Track Changes

Doing science is usually expensive. Now a nonprofit is creating cheap do-it-yourself science kits for citizen scientists wanting to check on the health of their environment.

By Jennifer Dionisio | January 14, 2014
Public Lab

Public Lab offers supplies to do-it-yourself citizen scientists interested in monitoring their environments.

Public Lab

When Shannon Dosemagen offers up a $40 spectrometer, scientists laugh. These complicated instruments can cost thousands—even hundreds of thousands—of dollars, making them a costly appliance in any lab. But to the skeptical she offers an even better deal: a $10 spectrometer that attaches to the back of a cell phone. How do people respond? “I think it’s a combined mixture of amazement and disbelief at the same time,” Dosemagen says. “I like that reaction.”

Dosemagen isn’t a spectrometer huckster; she’s a cofounder of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. Public Lab creates do-it-yourself, low-cost, and open-source hardware and software tools for environmental monitoring. The nonprofit also functions as an online hub for the 3,000 or more citizen scientists around the world who use these tools to measure contamination in their neighborhoods and then compare their measurements against data sets provided by corporations and government agencies. Essentially, Public Lab is turning formal science on its head by offering affordable, high-tech research tools to everyday people working in informal capacities. The divide, however, is far more fluid. “I’m not even sure that formal and informal are the right words to apply to this kind of research,” Dosemagen says. “Science has a long history of being amateur practice.”

Science only began to professionalize in the second half of the 19th century. Until that time much of science was done by the wealthy or those employed in other professions, such as doctors and clergymen. Robert Boyle and Charles Darwin were amateurs in the truest sense of the word. But as career paths developed and men increasingly could earn a living with science, amateurs began to be excluded from the practice.

Public Lab’s story begins in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast. At the time, Dosemagen worked as a community organizer with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a group that helps communities located near oil refineries and chemical plants monitor pollution, often using cheap and easy-to-make air monitors employing parts available at any hardware store. Dosemagen met Jeff Warren, who was tracking the spill with a technique he developed as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Essentially he was able to create satellite-like images by using a helium-filled weather balloon fitted with a simple digital camera. Dosemagen and Warren rallied Gulf-area community members from Louisiana down through Florida to collectively track how the spill was affecting animal ecosystems. From this initiative Public Lab was born.

Enter Sarah Wiley, Warren’s colleague and another Public Lab cofounder. There are seven founders in total, and between them they cover areas of expertise ranging from biology, to science and technology studies, to architecture and cartography. Wiley teamed up with Warren to apply for a grant to fund Public Lab’s low-cost tools for environmental monitoring. “We have this term in science and technology studies called black boxing, meaning that once a technology is settled and reliably produces results, you no longer need to understand how the technology is made,” Wiley says. “That’s one of the thresholds that makes it very hard for nonscientists to get involved in science. Research tools are incredibly expensive, it takes a large amount of tacit knowledge to use those tools, and there’s a lot of hidden work inside our technologies that’s currently inaccessible. We were interested in balloon mapping as a thing that people do themselves. They know how the images were made because they put their digital camera in there and they built the housing that held the camera and they sent the balloon up.”

Today the Public Lab website boasts balloon- and kite-mapping kits, near-infrared cameras, a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner reconfigured to test air quality, and—of course—that $40 spectrometer, among other homemade monitoring equipment. As the collection of tools has grown, so have the applications—everything from analyzing hot and cold leaks in homes and businesses to sensing hydrogen sulfide at fracking sites. One of the earliest adopters of Public Lab’s arsenal was the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a Brooklyn-based group involved in the Superfund cleanup of the oil-polluted Gowanus Canal. After taking balloon images to monitor plant regrowth and canal inflows, the group’s mapping data revealed inflow areas the Environmental Protection Agency had missed. And back in the Gulf region many groups continue to monitor the health of wetlands damaged by both the Deepwater Horizon spill and Hurricane Katrina.

Dosemagen says Public Lab has no interest in replacing formal science. Its goal is to add to the conversations on environmental health and justice. “A lot of times people are very accustomed to having to beg data from the formal institutions or rely on whatever data’s handed out to them,” she says. “We’re really hoping the model of low-cost tools combined with ways to do your own analysis on images or samples will get people involved.” As public participation in science becomes more common, concerned community members and curious citizens alike have a formidable ally in Public Lab.

Jody A. Roberts, director of CHF’s Insititute for Research, contributed to this article.