Public Lab Research note

June 1 Sensor Journalism Conference at Columbia University

by liz | June 01, 2013 14:02 01 Jun 14:02 | #8011 | #8011

Event details

116th and Broadway Pulitzer Hall, reception on 2nd floor, events on 3rd floor hosted by


Liz presenting AM lightning talk about how journalists can be a part of and connect with the Public Lab community. Also some tabling in the afternoon to show equipment -- appropriately, all our best stuff is actually checked out and in use today by the NYC community, so I'll be showing all our roughest old gear!

Full Text

Hi I’m Liz Barry, member of Public Lab, and co-founder of the supporting non-profit organization.

I am so happy to be joining many wonderful colleagues here today. I am going to attempt to offer a slightly different paradigm for how environmental research can be embedded in civic life and how the media can participate alongside.

Three years ago when the air space above the BP oil disaster was closed to anyone but corporate and government employees -- pissed-off fishermen, boat owners, urban activists, and civic-minded hackers, got together with garbage bags full of helium, children’s kites and point and shoot cameras to capture our own aerial image documentation. 200 miles of shoreline imagery were captured at high temporal resolution -- before during and after the oil spill. These super-high resolution maps were released into the public domain and were carried around the world, and are now slowly making their way through the court system as evidence. The chain of pixel custody was preserved through through the bowser based software we support for people turning images into maps.

Shortly after this we were funded by the Knight News Challenge as a civic media organization, and we crafted this spontaneous community response to environmental crisis into a model of civic science.

In Public Lab, Technologists, scientists, residents, designers, work together in person and online to create tools that can be used by community members to tell stories about their environment. We collaboratively develop low-cost easy to make hardware supported by easy-to-use browser-based software to produce legible high-quality data for advocacy.

Journalists participate in these networks side-by-side developing tools. To connect to tool development, join our main publiclaboratory mailing list. In Public Lab, journalists don’t issue calls for people to use those tools to collect data for them, but rather journalists are embedded in communities of research who are issuing data on stories that need to be heard. To connect to local research projects, join Public Lab’s local mailing lists.

An important point to make in light of what we have been discussing today is that research starts with the question, or rather, who asks the question. This is the question of agency in research. If we only offer people roles in data collection or data processing while reserving the act of crafting the questions and methods for ourselves, we fail to empower communities who are facing the worst issues of environmental justice.

People get involved in public lab because they have questions, yet already know their place better than any outsider; because they are personally invested, and care that their environmental is being managed poorly by government agencies or corporate neighbors.

Public Lab local research issues small data, high-quality data, and multiple kinds of data for cross-checking. for instance, is there really a freshwater inflow entering the Gowanus? Should the EPA change their Superfund plan? Why don’t we look at the cracks in the concrete, the patterns in the vegetation, the bacterial counts downstream and upstream, the murky pollution clearing out at a certain spot on the bank. The community issued data and the EPA adjusted their plan for part of the canal appropriately.

As a speaker said earlier, image based tools are powerful and ubiquitous in the consumer market. Our Balloon and kite mapping rigs, our infrared plant cam “Infragram” (currently on kickstarter), our spectrometry with 3 nanometer resolution are all based on physical hacks of consumer cameras and fundamental properties of light and matter. No soldering needed. We design tools to be accessible, for materials to be replaced with what’s at hand, and rely on a liberal use of tape. Rubber bands. String. Plastic. Broken CDs. Bottles from the recycling bin. Proven aerial technology of balloons and kites that reveals who is operating them so you can ask them WHY. A McGuyver approach.

We are not a crowd – we are individuals with agency. The infatuation alluded to earlier between makers and storytellers is our long term relationship. We built a house together. You can live here too.

The clearest expression of Public Lab’s vibrant culture of environmental research based in the fabric of civic life is that all of NYC Public Lab’s good equipment is loaned out right now, flying over Jamaica Bay tracking whether the Army Corps of Enginner’s constructed wetlands are thriving, and on the flood affected shorelines of Manhattan. All I have with me for this afternoon’s workshops are our roughest prototypes from the bottom of the barrel, and patterns to make more of them. I look forward to speaking with you all more!



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