Public Lab Research note

This is part of a series on evidence-project.

Introducing the Environmental Evidence Project, a blog series from Public Lab

by warren , gretchengehrke | August 18, 2016 14:57 18 Aug 14:57 | #13365 | #13365

Hello everyone -- Jeff Warren and Gretchen Gehrke here, Public Lab's Research Director and Data Quality and Advocacy Manager, respectively. Over the next few months, we're hoping to share a series of posts covering different aspects of the concept of evidence. What is it evidence, what factors contribute to the importance of evidence, and how does all that relate to environment sensing?

(Lead image: a tar ball, photo by @eustatic)

We spend a lot of time thinking about different kinds of data and how to collect it. Well, imagine you've got some data. How does it compare to other kinds of data? How's it been used for action? How was it analyzed, stored, sent, presented?

We have a lot of questions and we'll be talking to a number of different people, from environmental lawyers to formal scientists, regulators and activists who've gone through this and have experience with the ins and outs of evidence. We're also looking to co-author blog posts and research notes with other individuals or groups, so if you're interested, please reach out! (

You'll be able to follow this series under the tag #evidence-project, and you can sign up to get notifications here.


Suspected oil samples, kept in a cooler; photo by Scott Eustis (@eustatic)

In particular, we're going to look at some specific types of data we're interested in, related to the use of photography as evidence: for example, timelapses of turbidity events in water, or photographs of microscopic silica. We want to research how such data has been used in the past, but also document and discuss best practices for storing, transporting, and presenting it, with an eye toward environmental outcomes.


Broadly, we're thinking of doing posts on some of the following topics:

  • possible outcomes, esp. legal ones: civil suit, regulation, enforcement, criminal suit, cleanup, publicity-driven withdrawal
  • legal basics: how evidence is entered, challenged, presented, and terms like deposition, discovery, and authentication
  • permitting under the Clean Water Act
  • the pathway from collection to outcomes


Before we kick this off, we'd like to share some of the questions that have motivated us, and ask you to chip in with your own questions -- and resources! We've already had a great opportunity to chat with Chris Nidel, who participated in an OpenHour on "proof" a few months ago, and we're eager to talk with a broad range of folks. In the comments, please list out some of the things you want to know about how environmental data can become evidence, and if possible, share a bit of background to help situate your questions.

  • Why do we hear different things from different folks on certification of methods? Some have said that they don't use data that's not collected using an EPA certified method and produced by an accredited lab, while others have indicated they'd use community collected data.
  • Is there a precedent, or best practices, from the use of security camera footage as evidence -- storage, authentication, presentation?
  • What about timelapse photography, for example, to monitor activities at an industrial site?
  • When is EPA certification NOT absolutely required? Can this be jurisdiction or law/regulation dependent?
  • What about challenging evidence from a report under a Clean Water or Clean Air Act permit?
  • What's the limit of photographic data -- has it been used for Secci disks, photos of smoke, turbidity or plumes?

These are just a few of our many questions, but please add your own below!


We'll also be adding some of our questions into the new Q&A system which was recently added to this site. As people add questions on the topic of evidence, they'll appear here:

Ask a question about evidence


@eustatic -- we'd love to interview you, or co-author, if you're interested, on handling different types of evidence!

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I would like to add, that in addition to evidence, the protocols for processing that data are as important as in the collection of that evidence, quality assurance practices and careful lab procedures should always be followed in order to minimize possible errors, and most importantly, is to journey in the direction that the evidence leads you to , not the other way around.

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True -- and we're hoping to talk to a few people about best practices and protocols around processing as well!

I just posted a followup, too:

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Related to the use of photography as evidence, i'm passing on a great / relevant article pointed out to me by @nshapiro called "Proof Reading: Tracing the history of evidential photography"

~"... images made to illustrate a fact -- the identity of a face, the location of a cell, the shape of a skull as confirmation of evolution, the coaxial lighting down a gun to show the twist of the barrel – all required to prove a point, solve a mystery or simply to inform with clarity."

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That's really interesting. Someone at LEAFFEST -- a lawyer or maybe law student? friend of Molly's -- mentioned the "historical" status of photographic evidence on a "fair likeness" standard -- and that photographs needn't necessarily even be authenticated by the photographer, but that anyone can vouch that a photograph is a "fair likeness" of what it's intended to represent. I'd love to learn more!

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