In May 2010 I set out early one morning with a small group of concerned Gulf Coast residents, headed to meet a boat captain who would take us to the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands in southeast Louisiana. Within minutes of leaving the harbor and navigating out into the Gulf of Mexico, the wind picked up, sending water sloshing back and forth across the boat, soaking us all to the bone. We went by shrimp trawlers eerily turned into skimming vessels. We passed the remnants of barrier islands rendered almost non-existent during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And we navigated past seemingly post-apocalyptic clusters of oil pipelines jutting out of the water like a scene out of Waterworld. This was in the first weeks after the BP oil disaster — what would become the largest oil spill in U.S. history, leaking an estimated 3.19 million barrels and impacting over 1,000 miles of coastline.
Once we made it to the Chandeleur Islands, our boat captain began surveying the damage to his fishing grounds. He cut the engine and we readied our equipment: a bag filled with rubber bands and Q-tips, the top half of a two-liter soda bottle converted into an aerial stabilizing rig, a large balloon, kite string and reel, a digital camera, and duct tape (always duct tape!). We launched the rig into the air and watched as the big, white balloon became indistinguishable from the bright sun. I remember the swirl of rainbows in the water and the nauseating wooziness from a heady mixture of dispersant chemicals, petroleum fumes, and the heat of a Louisiana day.
We were organizing as a group called “Grassroots Mapping.” With our DIY balloon rig and camera, we collected the first few thousand aerial images of the spill. In the weeks that followed, we would gather tens of thousands more images, collected by hundreds of concerned Gulf Coast residents — people coming from Texas, the Florida Panhandle, and everywhere in between to document the extent of the damage to the beaches and wetlands, fisheries and wildlife. We knew it was important to share a different narrative than the one that was being shared by BP. Photos and the resulting maps we created with our “community satellites” showed the damage and the scale of the disaster, and would go on to be shared with media around the world.
In the wake of the spill, we began to question assumptions about how science could be done in public spaces; we wanted to show that all people could bring valuable input to asking and answering environmental health questions. Citizen science had long been a growing field of practice, but at that time, it was largely driven by scientists who used data collected by people in local communities. We sought to redistribute power by making science something that anyone could access — where people with different forms of expertise are recognized for the value of lived experience and local know-how. We envisioned a network in which people down the block or on the other side of the world could work together on solutions, learning from each other’s experiences and problem-solving. It was through these ideals that Public Lab and our movement were born.
We’ve come to call our work “community science” — a science that supports the organizing activities and goals of everyday people who are working to answer their own environmental questions. Organizing models from groups such as the regional Bucket Brigades, who popularized a type of low-cost community air sampling, taught us the importance of collecting data in places with deep social meaning — on the steps of churches or on the local elementary school playground. We also knew we needed to disrupt the paradigm of technology created solely for industry, government, and research institutions, instead employing an alternative model to proprietary tools that “black boxed” processes and created hardware that couldn’t be modified or improved upon. Public Lab operates under a strong commitment to open source hardware principles: relying on collective input from people toward the development of tools, technology, and methodology, coupled with open hardware licensing, to ensure that anyone in the world can continue to develop and build upon past work.
Nearly a decade since the BP oil disaster and the founding of Public Lab, we’re inspired to see how community science, making, and open hardware are taking hold around the world. In Ghana, an organization called Global Lab is focused on bridging science with public life through knowledge exchanges, mentorship, community action in rural areas, and discussion around topics such as water sanitation. In a recent project, they partnered with OpenAQ to release a community statement on air quality in Ghana, making a case for open data to be part of a solution towards people understanding air pollution and the effects. Building on this work and a datathon that produced maps, predictive models, and prototypes around air inequality in Accra, they are interested in exploring longer term how open hardware can support the development of monitors to measure air pollution and work with residents on understanding the drivers and causes of poor air quality. And projects with similar goals as Public Lab are taking root all over, from mobile and fixed particulate monitoring in urban areas, to water monitoring in the Amazon, accessible open source hardware movements around microscopy and spectrometry, to exploring marine environments with DIY microplastic trawlers. Inherent in all is a people-centered science and
the drive to create and make tools that will help us all understand and respond to the environmental and health questions we come in contact with on
a daily basis.
With partner groups and people around the globe, Public Lab is working to build a healthier and more equitable world through community science, open technology, and environmental justice — supporting a new generation of people equipped with the means to ask questions, collect and interpret data, and advocate on behalf of their own communities. It’s both a critical and exciting time for scientists and the maker community to get involved in helping to address the environmental issues of our times. We encourage you to learn from and find inspiration in the stories presented in this section and hope that they will provide a starting point for your interest in making towards meaningful impact.