Public Lab Research note

Valuing two modes of Public Lab activities

by liz , warren | February 10, 2015 21:04 10 Feb 21:04 | #11573 | #11573

Lead image by DVDP

Ever come across this situation?

Public Lab Member X wants to try a bunch of new techniques, but getting pushback from Member Y, who wants to promote the work, but is worried that X may be damaging the credibility of the project by not focusing enough on a clear, narrowly defined goal they can stand behind.

As we see it, both have a point.

So many things happening

The wide range of activities seen across our community, from careful observations of pollution events to wildly speculative experiments to discover new monitoring techniques, continues to attract people to Public Lab. But this collaborative process -- which is itself a giant experiment -- can be confusing, even to deeply involved folks. Welcoming newcomers can feel like trying to welcome people onto a train moving at 50 miles per hour. To add to the difficulty, the many different projects and initiatives throughout the Public Lab network are at many different stages of development, and it’s hard to get a sense of their current state through the blizzard of research notes, wiki pages, and long mailing list discussions.

The difficult task we are engaged in -- of collecting data in a rigorous way and establishing the credibility of informal, community based monitoring -- is compounded by the fact that we are continually refining and even inventing the tools and techniques we’re using to do that monitoring. That is, Public Lab is a two-part project -- an attempt at large-scale community environmental monitoring, AND a massively distributed R&D lab for inventing new monitoring techniques and equipment. We must divide our time between testing the environment and testing the new techniques themselves -- and we must retain the freedom and often playful creative process to explore new techniques, while feeling confident enough to stand behind more mature methodologies when we use them to understand real world problems.

Hard to describe what is going on

The differing speeds and priorities, and the non-linear paths of technology development and community-driven environmental problem definitions can cause difficulties for projects which aspire to be collaborative. The classic “chicken and egg problem” can make an appearance at the start of any new research project -- begin with something reliable (arguably quicker, but perhaps less engaging to folks just getting started) OR begin experimenting (slower but arguably more engaging in the long term)? In the context of doing outreach, we want to engage pollution-affected communities in the collaborative design of techniques which can answer their questions, but must acknowledge that such communities might be better served in the near term by a more proven, ready-made solution. Still, it’s the space between those two choices where Public Lab’s approach has traction -- where existing solutions are inaccessible or expensive, and the joint sharing of ideas and exploring of possibilities is the only way to make any headway.

Essentially, we don’t believe Public Lab members should have to decide between rigor and collaboration. We don’t believe projects must be slowed or dumbed down by the need to communicate them to the rest of the community. A healthy, open, collaborative process is one where input is invited because it can accelerate a project’s growth, not delay it. But let’s admit that we’re prototyping this very process as a community, and that it’s not easy to get right.

Let’s try a new frame

We see the potential to characterize two modes of Public Lab activities:

  • exploratory: inventive, creative and even playful, expansive and empirical, happy accidents
  • focusing: careful and rigorous, credible and reductionist, skeptical and repeatable

alternatives to “focusing”: “scrutinizing,” “meticulous,” “investigative”? Any other ideas?

Could we value both of these modes -- and the people who make them possible -- as two sides of the same coin? Give each the freedom to maximize its priorities without being held to all of the standards of the other? Imagine clearly saying “no, this is currently in the exploratory mode, so let’s give it a try” or “well, this is in the focusing mode, so we’re confident that...”

Within Public Lab’s R&D process, there is time for tromping through the environment in waders and time for obsessively getting the details right under a work lamp. It could be said that there is a somewhat tidal cycle of convergence and divergence of each mode causing and being caused by the other. Looking at tool development in particular, it begins with an idea, then forks and diversifies as many people iterate, then rallies back as the best developments are integrated into an iconic form for wide distribution. And the cycle begins again.

Explicitly embracing this cycle would value the contributions of the diverse group of contributors that make Public Lab what it is. Introducing activities as either exploratory or focusing would provide a clear way to explain what is going on in a particular event and frame it in a larger process as well as in the larger context of Public Lab. What do you think? We’d love to hear from you! Please share your comments and we can keep “prototyping prototyping” together :)


You make some great points there. It seems to me that it is difficult to keep what may be valid experimental results, separated from rough tests, "is this thing working" and poor results, captured by people who just haven't managed to assemble their equipment properly, or have failed to use it properly. I think it is great that Public Lab allows so many people to at least try their hand at making measurements, but the poor results create so much background "noise" it is hard to even see what sort of results you should be getting when instruments are correctly constructed and used. I'm refering particularly to Spectral Workbench in this regard.

I also find that since it is a web application, every trial I make is recorded. I must have made dozens of calibration runs while I simply experimented with the set up of my spectrometer. They can't possibly be of much use to anyone and if I was making local measurements I would have deleted most of them. Do you really keep every capture that is made?

I can't offer much in the way of suggestions for a solution. One thing that would be good is to have a 'sticky' area for example good results - This is what a good calibrated plot for a fluorescent lamp should look like. Maybe you have that already and I have just missed it?

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Hi, MrBumper - actually I'd love to brainstorm some ideas for addressing this in Spectral Workbench; want to move over to to continue?

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I think having a frame of "exploratory or focusing" is going to be helpful for planning and setting activities and goals for events.

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@warren it seems to me lately that PL is actually a three part project: 1) developing research tools that are low cost, modifiable, and easy to use, 2) actually using these tools to do research in particular places, and 3) using the data and knowledge that are created as a result of doing research to advocate for environmental health justice to policymakers, press, courts.

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the idea of a "tidal cycle of convergence and divergence of each mode causing and being caused by the other" could be thought of as an energy that advances projects without depending on a single traditional leader. We hardly ever talk about leadership in PL, but we do talk about how people add energy to project in different ways.

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