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stories from the Public Lab community

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Bring Back the Blog!

by stevie | over 6 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 publiclab.org/blog. 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"

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A Matter of Scale - Civil Architecture and Open Hardware

by hagitkeysar | about 7 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.



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Frac Sand Frisbee- Maps against Mines

by mathew | over 7 years ago | 0 | 4

Mikey O'Connor's blog, Frac Sand Frisbee does an excellent job of explaining the problems with frac sand mines in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, and with providing resources to others to replicate a campaign against the mines. I highly recommend it. Images here are used with permission from Mikey.

Buffalo County has largely stopped frac sand mining in its tracks, based on strategies of attacking the long-term financial viability of mining, the impact on roads, the problems of increased truck transport, and most importantly, preservation of the scenic and rural character of the county.

I was drawn to the maps that Mikey makes to illustrate transportation problems and land use discrepancies in mine applications. I'm also fond of collecting mapping resources from non-GIS professionals to assist in designing the new annotations system for Mapknitter.

When asked about the maps, Mikey said that they have been the second most effective thing he's put together. (The first is below)

Two techniques stand out: First, the use of overlays, being able to drop one map on top of the other to show the differences. Mikey said that this is kind of a pain in Powerpoint:


here is a traced overlay to simplify and drive home a point about the discrepancy in land use plans: Slide08.jpg

Second, using clear and simple symbols on an uncluttered map. These arrows and target to talk about the distances trucks will travel to transhipment facilities:


The Most Powerful strategy: Pictures

The First most powerful thing Mikey presented was a photograph and comparison of the Segerstrom Mine with other proposed sites:


"Just walk that photo around a hearing and everyone hushes up and the mine guys look at their feet," Mikey said. The hillside is too steep to be reclaimed after mining. Such is the power of images.

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mapping urban biosphere in Jerusalem

by hagitkeysar | over 7 years ago | 0 | 1

As part of a joint project named "Maree-Makom" (Hebrew for Reference, literal translation is See Place) I am working together with the architecture department in Bazalel, art and design academy in Jerusalem, and community centre "Yuvalim" which administrates a few neighborhoods in south west Jerusalem. The project combines design studio and research seminars, trying to develop tools for urban renewal in poor neighborhoods that would allow us to think and do beyond the neo-liberal paradigm of "urban growth". We are a small group of 4 students (from the departments of architecture and visual communication), two architects from Bezalel (lecturers), an urban planner and community social worker who both work full time in the community centre, focusing on the issues and problems raised by the massive urban renewal plans in the area. I am contributing from my experience with mapping techniques and engaging residents using civic science practices.

We are about to map a valley in Kiryat Hayovel, called "Vadi Hayovel". It is a fascinating environment that the residents and the community centre seek to preserve and explore, they plan to document and map it with the intent to strengthen their participation in shaping future municipal decisions that would determine its development and use.

We want to create a photographic map of the valley that would allow to identify the special plants that grow there, flowers, waste areas, architectural and agricultural remains of the Palestinian village that was there prior to 1948, ancient archaeological remnants, pathways to the valley, and a porcupine cave known to be there somewhere...

We think about using the infra-red camera, and also to collect information on the ground using geo-tagged photographs. I remember this research note about Rhus, open source mobile GIS for community ecology - would love to hear from those who had experience in using it.

Let me know if you have any other ideas on collecting data within urban biospheres with easy and accessible tools, or references we can look at.

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Public Mapping Mission - Newtown Creek

by nicholas | about 8 years ago | 3 | 3

The Mapping Event

Part two of the Public Mapping Mission was a combination online/offline course and a collaboration between the 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. From our location at the Plan Road site, the wind was coming down the creek putting us downwind of our proposed mapping area. This made flying either a kite or a balloon from land impossible. We therefore decided to use the balloon with the canoes.


We quickly began to prepare the camera rig and helium balloon for flight. Given the windy conditions, we wanted to put as much helium in the balloon as possible to give us maximum lift despite the strong winds. Due to the cool weather, the helium condensed in the balloon as we were able to fill the balloon with all 80cf of helium. I repeat, we put all 80cf of helium into the balloon. (I did not know that was possible).


Once we got the balloon into the canoes, the skilled paddle-men (and paddle-women), navigated upstream against the wind in order to allow the balloon to sail with the wind down the creek. The was an extremely challenge moment, paddling against the current and against the wind, all with a 6ft helium balloon dragging in the wind. Kudos to the seamen!!!


Arriving at out proposed destination, we launched the balloon as high as we could. Given the strong winds, it was incredible difficult to hold on to the balloon. The balloon and camera were bouncing around the entire time.


Finally, after about 20mins of flight, we were nearing a bridge and decided to bring the balloon back in. This was no easy task and the balloon nearly entered the water several times. The threat of losing our camera rig was very real. Fortunately, with support from a second canoe, we were able to safely bring in the balloon without losing the camera or capsizing the canoes.

Unfortunately, during take-off, the camera slipped in the housing and began to take images of the container. This left the majority of the photos useless to make any type of map. Note: The has been the second time a camera has slipped in the housing. Experimenting needs to take place to resolve this issue.


Special thanks to the North Brooklyn Boating Club, Cosmo from the GovLab, Eli from World Science Festival, Liz Barry and Cristina Tortalla.

About Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek is on of the most polluted waterways in the country and is the location of one of the largest oil spills in US history, leaking between 17 to 30million gallons of oil and petroleum products into the creek. As early as the 1800's, the creek was used as an industrial waterway and as an easily accessible port and canal between Williamsburg and Queens. In the 1900's, the creek was one of the busiest industrial port on the east coast housing numerous chemical plants, fertilizers factories and oil refineries.

Currently, Newtown Creek is being deemed a superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency providing federal funds to help clean and restore the creek.

Public Mapping Mission Online Course

Part two of the Public Mapping Mission online course will be dedicated to mapping parts of Newtown Creek on Saturday, Dec 7th starting in the afternoon. This event will begin at 11am with an online overview of balloon/kite mapping and then will move into the real world by mapping Newtown Creek. Following the mapping, we will return to the online course to share our experience and results. For those interested in participating, sign up here.

The Public Mapping Mission online course is a collaboration between various organizations in an effort to promote citizen science and public participation in local environmental issues. The course launched on Nov 22nd. with an online overview of current citizen activities and techniques being used to address local problems. The Newtown Creek mapping will be a followup and final event in the course.

Old School Maps of Newtown Creek

1844: Newtown_Creek_1844.gif

1860: Various_5.jpg

1891: 1891_creek_topo.jpg

Unknown: Various_2.jpg

Present Day: Screen_Shot_2013-12-06_at_10.51.57_AM.png

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"where do the maps go?"

by hagitkeysar | about 8 years ago | 4 | 19

I wanted to share some thoughts that became clearer to me now, a month or so after the barn raising gathering (Oct 2013), in which these issues were discussed by some of us. The bottom line of what I am about to share here is that I realized that the challenge I face now in order to make the work I've been pulling through in Jerusalem more significant for the communities I am working with, is dealing with the problem of design. To say it more clearly - community engagement ends right where the need for design begins.

The decoder is the insider

What I am talking about relates specifically to grassroots-mapping using DIY aerial photography tools, but I am sure this can be as true with other open tech and DIY tools and methods. The basic premise is that aerial photographs do not speak for themselves. And in particular those made by communities. Exactly like any other form of photography aerial images are ground for interpretation, rather than for objective decoding. The well established ideas and professional practice of “decoding” aerials is based on and perpetuates patterns of exclusion. S/he who's trained to decode is an insider by definition, a professional in the service of powerful interests. I know this is not knew for you, Jeff Warren and Public Lab did a lot for developing an annotation tool that can be quite useful for storytelling. But I think digital annotation is only one aspect of what we need to do for re-shaping the aerial for community storytelling and making it more accessible and engaging tool for triggering change.


above: east-providence-pond-view-map, mapknitter.org

The story of the Road

A friend of mine has been an aerial photography decoder for the Israeli army during her obligatory years of serving as a soldier (between the age of 18-20). She learnt the skills needed during her service, and she recalls that what she was supposed to produce for her commanders at the time, was to create what was called in military jargon “Sipur Derekh”, Hebrew for “the story of the road”. Her mission was to find the best way for soldiers to cross through a land they didn't know, mostly during night-time, for the purpose of take-over. Through the “Sipur Derekh” she constructed, the soldiers had to be able to know the area as good as a local person does. She used to hover, fly, above the aerial images, cross-examining the same place by using aerials taken at different times. It involved a great deal of imaginative work, juxtaposing clues on the natural features with traces of human activity and life in the place. She particularly mentions the huge gap between her imaginative flight above the area and the extreme reduction of the 'Sipur Derekh' she had to construct and pass on.

mapping the unseen

As I see it, what we, as grassroots-mappers, are looking to do is to invert this power to take-over – which is today being exercised in all sorts of ways (ranging from war and conflict through urban planning and the industries' environmental damages). The story of our road, contrary to reducing the meanings of an aerial image in the service of a narrow interest, is one that seeks to reveal social and environmental context through collaborative mapping. It is not only about an objective reality to be visualized and decoded, but about mapping and thus seeing the subjective story that is embedded in and is inseparable from the concrete features of geography.


above: Ala Salman who created an aerial map of a contested road that splits his neighborhood in two and damages its environmental and communal infrastructures, presents his DIY aerial image to MP's in the Israeli "Kneset".

stand by its side - give it voice and knowledge

The people I was working with had a story to tell on top of that aerial photograph they created. They re-appropriated 'the master's tool', the same tool that is being used in order to erase their presence and identity off the map, or to rationalize plans for destruction and regeneration in the city that ignores their local perspectives. They have created aerial photography in Silwan, Beit Safafa or in Ein Karem, but they had to stand, physically, right beside it to give it their voice and knowledge. The questions that arise once they leave the aerial by itself into the offline and online streams of information, is who will it reach, what story will it tell, or as Catherine D'ignazio phrased it nice and simply “where do our maps go?”.


growing a long tail for mapmaking

In our ethics and politics discussion during barn raising, Liz Barry was mentioning that we need to think of the long tail of community engagement in open-tech and support the local groups we are working with, towards meaningful change. As I said in the beginning, what became clear to me is that we have to work on developing this long tail, which I think raises problems of design in visualizing information. In Silwan we created this integrated poster map that included text and photos the children we worked with created, but we had to have a designer to do that cause the task of turning all this information into a coherent and attractive poster was too complex. Looking at the poster we produced one can see that we have a lot more to learn - and on that note - here is an excellent and inspiring guide for visualizing information for advocacy.


above: Annotated aerial map of Silwan created by children living in the village (East Jerusalem)

re-shaping the aerial

But why should open tech end when it gets to questions of design? Can we think of a workflow that would enable local groups to go beyond creating the object itself, the aerial photograph, to a process of re-shaping the aerial image? I imagine re-shaping its uses, meanings and appearances in everyday life both online and offline. Especially when talking about community engagement we want to create a movement between offline, analog activities to online and digitally-based engagements.

don't just stand by - step on it, jump on it, draw on in

I imagine it not only as a post-production activity but as a public event. Maybe we need to think about prototyping machines and sensors that allow to annotate in public space by anyone who passes-by, by stepping on the image, writing and drawing on it, and turning these bodily actions to digital input that can be later be ground for online engagement.

where do we go from here?

This is to share my thoughts with you at this point in time, hope to attract the interest of some of you to continue this further. I think that once we will be able to create a workflow for telling a story using DIY aerial photography, these community-based maps would be useful not only for advocacy and representation, but also in wider range of everyday uses. Namely, for navigating in the actual geography, in quite a different way than conventional maps allow us today, from the point of view of its inhabitants. Not taking-over that point of view, but embracing it.


above: click the photo for a close-up, to read a detail of children's annotations on the DIY Silwan aerial map.

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