Public Lab Research note

The Bucket: Updating and open-sourcing a community air monitoring tool

by Shannon | May 14, 2020 16:40 14 May 16:40 | #23630 | #23630

By: Dr. Gwen Ottinger (Fair Tech Collective) and Shannon Dosemagen

The "bucket" is a low-cost, community-friendly air sampler that helps people measure toxic chemicals such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide in their air. Developed in the late 1990s, it was one of the first (if not the very first) do-it-together environmental monitors. Communities living next to oil refineries and petrochemical plants gathered to build their own buckets. They established phone trees to make sure that, when noxious fumes enveloped their neighborhood, someone would take a sample. They used measurements from the samples to hold companies accountable, not only for their emissions but for lying to communities about them.

The buckets were a source of inspiration for each of us, early in our careers. Gwen saw them as a powerful new way that communities could participate in science and challenge the shortcomings of scientists' approaches to understanding pollution. They led her to her dissertation research and inform the conclusions of the book she is currently writing about the role of science in restorative justice. Throughout Shannon's early career, she focused on creating collaborative spaces by connecting people to their local environment using science, art, and media. Attracted to working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade because of the direct link the organizing model made between science, data, and advocacy, Shannon went on to co-found Public Lab. Her hope was that, in a time of rapid technological innovation, Public Lab could be a vehicle to build on and expand the science and advocacy model into other realms of addressing environmental injustices.

Revisiting the bucket in 2020

Over the past decade, buckets have fallen out of favor. Communities have become more focused on particulate matter, which buckets don't measure, even though toxic chemicals are still a problem. They seek continuous measurements of air pollution, rather than the snapshots of just the worst moments. Regulators are increasingly willing to support community monitoring, but homemade technology has seldom been incorporated into these projects.

All of these trends in air monitoring have their benefits. But the buckets have singular advantages. They are hands-on and highly visible. Their results are easily linked to concrete demands for change. They let people take action in the moments when they may feel the most powerless. They remain an important part of the community monitoring toolkit.

While buckets are still important, the infrastructure for supporting communities in building, deploying, and organizing around them is eroding. The organization Global Community Monitor was a hub for bucket-related resources and expertise, as well as the institutional memory of the bucket brigade movement. Its dissolution in 2016 left a hole that can only partially be filled by regional organizations.

We want to make sure that environmental justice communities continue to have the ability to measure toxic chemicals (as well as particulate matter). With support from the 11th Hour Project, we've launched a project to update and open-source the plans for buckets, to identify best practices for incorporating them into community campaigns, and to create a blueprint for an infrastructure to offer support and mentorship to people who want to use buckets.

We extend deep appreciation to groups such as Global Community Monitor, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Communities for a Better Environment, and the self-organizing and regional bucket brigades around the world, for decades of work building buckets, refining their design, and developing a model for integrating buckets into organizing. We will be building on their work within the infrastructure of Public Lab. That will mean using wiki-based collaborative editing, individual research notes, a question and answer system, and activities, to comprehensively document the bucket tool, the ways in which it can be used, and steps for getting people started. We'll also leverage the social network of Public Lab, which links technologists, scientists, educators, and organizers together to integrate tools like this into strong, collaborative systems that support the efforts of communities impacted by industry.

Through the end of 2020, you can expect to see:

  1. An updated and digitized bucket manual: We will be creating a version of the bucket manual that can be easily accessed online, as well as a run of hard copies for distribution. The updated manual will include information and illustrations on building the sampling tool.
  2. An open-source bucket design and availability of bucket parts: We will be creating a series of activities and notes that describe both the technical setup and steps for how you can use the bucket to support action-based outcomes.
  3. A blueprint for infrastructure supporting a distributed community of trainers: We will identify the landscape of bucket brigades and suggest a framing for a distributed support network. Part of this process will include identifying potential lab partners willing to do air sample analysis of bucket samples.

We encourage everyone to follow along and get involved by subscribing to the "bucket-monitor" tag on Public Lab.


Thanks for sharing. I think the most beautiful part is that people, who are not scientists or engineers but the common stakeholder in the air we breath can get involved. I make these PM monitors, but there is no involvement of the people in taking the measurement, neither in processing the data and other stuff. They are reduced to consumers of data. Thanks for writing in detail. Would love to build a system here in Pune, India.

@Subir so glad you were inspired by this post and are determined to build a similar monitoring system in Pune, India. Have you had a chance to read the latest post from the bucket-monitor project? You can view it here:

At this time it's mostly US focused, though we have an international example from South Africa included. I hope you find these resources helpful for your community work!

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