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Spectral Challenge

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Spectral Challenge is a call to makers, hackers, and Do-It-Yourselfers worldwide to tackle real-world environmental problems with low-cost, open source spectrometry.

What if there were an affordable device you could build yourself, take into your neighborhood and use to test for heavy metals, oil contamination, or other toxics, without needing to have a PhD or access to a lab?

Crowdfunded prize pool

Spectral Challenge 2013 is like an X Prize for DIY science, but it's crowdfunded -- this means that if you really believe in the goals of the Challenge, you should back them by donating to the prize pool! You can also help by getting the word out to find pool contributions!

View Progress



This is a crowdfunded prize -- anyone may contribute to the prize pool.

Stage 1 Prize: $1000 from the pool

Stage 2 Prize

80% of the pool goes to the winning team 20% of the pool goes to support the Public Lab nonprofit to:

  • operate, support, maintain, & improve
  • organize events, run the Challenge, and facilitate collaborations
  • refine, improve and continue to manufacture and distribute open source spectrometers and other open source environmental science kits

How's it work?

There are two parts to the Spectral Challenge, Stage 1: Collaboration and Stage 2: Real World Use.

An important reminder: In open source development, we share and collaborate as we create so that we can make things better! Everyone entering the Challenges (but especially those entering Stage 1) are highly encouraged to post results early and often rather than waiting until the final day of the Challenge or late in the solution-identification period (for Stage 2). You will be judged based on how openly and regularly you share your work, and how easily others are able to use and reproduce your work.

Stage 1: Collaboration

Stage 1 is about process, rather than identifying a specific contaminant. In order to solve problems like cheap toxics identification, we're going to need to get better at all sorts of things, like experimental design, peer collaboration, open source documentation and user interface.

In that spirit, and to kick off the Challenge, Stage 1 will be awarded on June 1, 2013 to the team which publishes techniques and/or documentation which most dramatically improves the process of open source spectroscopy for the whole community.

A winning team might, for example:

  • Publish a technique which improves the resolution or replicability of everyone's data
  • Describe sample preparation from start to finish in a legible, friendly way
  • Improve documentation at the web site to help newcomers get started faster

Judging will be based on how well you:

  1. improve, simplify, and refine the process and methodology of open source, DIY science for spectrometry -- in hardware, software, documentation, or all of the above
  2. refine research questions and describe & execute tests which we'll need to produce credible data - including identifying problems, but especially suggesting solutions
  3. collaborate with others -- including participating in conversations on research notes, the plots-spectrometry Google Group and on
  4. support those in the DIY community who may be unfamiliar or daunted by spectrometry

Bonus: develop educational and classroom materials

To win, you must:

  • regularly publish simple, legible, open source documentation on photos, videos, narrative documentation (in the form of research notes) in non-technical language
  • credit sources and respect open source licensing
  • use affordable and easily obtainable materials
  • promote the safe handling of samples

Stage 2: Real World Use

Stage 2 is still being refined, but it will focus on the identification of petroleum and/or heavy metal contamination (especially lead, mercury and arsenic). Unlike Stage 1, Stage 2 will remain open until it is claimed by a winning team. It may take months or years, but the pool will continue growing until it is claimed. The full set of criteria for Stage 2 will be posted in May 2013.

Participants in Stage 2 will be expected to follow the same open source process as described in the Stage 1 challenge (see “judging” below to find out why), and additionally to publish documentation on how to use open source spectrometry to identify an environmental contaminant in a real-world scenario. The exact criteria of Stage 2 are still evolving (we expect to learn a lot as Stage 1 unfolds) but will include:

  • demonstrating a test easy and affordable enough to be done outside a lab, by a non-professional
  • identification of a sample in a real-world scenario, such as from an actual soil or water sample, rather than a prepared or synthetic sample (extra credit if it’s in your neighborhood!)
  • three separate and independent instances of successful use
  • a method which is independently reproducible by others in the open source spectrometry community -- based on what your team has published on
  • total cost under $200 -- the lower the better!


  • you may form teams or enter as an individual, but remember, collaboration is encouraged -- teams are more likely to be awarded a prize
  • enter by publishing a research note tagged "spectralchallenge" announcing and describing your entry -- feel free to link to a series of research notes on the site
  • you are encouraged to post progress updates as research notes, also with the "spectralchallenge" tag



Stage 1:

  • March 1-May 31, 2013. Participants can register at any time during this period.
  • May 31-June 5: Judging of Stage 1, announcement of winners on June 5

Stage 2:

  • Full judging criteria for Stage 2 will be posted in May 2013
  • Opens June 5, 2013. Stage 2 is open until someone wins the Challenge.


Stage 1 (Collaboration) Stage 1 will be judged by members of the Public Lab Organizers group. Organizers who are not participating in the competition and who announce their intent to participate in judging by March 15 are eligible. Each will have up to 20 points to award to a team or individual participating in Stage 1. Up to five points can be awarded for each of the four points under the Stage 1 Judging criteria. Please remember, to win, you must follow the guidelines outlined under “to win”. Points will be tallied and the team or individual with the highest number of points will take the Stage 1 prize.

Stage 2 (Real World Use) Stage 2 will be judged by a jury composed of members of the Public Lab community. The final jury will be announced by name on June 1, 2013, and will likely include:

  • three members of the Public Lab “plots-spectrometry” mailing list (non-participants in the Challenge)
  • two members of the Public Lab Organizers list (non-participants in the Challenge)
  • one Public Lab nonprofit staff member

Stage 2 winners must follow the same requirements as in Stage 1, including regular, open publication of research on the Public Lab website. Teams who are shown to have neglected to share their findings for more than 4 sequential weeks or to have deliberately withheld research will be disqualified from winning.

As this Stage does not have an end date, and judging for each team or individual will begin when a solution is posted on the Public Lab website and announced (linked to) on the spectrometry mailing list which clearly claims the prize, while detailing the research process, the ending design and three successful test results.

Rules of the Challenge

Staff of Public Lab are not permitted to enter. Individuals from the Organizers Google Group who choose to enter the Challenge are not permitted to judge.

Earlier research notes that people have posted on spectrometry are open for consideration during both Stage 1 and Stage 2, but must be incorporated into a formal entry as described above.

Spectral Challenge header