Public Lab Research note

Public Lab Launches New Initiative to Affordably Detect Pollutants with Open Hardware Tools

by Shannon | January 14, 2014 22:36 14 Jan 22:36 | #9944 | #9944


Public Lab Launches New Initiative to Affordably Detect Pollutants with Open Hardware Tools

Public Lab’s Homebrew Sensing Project wins Knight News Challenge: Health

New Orleans, LA -- The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science today announced the launch of the Homebrew Sensing Project, a new initiative to develop affordable and accessible pollution detection tools for communities in need. The project received $350,000 as a winner of the Knight News Challenge: Health, which funds ideas that harness the power of data and information for the health of communities. The innovation contest is an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Public Lab builds on two years of collaborative community technology development as well as a successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign which was backed by over 1,600 people, each of whom received a prototype spectrometer for open source chemical analysis. In the months since, Public Lab has engaged hundreds of volunteer contributors in the refinement of Do-It-Yourself methods for chemical detection, and collected over 15,000 submissions to its crowdsourced open database at In all, more than 3500 spectrometers have been distributed for less than $40 each.

"Public awareness of environmental toxics and their effects has become a mainstream concern," said Jeffrey Warren, Research Director of Public Lab. "But affected communities -- especially those in need -- lack the information they need to take action."

Through the News Challenge, Knight Foundation seeks breakthrough ideas that inform and engage communities. "The generous support of the Knight Foundation reflects their confidence that communities can successfully drive technological innovation to address the problems they face," said Shannon Dosemagen, Public Lab's President and Director of Partnerships and Outreach, "and this is especially true in the environmental space."

“The winners of the Knight News Challenge: Health help emphasize the many ways in which citizens can use data to address community challenges,” said Michael Maness, Knight Foundation vice president of journalism and media innovation. “Homebrew Sensing Project does just that by targeting an important community problem and leveraging data and citizen collaboration to help fix it.”

Prototype sensing devices attached to laptops and smartphones have already been used to measure crude oil contamination in soil and identify dyes in "free and clear" cleaning products. In the coming months, Public Lab will expand community events and launch pilot projects to develop new ways to monitor smokestack flares, nitrate contamination, and other pollutants, while promoting open data and growing the collaborative Public Lab community in order to tackle new challenges.

About the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science

The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) is a community -- supported by a 501(c)3 non-profit -- which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible Do-It-Yourself techniques, Public Lab creates a collaborative network of practitioners who actively re-imagine the human relationship with the environment.

The core Public Lab program is focused on "civic science" in which we research open source hardware and software tools and methods to generate knowledge and share data about community environmental health. Our goal is to increase the ability of underserved communities to identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns. Public Lab achieves this by providing online and offline training, education and support, and by focusing on locally-relevant outcomes that emphasize human capacity and understanding.

Since its founding during the 2010 BP oil disaster, Public Lab has launched a series of community-driven environmental technology projects, using a collaborative open source development process to rapidly innovate affordable tools to respond to and understand environmental threats.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.


Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science: Jeffrey Yoo Warren, Research Director; phone: 504.358.0647; email: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: Marc Fest, Vice President for Communications; phone:305.908.2677; email:


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