health is deeply interconnected with another ecosystem on the other side of the world.

Stunning data visualization like this one can go a long way to helping communicate scientific wonders to the wider world. But even more important than the technology driving the collection and analysis of this data is how the team presented its findings to the public – as a story. NASA’s CALIPSO data offers a model of how scientists, technologists and journalists can come together and make use of data to help us respond to this a slow-motion crisis like air pollution.

Being able to see the dust blowing in the wind has broad implications. Today, one in eight people in the world dies from exposure to air pollution, which includes dust. This stunning fact, issued by the World Health Organization last March, adds up to 7 million premature deaths per year. Air pollution is now the single largest environmental risk in the world, and it occurs both indoors and outdoors.

The WHO report, which more than doubles previous estimates, is based on improved exposure measurements including data collected from satellites, sensors and weather and air flow information. The information has been cross-tabulated with demographic information to reveal, for example, that if you are a low- to middle-income person living in China, your chances of dying an air pollution-related death skyrockets.

These shocking statistics are hardly news for people living in highly polluted areas, though in many of the most severely affected regions, governments are not eager to confirm the obvious. The availability of global scale particulate matter (dust) monitoring could change this dynamic in a way that we all can see.

In addition to the volume of satellite data generated by NASA, sensor technology that helps create personal pollution monitors is increasingly affordable and accessible. Projects like the Air Quality Egg, Speck and the DustDuino (with which I collaborate) are working to put tools to collect data from the ground in as many hands as possible. These low-cost devices are creating opportunities for citizen science to fill coverage gaps and testing this potential is a key part of our upcoming installation of DustDuino units in Sao Paulo, Brazil later this summer. Satellite data tend to paint in broad global strokes, but it’s often local details that inform and motivate decisions.

Satellites give us a global perspective. The official monitoring infrastructure, overseen by large institutions and governments, can measure ambient air at a very high resolution and modeling exposure over a large area. But they don’t see everything. The nascent field of sensor journalism helps citizen scientists and journalists fill in the gaps in monitoring networks, identifying human exposures and hot spots that are invisible to official infrastructure.

A DustDuino sensor installed in São Paulo, Brazil (Photo courtesy of Willie Shubert) As program officer of the Earth Journalism Network, I help give training and support to teams of data scientists, developers and environmental journalists around the world to incorporate this flood of new information and boost local environmental coverage. We have taken this approach because the skills that we need to communicate about slow-motion crises like air pollution and climate change require a combination of experts who can make sense of data and journalists who can prioritize and contextualize it for their readers.

Leveraging technologies, skills and expertise from satellites, sensors and communities alike, journalists, scientists and technologists need to work together to translate data into the knowledge needed to address environmental crises.

Willie Shubert is the Senior Project Coordinator for Internews' Earth Journalism Network. As a coordinator of a global network of environmental journalists, Willie helps make tools that enable people to connect with each other, find material support, and amplify their local stories to global audiences. In his previous position at National Geographic Magazine, he coordinated translation for the magazine's 32 local language partners. He holds a degree in Geography from Humboldt State University with concentrations in cartography, environmental economics, and Chinese Studies. Outside of work, he devotes his time to the development of a free school dedicated to community building through education and to collaborative mapping and audio projects. Follow on Twitter @WillieShubert

Read more Follow

air-quality blog dustduino dust

Does the Open Pipe Kit lower the barrier to sensor data collection? We need your help.

by rjstatic | about 8 years ago | 2 | 3

What I want to do

More and more we're able to capture the data around us and send it to the Internet. But do we have control of our data? What if a corporation hasn't made a widget for what we want to capture? The goal of the Open Pipe Kit project is to democratize the Internet of Things.

The current Open Pipe Kit approach optimizes for the following:

  • Prioritize users' freedom of choice with modular sensor and database drivers.
  • "Frameworky" enough to build a User Interface to allow the average person to pipe data while still maintaining developer happiness.
  • Use of off the shelf hardware.

My attempt and results

There are three major parts of the Open Pipe Kit project:

1) The Open Pipe Kit Bakery is a form based User Interface application that generates a pipe running on a USB Thumb Drive. This is our proof of concept attempt at lowering the barrier to entry for nonprogrammers. The web app knows what sensor and database drivers there are by pulling data from the Open Pipe Kit packages site. Submit your own OPK Package there and you'll see it included in the OPK Bakery. Dooooo it. It's ok if things break.

2) The Open Pipe Kit Developer Standards that describe how Command Line Interfaces can be used in a modular way to pull data from sensors and push that data to databases. I've created an "experimental" category there which is starting to look kind of safe but there is still more discussion to be had around it how it plays with things like the Bakery which is just a prototype afterall.

3) The Pirateship disk image for Raspberry Pi, that when running, looks for a file on a USB Thumb Drive named and launches it. This simplifies the Raspberry Pi experience into something a bit more like the Arduino experience but with all the power of Linux. The Pirateship Disk Image also includes the pirateship Command Line Interface that has awesome little gems for connecting to WiFi networks. Add the command pirateship adapter <wifi network name> WPA <wifi password> to a file named on your USB drive and your Raspberry Pi will connect to your wifi network.

Questions and next steps

There are two questions, that if the answer is yes to both, then we're onto something.

1) The first question is "Do the OPK Standards make developers happy?" A group of about a dozen of us have talked about this a lot at the OPK Hangout calls on Thursday nights for the past six months and we seem pretty happy about this approach. We could use more voices but most importantly we could use you trying to make command line interfaces for sensors and sharing them back along with your experiences.

2) The second question is "Does the Open Pipe Kit bakery lower the barrier to collecting data with sensors?" The Bakery is the fourth iteration of our experiments with lowering the barrier to entry. While we have validated some aspects of the OPK Bakery with past prototypes, this thing is far from well tested.

Why I'm interested

I want pulling data from sensors and pushing it somewhere to be a solved problem. I want it to be boring like hammers and nails. I want hardware for doing this on the shelves of hardware stores. I want us all to have the ability to collect and control data in the Internet of Things.

Why? Because I think we can make the world a better place when we have a better understanding of our environment. Particularly in our ability to affect the productive capacity of small scale agriculture. I believe an increase in that productive capacity increases the resilience of our communities and their ability to forge their own future that would allow us to reject endless war and an exploitive financial system.

-- R.J. Steinert

Read more Follow

kit blog monitoring environmental

Measuring Particulate Matter with the Girl Scouts

by nicholas | about 8 years ago | 3 | 5

Girl Scout Troop 5399 is going on a journey to learn about air. All aspects of air. To learn more about air, we decided to deploy a dust particle sensor - the Shinyei PPD42S - in downtown Brooklyn. All of the code, data and report can be found here on github.

Our Methodology

To measure air quality in Downtown Brooklyn, we decided to take readings throughout the Metrotech area using the Shinyei Dust particle sensor. The scouts formed two groups and choose four different locations. At each location, the scouts documented the location and the time they stayed in the location as well as other miscellaneous information about the area (ie a park, there are cars, people smoking etc..). They recorded data for 5 minutes at each location before moving on to the next location.

Here is a map of the eight locations visited between the two groups.



The Shinyei is a low cost dust particle sensor which many is being used in many air quality projects such as Dustduino. For this experiment, we used an Arduino and the Adafruit Data Loggin shield which allows us to write to an SD card. The device was made mobile by a battery pack.


The code is the standard code which can be found in many places. One issue we had with the code is that the real-time clock did not properly write to the data file. I'm unsure what happened and didnt have time beforehand to debug.

Our Results

The plots below were generated from data collected using a python script(found in github repo). In the first plot, generated by Group 1 data, there are peaks around 10:40am which correspond to collection point number 4. This site is a tunnel under two Metrotech in which there we several trucks unloading material. The first 30-40min collection period was taken from collection points 1-3 in which most of the environment was open and park-like.


The second plot, generated by Group 2, also shows a tremendous spike around 10:40am when the group was taking measurements at location 4. This location is the intersection of Flatbush and Tillary Street. The time period from 10:25-10:35 also shows high concentrations of particles which was taken at location 3 adjacent to a construction site while location 2 was inside the Metrotech commons.


Next Steps

The group would like to explore other locations such as rivers, other intersections and subway stations to compare results. Similarly, the scouts noted they should have documented more of the environment while they were taking the readings.

Read more Follow

air-quality blog dust barnstar:basic

Low floor, high ceiling for Public Lab research notes

by warren | about 8 years ago | 17 | 3

Since the very beginning of Public Lab, we've been aware that we're experimenting with new modes of production, and that the means of publication and communication we employ are keys to success. We started with a range of different "types" of content on the first Public Lab site, including:

  • Places
  • Tools
  • Research notes
  • Wiki pages
  • Reports

Some of these have been merged -- Places and Tools are now just special wiki pages. Reports were merged into Research notes early on, as they were not well differentiated.

I've been thinking about, and discussing with other Public Labbers, a series of related challenges we face in the Research Note format, and wanted to talk through some of them here in my first post for the newly relaunched Public Lab Blog

One metaphor introduced by Seymour Papert (author of the 1980 book Mindstorms) in the context of educational technologies is the phrase "low floor, high ceiling" -- where a medium with a "low floor" assures a low barrier to entry, but the "high ceiling" simultaneously does not restrict an creator's ability to create complex, powerful works. Mitchel Resnick of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT also argues for "wide walls" in his 2005 paper with Brian Silverman, "Some reflections on designing construction kits for kids" -- which is to say, accommodating a diversity of types of work.

First, let's discuss some of the challenges we've faced with the Research Note format:


Though we've worked hard to make it easy to post a research note, and to lower the technological and cultural barriers to doing so, relatively few of our community of thousands post them. In fact, only around 500 have been posted over five years -- and the rate of publication shown on our stats page is actually down a bit since one year ago.


Even the name "Research notes" -- so carefully chosen both to denote informality and to encourage and recognize anyone's contributions as "research" -- has been cited as intimidating: "Is what I'm doing really research?"


Even our most active members can go weeks or months without posting. Why is this? Is it a problem? Some are busy, sure, but others are actively working on PL projects, but haven't found the time to publish. Have we built up the idea of research notes too much, such that people feel they must be long and carefully crafted? Some folks may "save up" work until they think it's "ready" -- saving time by not pausing their process too often, and waiting until they have something more substantial to share, or they're more assured of the outcome. See, for example, this sampling of four fairly active posters, over the last 52 weeks (the shortest bars indicate a single post):



The research note posting interface has been carefully crafted to emphasize simplicity and clarity. But it's definitely not designed for longer-form work. Some on the organizers list and on Github have argued persuasively for a richer, more powerful editor that is simultaneously easier to use without knowing Markdown, the simple formatting system we use.


Many of the above issues seem to push us in different directions. What I'd like to explore is the possibility of a shorter research note format, perhaps as an alternative in parallel with a longer version.

But first, how do we know what exactly is needed?

How do we know what's needed?

I just want to take a step back here. We've often discussed how to make experiences richer and deeper, because we see the amazing work of our most involved members -- long, articulate posts by @cfastie, @hagitkeysar, and so many others. This is of course a good thing.

But what about everyone who didn't post? I'd like to focus on that hard-to-measure group who we didn't manage to entice into posting something. Basically -- selection bias: we don't have feedback or input from those who aren't participating. If participation were a pyramid, we're only measuring the top, most involved, and I'd like to look at the base -- the lurkers, the observers, and those who we could do better at engaging.

I believe there's a great deal of untapped potential there! Even if we count only the 5-8000 people subscribed to our various websites and lists, that's still over 10x the number of people who've ever posted a research note. And look at the numbers for how many people have posted at least twice, three times, and as many as eight times:


I'd also like to think more about how to better understand that group -- those who aren't posting. I want to think about how to structure a study or survey, for example, that can help us address selection bias and inform the design of our site in a more balanced way. Farm Hack, for example, ran an in-person user study with passers-by (non members) at national organic farming event.


Achieving longer form through serial posting of smaller pieces over time.

Short form posting

In thinking about how to reach people who are not yet posting, the idea of shorter, more regular posting is appealing. Rather than "all at once" posts, authors could share (as an example) just their question or background story in one post, their proposed experiment in another, their field test itself in another, and analysis and closing thoughts in a fourth post.

To be clear, what I'm proposing is not cutting down on content, just breaking it up into multiple pieces, and scaffolding that "shorter posts more often" pattern through our editor, which could remain simpler as a result. In fact, as each individual post would need less formatting, the basic posting form could just be plain, unformatted text, as a default. If people could spend more time inviting others into their work, and less time formatting their posts, that seems like a good thing to me.


One experiment we did which I think we may be drawing the wrong conclusions about is the Question and Answer function, which was a limited experiment to invite people to make short posts where they ask a question. Although the questions posted are a bit untidy and sometimes oddly formatted, if you look at the authorship of these posts, they're ALL first-time posters! As a format, we hadn't really thought of it as a success, but by this measure it certainly is.


In summary, although I definitely want to spend time "raising the ceiling," I think we should "lower the floor" as well, and set a goal for ourselves to increase the number of regular posters (i.e. at least one post per month) tenfold in the next year.

Read more Follow

collaboration community website research

Bring Back the Blog!

by stevie | over 8 years ago | 1 | 4

“Your words create the world around you.” Milton Bluehouse, Jr. @RiverRally 2015

I just recently passed my one year mark with Public Lab and in reflecting on the year, I truly believe it’s the community who has taught the most in this time. The reasons why the people of Public Lab do what they do, the drive to make positive changes, sharing for the sake of growing and learning- this is what makes it work. The collaboration and support found in this network is both impressive and empowering.

This is what brought me here. I could ask the infrared group to help me puzzle through an image I can’t seem to interpret and get responses from people who selflessly offer their assistance. A newcomer asks the Public Lab main list if anyone has thought about low cost mercury sensing and sparks a discussion that brings out the power of a large knowledge base. There is something on that incredible knowledge sharing platform the people of Public Lab have built that I’d like to make a bigger space for: “The why.”

I’m lucky in the time I have to ask questions, and the patience people here have shown me in personally telling me their stories. These stories are the passion, they are the truth, and the motivation. Stories are why we do what we do, how and what happened. The stories are the people and the faces behind Public Lab. I want to bring those stories out.

So here, I will ask you, if you can and if you would: share out your stories. Make this your space and let’s bring back the blog.

***The blog lives at More information on the blog can be found on the blog wiki. To post to the blog simply write a research note and tag it "blog"

Read more Follow

community blog

A Matter of Scale - Civil Architecture and Open Hardware

by hagitkeysar | almost 9 years ago | 2 | 4

I am sharing here the talk + slides that Liat Brix-Etgar and myself, Hagit Keysar, delivered at the Open Hardware Summit that took place in Rome, Italy, September 30 - October 1 2014. You can find a video documentation of the talk here.

We started by continuing a thread from last year’s Open Hardware Summit, referring to a talk by Jeffrey Warren, one of the Public Lab founding members. Jeffrey gave a talk on how to strengthen and grow an open source community (like the Public Lab) by distributing kits through a Kickstarter campaign, and embedding open and collaborative principles into objects, such as the DIY aerial photography toolkit, which Public Lab sends to people by mail.


Our talk in the Summit meant to continue Jeffrey’s thread on open hardware as tools for building communities and problematize it, first by directing a spotlight to the exclusionary aspects of DIY and open source practices and communities, and second by raising some ideas on how open hardware can facilitate wider inclusion by leveraging professional and local knowledge, in particular within urban planning processes.


I (Hagit) got connected to the public lab’s community through my enthusiasm to experiment with the balloon and Kite mapping toolkit in Jerusalem.


matters of concern

The possibility to create beautiful and engaging photographic maps with residents and around issues and matters of concern in the city spurred my imagination, I saw it as an exciting technological and political tool for creating new ways of seeing, bypassing the governmental and corporate control over geo-spatial information that is shaping the ways we imagine the urban space and geography. (see also the second chapter of the film series "exposing the invisible" and read the interview, for more on the context of collaborative mapping in Jerusalem.) I call this on-going project Jerusalem One Piece at a Time Residents I have worked with mapped and visualized geo-spatial information for advocacy, this affordable and easy to use piece of hardware enabled them to take a step into the materiality of the technological process, into the politics of representation, revealing the biases of the map, the stories it tells and doesn’t tell. People and matters of concern become the focal point of the map, maps and mapping become a site of encounter between, people, places, issues and technological process. Yet as I was progressing with the workshops in Jerusalem, I realized that creating a photographic map is one thing, and implementing open sources principles is another thing, much more complex. Earlier, I wrote about it in this post. Especially when you’re working with marginalized groups of people that don’t really have the time, resources, vocabulary or confidence to actively participate in DIY and open source communities. it became clear that if we want to scale the impact of DIY tools such as the balloon mapping toolkit within the wider urban level, we need to create a locally relevant infrastructure based on implementing collaborative practices and technologies within local institutions and community centers that are already situated at the crossroads between affected residents, burning issues and decision-makers.


Matter that matters

(Liat) Hagit was talking about matters of concern that move inhabitants to act on issues, as an architect, I am looking at the ways in which we engage ourselves with other people and their concerns through the objects we design. I am asking, how does our material interventions can make things matter, and become a potential site for public engagement?


With these thoughts I established in the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem the “Civil Architecture” Design and Research Unit. One of the interesting issues today in the architectural and planning professions is the issue of scale. We can recognize a historic shift from scaling to zooming, with our digital applications we see everything on screen, always in scale of 1:1. This of course, has many different implications. For example, the issue of scale effects our perspective, meaning, the way we see. It is blurring the distance between representation and reality and misses the actual relations between places and things. But moreover, it affects our bodies - our interactions, encounters and the way our spaces of living are designed and developed.


addressing the issue of scale, we chose to work in the scale of the "neighborhood". We think this is the most important socio-spatial unit. This is the size and relations that enables radical economical and architectural acts initiated by citizens, including the most marginalized inhabitants living in the city.


We can look at Lifta. It is the last remaining example of a pre-1948 Arab-Palestinian village whose residents were driven out and dispossessed during the war that constituted the establishment of the state of Israel. It is today part of the city of Jerusalem - an urban biosphere partially inhabited by very low-income Jewish residents. Our civil architecture unit began its involvement as professional participants in the coalition “save lifta!”, initiated by both Jewish and Arab residents.


We measured, documented things/ people/ stories and suggested alternative planning.



we’ve had hundreds of people touring the place through our most important method for initiating collaborative planning processes - the Open Tours that made Lifta tangible and relevant for wider publics. We’ve also created virtual annotated and narrated tours you can watch with a smartphone using a QR code. But after several events we began to question their effectiveness as a “participatory tool”. We realized we need to find ways to bring people in earlier within the design and planning processes.


Matter of Scale

We see it as a matter of scale - that through the use of small scale tangible and collaborative objects we can take a step into large scale planning processes without losing sight and touch with the situated, grounded understanding and contribution of residents.


here you can see some work we began developing together in a neighborhood called Kiryat Hayovel, in southwest Jerusalem, which is marked by the authorities as a site for massive urban renewal in the next 10-20 years, through top-down planning processes that would have drastic consequences on its human and natural character and identity.


together with a strong community center in the neighborhood, which plays a significant role in bridging between the municipality and the residents, we established a center for urban pedagogy that brings together the Public Lab’s ideas and practices with those of the Civil Architecture Unit, and builds an open, civil archive by documenting residents knowledge and perspectives.


One of our project in the neighborhoods is mapping the urban biosphere of Vadi Hayovel, a valley that is planned to undergo development in the coming years


and similarly to the Lifta case, its biosphere preserves the last remnants of the pre-1948 palestinian village of Beit Mazmil, as well as wild flowers and animals that live and cross through it and various forms of informal uses by people living in the area.



We began a mapping process, and being both technically and visually engaging the balloon mapping method enabled us to start our work with a wide range of participants, children, women, older and younger, bringing them into the process and discourse of planning at its very first stages and raise issues of preservation, identity and memory that were not considered earlier in the planning process.

together with programmer Nir Yariv and Designer Mushon Zer Aviv from The Public Knowledge Workshop we started building the possibility to annotate the map by residents and create layers of information that can later be processed for better planning of the valley.


our work is ongoing and we seek to further develop and expand these relations between civil architecture and open hardware, we have lots of questions and ideas, one of them is to revisit the open tours we’ve conducted in Lifta, thinking whether a tour can become a piece of open hardware that connects people to act and contribute to a collaborative design and planning process.



Read more Follow

balloon-mapping jerusalem annotated-maps presentations