Public Lab Research note

Response to "How do DIY processes encourage citizen participation?"

by cindy_excites | June 25, 2014 19:31 25 Jun 19:31 | #10616 | #10616

We, as organizers in the Public Lab community, had the opportunity for one week in September 2013 to work with a group of 10-14 year-old students at the Hyperion Lyceum school in Amsterdam, as part of the Eclectis program organized by the Waag Society. With the students,  we explored and prototyped DIY (Do-It-Yourself) environmental monitoring techniques and discussed emerging practices related to "civic science" which situates such monitoring as an important way that the public can participate in producing knowledge about environmental health risks, as well as in the decisionmaking which such knowledge informs. 

Public Lab is a network of DIY practitioners who investigate environmental contamination and health issues using collaboratively designed, open source methods, including hardware and software tools. People across the world are engaging in DIY for a variety of reasons; interests and motivations range from conscious and politicised responses to a complex and fast-moving world, to the pride of having a job well done, to wanting/needing to save money (Wehr, 2012). At its core DIY means taking ownership over the physical and especially the technical artifacts in our lives, as well as having the confidence in our abilities to use such tools to become more self-reliant. DIY in itself is not a new phenomenon nor is DIY a generalisable culture that can be encouraged to increase citizen participation. Rather, DIY can be conceptualised as both a philosophy and a grassroots movement. As a philosophy it stands for freedom from the reliance on social institutions to discover our own motivations within (Wehr, 2012; p.2) and as a movement, DIY draws from an intellectual infrastructure that allows DIYers to reflect on what it means to do-it-yourself (Morozov, 2014). Together these make the foundation for a DIY ethos reflected in various manifestos.

The Public Lab attitude is simple: "DIY aims to make technology something anyone can develop; Public Lab aims to make scientific research in environmental issues something anyone can do well. To make something oneself is to have a sense of ownership of it, and we extend this sense to scientific tools and data". The means for the general public to investigate and understand environmental health issues is limited due to the cost and accessibility of monitoring technologies, and so the collaborative reinvention of such tools is a key part of ensuring that members of the public can take steps to address such issues.  To this end, the approach is one of first-hand data creation and analysis through which community researchers build expertise in critical thinking and technologies with broader application to their roles as civic participants. It is organisations such as Public Lab that, through their face-to-face activities and online platform, begin to function as an organised grassroots driving force that engages in and incites DIY research for environmental health. And like a snowball effect, the open source tools and methods that are collaboratively prototyped in one place get used and repurposed for a wider range of initiatives, adapted to the specific need/context. Stories by doers are shared, they inspire others to believe and take action, and together, and their stories tell a greater interwoven socio-political story expressive of a social imaginary that tells us about people's ideals, hopes, aspirations, motivations, about the inclusivity and exclusivity of current practices - for the individual and in terms of the larger societal structure.

The recent trends of "citizen science" and "crowdsourcing", while they share certain goals (increased civic participation, for example), take a centralized approach to knowledge production which places participants at the bottom of the pyramid. Typically, members of the public are asked to perform simple, even repetitive tasks which give them little opportunity to participate in analysis or decisionmaking. Data is collected and assessed by "experts" who frame research questions, draw conclusions, and make recommendations, while participating members of the public are rarely cited and often thought of as part of the data collection infrastructure rather than as active collaborators in knowledge production. The "smart cities" movement is even worse in that it displaces traditional modes of discursive democratic process and consensus-building by framing data collection and live sensor data as a high tech or "smart" way to assess the needs of the public and act on its behalf. By treating the public as something that needs to be "studied" and monitored, such initiatives create one-way information flow which neglects to provide ordinary citizens with a means to participate in decisionmaking. 

By contrast, the civic science which the Public Lab community seeks to embody places members of the public at the center of knowledge production in a hands-on, DIY-inspired approach. Local communities who face serious pollution risks -- such as the students at the Hyperion school, which is placed on a contaminated former Shell site, should have the means not only to frame questions, but to investigate and potentially challenge government and industry claims that the site is safe, and to better understand the risks they are taking by their proximity to the polluted site.    When DIYers and Makers and Hackers do, they express something through their doing, not just their talking - they express something about how self-reliance, self-learning, and self-satisfaction takes shape​. DIY provides a voice that not only counts in the decision-making process and in the problem solving of local issues but also paves the way and shapes the discourse of "taking ownership" and "taking issues into our own hands". DIYers can thus be conceived of as redefining civic responsibility as a call to engage in a critique of the system and on technologies as well as the means to sense, interpret, and change our environment.


This essay was written by Jeffrey Warren & Cindy Regalado as a contribution to an Eclectis project publication based on our participation with the Waag Society in September 2013 at the Hyperion Lyceum school in Amsterdam. We want to thank all the students that made this an unforgettable experience for everyone! It would not have happened without them.


Thanks for posting, Cindy!

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While I agree that many professional scientists are not explicitly considering the needs and motivations of citizen science contributors, I take some issue with your characterization of citizen science. Much data collection is simple and often tedious, whether it is performed by professional scientists or citizen scientists. Part of this is just the nature of the beast and part of it is by design because in order to standardize data collection and analysis, activities must be easily repeatable so that sampling/observer biases are limited. This concept applies regardless of who is collecting the data, and I have seen many a professional scientist perform repetitive, simple tasks because it is necessary to answer the questions that they have posed. None of this should detract from the fact that it is important to involve communities in the decisions that impact them, nor does it take away from the value of data and research questions that come from the DIY community. Citizen science can and should find ways to be more inclusive and less top down, but no matter who is involved, there will always be simple, repetitive tasks to perform when it comes to collecting and processing data.

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Much data collection is simple and often tedious

Absolutely -- and actually our point is that collaboration should not be limited to this, not at all that such tedious work is unnecessary. Thanks for your feedback!

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