Public Lab equips citizen scientists to collect local, verifiable environmental data using simple tools
On-the-ground data collected around the world advances the knowledge economy and collective understanding of our world
Public Lab supports average citizens to understand and leverage the data they collect to drive positive change related to human health and the environment
Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) is a project that enables average citizens around the world to collect verifiable information about their local environments at a scale and resolution that no single organization or instrument can—and enhance the collective understanding of the world from an on-the-ground perspective.
Public Lab is a global research and social movement that develops affordable, community-based monitoring tools, and supports a participatory approach to science. Their online platform provides instructions for citizens to construct simple, low-cost measurement tools using commonly available materials such as used DVD-rs and paperboard, as well as pre-made devices they can purchase—including DIY spectrometers, aerial mapping toolkits, and inexpensive infrared cameras. These tools are deployed on highly visible kites and balloons that foster visibility and accountability, raise awareness and spark dialogue when data collectors are in the field.
With these tools, participants collect a combination of visual data, including digital images and infrared images of spectra. Public Lab has created an online platform where participants can connect to other members, share their data and understand its meaning. The platform includes a growing open-source library of spectra against which users can compare their uploaded spectra. The Lab is currently working with Google Summer of Code to develop a tool to automatically match uploaded spectra against the library, and with NASA to look at data accuracy and innovative spectrometer use cases. Public Lab support staff help to make connections between participants, organize trainings and lead off-line outreach activities.
By enabling local, on-the-ground experts to collect data related to issues that matter to the communities in which they live—including air and water quality, and chemical exposures—citizen scientists who are part of Public Lab increase the efficiency and accuracy of data collection. In addition, their access to this information heightens their role in informing health-related risks in their community.
Collecting high-resolution, location-specific data requires significant time and financial investment by industry and government. The “small data” collected by citizens—using simple tools from commonly available resources—complements “big data” collected on a larger scale, and leverages people’s interest, time, on-the-ground expertise and desire to connect to their communities. Public Lab has already partnered with the US EPA to monitor air quality in New York City and with NASA to monitor flares from oil refineries in the Gulf Coast.
In addition to monitoring environmental issues, the data collection tools have been used to monitor social issues including cultural assets within communities, and emergencies such as spills, leaks and chemical releases. A broad, dispersed network of data collectors can enable immediate identification and response to risks, and enable targeted and efficient responses.
Public Lab was founded in 2010 in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to enable local residents to track and see the full extent of the oil spill. A team led by an MIT graduate student studying aerial mapping collaborated with local nonprofits to collect aerial images of the spill using cameras attached to balloons and kites dispatched above the no-fly-zone over the spill. Using open-source software, the team stitched together the high-resolution, location-specific images that illustrated the full extent of the impacts on over 100 miles of coastline. Through a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, the stitched maps are uploaded to Google Earth as a data layer and are globally available.
Since then they have grown into an international network of citizen scientists who are empowered to ask questions and find answers in the world around them. Currently the organization is focused on expanding participation and increasing the engagement level of participants.